Monday, June 23, 2014

Even the Losers: UTEP

Over the past three seasons, 210 teams have participated in bowl games. 47 of those teams had losing records in the years immediately preceding their bowl game. This semi-regular piece will showcase the losers from 2013 who just might find themselves participating in Capital One Bowl Week in 2014. In this installment, we head to the west Texas town of El Paso.


2013 Record: 2-10 (1-7 Conference USA)

After nine years and moderate success (three bowl appearances) under Mike Price, the Miners began a new era in 2014 when Sean Kugler took the reigns. The Miners opened 2013 with a high-scoring loss to New Mexico and followed that up with a high-scoring win over New Mexico State, giving them an even record against teams from the Land of Enchantment. 1-1 was as good as it would get for the Miners in 2013. They lost nine of their final ten games with each defeat save one, a 38-35 loss to Louisiana Tech, coming by double digits. The Miners did pound Florida International to earn their second win of the year in mid-November, but the season's shining moment may have been when they gained an early 7-0 lead on Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M in College Station. Alas, the Aggies scored the final 57 points of the game and were not seriously challenged.

What Did the Miners Do Well?
Beat the teams they were better than. No doubt about it, UTEP was awful in 2013. They ranked 116th in the Simple Rating System (SRS) metric. Only two teams on their schedule, New Mexico State and Florida International, were worse based on the SRS. UTEP pummeled those teams by a combined 44 points. They didn't win any other games, but they crushed the teams they were better than. Go Miners!

What Didn't the Miners Do Well?
Play defense. UTEP played twelve games in 2013. In eleven of those games, their opponents averaged at least six and a half yards per play. Only Florida International failed to bury the UTEP defense. The Miners also allowed at least 32 points in ten of their twelve games. Perhaps not surprisingly, in the two games where they held their opponents under 30, they won.

The Miners Over the Past Four Years:
The following table lists UTEP's performance (in conference play only) in a few key categories and their respective conference rank in those categories. To help you read the table here is a handy translator.
Conf: The Conference UTEP played in. With the ever-changing college football landscape, this is helpful.
Coach: Who was leading these yahoos into battle?
Rec: Conference Record
YPP: Yards per play. The number of yards per play the Miners averaged in conference play.
YPA: Yards per play allowed. The number of yards per play the Miners allowed in conference play.
Net: Yards per play net. The difference in YPP and YPA. Higher is better.
OTD: Offensive touchdowns. Touchdowns scored by the offense (no kick, punt, interception, or other returns are counted) in conference play.
DTD: Defensive touchdowns. Touchdowns allowed by the defense (no kick, punt, interception, or other returns are counted) in conference play.
Pythag: Adjusted Pythagorean Record. Take offensive touchdowns and defensive touchdowns and plug them into a handy formula to estimate the number of conference wins. For a full rundown of the APR, continue reading here.
As you can see from the table, UTEP has not been particularly good, even within the confines of Conference USA over the past four seasons. In their lone bowl season of 2010, UTEP leveraged an incredibly easy schedule to a bowl invitation. Their six wins that season came over Arkansas-Pine Bluff (IAA), New Mexico State (2-10 record), New Mexico (1-11), Memphis (1-11), Rice (4-8), and SMU (7-7). Plus, they also lost to esteemed outfits like UAB (4-8), Tulane (4-8), Houston (5-7), and Marshall (5-7). The Miners continued their below average play over the final two seasons of the Mike Price regime, but nearly garnered another bowl invitation in 2011 before losing four of their final five games to finish 5-7. The bottom continued to fall out under Sean Kugler, as UTEP posted their worst statistical season in a decade. We need to give Kugler a few years to right the proverbial ship, but early returns were not promising.

The 2014 Schedule:
Outside of Conference USA, UTEP plays a pair of familiar foes. The Miners have played some combination of New Mexico or New Mexico State each season since 2003. In that span, the Miners have been pretty successful against both schools, posting a stellar 8-2 mark against New Mexico State and a 3-2 record against New Mexico. In 2014, the Miners host the Aggies (State) and travel to Albuquerque to take on the Lobos. In their other two non-conference games, the Miners also have a home/road split, but these two figure to be tougher, as both teams come from the Big 12. The Miners visit Bill Snyder and Kansas State while hosting Ryan Gosling lookalike Kliff Kingsbury and Texas Tech. A split of those four games would be about the best UTEP could hope for and a 1-3 or even 1-4 mark would not be surprising. In conference play, the Miners host IA neophyte Old Dominion, Middle Tennessee, North Texas, and Southern Miss. Two of those teams were bowl eligible last season (Middle Tennessee and North Texas), while Old Dominion went 8-4 as they transitioned to IA football, and Southern Miss won the conference just three short years ago. The Miners will probably win at least one of their home games, but they could be betting underdogs in each one. When they hit the road in conference play, they will meet Louisiana Tech, Rice, Texas-San Antonio, and Western Kentucky. Rice, Texas-San Antonio, and Western Kentucky all finished with winning records last season and Louisiana Tech has won 21 games over the past three seasons. Suffice it to say, if UTEP posts a strong (or even mediocre) record in 2014, they will have earned it.

Reason for Optimism:
Jameill Showers. For those who may not know, Showers was beaten out by Johnny Manziel as the starting quarterback for Texas A&M prior to the 2012 season. Showers transferred to UTEP and posted decent numbers for the Miners before an injury against Rice in the seventh game forced him to miss the rest of the season. In the three conference games Showers saw significant action in, the Miners averaged 4.87 yards per play. Those are hardly imposing numbers. However, in the five games where he saw little to no action, the team averaged just 4.81 yards per play. If we ignore the victory over Florida International, the Miners averaged just 4.33 yards per play in conference games during which Showers did not participate or participated sparingly. If Showers can improve and stay healthy during his second season in El Paso, the Miner offense could conceivably move to middle of the pack in Conference USA.

Final Prognosis:
UTEP has not finished with a winning record since 2005, and that trend appears likely to continue nearly a decade later in 2014. The non-conference schedule, featuring a pair of Big 12 teams, is not conducive for a great start. There are also no IAA opponents on the slate, and while New Mexico and New Mexico State have struggled mightily in recent years, the Lobos actually beat the Miners last season. Even if the Miners beat both New Mexico teams, they would still need to break even in Conference USA to even qualify for a bowl. Five of their eight conference opponents were bowl eligible last season and Old Dominion has been a IAA power under Bobby Wilder and appears poised to make the most of their jump to IA. Finally, the two lightweights on their conference slate, Louisiana Tech and Southern Miss, have tasted success in the not too distant past, with both winning league crowns in 2011. I think the 2014 season has to be dubbed a success (or at least a mark of progress) if the Miners can double up last season's win total and earn a quartet of victories.

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