Vols

Show Me My Opponent: UTEP

Show Me My Opponent: UTEP

Hey, Tennessee won! That’s good. Also, there’s barely any injuries, aside from your starting center getting to play exactly one game and the most explosive running back on the roster maybe being out this week. Onward.


Last week’s game against ETSU was mostly an expected result, though Tennessee dropping 21 more points than I expected (essentially with the help of two defense/special teams touchdowns and a should’ve-been third) was good. Outside of two plays, ETSU’s offense was as bad as anticipated, because Randy Sanders can’t fix everything in one offseason. (Also, sorry, the video was great, but Randy Sanders is responsible for ruining the 2004 and 2005 seasons.) Also, Tennessee’s pass rush is still terrible, as are certain members of the offensive line. (Drew Richmond has 22 more regular season games left as a member of the University of Tennessee football team.)

But, all in all, it’s a good mood booster, and it was nice to see the stadium empty in the fourth quarter for a good reason. This week, you’ll likely see the same, but we need to have an honest conversation about just how terrible this Texas-El Paso team is. They are terrible. I guarantee that about three of you care about C-USA football other than Florida Atlantic, so you had no idea UTEP went 0-12 this year and until someone posted it on VolQuest or elsewhere, you didn’t know they lost to their FCS opponent by 20 points in week one…A GAME THAT THEY WERE TOUCHDOWN UNDERDOGS IN. I have gone my entire life without hearing about an FCS team being favored over their FBS opponent, but here I am. Even Kansas was favored against Nicholls State in week one, and they were a pick’em against South Dakota State in 2015.

Here’s a quick discussion thread. Is UTEP worse than…

  • UMass last year? Oh God, yes. Way worse. UMass probably could’ve gone to a bowl with better bounces of the ball.
  • 2016 Tennessee Tech? Massey, Atomic Football, and Sagarin Ratings all say yes; the latter says 2016 TTU would be a seven-point favorite on a neutral field over UTEP.
  • 2015 North Texas? It’s close, but yes. That North Texas team went 0-12, Tennessee sleptwalk through a stupid 24-0 game because Butch Jones was best friends with North Texas’s interim coach (Chico!), but all three systems favor UNT by at least 1.5 points on a neutral field. Jesus.
  • 2012 Akron and 2011 MTSU? Yes and yes. Both would be favored by 8-9 points on a neutral field.
  • Okay, whatever: literally any FBS team Tennessee has played in the last 15 years? Yes, with a caveat: this doesn’t count a pair of transitional FCS-to-FBS teams in 2012 Georgia State and 2009 Western Kentucky. Both teams were several scholarships short of a full roster, and both sucked. UTEP would, indeed, be favored over two teams with 20 fewer players than them.
  • And, lastly, the ultimate test: 2000 UL-Monroe? Oh my goodness….UTEP IS BETTER THAN UL-MONROE IN 2000. All three systems favor the Miners by at least 6 points on a neutral field, and Sagarin favors them by 11. That ULM team was a Division I-A Independent for seven seasons, concluding with the 2000 season where they lost four games by 37 points or more and had only an FCS win over Nicholls State to prevent a winless season.

TL;DR: UTEP is the worst FBS team to come to Knoxville in 18 years. Let’s talk about them.


Offense

New coach, new-ish system, new QBs

UTEP fired Sean Kugler during the 0-12 season last year, but his offense was a major part of their downfall from just being boring UTEP in seasons prior. Their offense was so bad that Kugler had to fire his OC three games in. Now, it’s former Kansas State OC Dana Dimel, who, as Bill Connelly described it, “brought in many seasoned hands to make things better.” Whether you’d describe Mike Canales as “seasoned” in any way other than “has had a lot of jobs and legitimately does look like he’s been seasoned and left on a grill for too long” is up to you.

Anyway, the quarterback you see above is Kai Locksley. Because UTEP hasn’t had many highlights so far and Locksley himself has been pretty abysmal (42% completion rate, 3.9 yards per attempt, zero touchdowns on 45 attempts), I’m giving him a high school highlight above for his benefit. Locksley was originally a Texas commit that flamed out and went to Iowa Western, where he showed both talent and some scary issues that he needs to fix (notably, a lot of floaters). UTEP getting a 3* JUCO QB is a good thing, but he’s got to figure some things out, and figuring them out on a team that’s lost 14 straight games and is playing an SEC defense isn’t the best remedy.

The backup (Ryan Metz) will see action in this game, but he’s been about the same: 7 of 15 for 73 yards and two interceptions. Locksley will run (38 attempts already through two games), and he’s had some success doing so (119 yards on 20 attempts against UNLV), but his passing is just so poor and limited that I’m not sure it matters. He’s only thrown one interception because precisely two of his passes have been completed for more than 20 yards. Most of Locksley’s runs are from read options, if you’re curious. Lastly, I did chart Locksley’s game against UNLV (a 6 for 19 performance); through the third quarter (before true garbage time), he completed just one of his eight attempts of six yards or more from the line of scrimmage. I’m not trying to be mean, but their leading receiver through two games has gained 57 yards.

Their running back is actually very good

Quardraiz Wadley, aside from having an absolutely delightful name, has 139 yards on 15 carries. Is it alarming that UTEP’s quarterback has carried the ball 23 more times than the starting running back? Of course it is, but if it’s Dimel’s call to continue under-utilizing easily the most explosive player on the offense, go right ahead. No one’s gonna stop you en route to 0-24. Wadley had basically the only highlight UTEP produced (above) in their 30-10 opening loss to Northern Arizona, and he already has more 20+ yard plays (5) than the rest of the team combined. Wadley, somehow, has a total of 16 touches on the season (one reception for 26 yards). He has four less total yards than the team’s starting quarterback, who has 64 more touches. All I’m saying here: if you had Alvin Kamara in the backfield but, like, Reggie Ball at quarterback….

I got nothing on the receivers

None of them have more than five receptions or 57 yards and their quarterbacks can’t throw it to them unless it’s a five-yard out. The best returning receiver from 2017 had 22 receptions.

This offensive line is repugnant

And it should be, because UTEP, who doesn’t really have much talent in the first place, is having to start two freshmen on the left side of the line. Northern Arizona got five sacks on Locksley/Metz in game one, and UNLV, who had 11 sacks in all of 2017 (only Air Force had fewer), got two. Also, they’ve given up 14 tackles for loss already to an FCS team and UNLV, who nearly tied their 2017 high of seven with six. Also also, this doesn’t count the additional seven run plays that gained zero yards. So, through two games: UTEP has 21 plays of negative or zero yards against Northern Arizona and UNLV. Color me just a little unimpressed.

Shotgun with a little bit of pistol

That’s all you really need to know. On the goal line, they take Locksley and they shove his nose up the center’s butt, because that is what literally every team in existence should do on the goal line.


Defense

Porous

Again, I feel like I have to keep saying it: UTEP has lost by a combined 48 points to an FCS school and a bad UNLV team. In the process, they’re allowing 6.4 yards per play to offenses expected to rank about 120th (NAU is closest to UAB) and 83rd over a full season. Tennessee’s offense actually hasn’t been bad so far when the OL has functioned properly, so we’ll monitor, but UTEP doesn’t have a single player on the defense that projects to play much at the next level like ETSU’s Nasir Player may. This defensive line let UNLV run for 414 yards on 56 carries and has one combined QB hurry or sack through two games. The secondary allowed 8.1 yards per attempt and an 84-yard bomb to Northern Arizona. UNLV only had to throw 14 passes all game and still got to three touchdowns.

The best player, I guess, is A.J. Hotchkins, an Oregon transfer who started a few games there. He has 17 tackles through two games and one of the team’s two sacks. (Mike Sota, a backup defensive end, has the defensive line’s only sack, which occurred with four minutes to go down 30-10 to Northern Arizona.) UTEP has managed to accumulate 10 tackles for loss, which puts them on pace for five per game, but even then, that would’ve ranked 95th nationally last year. Kalon Beverly is responsible for forcing UTEP’s only turnover of the year, an interception down by 20 against Northern Arizona. (Sorry, but I can’t stop thinking about it.) Look, man, it should be pretty easy.


Special Teams

New punter, same kicker, who cares

The punter seems okay. The kicker is 4 of 5 in his career. Here’s a fun fact: UTEP made three field goals in 2017. That’s one every four games.


Conclusion

I mean, it’s concluded: UTEP is flaming garbage, probably will be for a while, and has a good shot at another 0-12 season. So let’s talk about something else: their insanely beautiful stadium.

It is a walking shame that UTEP isn’t good. Even if they were good, the most-attended game each year would still be the Sun Bowl, but that’s fine. There’s something about this stadium that I’ve always loved, but there’s also a lot of things to love: the bare hills surrounding it, its proximity to Mexico, the weird hill in the end zone, a uniquely-shaped stadium you rarely see in 2018, and the fact it looked good as heck on the NCAA series. I wouldn’t hesitate to say it’s a top ten setting in college football for me; if you ever somehow get a weird snow game there, you’re batting 1.000.

And, lastly, a missive: Tennessee should make the return trip. It sounds stupid, and it is, but it’s no less dumb than Tennessee playing BYU in Provo in five years. (Also a gorgeous setting.) Here’s my thing: yes, it’s a pointless trip. Yes, it’s probably kinda dangerous. (Juarez is on the other side, though it’s probably far worse in theory than in practice.) Yes, you should probably only make trips to Texas to play either A&M or the team in Austin. BUT! Texas has played at UTEP, you’ll always get more credit for a road win than one at home, and if we’re going to keep making up rivalries against teams Tennessee hasn’t played before (hello, West Virginia), we might as well buy fully into the “you wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for us!” narrative. Plus, it would be nice to have a rival we beat routinely. Tennessee 42, UTEP 7.

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Vols

Will Warren is a contributor to FOX Sports Knoxville. He loves Popeyes, computers, the Nashville Predators, and melatonin.

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