It is hard to believe that the UTEP football season will kick off in just a few days.
After games against Texas Tech, Nevada and NMSU were taken off the schedule, the Miners replaced them with FCS schools in Stephen F. Austin on Sept. 5, and Abilene Christian University on Sept. 19.
Both of those games will be at UTEP’s Sun Bowl Stadium.
The Miners also plan to play a road game on Sept 26, rumored to be against Louisiana Monroe, but have not officially announced the opponent.
When the Miners kick off their season Sept. 5, the Sun Bowl will be at only 18% occupancy. That means fewer than 9,000 fans will watch UTEP and Stephen F. Austin from the stands, and they will be socially distanced throughout the stadium.
There will also be no tailgating. Vehicles will be allowed to park three hours before kickoff, and the Sun Bowl gates will open two hours before game time.
Concessions will also be a little different than in years past, since UTEP will focus more on grab-and-go items, and plexiglass barriers will be installed. Restrooms will be at reduced capacity, while sanitizing stations will be available throughout the stadium.
All fans and staff will be required to wear face coverings.
This season, the NCAA is allowing each FBS team to count as many as two wins against FCS opponents towards bowl eligibility.
Normally, they can only count one FCS win every two years for postseason qualifying. The Miners would only have to win four of their remaining 10 games to be bowl eligible if they defeat both SFA and ACU.
Another huge change for this season only is that the NCAA will allow all student athletes to retain their eligibility for 2021. This allows seniors to play two years instead of just one, while freshmen could play as many as five years instead of four.
UTEP head coach Dana Dimel, entering his third year at the helm of the team, will have a new starting quarterback for 2020.
Redshirt sophomore Gavin Hardison takes over as UTEP’s signal caller this season, and he will be a big change from the previous two seasons. The Hobbs, New Mexico, native has a huge arm and should add more passing yards to the Miners’ offensive game plan.
He will have a pair of reliable targets in sophomore Jacob Cowing and redshirt senior Justin Garrett. UTEP is loaded with running backs with redshirt senior Quardraiz Wadley, redshirt freshman Deion Hankins, senior Josh Fields, redshirt junior Ronald Awatt and true freshman Willie Eldridge. If the offensive line can keep Hardison protected while opening up holes for the running game, the Miners offense should be better in 2020.
Also expect the defense to be improved.
Dimel recruited junior college help at defensive line, linebacker, safety, and cornerback to give his team some added experience for this season at all positions. Potentially, seven projected starters on UTEP’s defense have come from the junior college ranks.
The biggest factor for the Miners on defense will be pressuring the quarterback. They ranked in the bottom five of all FBS schools last season with only 12 sacks and they did not force enough turnovers.
However, UTEP plans to play four defensive lineman this season instead of three, and they hope their edge rushers will make life miserable for opposing quarterbacks.
Since 1997, Steve Kaplowitz has hosted “Sportstalk” from 4 to 7 p.m. weekdays on 600 ESPN El Paso. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears periodically in El Paso Inc.’s B-Section.