UTEP at Buffalo Kicks Off the CFB Season
by Trevor Whenham - 08/27/2008
After nearly eight months of counting the days, college football season is back. Less than 24 hours from now teams will be taking the field, and the glorious, too short season will be underway. The long drought ends tomorrow when the first 14 games of the year are played. Four teams are scheduled to start at 7:00 p.m. ET, and if all goes cording to plan then the University of Texas-El Paso and Buffalo will kick off the season a couple of minutes before anyone else. That's not the flashiest game there is, and it certainly isn't the one that most people are looking forward to this weekend. It does, however, have the potential to be an intriguing game. I'm going to be there, so I'm both optimistic and hopeful that the storylines that exist materialize and develop to their potential. You might have to look beyond the surface of this one to see the beauty, but it's there. Incidentally, the hosts are three-point favorites.
The first and most obvious appeal of this game is the coaches. It's a study in contrasts - one is clearly on the rise, and the other is on the downside of a hard fall. Turner Gill is only 46, and he has only been a head coach for two seasons, but the former Nebraska star shows such promise that he was a finalist for the job at his alma mater. He'll be moving on to a bigger job under brighter lights soon. UTEP's Mike Price, on the other hand, reached the pinnacle of his profession when he earned the head job at Alabama, but then he lost it before coaching a game in one of the ugliest, most surprising falls from grace in the history of coaching. For a battle between two schools that have never played each other and aren't exactly nationally relevant, this game sure has a lot of drama on the sidelines.
If you get past watching the coaching staff, there should be something to see on the field as well. Buffalo joined the MAC in 1999, and it hasn't gone too well. They were just 2-10 in Gill's first season, and yet that was an improvement in both record and level of play. The jump to 5-7 last year was almost a quantum leap for the team. Most impressively, it was the first time that the team had ever had a winning record in the MAC. The MAC may not be the sexiest league around, but it isn't the easiest, either. This year Gill will be looking to make another big step forward, and he has the tools to do so. The dream is a bowl appearance, and it could happen. They have 18 returning starters, and for the first time in a long time those starters have a sense of what it takes to win.
The Bulls should be able to score. Senior QB Drew Willy is near the top of the food chain in the MAC, and he should rewrite the Buffalo record books if he has a decent season this year. He has the luxury of handing off to James Starks, probably the best tailback in the conference. Naaman Roosevelt was a very good receiver as a sophomore last year, and he has added size and strength in the offseason. Those three are protected by a line with four returning starters (center Jamey Richard is the lone exception, having been drafted by the Colts). In other words, the engine is pretty good.
The defense was more affected by departures, including pass rusher Trevor Scott who is now a Raider, but there are still highlights. Most notably, safety Davonte Shannon had more tackles last year than any other freshman in the country. Gill has recruited well, and he inspires ferocious play, so Buffalo should be good to watch, and should be able to win seven games.
The outlook isn't quite as bright for UTEP. They are coming off a season in which they were 4-8, and they lost their last six. The year before they won five, but just one of their last seven. Price has struggled to recapture the magic he had at Washington State that was enough to earn him the job at Alabama. His team might not be much better this year, either. They also should be able to score, though (the offensive firepower on both sides is reflected in the reasonably high total of 58.5). The o-line also returns four good starters, and the only absence is also in the NFL, so it could be a frustrating night for defensive linemen on both sides. Sophomore James Vittatoe was a very solid QB last year (3,100 yards, 25 TDs, 7 picks), and should only get better this year. It could be rough for him early on, though, as he will be without his top running back and his second best receiver. Both players graduated, and several who are still with the team have been banged up in practice.
UTEP will almost certainly be looking past this game. They'll be playing in front of a mid-sized crowd in a city that few of them have likely ever been to and none care about. That won't hold that much appeal compared to hosting Texas in a sold out Sun Bowl next week. That likely lack of focus coupled with some potential speed bumps on offense, an opponent who can score, and Buffalo's home town advantage all combine to give the Bulls an edge.