by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Bowl bids ain’t what they used to be. Case in point being last year’s UTEP Miners, the poster child for those who believe the college football postseason has become an unholy mess. Losers of five of their last six regular-season games in 2010, the Miners were nonetheless in position to qualify for a bowl thanks to unavoidable earlier successes against the likes of New Mexico State, Memphis, New Mexico, and Rice teams that a year ago recorded a whopping 8 wins between them, plus another win over FCS Arkansas-Pine Bluff. UTEP thus might have been the first team in NCAA history to become bowl eligible by default. And to prove their postseason invitation should have been filled out with invisible ink, the Miners proceeded to get humiliated in Albuquerque’s New Mexico Bowl by BYU, 52-24. That lopsided loss to the Cougars was also the third time UTEP allowed 50 points or more last season and sunk the Miners to a 6-7 record and sub-.500 mark for the fifth straight year.

And to think, we can recall teams such as an unbeaten Michigan in 1973 and an 8th-ranked LSU side from 1969 not participating in bowl games at all!

What’s scary for the Sun Bowl faithful is that 2010 seemed to be setting up as a breakout season of sorts for the Miners, who returned an offense with ten senior starters and plenty of depth and experience on the two-deeps for both platoons, plus the school’s all-time leading passer, QB Trevor Vittatoe. But aside from a mild early November upset over an SMU team that lost to Army in a bowl game in its own home field, last year’s UTEP didn’t beat anyone it shouldn’t have beaten. And the reluctant bowl invitation has not fooled objective UTEP backers who are now openly concerned about the direction of the program under HC Mike Price, who after two 8-win seasons out of the box in El Paso back in 2004 & ‘05 has recorded a 24-37 record since. Granted, he’s the only coach to ever take the Miners to three bowl games, but the trajectory of the program has been tracing a glide path similar to the Greek economy over the past five years. It’s safe to say the Price’s job could be in jeopardy this fall if UTEP regresses.

The challenge for the 65-year-old Price, who earlier in his career took two different Washington State teams to the Rose Bowl, is refueling the program on the fly after graduation wiped out almost the entire offensive lineup from last season. Only two starters return on the attack end, and the Miners will also be lining up this fall for the first time since 2006 without the aforementioned Vittatoe at QB. All Viitatoe did over the past four years was pass for over 12,000 yards and fire 97 TD passes, but no successor was groomed over the past two seasons, and Price is basically starting from scratch with a new batch of signal callers who looked to make their mark in spring practice.

Although Price and co-offensive coordinators Aaron Price (his son) & Bob Connelly have yet to name their starter, juco Nick Lamaison, a onetime Lane Kiffin recruit at Tennessee who was winging the ball for California’s Mt. Sac Junior College in a similar spread formation last year, will apparently enter fall camp in pole position. Lamaison impressed with a zippy fastball in spring, and with at least some experience from his JC days piloting a progressive passing scheme looks to be a better alternative at the moment than New Mexico transfer Tate Smith, soph former walk-on Carson Meger, and RS frosh Javia Hall, whom most believe will eventually grow into the starting role.

Making the QB situation all the more difficult is the complete rebuild within the UTEP offensive line, which lost all five of its starters after last season while not giving backups much work along the way. Thus, it’s a raw-looking group, although sources indicate that Price likes the agility and athleticism along the new line. Spring work indicated that one of the few returning lettermen, 300-lb. jr. C Eloy Atkinson, looks to be a solid block around which the line can build, but the new-look forward wall figures to be a work in progress all season. Which could limit the amount of room for rugged sr. RB Joe Banyard (623 YR in 2010) to operate. How the line protects Lamaison or whoever emerges at QB also remains to be seen, and there are more questions with a receiving corps that will likely be without what was supposed to be its leading returning pass catcher, diminutive yet explosive wideout Marlon McClure, who also doubled as a kick return threat but was suspended for disciplinary reasons in January and unlikely to be reinstated this fall. One of the two returning starters on the platoon, WR Donavon Kemp, flashed big-play upside with 18 catches last year but could have durability issues after missing the last half of 2010 with an ACL injury. The wild card in the receiving mix is 6'6 local product Cliff Tucker, who wants to give football another try after being better known as a basketball player at Maryland. After graduating at College Park, Tucker was able to move immediately to UTEP for his one remaining year of eligibility as he looks to rekindle a very promising gridiron career which featured 19 TD receptions in his senior year at El Paso’s Chapin High.

Besides uncovering any playmakers, another concern for the “O” is getting more consistency from jr. PK Dakota Warren, whose accuracy often resembled that of a sawed-off shotgun when connecting on only 12 of 20 FG attempts last year.

Unlike the offense, there’s plenty of returning experience on a stop unit that welcomes back nine starters, although we’re not sure that’s a good thing after the Miners ranked a lowly 91st in total “D” last year. Price, however, hopes that the second year under d.c. Andre Patterson will reap greater rewards. Patterson switched the alignments to a pro-style 4-3 last year with at best mixed results, but will need his platoon to generate something resembling a pass rush after recording only 14 sacks in 13 games a year ago (ranking a poor 109th nationally), putting far too much pressure on the back seven in passing situations. Lack of pressure on opposing QBs also contributed to UTEP permitting a ghastly 49% 3rd-down conversions in 2010, which ranked an awful 115th.

A pair of soph DTs, Germard Reed & Marcus Bagley, were thrown into the fire as frosh a year ago and figure to benefit from that experience, and eight returning defensive linemen started at least one game in 2010, but the Miners were mostly pushed around at the point of attack last season when also allowing a hefty 4.8 ypc. Sources suggest 6'5, 225-lb. hybrid jr. Greg Watkins has the potential to emerge as the pass rushing force the platoon needs after recording 3 sacks in limited work a year ago. The strength of the “D” (such as it is) likely rests with an experienced LB corps that returns all three starters who each posted at least 70 tackles a year ago; weakside backer Isaiah Carter, an honorable mention all-CUSA pick in 2010, affords Patterson a potential blitz specialist from the edge. The secondary returns three starters and could benefit most from an improved pass rush, which could really unleash ball-hawking sr. SS Travaun Nixon, a former juco who recorded four picks in 2010. Defense, however, has rarely been a strength of Price’s UTEP teams, none of which have allowed fewer than 27 ppg over the past eight seasons.

Pointspread-wise, note that Price’s teams have severely underachieved lately as chalk, covering just 6 of their last 28 tries as a favorite dating back to late in the 2005 campaign.

Summary...There is no question that over the past five seasons, UTEP has lost the momentum it seemed to be generating in Price’s first two years on the job. In fact, the accidental bowl invitation last season might be more of a damning indictment on the direction of the program, which was hoping the senior-laden 2010 team would be capable of a legitimate breakthrough. Admittedly, Price has at least provided some stability and a handful of brief shining moments over the past eight seasons, which is much more than the long-suffering UTEP fans have ever been able to enjoy in the past, but the thought among most regional insiders is that the Price regime is past its sell-by date. And despite an opener against the visiting Stony Brook Seawolves, the 2011 schedule looks a bit more daunting than a year ago, with three straight road games after the opener, then a game at the Sun Bowl vs. CUSA favorite Houston, which could get the war drums beating in El Paso before Columbus Day. Given the massive rebuilding necessary on offense and the history of unassertive Miner defenses, another sub.-500 mark appears quite likely and might be the final confirmation that the Price era has run its course.

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