After making the jump from FCS to FBS this offseason, Jacksonville State finds themselves hosting UTEP in week zero. The Conference USA showdown is the second game scheduled to be played on Saturday and the only game in that time slot, so Rich Rodriguez’s Gamecocks will have a lot of eyes on them in their first FBS game. We’ll preview their matchup with the Miners before going over which side I’ll be backing.
When moving from the FCS to the FBS, having experience on the roster is important, and Jacksonville State has that in starting quarterback Zion Webb. The signal-caller is in his 7th year of college football and leads a run-heavy offensive system that saw him rush for 13 touchdowns last season.
There is a chance Webb has to lead his team onto the field Saturday without starting runningback Anwar Lewis, as he has been dealing with an injury and remains questionable for the game. If Lewis can’t go, it is expected that Ron Wiggins or Malik Jackson will take the bulk of the carries. Both guys should be able to find success, but the question for the Gamecocks offense is passing.
While the system is run-heavy, Webb will still need to use his arms at times, and last year, that did not go well. The veteran QB threw for ten touchdowns and nine interceptions last season, and UTEP’s secondary features some strong players like the third-leading tackler from last season, Kobe Hylton, and AJ Odums, who the team picked up in the transfer portal.
UTEP’s defense did lose their two leaders in sacks from last year, but they still have Praise Amaewhule, Tavita Tafuna, and Keenan Stewart up front. The team also has linebacker Tyrice Knight, who led the team in tackles last season with 95 and has all-conference potential.
Offensively, the Miners are led by quarterback Gavin Hardinson and runningback Deion Hankins. The senior quarterback had a strong 2021 campaign but did not have his best season last year, throwing for over 2,000 yards with 11 touchdowns and eight interceptions. The offense primarily revolves around Hankins, though, with the Miners ranking 45th in rushes per game last season.
UTEP opened as (+1) point underdogs but have since become (-1) point favorites, and I’ll be backing them as small favorites for my play in this one. UTEP’s defense may have lost some key players, but they still have Tyrice Knight on the field, and they are still in a defensive system that had them finish 36th in opponent total yards per game and 42nd in opponent rushing yards per game. Anwar Lewis possibly not being in the lineup is also a significant loss for the Gamecocks, especially since I think their defense will struggle on Saturday.
Jacksonville State finished last season ranked 81st in the FCS in rushing yards allowed per game, which could be a problem since UTEP was 54th in rush yards per game and features a high-level running back in Hankins. Out of 123 FCS schools, the Gamecocks also finished 66th in total defense, so the Miners should be able to attack them through the air and on the ground.
A big factor in this game will be time of possession, which I think will be an advantage for UTEP. The Gamecocks want to work fast, finishing 121st in average time of possession last season, while the Miners were 6th in time of possession in the FBS, so if they control the clock, they will control the game.
UTEP Miners (-1)