The real question about the UTEP football team is whether it has turned things around from a 2-10 season enough to pose a threat to WAC favorite BYU.
Look at the historical facts. Last year, the Miners beat only New Mexico State, probably the worst Div. I team in the country, and New Mexico, the worst team in the WAC.In their meeting last year, BYU was ahead 35-3 halfway through the second quarter when Coach LaVell Edwards called off the shock troops and gave the second-string offense a chance to contribute toward the eventual 49-24 outcome. Eight running backs carried the ball for the Cougars, 11 receivers caught passes, and Detmer sat out the entire fourth quarter.
Look at the personnel. Coach David Lee, in his second season at UTEP, has tried to go the transfer route to beef up his team. Of 26 newcomers on the Miner squad, seven are junior-college recruits and four are transfers from other four-year schools. Of the 11 transfers, two are ineligible and eight have made either the first- or second-team.
Four of UTEP's five starting offensive linemen are back from last year, but is that necessarily good? This group allowed Miner quarterbacks to be sacked 65 times in '89.
When he wasn't lying flat on his back, quarterback Howard Gasser generated some offense (189 of 359 passing for 2,586 yards) but had a problem with interceptions . It's hard to throw accurately with hands in your face the entire game.
On the defensive first-team, eight members of a squad that gave up an average of 34 points a game in '89 have varsity experience. The other starters are two freshmen and a JC transfer.
But while chances look dim for the Miners from a historical and personnel standpoint, there are some reasons for hope in El Paso.
For one thing, Lee wasn't left much to work with from the Miners' 1988 Sun Bowl squad. When Coach Bob Stull left, so did 27 seniors, including the starting quarterback, running backs, much of the offensive line and defensive unit.
What that means is that a lot of green players got experience the hard way, by getting beat up week after week. Three of those returning offensive linemen, for instance, were sophomores last year. Now, after an entire season of getting pushed around, they have beefed up and vowed to get better.
The Miners also have a new line coach, Todd Knight, and new defensive coordinator, Charlie Bailey. And if any team should know what a difference coaching can make, UTEP should. After 11 straight 1- or 2-win seasons, the Miners hired Bob Stull in 1986. His team was 4-8 that year, then 7-4 in 1987 (UTEP's first winning season since 1970), and 10-3 in '88.
"Perhaps the best signee I had since last year is Charlie Bailey," Lee said of his defensive coordinator, who helped form top-notch defenses at Kentucky and Pittsburgh, including the Panther squad that held explosive SMU to seven points in the 1982 Cotton Bowl.
And then there's Reggie Barrett. A BIG wide receiver at 6-foot-3, 213 pounds, Barrett caught 59 passes for 1,042 yards in '89. He also does the 40 in 4.4.
"Reggie's good," said BYU cornerback Brian Mitchell. "He can be a possession receiver, and he can be a deep threat. And he looks like a tight end out there."
Against BYU last year, Barrett wasn't even the leading receiver. The Cougs held him to 48 yards - slightly more than half his game average - on five catches. That left tiny (5-7, 150 pounds) Ricki Lopez open for six catches, but that was more acceptable to the BYU secondary than a big day by Barrett.
So, while UTEP maybe hasn't turned it around enough to challenge BYU for a WAC title, there's still enough there to challenge the Cougs for a day.