Utah State (9-4) vs. UTEP (7-5)
Dec. 20, 2:20 p.m. ET (ESPN)
• Reason to watch: Ohio State wowed the college football world by dominating the Big Ten championship game behind its third-string starting quarterback, but Utah State probably wasn’t impressed: A slew of injuries have forced the Aggies to use an absurd four quarterbacks this season.
In fact, those four quarterbacks had all led Utah State to victories over FBS teams within the first nine games of the year. Senior quarterback Chuckie Keeton went down with a season-ending knee injury in September, while sophomore Darell Garretson suffered a wrist injury in mid-October. Senior Craig Harrison relieved Garretson, but was knocked out in the third quarter of his first start. Kent Myers proceeded to lead the Aggies to a 4-1 record over their final five games.
Myers, a promising freshman, has passed for 748 yards with five touchdowns and two interceptions while also rushing for 240 yards with four scores. Improbably, he has the Aggies on the verge of a program-record third consecutive bowl victory.
• Keep an eye on: UTEP rushed for 2,552 yards this season, 35th in the FBS and the most the team has tallied since 1956. Sophomore Aaron Jones led the way, running for 1,233 yards with 11 touchdowns. He averaged 136.6 yards per game in wins and 69.3 in losses, although he missed a 35-27 loss at Western Kentucky on Nov. 8. Jones finished 31st nationally in rushing yards, and the Miners have other capable runners, too. Senior Nathan Jeffery rushed for 513 yards with five scores.
• Did you know: Utah State has lost nine starters to injuries this fall, more than any other program in the country. In addition to the three quarterbacks, the Aggies lost four linebackers and two receivers. Still, despite instability at the linebacker position, the Aggies ranked 21st nationally in points allowed per game (20.8). Credit senior linebacker Zach Vigil and sophomore linebacker (and younger brother) Nick Vigil for holding the defense together. The elder Vigil led the team with 145 total tackles, while the younger Vigil was second with 116.
• Final analysis: The New Mexico Bowl will come down to whether UTEP can find success on the ground. Despite a rash of injuries among the linebacking corps, Utah State’s rushing defense ranked 56th nationally, allowing 172.5 yards per game. Expect Aggies defensive coordinator Todd Orlando to stack the box and force UTEP to beat his team through the air, as the Miners strongly prefer the run: In seven wins this season UTEP has rushed for 1,855 yards with 21 touchdowns; in five losses it has totaled just 697 rushing yards with six scores.
However, Utah State’s ability to execute such a game plan is another matter entirely. Though it allowed an average of only 4.8 yards per play this year, best in the Mountain West, its defense showed cracks in the regular-season finale against Boise State. The Broncos gashed the Aggies for 283 rushing yards in a 50-19 rout. How Utah State’s defense fares against UTEP will demonstrate whether that lackluster showing was an anomaly or something more indicative.
• The pick: Utah State 27, UTEP 17