The bottom line is Alabama fans would be remiss if they were to look over the 2001 Texas-El Paso Miners, the one scheduled team that Coach Dennis Franchione knows better than any other.
Turning in an impressive 8-4 campaign in 2000, Coach Gary Nord's Miners shared the WAC title with Franchione's TCU Horned Frogs. Although they lost three regular season games, closer inspection shows that two of those losses came to tough non-conference opponents in the form of Texas A&M and eventual national champion Oklahoma.
After opening the season with losses to New Mexico and Boise State, along with a win over Texas Southern, the Miners were victorious last week at home over Tulsa. "I was pleased with the effort the kids gave this week," Coach Nord commented. "I think they really got after it and their attitude was outstanding. Their enthusiasm was the best it has ever been this season. We came together as a football team."
Although UTEP got out of the Tulsa game with a win, they did not escape without a vital injury to a top starter. Miner tailback Chris Porter suffered an elbow dislocation early against Tulsa and is not expected to return for several weeks. The talented senior did amass 30 yards and a touchdown on only two carries before his injury, when he gave way to sophomore Rovann Cleveland. Although clearly a blow to the Miner ground attack, Coach Nord contends that it will not affect their upcoming plans. "It won't change our game plan any. We feel really good about Rovann (Cleveland)."
Star wide receiver Lee Mays and reliable tight ends Joey Knapp and Jonas Crafts anchor the Texas-El Paso air assault, which led them to a Humanitarian Bowl bid in 2000. Leading the charge will be quarterback Wesley Phillips, son of former Buffalo Bills coach Wade Phillips. Phillips is becoming more comfortable in a passing system that features a good many screens and short passes to the playmaker Mays, while getting the tight ends in on the downfield action as well. "With Jonas (Crafts) and Joey (Knapp) in there," Coach Nord said of his tight ends, "it presents a double threat to the defense."
Defensively, Coach Nord is preparing his troops for a battle in the trenches. "You would expect them to run it this week. They're very physical up front. They're going to try to control the line of scrimmage," he said. "They're going to run it and run it and run it and try to big-play you in the passing game. They don't have quite the tailback that (LaDainian) Tomlinson was but they have a bunch of them who are very good."
Realistically, the Miners coach knows that a game against the physically superior Crimson Tide won't be easy. "We're about 80 pounds smaller across the board in our offensive line," he noted. "We'll have to take some chances to beat this football team, there's no question about that. Our plan is to try to keep their offense off the field."
As noted earlier, Coach Dennis Franchione and Coach Gary Nord already know one another from previous WAC battles. From this rivalry, however, grew a great deal of respect. "He's a really good motivator," Nord said of Franchione. "He motivates his team really well. He has a great offensive mind. He can move the football a lot of different ways with the team he has. He went back to running the option from the gun and they've been piling the numbers up. He has a great knack of getting kids to do what he wants them to do."
"I respect Dennis and I like him. I think he's a good person."
After South Carolina's comeback, it would be fair to say that the Crimson Tide is at a crossroad of the season. Although it will clearly be no walk in the park, a victory over UTEP might just be the quick fix needed to get the Tide back on track. An improved defensive effort, along with more offensive improvement, could send Alabama rolling back to Tuscaloosa with a victory, and leave the Miners digging for answers.
UTEP Coach Gary Nord's weekly press conference quotes:
THE INJURY TO CHRIS PORTER: The depth will hurt us and the leadership Chris has given us the past couple of weeks and the toughness he has will be difficult to replace. We have to have some people step up for us at the running back position. I'm going to ask Chris to travel with us if he can join us. There was nothing torn and the swelling has gone down, so I feel good about getting him back in 10-14 days.
THE VICTORY OVER TULSA: "It was good to see that the team responded (to the loss at Boise State). They called a team meeting themselves, it was not orchestrated by any of the coaches. They got together and worked out some issues amongst themselves and they practiced hard. We have a lot of kids on this team with a lot of pride.
PROBLEMS SCORING IN THE 2ND HALF: "I'm not concerned about putting up points in the second half. We moved the ball well enough to score at least three touchdowns in the second half on Saturday night. Penalties hurt us in the third quarter. We dominated up front and did what it took to win the football game. I think one of the most important drives we had was the last six minutes of the game. They knew we were going to run the ball and we were able to generate enough movement up front to keep getting first downs. We ate up the clock, about five and a half minutes. I thought that was critical and showed a lot of character in our football team.
PAST EXPERIENCE PLAYING/COACHING AGAINST ALABAMA: "When I was playing at Louisville, we faced Alabama twice and we coached against them in the Fiesta Bowl. The thing I remember most was my freshman year and Ozzie Newsome caught something like six balls for four touchdowns and 190 yards.
THE ALABAMA GAME: "You would expect them to run it this week. They're very physical up front. They're going to try to control the line of scrimmage. But they're also very dangerous throwing the ball.
"It does a us a lot of good to play teams like Alabama. When you see the speed they bring and you go into a hostile environment like that, it makes you a better football team and prepares you for the toughest situation you could see at the end of the year. I think our kids will go there and respond well and we'll come out of there a better football team.
"It helps recruiting because kids want to compete with the best, and Alabama's tradition has proven they are one of the best programs in the country. The kids are excited about going there.
"They have 10 kids who are going to get drafted this year. We're going to have to do an outstanding job of protecting the quarterback. #22, #18 and #11 are unbelievable athletes on the defensive side of the ball. Their offensive line is big and physical and their quarterback is very good.
"When you look at the two teams they lost to, they dominated both football games. They beat UCLA up front. It's just a matter of time of Dennis settling them down and getting them to believe in themselves.
FACING ANOTHER FRANCHIONE-COACHED TEAM: "I think the more you play someone, the better you know them. But we've played him the same number of times as he has played us, so it should be equal in terms of preparation.
UTEP KICKOFF RETURN UNIT: "Instead of dreading our kickoff teams going out there, I'm looking forward to it now with Jahmal Fenner and Lee Mays. I think Jahmal brings a lot of excitement and electricity to the team. He has a great knack of running with the ball in the open field. That's something you can't teach.
HOW TO DEFEAT ALABAMA: But you also try to keep their offense off the field. We want to keep the clock running, so first downs are going to be very important for us.
UTEP QB WESLEY PHILLIPS: "I'm proud of the way Wesley handled himself on Saturday. He threw the ball accurately and on time, and got us out of some bad plays. He has been playing pretty well. I've been trying to tell people that. He has played well enough for us to win three games.
UTEP STAR RECEIVER LEE MAYS: "Teams are double-teaming Lee and sometimes they're jumping up there and bumping him and playing zone everywhere else. We've got a pressure point on the defense, which is good. They are concerned about Lee Mays and they're doubling him up and working different schemes to keep him out of the offense.
COMPARING UTEP TO ALABAMA: "They are a lot more physical than we are. They've got a lot of guys who have been in the program a long time and they are getting the top 10 percent of the kids in the country every year. With that much tradition and that much history behind their program, they can get great players.
"We're about 80 pounds smaller across the board in our offensive line."