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UTEP vs. Jacksonville State: Rich Rodriguez returns to FBS with former FCS powerhouse

There are seven games on the Week Zero schedule around college football Saturday, and there is one defending conference champion in action. That would be Jacksonville State in its FBS and Conference USA debut led by Coach Rich Rodriguez hosting UTEP with the Gamecocks as 1-point underdogs and a total of 54 points.

Jacksonville State won 10 conference titles over the past 20 years, including the school’s first ASUN championship last year. Rodriguez was one of the most influential coaches in the spread offense revolution of the 1990s and 2000s in college football from his days as head coach at West Virginia and Michigan (not so much Arizona). RichRod has won 172 career games as a head coach, and he went 9-2 in his Jacksonville State debut last season.

Quarterback Zion Webb threw for 1,737 yards and rushed for 702 in 11 games last year and was recently granted a seventh year of eligibility by the NCAA. Led by Webb, the Gamecocks led the ASUN and ranked 10th in the FCS in scoring (36.2 ppg) and 5th in the FCS in rush yards per game at 251.0 rpg. Webb has lead back Anwar Lewis (7.1 yards per carry) returning and the addition of Louisiana-Monroe transfer running back Malik Jackson (played for RichRod when he was an OC there).

Rich Rodriguez leads Jacksonville State into the FBS.

Because it is transitioning to Conference USA and the FBS, Jacksonville State is postseason ineligible this year. The Gamecocks have split their past four games against games vs FBS opposition. Their last win was in 2021 at Florida State as a 28-point underdog as JSU won on a 59-yard walk-off TD.

Under coach Dana Dimel, UTEP is looking for its third straight season with at least five wins, which would be a first for the program since 1965-67. QB Gavin Hardison threw for 2,063 yds and 11 TD with 8 INT last season and returns as does star wideout Tyrin Smith, who initially transferred to Texas A&M but then opted to return. Smith led the team in receptions (71), receiving yards (1,039) and receiving scores (seven) last year.

The Miners are 5-25 SU on road in five years under Dimel, which is bottom 10 in the FBS in that span. This is slated to be an annual series now as conference rivals but will be the first-ever meeting.

Conference USA is unrecognizable this year with only four teams back from a year ago in Florida International, Middle Tennessee, Western Kentucky and UTEP now joined by JSU, Liberty, Sam Houston, New Mexico State and Louisiana Tech. The Hilltoppers are +120 favorites to win it.

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