UTAH STATE AGGIES (9-4) vs. UTEP MINERS (7-5)
DEC. 20, 2:20 P.M. ET, UNIVERSITY STADIUM, ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO (ESPN)
UTAH STATE BREAKDOWN
Season highlights: The Mountain West is known for its prolific scoring, but the Aggies rode a solid defense to nine wins this year. They allowed only 4.8 yards per play, the best figure in the conference. A 35-20 win at in-state rival BYU was certainly a sweet way to ring in the month of October, and a late five-game win streak pushed Utah State to the nine-win mark. With a bowl game still remaining, the Aggies are shooting for double digits.
Season lowlights: The Aggies were not as competitive as they would have liked to be in a season-opening 38-7 loss to Tennessee. They had more trouble down South three weeks later, blowing a fourth-quarter lead to Arkansas State before losing in overtime. Another heartbreaker came against Colorado State, when Utah State’s defense held the high-powered Rams to just 16 points but lost anyway.
Players to watch: Utah State features a pair of brothers who are tackling machines at linebacker. Zach and Nick Vigil have combined to amass a staggering 261 tackles, 35.5 tackles for loss, and 16 sacks. Zach, the younger brother, has forced five fumbles, second nationally to only Arizona’s Scooby Wright. Quick, someone find out what was served for breakfast in the Vigil household over the past two decades.
Motivation factor: A hard-nosed defensive team like Utah State cannot be happy about surrendering 50 points and 498 total offensive yards to Boise State in the regular-season finale. That ended the Aggies’ five-game win streak and should provide enough of a bad taste to encourage a solid bowl game showing. -- David Lombardi
Season highlights: The Miners are going to a bowl for the first time since 2010 and only their fifth since 2000. They’ve had a strong turnaround this year, coach Sean Kugler’s second at the helm, going from 2-10 last year to 7-5 this year. They enjoyed a three-game winning streak in the middle of the season, stringing together victories over Old Dominion, UTSA and Southern Miss. They gave Big 12 opponent Texas Tech everything it could handle in an early-season nonconference clash before losing 30-26. UTEP won its regular-season finale by beating fellow bowl-eligible team Middle Tennessee 24-21, securing the win with two interceptions in the final 90 seconds.
Season lowlights: UTEP was dominated by Louisiana Tech 55-3 on Oct. 4. The Miners turned the ball over five times that night, four of which turned into Louisiana Tech touchdowns. They also had a field goal blocked and returned for a touchdown in the loss. Coupled with a loss the previous week to Kansas State, the Miners were outscored 113-31 in that two-game stretch spanning late September and early October.
Player to watch: Sophomore running back Aaron Jones is 23rd nationally and fourth in Conference USA in rushing yards per game, averaging 112.1. His 1,233 rushing yards this season ranks sixth in UTEP history. He has 1,517 all-purpose yards, which ranks ninth in school history. Jones also has 14 touchdowns (11 rushing, three receiving).
Motivation factor: Considering the strides made so far this season, ending the year with a bowl victory and eight wins would be a nice way to wrap up Kugler’s second campaign as the head man. The last time the Miners won eight games was 2005, and they’ve only done so 10 times before. They’ve already guaranteed themselves their first season with a winning record since 2005. -- Sam Khan Jr.