During the off-season, Forgotten Five has decided to do some research. We launched a multi-part series looking at some of the Group of Five’s most unique conference champions.
Teams such as Boise’s great teams, the 2004 and 2008 Utah teams, and Hawaii’s 2007 team receive so much attention as the Group of Five’s greatest teams in recent memory. Forgotten are the teams that had dream seasons or overcame odd circumstances but did not have a major bowl to show for it. This series tells their tale.
The Curse of UTEP Football
There must be some bad luck in the Rio Grande waters, as less than an hour apart along the river are two of college football’s most snake-bitten teams. While many knew of New Mexico State’s 57-year bowl drought, the UTEP Miners’ struggles currently receive less attention.
The Miners have only nine winning seasons since 1967 and seven bowl appearances, all losses. They have occasionally put together solid seasons like their AP-ranked 2004 and 2005 teams, but they have been few and far between.
This makes their shared 2000 WAC title all the more amazing. The breakup of the 16-team WAC helped the Miners that season, considerably weakening the conference as traditional powers like BYU, Utah, and Colorado State all fled.
A Miracle Season
There has likely never been a greater disparity between co-champions in any conference before or since. One titleholder was the TCU Horned Frogs, who went 10-1 in the regular season on the strength of Heisman finalist LaDainian Tomlinson’s 2,158 rushing yards and reached as high as ninth in the country.
On the other hand was UTEP, who went 5-7 the previous year (and 2-9 the year after) and were blown out by both Oklahoma and Texas A&M in non-conference play. The Miners had also not had a winning season since 1988.
Even schematically the two teams were as different as possible. A high-flying passing attack led by quarterback Rocky Perez and Lee Mays carried a defense that allowed 28 points per game.
San Jose State put these teams on equal levels thanks to a miracle upset. In some #WACAfterDark magic, the Spartans upset the Horned Frogs at home 27-24. It was the Spartans’ first win over a ranked team since a 1986 victory over Fresno State.
Amazingly, UTEP had a chance to win the conference outright on Thanksgiving weekend. After a 1-2 start, the Miners reeled off seven straight wins, including six WAC victories by an average margin of 22 points.
However, the disparity between the two showed as TCU blasted the Miners 47-14 with Tomlinson running for 305 yards and ending their bid for an outright title.
In the end, the Miners earned a trip to the Humanitarian Bowl against Boise State, which they lost 38-23 to the emerging Broncos. More importantly, the Miners share of the 2000 WAC title was their first conference title of any sort since 1956 when they won the six-team Border Conference.
Two of the schools in the now-defunct conference were West Texas A&M, a current Division II school, and Hardin-Simmons, currently in Division III.
This feat alone shows why the Miners’ Y2K dream season deserves attention. In a league where they faced several competitive disadvantages, they won their first conference title in 44 years. Furthermore, they shared the title with a near BCS Buster and former Southwest Conference school in TCU.
The fortunes for the UTEP program have not been great since that title. In the 19 seasons since the Miners have had only three bowl appearances and two winning seasons.
Aside from a brief golden period in 2004 and 2005, where they went 8-4 in both years with AP Poll appearances, the Miners have a record of 58-148 since the 2000 WAC title season.
For all these reasons, UTEP’s 2000 season should not be overlooked as a mere footnote. The Miners’ history, and the unlikely circumstance of an upset by San Jose State of all teams, make this a championship season to remember.
It shows the spontaneity that draws many to the game. The next championship season for UTEP will certainly draw comparisons to the Miracle Miners of 2000.