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Meet UTEP: Oklahoma’s Week 1 opponent

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Late last month, inside his office on the campus of the University of Texas at El Paso, Miners head football coach Dana Dimel sat back, thought about his team’s nonconference schedule and considered the fashion with which UTEP will open the season after the season that delivered the program’s most successful campaign in nearly a decade.

Dimel and Co. face a daunting start in 2022: By the time the Miners arrive to face Oklahoma in Norman on Sept. 3, OU’s Week 1 opponent will already have a win or loss on its record, the product of UTEP’s Week 0 matchup with Conference-USA rival North Texas on Aug. 27 at the Sun Bowl.

“Piggybacking an opener with a team that’s been a top-level team in our conference with a game against a Top 10 program like Oklahoma, it really makes you have to get yourself going quickly to get the season started,” Dimel said. “We’ve got to play good football right out of the chute.”

In four Saturdays, the Sooners will begin their 2022 season inside Oklahoma Memorial Stadium, their first regular-season game in the post-Lincoln Riley era. Dillon Gabriel will make his Sooners debut under center with first-year offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby calling the plays. And coach Brent Venables will open his tenure in charge of the program with a familiar face on the opposite sideline.

While OU’s first-year head coach established himself at Kansas State in the early 1990s — first as a player, then an assistant under Bill Snyder — Dimel was there, in the early stages of a coaching career that now spans five decades. In 1996, the pair served on the same full-time coaching staff with the Wildcats — Dimel operating as Snyder’s offensive coordinator, Venables leading Kansas State’s linebackers.

“Just as you see him now as a coach, that’s who Brent was as a player,” Dimel said.

“He was a real physical linebacker and played with a lot of physicality to his game. He’s taken that mentality with him into coaching. He liked contact. He liked to play hard. He liked to practice.”

Venables eventually followed Bob Stoops to Norman and Dimel left Kansas State after 10 seasons in 1997 to become head coach at Wyoming, then assumed the same role at Houston in 2000. He failed to post a winning record in three seasons with the Cougars, and upon his 2002 firing Dimel moved on to assistant roles at Arizona and back at Kansas State before taking over in 2018 at UTEP, a program that held only one winning season since 2006.

More losing came for the Miners in Dimel’s first three seasons in El Paso — back-to-back 1-11 seasons to start and a 3-5 showing in 2020. Then, last fall, things flipped. UTEP won six of its first seven games, made a bowl appearance and closed with its first winning season since 2014.

That’s changed things.

“I feel it around town, for sure. There’s just a lot of excitement from everybody,” Dimel said. “We’re the only school around, you know. In El Paso, there’s only one game. So when you start to have some success you get more attention. You can feel they’re excited to have a football team that had success last year.”

This fall, Dimel and Miners return looking to build on a breakout season with experience. UTEP returns all of its defensive front seven from a year ago, including pass rushers Jadrian Taylor and Praise Amaewhule, a duo that combined for 12 sacks in 2021. Back on offense are 3,200-yard passer Gavin Hardison and more than 1,300 yards of rushing between running backs Ronald Awatt and Deion Hankins.

So what should OU fans expect to see when the Miners come to Norman on Sept. 3?

“Well, they’re not going to be expecting much,” Dimel quipped. “They’re Oklahoma and we’re UTEP.

“I hope they see a team that plays really physical, good football and can line up and try to make it a very contested game,” he continued. “That’s our hope to try to get to where we can play really good football. You can play a really, really good team like Oklahoma, lose by a decent margin and still know your football team got better that day.”

The 2022 season opener will mark the Sooners’ fifth all-time meeting with UTEP, the first since 2017. But it won’t be the last.

As part of an athletic department strategy for regional exposure, UTEP is set for alternating nonconference games with OU and Texas through the 2020s. Already on the schedule for the Miners are matchups with the Longhorns in 2025, 2027, 2029 and 2031; a future meeting with the Sooners is already scheduled in 2026, and Dimel noted expected matchups in 2028 and 2030, as well.

Those games will come in the future. For now, Dimel has his eyes on Week 0 against North Texas and the matchup with his former coaching colleague that follows it in Week 1.

“Obviously, it’s going to be a super tough environment for going to play there in someone’s first game as a head coach,” he said. “That just makes it even more of a challenge for us to come into that stadium and play, because I know everybody is going to be really looking forward to Brent’s first game there.”

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OU beat Writer

I came to the Tulsa World as an intern in 2019, returned in Aug. 2021 and now cover the Sooners with Eric Bailey. I'm a New Yorker, a graduate of the University of Missouri and an avid soccer (read: fútbol) fan. Let's talk: eli.lederman@tulsaworld.com

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