Analysis:

Bern’s-Eye View: Where is UNLV football likely to play if it’s bowl eligible?

If the Rebels win at least one more game, they will play a bowl game outside of Las Vegas for the first time in program history

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

UNLV head coach Bobby Hauck and defensive back David Greene cheer after UNLV recovered a fumble by Utah State during their game Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013 at Sam Boyd Stadium.

Rare is the year a UNLV fan can recover from a lopsided basketball loss by looking at the football team’s possible bowl destinations. Yet, here we are. The Rebels (5-5, 3-3) whiffed on their first two chances to reach bowl eligibility, but they have two more games to reach that mark starting with next week’s Thursday night game at Air Force.

The important thing to remember with all of these games is that while there is a general order, the bowls don’t have to pick the teams based on conference standing. They don’t even have to pick them based on proximity, because the important thing is that people watch, not that they attend.

ESPN airs all five of the league-affiliated games except for the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl, which is on its partner ABC. And ESPN Regional Television owns all the Mountain West games except for the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl and the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl. Creating intriguing matchups is more important for the committees and the network than making sure a 7-5 team gets a better location than a 6-6 team.

With that said, the selections start with the Las Vegas Bowl. Assuming Fresno State wins out, goes to the BCS and brings the conference a potential $11 million windfall — not a guarantee but more likely than not — the committee would likely bring Utah State to Las Vegas. Boise State is also a possibility, but after three straight trips to the game, both Broncos fans and the bowl could probably use a break.

That would make the Broncos destined for San Diego to play in the Poinsettia Bowl, which is the clear No. 2 in the Mountain West’s hierarchy. After that, it’s sort of a free-for-all, meaning a bowl-eligible UNLV could land any of four destinations. We’ll look at each of those games ordered by the Rebels’ most likely outcome:

    • Sheraton Hawaii Bowl

      Mountain West vs. Conference USA • Dec. 24 in Honolulu, HI

      Possible opponents: Middle Tennessee, East Carolina

      The decision-makers factor in things such as recent matchups or recent trips to that destination. The latter likely wipes out a trio of other Mountain West teams also searching for bowl eligibility: San Diego State, Colorado State and San Jose State. The Aztecs travel to Hawaii this weekend, the Rams were there Oct. 26, and the Spartans won there Oct. 6.

      That doesn’t guarantee those teams wouldn’t play in this game, but the committees would prefer to not send a team to the same destination twice in the same season.

      Wyoming is the only other Mountain West team in the mix for a bowl game that hasn’t traveled to Hawaii, and at 4-5 with games at Boise State and Utah State remaining, the Cowboys are unlikely to get there. If the Rebels get to six victories, start thinking about Christmas in Hawaii.

    • Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl

      Mountain West vs. Navy • Dec. 30 in Fort Worth, Texas

      This is technically the third game in the Mountain West’s hierarchy and, as such, comes with a higher payout (around $1.2 million). That plus the potential to play in front of Texas recruits against Navy likely makes this the preferred option for the Rebels.

      If UNLV gets to 7-5, this could be its destination. There won’t be many 7-win Mountain West teams; in fact, that mark could make either UNLV or San Diego State the Best of the Rest in the league behind the top four teams. San Jose State is likely out for this game because the Spartans play Navy on Nov. 22.

    • Famous Idaho Potato Bowl

      Mountain West vs. Mid-America Conference • Dec. 21 in Boise, Idaho

      Possible opponents: Bowling Green, Buffalo

      This game is the newest addition to ESPN Regional Television’s stable of games and will likely get the leftover team. If the Mountain West doesn’t get enough teams bowl eligible to fill all of its affiliations — seven if Fresno State goes to the BCS, six if it doesn’t — this is the game that would likely get a fill-in from another conference.

      The reason this is a little more likely for UNLV than the remaining bowl game goes back to what we discussed earlier: The Rebels didn’t travel to Boise this season.

      If the Rebels get to seven victories, this game is likely off the board. At six wins, it’s a slight possibility but still a long shot.

    • Gildan New Mexico Bowl

      Mountain West vs. Pac-12 • Dec. 21 in Albuquerque, N.M.

      Possible opponents: Oregon State, Arizona

      Though not impossible, there is almost no chance the Rebels take a second trip to the land of Walter White this season. There are too many other scenarios in place that would either reward the Rebels for seven victories or keep other teams out of specific destinations.

      Also, Arizona could end up as the opponent, and after the way that first game played out, there's absolutely no one clamoring for a rematch. Still, a “Breaking Bad” fan can dream.

    Taylor Bern can be reached at 948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Taylor on Twitter at twitter.com/taylorbern.

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