Win or lose, opener at Arizona is one of UNLV’s key games this season

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Steve Marcus

UNLV head coach Bobby Hauck, right, congratulates University of Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez after UNLV’s home opener against Arizona at Sam Boyd Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013.

The Rebel Room

Under the Tucson Sun

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With UNLV football entering game week for the 2014 season opener at Arizona, Las Vegas Sun reporters Taylor Bern and Case Keefer dust off the Rebel Room to break down UNLV's first game and the season outlook.

If the first step to raising expectations is winning, then the next step is to press repeat. The Rebels go into the 2014 season with a drastically different feel than previous years under coach Bobby Hauck, and keeping that feeling means it’s time for them to prove that seven victories last season wasn’t a fluke.

Similar to last season, the schedule looks manageable. There are difficult games, certainly, starting with Friday’s opener at Arizona, but last year’s breakthrough has changed the perspective so that the slate doesn’t look like the minefield it once did for UNLV.

The path to a second straight bowl game for the first time in program history contains 13 games, and each one will play a role in determining the outcome. However, there are four that stand out above the rest in terms of their impact on the season, and that starts with Friday’s game at Arizona Stadium:

At Arizona

7:30 p.m., Friday, Aug. 29 • ESPN

This one isn’t important in the win column the way the rest of the listed games are, although a victory sure would be a nice surprise. The opener is more important for how the Rebels arrive at the final score, whatever that ends up looking like.

Can the defense take advantage of former Bishop Gorman quarterback Anu Solomon making his first collegiate start? Will it be able to keep the running game in check better than last season, when Arizona gained 397 yards against UNLV?

On offense, is junior quarterback Blake Decker ready for his Division I debut without a proven running back behind him? Will the receiving corps show signs of living up to its potential as one of the best groups at that position in program history?

This first game isn’t going to provide definitive answers on these matters, but it’s the first chance to get some actual evidence. And as 24-point underdogs, it will be very interesting to see how the Rebels respond against a team that is by no means unbeatable.

Northern Illinois

4 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 19 • Mountain West Network

If the Rebels are going to contend for a winning season and another trip to a bowl game, this is a game they can’t lose.

Yes, the Huskies are coming off a 12-2 season that was headed for a possible BCS berth until a loss in the MAC title game. But without quarterback Jordan Lynch, there are big changes to be made on offense, and the defense lost half its starters.

UNLV wants to get to a point where competitive seasons occur more often than presidential elections, and to do that, this is the type of game it has to win.

Barring an upset in the first two weeks, the Rebels should be 1-1 heading into this game with a difficult month of games starting the following week. UNLV needs to take care of business when it has these opportunities.

At BYU

Time TBA, Saturday, Nov. 15

This is UNLV’s first meeting with the Cougars since BYU left the Mountain West to become an independent in 2011.

Some fans wanted the Rebels to never again schedule BYU for jumping ship. However, more UNLV fans will probably have this game and the 2015 meeting at Sam Boyd Stadium circled because they just want to see the Rebels take down the team that at times has been considered UNLV’s main rival.

On the gridiron, it hasn’t been too interesting. BYU won the last meeting 55-7 and owns a 15-3 series record. But the Cougars aren’t nearly as strong as they used to be, and the Rebels should be entering this game on a roll with Air Force and New Mexico at home the previous two weeks.

It feels like a good opportunity for UNLV to notch victory No. 4 all time against the Cougars.

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UNLV players surround the Fremont Cannon after defeating UNR 27-22 Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013 at Mackay Stadium in Reno.

UNR

Time TBA, Saturday, Nov. 29

This game is key for UNLV no matter what season or where it’s at on the schedule, but both sides would probably agree that shifting this rivalry to the final week was a great move.

Last year, the Rebels spent so much emotional energy winning in Reno that the ensuing letdown the following week felt inevitable. Putting the game at the end leaves a cannon-shaped carrot dangling out in front of both teams all season.

Now that the Fremont Cannon is red, the perspective shifts to UNLV defending what it’s won, though the Rebels are still considered the underdog. With quarterback Cody Fajardo back for one more season, UNR was picked to finish higher in the division. In the early lines, they’re about a touchdown favorite over the home team.

There could be a lot riding on this game, making it back-to-back meaningful Novembers for UNLV. To make that happen, the Rebels have to live up to some of their expectations, particularly in these four games.

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

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