Analysis:

Does UNLV football get worse before it gets better?

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L.E. Baskow

UNLV head coach Tony Sanchez and others are excited about another score versus Wyoming during their game at Sam Boyd Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 12, 2016.

UNLV football fans have waited a long time for a consistent winner. Can they wait another year?

They may have to.

That may be the unpleasant reality facing the Rebels as they head into the offseason after a 4-8 campaign that saw coach Tony Sanchez improve the team’s win total by one for the second straight year. But even that modest improvement may be hard to sustain in 2017, as a confluence of factors could conspire to keep UNLV’s record deflated even as the larger rebuilding effort remains on track.

The old “take a step back to take two steps forward” routine can be a hard sell, but here we go:

In a macro sense, the overall rebuild is going well. Sanchez brought in a promising recruiting class last year, so it’s fair to expect the overall talent level to increase and the roster to get deeper over the long term. And the university is set to break ground on a new practice facility in the spring, and a new stadium could be just around the corner. Those are huge accomplishments for Sanchez, who inherited a crumbling program and has done a ton of good work over the past two years.

On the micro level, however, the Rebels’ prospects for next year are mixed.

The offense is going to be supercharged, with talent and experience at every skill position, a strong offensive line returning mostly intact and a hyped four-star quarterback ready to take over. It’s not crazy to think that UNLV will improve on its 31.6 points-per-game average from 2016, which was the team’s best output in more than three decades.

But any improvements on offense run the risk of diminishing returns. The offense was plenty good in 2016 — it was the defense that faltered, as UNLV allowed 40 points or more in five of the team’s eight losses. It’s hard to imagine a dramatic offseason turnaround on that side of the ball, especially considering the Rebels are graduating stalwarts such as All-Mountain West linebacker Tau Lotulelei, cornerback Torry McTyer, linebacker Ryan McAleenan and safety Troy Hawthorne.

In a perfect world, Sanchez’s defensive recruits will be ready to step in and make an impact next year, but the roster is now hitting the mesh point where former coach Bobby Hauck’s players are being phased out and Sanchez’s are being phased in, and that transition can be tricky. The Rebels are losing experienced players where they can least afford to lose them, and while Sanchez is bringing in good recruits, it’s going to take time for the younger defenders to get up to speed once they are plugged into the lineup on a full-time basis. Unfortunately, 2017 might be a gap year in that regard.

Can the offense score enough points to cover for some defensive slippage? It’s possible, if freshman quarterback Armani Rogers is ready to live up to the hype after a redshirt year spent learning the system. But even that comes with its own risks, as a first-time starter at quarterback always carries a certain amount of unknown.

Should Rogers win the job outright in training camp, he’ll have to hit the ground running. Next year’s nonconference schedule is fairly brutal, as the Rebels open at home against a team yet to be announced, then travel to Idaho and Ohio State before returning home to take on BYU. All three named teams were bowl teams this season, which means UNLV could be off to a rough start.

Will fans have enough patience and long-term perspective to stay engaged though a slow start in Year 3, when wins and losses are supposed to begin reflecting the greater progress being made within the program? The sense of hope that comes with a potential franchise quarterback shouldn't be underestimated, and a high-powered offense should make the Rebels fun to watch on most game days. That should be enough to keep the fans invested on a week-to-week basis. But for those waiting on UNLV to turn into a Mountain West power, 2017 may not be the year.

Follow Mike on Twitter at Twitter.com/MikeGrimala.

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