Monday, Oct. 3, 2016 | 2 a.m.
For as bad as the UNLV football team’s overtime loss to Idaho was Sept. 24, Saturday’s win over Fresno State was a reminder that there's hope on the horizon. It made the Rebels 1-0 against foes in the subpar Mountain West, and plenty of winnable games remain.
There are exceptions, of course.
San Diego State, ranked No. 19, and 24th-ranked Boise State could seemingly pencil in plans for the Mountain West title game on Dec. 3. Air Force (3-0 going into its Oct. 1 home game against undefeated Navy) also has looked good, soundly defeating a Georgia State team that the next week led Wisconsin in the fourth quarter on the road before losing by six points.
Other than that, the conference appeared to be a mess of teams in various states of rebuild, some of which have been that way for years. The last weekend in September, Mountain West teams went 1-6 in nonconference play, and at times it seemed like the league was closer to some of its FCS (formerly Division I-AA) foes than the Power 5 conferences that it technically competes with on the same level.
From 2013 through September this season, the Mountain West was 13-73 overall against the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC. That shouldn’t be shocking, considering the growing moat of money that separates the leagues with real cash from the ones hoping for a TV bonus here and there, but the Mountain West also was rarely competitive in those games, going 33-52-1 (.389) against the spread.
UNLV’s half of the league, the West Division, was pegged by many this preseason as the single worst division in FBS football, and there’s little evidence to refute it. Four of its teams don’t have an FBS victory this season while another, UNR, went to overtime with Cal Poly and managed to lose by double digits to a mediocre Big Ten school, Purdue, despite winning the turnover battle by four.
“Everybody in our conference is a beatable opponent,” Sanchez said. “Some are going to be a lot tougher than others, but there are a lot of opportunities out there; you’ve just got to play good, solid football and avoid injuries.”
There were opportunities for UNLV last year, too, because this is by no means a sudden drop-off for the league. At this point in 2015, four teams hadn’t defeated an FBS opponent, and half the conference finished with sub-.500 overall records.
The Rebels last year went 2-6 in league play, and three of the losses were by a touchdown or less, so while the Idaho loss stung, it wasn’t necessarily an indictment of the rest of the season.
“I don’t see a huge discrepancy really in any of the teams we play the rest of the year,” Sanchez said. “I didn’t see a huge margin last year. … We saw more of the attrition with depth. We have some of those issues, other than maybe the receivers part, kind of taken care of, so I think we’re going to last a lot longer and be able to fight deeper into the season.”
UNLV faces an uphill battle because of glaring weaknesses such as passing offense (170.5 yards per game going into the Fresno State game), scoring defense (33 points allowed per game) and penalty yardage (70.8 yards per game), which all ranked in the bottom 30 nationally.
The good news: Many Mountain West foes aren’t much, if any, better in those and other key areas. Five of UNLV’s remaining games are generally considered winnable.
Then again ...
“They’re all losable,” Sanchez said four days before losing to Idaho. “Believe me.”