Thursday, Aug. 23, 2018 | 2 a.m.
The UNLV football team has a very clear goal this season: to qualify for a bowl game. The Rebels came up just short last year, losing the final game of the season at UNR in dramatic fashion to finish with a 5-7 record (teams that are .500 or better earn postseason eligibility), and there are no more excuses.
As head coach Tony Sanchez heads into his fourth season, UNLV is more equipped than ever to post a winning record and play in its first bowl game since 2013.
Here’s everything you need to know about the upcoming season.
Eleven players to watch
• Armani Rogers, sophomore QB: The Rebels are counting on the returning Mountain West Freshman of the Year to raise his game and establish himself as one of the top quarterbacks in the conference.
• Lexington Thomas, senior RB: After running for 1,330 yards last year, Thomas is just 1,250 yards away from becoming UNLV’s all-time leading rusher.
• Nick Dehdashtian, junior DL: The 6-foot-1, 290-pounder could be a force on the defensive line if he can stay healthy — Dehdashtian has been slowed by injury in training camp.
• Jericho Flowers, junior CB: Flowers’ aggressive pass defense makes him the Rebels’ best chance to have an All-MWC defender in 2018.
• Charles Williams, sophomore RB: An ankle injury in Week 1 wiped out Williams’ 2017 season, but he’s back at 100 percent health and looks poised for a monster bounce-back campaign.
• Brandon Presley, junior WR: Presley picked up his game over the second half of last season, and he enters this year as QB Armani Rogers’ most reliable target.
• Farrell Hester, sophomore LB: Rebels coaches are high on Hester, who got a ton of experience at middle linebacker as a true freshman last year. He could be a leader in the middle of the defense for the next three years.
• Jameer Outsey, senior DL: Outsey started 10 games last year and recorded 2 sacks. The Rebels are hoping he can generate consistent pressure on the quarterback.
• Justin Polu, junior OL: UNLV rushed for 230.7 yards per game in 2017 (19th in the nation), and Polu was a huge part of that. At 6-foot-4, 325 pounds, he is the heart of the Rebels’ running game.
• Tyleek Collins, freshman WR: Just a hunch, but Collins has flashed in training camp with his speed and elusiveness in the open field. Don’t be surprised if the 5-foot-9 dynamo gets his hands on the ball this season — either as a receiver or kick returner — and makes something happen.
• Donovan Outlaw, sophomore OL: Outlaw might be the most talented lineman on the roster, but he must to learn how to bring it on every play before the coaches trust him as the starting left tackle.
Five telling stats
• +7: UNLV’s turnover margin last year. The Rebels recorded 19 takeaways and committed 12 turnovers, which ranked them 25th in the nation in turnover margin per game. Ball security has been a strong suit of the team under head coach Tony Sanchez.
• 52.4: Completion percentage recorded by Armani Rogers last year. Going into his sophomore season, the coaching staff wants to see Rogers get closer to 60 percent in order to keep defenses from keying on the Rebels’ running game.
• 54.2: Red zone touchdown percentage recorded by the UNLV offense last year. The Rebels moved the ball inside their opponents’ 20-yard line on 35 occasions and scored 19 touchdowns. With all the weapons available to the Rebels, they should score TDs at a 65 percent clip or better.
• 42.9: Percent at which UNLV opponents converted third downs last year, as the combination of a weak pass rush and poor pass coverage left the Rebels unable to get off the field.
• 3.3: Sack rate recorded by the UNLV defense last year. That means for every 100 pass plays, the Rebels brought the quarterback down just three times. New defensive coordinator Tim Skipper has been tasked with generating more pressure on opposing passers.
Three must-win games
• Prairie View A&M, Sept. 15: Don’t laugh — UNLV will go into this home game as a big favorite, but the Rebels were in a similar spot last year and ended up suffering a humiliating defeat at the hands of Howard. That loss kept the Rebels out of a bowl game, so banking this one as a win will be important.
• San Jose State, Oct. 27: Road wins are hard to come by, and this will be UNLV’s best chance to snag one. The Rebels beat SJSU by a score of 41-13 last year, with Lexington Thomas racking up 146 yards and two touchdowns.
• UNR, Nov. 24: A heartbreaking loss in Reno ended UNLV’s 2017 season, and a bowl berth could be on the line again when the in-state rivals face off at Sam Boyd Stadium in the season finale.
This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.