Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018 | 2 a.m.
This is the first weekend of the year with a full slate of college football games, and millions of fans across the country will be watching.
Some will watch at home on their favorite recliner, some at the game with their face painted, and some at a Las Vegas sports book with a pile of ripped up parlay tickets.
John Saccenti, executive director of the Mitsubishi Motors Las Vegas Bowl, is no different from fans in this anticipation of a new season. Saccenti, though, watches with different intentions.
“I watch the games that not everybody is watching, and I watch them for different reasons than most,” Saccenti said.
In roughly three months Saccenti and the rest of the Las Vegas Bowl staff will choose two teams for their game, which will be played Dec. 15 at Sam Boyd Stadium. Between now and then, Saccenti will be watching hundreds of games in preparation.
“I have some games circled in my office,” Saccenti said. “We are going to keep a close eye on what we think are the top three teams in the Mountain West Conference — Boise State, Fresno State and San Diego State. Then in the Pac-12, the middle of the pack is projected to be Arizona, Arizona State, Washington State and Colorado, so I’ll keep a close eye on those games as well. But, again, that’s why they play the games, so you never know.”
The Las Vegas Bowl usually invites the Mountain West champion, and then the most attractive team remaining in the Pac-12 after the other five bowls affiliated with the conference have made their picks.
Those parameters narrow Saccenti’s focus quite a bit, but the unpredictability of college football can still make things difficult.
“Every time we think we have something locked up, there’s an upset that changes everything and we have to start back from scratch,” Saccenti said.
In the last two seasons alone, teams predicted to finish last in their division ended up playing in the Mountain West championship game with Wyoming in 2016 and Fresno State last season.
Saccenti’s perspective could mean that on Nov. 17, when most of the nation is enamored with marquee matchups like Miami vs. Virginia Tech or USC vs. UCLA, Saccenti is focused on San Diego State against Fresno State.
He wants to put an exciting product on the field come Dec. 15, but selecting a team with a fanbase that will support the game is equally important. That means when he flips a game on he isn’t solely focused on the action on the field.
“I also watch a lot of what’s going on in the stands,” Saccenti said. “At a home game are the stands full? Do they have good home support? If it’s the first or second game of the year and the stadium is half empty, I’m making an note of that.”
The Las Vegas Bowl has had outstanding attendance numbers, and it’s largely to due with the traveling bases of schools like Boise State, BYU and Utah.
“If a team is 0-0 or 1-0 early in the year and their stadium is half empty it says a lot about the fan support,” Saccenti said. “Those are the types of things I’m watching above and beyond the play on the field.”
There are two Week 1 games pitting the Mountain West against the Pac-12 this year. San Diego State takes on Stanford tonight, and more important to Las Vegas — UNLV will be looking to pull off an upset against USC.
Saccenti said he’ll be watching the UNLV game closely, despite the fact that the Rebels haven't played in the Las Vegas Bowl since 2000. If UNLV did make a miraculous run, Saccenti would welcome the Rebels with open arms.
“There are a lot of positives, and some challenges that come with having a hometown team in the bowl game,” he said. “We haven’t had UNLV and the town would be excited about it, so that would be good for both sides.”
While UNLV is expected to be improved this season, winning the conference is a tall task. Saccenti expects the team to be much better.
“I do think UNLV will make a bowl game this year,” he said. “I think they are on the way up, the schedule is favorable, and they will be in a bowl game. We’ll have to see where they land. It’s going to be tough to get to the top of the conference but we’ve seen it before so you never know.”