Monday, July 29, 2019 | 2 a.m.
There are two schools of thought when looking at the upcoming UNLV football season.
The first: The Rebels have momentum from winning two of their final three games last year, including a wild come-from-behind victory against UNR in the Fremont Cannon game. For the first time in coach Tony Sanchez’s four-year tenure, the program didn’t lose the attrition battle at the end of the season — rather, they were the more fit team with better player depth. More important, those players didn’t quit on the coach. This season will be a continuation of the effort.
And, of course, the other, more commonly used, theory: This is UNLV, a program with four bowl-game appearances in more than 50 years of existence, and which is projected to finish at the bottom of the Mountain West.
It’s a bowl-or-bust season for Sanchez, who needs to lead the Rebels to at least six wins to qualify for a bowl game to get a contract extension.
So, how do they get to six? Here are six easy steps.
Keep Armani healthy
When junior quarterback Armani Rogers is on the field, “the whole team peps up,” Sanchez said. Take the rally against Reno, when Rogers passed for three touchdowns and rushed for two more in showing he’s the best quarterback in the Mountain West not named Jordan Love. Utah State is hyping Love as a possible Heisman Trophy candidate.
Keeping Rogers healthy is easier said than done because of his reckless style of running. Last year, for instance, a freak foot injury cost him more than half the season and essentially derailed the team’s bowl hopes.
UNLV went 1-5 in games he missed; 3-2 in those he started. Not only did the Rebels lose six consecutive games, they were flat without their leader in surrendering more than 40 points in each loss.
The UNR game showed that Rogers’ passing skills are starting to catch up to his elite running abilities. If Rogers continues developing at this pace, and his unproven receivers are serviceable, the Rebels could be the league’s surprise team.
If the defense performs like it did in 2018, giving up 38 points and 459 yards per game, it could be a long year. Sanchez is optimistic about the upgrades.
He says the defensive line rotation features eight capable performers for the first time in his tenure. That means fresh bodies and more pressure on the opposing quarterback.
The linebackers received a boost from prized junior college transfer Vic Viramontes, who picked the Rebels over TCU, Baylor and Nebraska and should be an impact player. He’ll combine with Gabe McCoy and Javin White — who had two interceptions against UNR and is probably the Rebels’ best defender — for a solid one-two punch.
The secondary, which contributed to opposing quarterbacks completing 59% of their passes in 2018, is the biggest question mark. The Rebels will rely on some unproven pieces in stopping the long pass.
Win two of the initial four games
The season-opener against Southern Utah is a must-win. Not only do the Thunderbirds compete on a lower level, they are projected to finish last out of 12 teams in the Big Sky Conference.
The following week against visiting Arkansas State is a coin-flip result, as the Rebels led at Arkansas State last year before blowing it in the fourth quarter. It was one of 10 defeats by eight or fewer points in the Sanchez tenure, showing the program has been painfully close to breaking through.
The next two opponents — at Northwestern and Wyoming — won’t be easy, putting a higher premium on winning the consecutive home games to open the season.
Still, the Rebels will have a puncher’s chance because Northwestern’s ground-and-pound offense isn’t designed to win by lopsided scores, and UNLV will have a week to prepare for the Mountain West opener against Wyoming, a team that won its last four games in 2018 after a 2-6 start.
But if the Rebels lose to SUU, finding six wins in the remaining 11 games will be nearly impossible, especially when the game against San Diego State — a six-point betting favorite — at the end of October appears to be that’s month lone chance for a win.
Win the games you are supposed to
There are three games that appear to be easy wins. If the Rebels beat Southern Utah, Hawaii and San Jose State — all home games — they will be halfway to bowl eligibility. It’s not too much to ask, as San Jose State is projected to finish below UNLV in the preseason and Hawaii is a different team when playing off the island.
But, of course, the winnable game hasn’t been all too leisurely in recent memory. Home defeats to lower-tier Howard, Southern Utah and Northern Arizona in the past decade are reminders that the Rebels need to do more than simply show up to win a game.
Also, the San Jose State and Hawaii games are at the end of the schedule, meaning the Rebels could already be out of bowl contention — the victim of road games and quality opponents dominating the middle part of the schedule — and simply going through the motions by Nov. 16 when they host Hawaii.
Find a way to win a game you aren’t supposed to
Playing road games at Vanderbilt and Fresno State six days apart presents an uphill climb to victory. And winning a home game against league power Boise State or on the road in Big Ten country at Northwestern is also unlikely — don’t expect a repeat of 2003, when the Rebels stole a win at nationally ranked Wisconsin.
Vanderbilt may be one of the worst teams in its conference, but its conference is the usually the best in the country, and the Commodores have superior athletes at skill positions. It’s a similar narrative for Northwestern, although that game should follow the script of past road games at USC and Michigan, with the Rebels hanging around into the second half.
UNLV hasn’t been awful against Fresno State, but the Bulldogs are the defending Mountain West champions and return many key pieces. Boise State is a two-touchdown favorite at Sam Boyd Stadium.
Win a game or two on the road
Some supporters would take a 1-11 record as long as the one victory was against UNR. Don’t be surprised if bowl eligibility hinges on the outcome of the Thanksgiving showdown in Reno, where the Rebels are currently plus-7 underdogs.
Regardless, the Rebels are going to need a win or two away from home to get a 13th game.
One win could come against Wyoming, against which UNLV is only a four-point betting underdog. Another could be against Colorado State in early November in a game oddsmakers opened as a pick.
Wins: Southern Utah, Arkansas State, San Diego State, Colorado State, Hawaii, San Jose State, UNR
Defeats: Northwestern, Wyoming, Boise State, Vanderbilt, Fresno State