Aztecs can fill role as No. 2 rival for Rebels on the gridiron

Bobby Hauck is pretty clear on what some in these parts might not consider so simple:

“I think we should play Reno the last game of the season,” Hauck said. “We have a rival. I’m big on we have one rival, and it’s Reno, and everyone else is a league game, and they’re all important. That’s how we approach it.”

That was Monday afternoon, when it became clear Hauck wouldn’t tackle his team’s final week of the regular season as Mr. Congeniality, meaning UNLV’s football coach kept consistent his four-year streak of never coming close to being assigned such a moniker.

A real crowd pleaser this week, Hauck …

It also means he hasn’t kept up on Mountain West basketball.

Nothing compares to an in-state rivalry, and UNLV finally again can display a red Fremont Cannon to hold over UNR’s head for the next year, a symbol of superiority earned on the field against the Wolf Pack this season.

Any other opponent ranks a distant second to the combination of passion and detest fans here feel about the school up north.

At least in football.

San Diego State visits Sam Boyd Stadium for a 7:30 p.m. kickoff today, meeting a fellow bowl-eligible opponent in UNLV that the Aztecs have defeated three straight times and in nine of the past 11 meetings.

It’s a big game for the Rebels. Really big. A victory would secure the program’s first winning season in 13 years and align UNLV for a more attractive bowl than perhaps a 6-6 team might get.

A win could mean the difference in the Rebels spending the holidays anywhere but Albuquerque, N.M.

Enough said.

It’s also big, or should be despite Hauck’s suggestion otherwise, because of who is standing on the opposite sideline.

UNLV and San Diego State are basketball schools. Pure and simple. They in the sport of hoops have taken the border war rivalry concept to incredible heights, fueled by rowdy student sections and message board wars between fans that only have heightened an obvious dislike for the other.

Familiarity, in this case, breeds contempt.

There’s nothing like it.

It happens often between schools from neighboring states, rivalries born out of recruiting battles and memorable games that decide championships or other such significant moments.

“We battle (San Diego State), San Jose State, Fresno State, Colorado State, Wyoming, New Mexico (in recruiting), yeah,” Hauck said. “I mean, it’s the league. We’re all on the same guys, for the most part.”

I will have to remember that the next time I read that a recruit from California says he had a tough decision between attending college in San Diego, Las Vegas or … Laramie.

It also will be the first time.

When it still was a member of the Mountain West, Brigham Young was everyone’s rival. The Cougars’ success was overshadowed only by a perceived sense of entitlement, which was an all-too-convenient reason for opposing fan bases to abhor all that was Brigham Young, or at least one way to ignore the reality of their teams not matching up on the field.

But the Cougars are gone from the conference, and UNLV improved enough this season to move far away from its annual role as the league’s doormat, meaning the Rebels might want to borrow a page from countless other programs and develop more than one football rivalry.

There is no better option than San Diego State, which UNLV has played more times — 22 — than any other original Mountain West opponent. This will be the sixth time the Rebels close their league schedule against the Aztecs and the fourth time since the conference was formed that the teams will meet to conclude a regular season.

That’s stuff of, well, at least a secondary football rival to UNR.

“We all know that it’s a big game against a team our seniors have yet to beat,” UNLV linebacker Tim Hasson said. “I’m really anxious to play them. This is a team I want to beat at the end of my senior season. We’ll be ready to go from the first snap.”

Said running back Tim Cornett, also playing his final regular-season game at Sam Boyd Stadium: “Emotions will be high. For our seniors, it’s the fourth and last chance we have at beating them.”

It never will, and shouldn’t, reach the level of intensity that is UNLV-UNR each fall, but perhaps by borrowing a page from their basketball programs, UNLV and San Diego State football also can discover a happy medium of disgust that only a true rivalry can offer.

Who knows … maybe even Mr. Congeniality eventually will embrace the idea.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.