It might seem a minor point, a mere bug on the windshield of a 13-game college football season, of nearly four months preparing weekly for a new opponent.
But it’s no small matter.
It’s the difference between obstacle and opportunity and the attitude UNLV has toward each, between Bobby Hauck’s first three years as coach and his fourth, between the disaster that was 6-32 and the promise that was 7-6.
All things remain relative in the grossly inequitable world of college football and the massive financial disparity between its top and bottom, its haves and have-nots, its most powerful and successful programs and those trying to make a name for themselves one day and merely surviving the next.
UNLV remains far closer to the latter assortment of teams but has taken an important step in the growth process.
It’s all about attitude.
“There is always pressure to win; that’s the way it is in college football,” Hauck said. “If you’re a competitor and don’t want to win, you’re in the wrong game. But I like our team. I think we can be pretty good. And we’re excited about the chance (to open) the season against a very good team.”
A year ago at this time, Arizona would have been viewed by the Rebels strictly as an obstacle. Tonight, in this college town 108 miles southeast of Phoenix, playing the Wildcats is looked upon as an opportunity.
There is no guarantee the result will differ much from last season, when Arizona proved superior in all phases and routed the Rebels 58-13. It was 45-6 at halftime.
The Wildcats are more than a three-touchdown favorite tonight, a team that last season whipped Oregon and then Boston College in a bowl game. Arizona is a good team in what might be the nation’s best conference this season in the Pac-12.
But there is a different feel to UNLV now, more so than when the Rebels under Hauck opened two straight seasons against Wisconsin and then Minnesota for consecutive years.
Only once in those four tries — against Minnesota at home in 2012 — has UNLV competed at all in a season opener. A lack of talent and depth were the main reasons; but it’s also true that once things began to go bad, UNLV lacked the confidence in itself to stop the bleeding when a major wound opened. The Rebels have that now. It’s a wonder what a little success like a seven-win season and bowl berth can do for a team’s mindset.
“I think the overall attitude on this team, beginning with the fourth-year guys and fifth-year seniors, is an element of excitement,” said starting junior quarterback Blake Decker. “There has been no negative talk. None. Only positive. Obviously, nobody wants to revert back to days of going 2-11. I wasn’t here for that. I didn’t experience it. But the only talk has been about adding a few more wins than last year. More than anything, that’s exciting.”
It should be, if nothing else, a season opener with some intrigue.
Decker is a midyear transfer from Scottsdale (Ariz.) Community College who grew up a post pattern from Arizona State’s campus, meaning part of his birthright was to despise anything about the Wildcats team he will face in making his Division I debut at the game’s most important position.
He has little margin for error from the outset, no time for a quarterback with two years of junior college experience to learn on the go. Decker needs to produce if UNLV is to successfully chase seven wins and bowl eligibility.
Here’s the most important thing Hauck can point to late tonight:
That no matter how things go against a better, faster opponent and in front of an ESPN audience, UNLV lost its opener on the road last season and rallied to win four of its first six games and two of its final three.
That the Rebels are competent enough now to where an early loss shouldn’t automatically trigger a downward spiral to last until late November.
That the days of 2-11 under Hauck are over. That they can stop the bleeding if a major wound opens.
“We are well aware of how Arizona handled us last year and that we will have to play our best game to have a chance,” Hauck said. “Winning the game is a tall order and a difficult task for us. We need to try to get it to the fourth quarter and see what happens. We need to have a much better performance against them than last year to be in it. We need to tackle the guy with the ball a whole lot better than we did.
“But we are fired up and ready to go. We have an opportunity to be pretty good, and we’re excited to play Arizona, just like we will be excited to play whoever we have next week and the week after that.”
Excited about opportunities and not worried about obstacles.
That’s a big difference.
It’s all relative.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at email@example.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.