This much we know: That improving enough this football season to become bowl eligible, Bobby Hauck and his UNLV team accomplished what Jim Livengood demanded, what Neal Smatresk expected, what Tina Kunzer-Murphy felt necessary to prove tangible progress.
In short, the Rebels did their part.
A week from now, UNLV is praying it doesn’t come up short.
The Rebels on Saturday night concluded a fourth regular season under Hauck, beating San Diego State 45-19 at Sam Boyd Stadium and offering a 7-5 record to prospective bowl selection committees.
The last time UNLV won at least seven games in a season, John Robinson was the coach, Jason Thomas was the quarterback, and the reward was a berth in the Las Vegas Bowl. The Rebels beat Arkansas 31-14 in 2000.
It has been awhile.
It won’t be as easy for this UNLV team to reach the postseason, despite how impressively it handled the Mountain West’s hottest team in San Diego State. It was the first time this season UNLV beat an opponent with a winning record and it was decisive.
The Rebels were better than the Aztecs in every way.
Whether it matters or not in the bowl picture won’t be decided for a week.
It’s the system. Hardly perfect, always controversial, never uncomplicated. It has been since the inception of the Bowl Championship Series a structure hideously unfair at the top and consistently mysterious at the bottom in terms of what teams are chosen to go where any why.
The Rebels find themselves today part of the latter scenario, hoping that within a Mountain West that has produced more bowl-eligible teams than the league has contracted spots, UNLV somehow can find a bowl intrigued about its resume enough to offer a bid.
The options are few.
Seven teams from the Mountain West are bowl eligible and it’s certain that Fresno State, Utah State and Boise State will receive bids. That leaves four teams — UNLV, San Diego State, San Jose State and Colorado State — for three spots.
“Of course, I’m concerned,” said Kunzer-Murphy, the UNLV athletic director about to have the interim tag removed from her title. “We have a lot of work to do. We’re talking to everyone. I would be remiss if I thought everything was fine. I hope we can make a strong enough case about who we are and what we can bring to the table. We’re going to work all the angles.
“Las Vegas has a great story to tell with Bobby Hauck and UNLV having not been to a bowl in 13 years. I’m trying to be positive about it, but (bowl eligible) teams have been left out.
“I don’t know what we’re prepared to do. We’re prepared to go to a bowl game.”
Translation: She’s not yet sure how far UNLV is willing to take the beg-borrow-plead strategy, but it’s probably going to take favors being called in and those with long-standing relationships applying pressure and the Rebels guaranteeing their side will purchase a specific amount of tickets to a game. Even then, it’s not a certainty.
Bowls take teams for all sorts of reasons, which is why, while a 7-5 UNLV team might be more attractive on paper than a 6-6 one, one extra victory could have absolutely nothing to do with whether or not the Rebels go bowling.
Whatever happens — if Boise State can be sold as a national program to a bowl with an at-large spot and leaving all six remaining Mountain West teams with a game to attend, if the Rebels can play the political game well enough to perhaps secure a bid to a game such as the Hawaii Bowl on Christmas Eve — know that Hauck and his staff and his players did their part.
Livengood is the former athletic director who hired Hauck and stated last year that the coach needed to become bowl eligible to show enough progress that would make sense continuing with the current staff; Smatresk, the university president now off to North Texas, was skeptical at best earlier this season about UNLV’s chances at making a bowl; Kunzer-Murphy saw enough improvement to reward Hauck with a three-year extension.
Whatever happens now, those most responsible for producing a 7-5 record and whacking San Diego State around Sam Boyd Stadium have little to say in the matter.
It’s in the hands of university and conference and bowl officials.
“Trust me, people know we want to go to a bowl,” Kunzer-Murphy said. “I think finishing (7-5) makes the path a little easier. We have a very valid story to tell.”
She’s worried. She’s working. She has as many bowl contacts as anyone nationally.
She also won’t sleep for the next seven days.
Which is about how long UNLV football fans will be holding their collective breath.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org 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.