Sunday brought a new milestone — and much relief — to the UNLV football program. The Rebels accepted an invitation to the Heart of Dallas Bowl, the team’s first bowl game since 2000. It’s a tremendous achievement for a team that had won but six games the previous three seasons.
Although UNLV has clinched its first winning season since that 2000 season, the 7-5 Rebels learned there is a big difference between being bowl-eligible — a threshold that requires just six victories — and actually being invited to a game. The calculus that determines which teams go where depends on a variety of factors, including a conference’s contracted number of bowl slots; whether a team is riding a winning streak or losing streak; whether a program has appeared in a particular bowl game in recent seasons; and whether a team has the following and appeal to sell tickets and bring visiting fans to a destination.
The fact that the Mountain West Conference had seven bowl-eligible teams but only six contracted bowl tie-ins meant one team could be left home for the holidays. The possibility that UNLV might be left without an invitation chilled the well-deserved excitement surrounding the program’s turnaround season. After starting the year 0-2, the Rebels won seven of their final 10 games, including a season-ending 45-10 thrashing of San Diego State at Sam Boyd Stadium on Nov. 30. Considering UNLV had one of the longest bowl droughts in major college football, the Rebels would have been happy with any game. It certainly would’ve helped UNLV’s case if more fans had attended home games.
Now they get to play on New Year’s Day in the historic Cotton Bowl Stadium against the University of North Texas, another long-suffering program enjoying a rebound season. Considering the Rebels’ previous two bowl appearances were in the hometown Las Vegas Bowl, next month’s game will mark the first time in three decades that UNLV will leave Nevada for college football’s postseason. It will be a groundbreaking experience for the team, its student athletes and fans who make the trip to Dallas.
Furthermore, it could serve as a launching pad to get the long-struggling program moving in the right direction. In seven of the previous nine seasons, UNLV posted just two victories, and prior to this year, the Rebels had only one winning campaign since 1995 — the aforementioned 2000 season, when they capped an 8-5 effort with a 31-14 Las Vegas Bowl victory over Arkansas.
Congratulations to the Rebels, to coach Bobby Hauck and his staff for finally making the Rebels winners again. UNLV is going bowling, and the valley couldn’t be prouder.