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Rebels still have hope against 21-point favorite Badgers

A year ago, running back John Clay and Wisconsin’s one-trick pony express surely would have steamrolled UNLV in one of those embarrassing nonconference mismatches.

College football in September is often a stage for the Bowl Championship Series big boys to slaughter the lambs.

Look at some of Saturday’s point spreads: Florida 36½ over Miami (Ohio), Texas 30 over Rice, Oregon 34 over New Mexico, Alabama 37½ over San Jose State, Oklahoma 33 over Utah State and Nebraska 38 over Western Kentucky.

And maybe Wisconsin-UNLV will be another pointless pairing of opposites. The Badgers are 21-point favorites, and their thousands of fans have not hit the sports books yet. Most bettors will be on Wisconsin.

But the Rebels do have hope, and it has arrived in the form of new coach Bobby Hauck, who resembles a Marine drill sergeant.

"Hauck steps into a good spot, as UNLV had talent but underachieved the past few years," Northcoast Sports handicapper Phil Steele said.

This opener is not the ideal spot for Hauck, however, because he must work a miracle and find several overachievers in a hurry. In his "Power Sweep" newsletter, Steele picked the Badgers to win by 24, and that will be a popular opinion.

"I do think all the money is going to come in on Wisconsin," professional sports bettor Steve Fezzik said.

He took the Badgers at minus-18½, the line’s lowest point, and plans to bet the Rebels at about plus-21½ or 22 when the spread inflates Saturday. That’s how the pros middle the numbers.

"At UNLV right now, everyone is sky high on the new coach. But the wrong way to try to make money in Week 1 is with a new coach of a crappy team. Fade a bad team with a new coach," Fezzik said. "I think UNLV under 4½ (regular-season) wins is a good wager. Not because I don’t believe in the new coach, but because it takes some time."

At Memphis, Larry Porter is the new coach of a crappy team, and Fezzik said Mississippi State is "clearly the right side" as a 21-point favorite over the Tigers.

It’s not obvious the Rebels are the wrong side as a three-touchdown home underdog. Even former UNLV coach Mike Sanford was able to hang with Wisconsin, and, as Fezzik aptly said, "Sanford was such a terrible coach."

Clay, a combination of power and speed, is one of the Big Ten’s best backs, and he runs behind a mammoth line. The Rebels’ run defense, a bad joke a year ago, is the key to covering. But the Badgers don’t have a quick-strike attack with a great quarterback. It’s an offense that can be either pedestrian or overpowering.

In 2007, a similar Wisconsin team rolled into Las Vegas as a 25-point favorite and barely escaped with a 20-13 victory.

This is a nonconference series with intriguing history, and the chapter from 2002 is worth retelling. It was the night the lights went out at Sam Boyd Stadium.

With 7:41 remaining in the fourth quarter and the Badgers leading 27-7, a power outage ended the game. Nevada gaming rules state a college or pro game that does not go at least 55 minutes is not considered official, and all wagers are refunded.

Police initially said a vehicle crashed into a transformer in the vicinity, a claim denied by UNLV and Nevada Power officials. Conspiracy theories have been flying ever since from those denied winning wagers.

"There were some irate people who demanded their money," former MGM Mirage sports book director Robert Walker said. "That was a very ugly situation. It was mayhem. It was very strange. We would much rather have paid it off, but you can’t change your house rules."

Heavy betting on the Badgers that week moved the line from Wisconsin minus-3 to 7. Walker said he guessed Las Vegas books stood to lose $500,000 to $1 million on the outcome.

"It was nothing that was going to be devastating," Walker said. "It’s funny how people look at that different ways. I look at it as a miracle. That was a rough beat for everyone who was on Wisconsin."

As longtime bookmaker Jimmy Vaccaro said with a laugh, "Conspiracy theories live in the minds of all of us demented Americans."

■ CLOSING NUMBERS — Brian Kelly will win his first game as coach at Notre Dame, but don’t expect it to be easy. Here are seven picks, and, we hope, more than a few winners, for the opening weekend (home team in CAPS):

Missouri (-12) over Illinois; Purdue (+11) over NOTRE DAME; MICHIGAN (-2½) over Connecticut; KANSAS STATE (-1½) over Ucla; OKLAHOMA STATE (-16) over Washington State; UNLV (+21) over Wisconsin; Virginia Tech (+2) over Boise State.

Contact sports betting columnist Matt Youmans at myoumans@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2907.

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