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Gordon: Bowl berth just the beginning under UNLV’s Barry Odom

PHOENIX — UNLV’s football team is already among the most successful in the program’s forgettable 56-year history.

A victory over Kansas on Tuesday in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl is only a bonus.

Win or lose at Chase Field, the Rebels have recalibrated their standing in college football under first-year coach Barry Odom, recording their first nine-win season since 1984 — and retaining in the aftermath the foundational components of their emergence.

Back for the bowl is the Mountain West’s best battery: redshirt freshman quarterback Jayden Maiava and fourth-year junior wideout Ricky White, Power Five caliber players who announced Sunday their plans to stay put for the 2024 season.

The coaching staff — led by brilliant offensive coordinator Brennan Marion — is also so far intact, reflecting the continuity Odom established.

What the Jayhawks offer is one more chance for UNLV to tangibly measure its growth and again raise its standard as it enters Odom’s second offseason.

“Not everybody gets a chance to play in the postseason, and this is what we’ve worked for,” said fourth-year linebacker Jackson Woodard, among the few Rebels armed with postseason experience from his tenure at Arkansas.

“We’ve got another opportunity to play together, to play as brothers. So we’re on a mission to go win.”

A total turnaround

Odom was bypassed last week for the annual Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year Award, given instead to Washington’s Kalen DeBoer.

His selection as one of 12 finalists, though, speaks for itself.

He, like DeBoer, deserved to win.

Odom embraced during his first news conference with UNLV “the urgency to win and win now” for a program with a previous winning percentage of 0.381.

“I feel that even stronger after meeting with the team,” he said, emboldening his players the moment he was hired.

He, for one, expected to be in Phoenix — and if not in Phoenix then in another host city: “I knew what I thought this program could be.”

What it’s become under his stewardship is symbol of structure. A program of promise. A program of poise. Where transfers such as Woodard and White can flourish and young players such as Maiava emerge and develop.

Where walk-ons can start so long as they’re deserving and comeback victories happen for the Rebels.

Not against them.

“When we took over the program last December, our goals were to win and to compete and win championships,” Odom said last weekend during the bowl game’s first news conference.

“We talked about doing that on a national stage. We talked about doing that within our conference, and we talked about being a bowl champion.”

The future is bright

Doing that might require UNLV’s best performance yet: As a 13-point underdog against a Power Five foe in the midst of an equally impressive turnaround.

Kansas long had been one of the worst programs representing a marquee conference, but in three years under coach Lance Leipold, the Jayhawks — who hadn’t had a winning season since 2007 — have reversed their fortunes.

A loss wouldn’t one bit mar what the Rebels are accomplishing under Odom, though a win would stand to accentuate the obvious.

UNLV’s football team is finally legitimate.

A victory in and of itself.

“Every step that we’ve taken this year and the progress that we’ve made, it’s laid a very strong foundation,” Odom said. “Our goal will forever be to win championships. We want to play meaningful ball in the month of late November and December, get into championship games.

“And this is just another step for us in building an elite program on a national stage in college football.”

Is it ever.

Contact Sam Gordon at sgordon@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BySamGordon on X.

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