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Rebels believe they have shot to contend in MWC

As heartbreaking as Saturday’s 27-20 loss at UNR was for UNLV, the Rebels begin an almost new football season Saturday.

Their major goals are still intact as they dive into Mountain West Conference play for the remainder of the season. UNLV (2-3) already is 1-0 in the league.

A victory at Air Force (3-2, 2-1) in the 6 p.m. PDT game would be a significant step toward becoming a conference contender and possibly getting in position for a bowl bid. UNLV also could play games that matter in the second half of the season for a change.

Of course, a loss creates the opposite effect. The Rebels’ string of nonwinning seasons, which began in 2001, would seem a lock to continue. UNLV fans would follow their usual October custom of turning their attention to basketball.

The Rebels are taking an optimistic approach.

“I feel we have a real good shot to win the conference this year,” UNLV quarterback Travis Dixon said.

To UNLV’s credit, it has shown signs it can be competitive in the conference. The Rebels already routed Utah 27-0, and they have been in every game except their 49-14 nonconference loss to Hawaii.

“They whipped us pretty good,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said of the Rebels. “They’re definitely an improved football team.”

The Rebels, who already have equaled their victory total from each of the past three seasons, also played national power Wisconsin tough on Sept. 8 before losing, 20-13.

UNLV opened the season with a 23-16 victory at Utah State, the Rebels’ first road win in three years. Utah State also lost to Mountain West teams Utah and Wyoming, and Aggies coach Brent Guy said he has been impressed with Dixon and UNLV tailback Frank Summers. Dixon’s average of 237.6 yards per game ranks fifth in the MWC, and Summers is fourth in rushing at 83.6 yards per game.

And there was another Rebel who caught Guy’s eye.

“Beau Bell is the best linebacker we’ve played against this season and probably will all year,” Guy said. “I definitely think they have a chance to do well.”

Even Hawaii coach June Jones saw enough to compliment the Rebels.

“UNLV is definitely much improved from a year ago,” Jones said. “They are much more athletic and very well-coached in their schemes. I think they’ll be in the mix for the Mountain West Conference title down the stretch.”

One factor in the Rebels’ favor is the apparent absence of a dominant team in the conference. Brigham Young (3-2, 2-0) is emerging as the team to beat after defeating Air Force 31-6 and New Mexico 31-24, but it doesn’t appear to be the same team that mostly rolled through the conference last season.

BYU was the third straight league champion to go undefeated in Mountain West play. Coaches don’t expect that to happen again, and some speculated the eventual champion might even have two losses.

That happened only in the league’s inaugural season, 1999. BYU, Colorado State and Utah each finished 5-2.

Texas Christian coach Gary Patterson, whose team went 8-0 in conference play in 2005, said enough parity might exist this year to make it happen.

“If you just look down the order, UNLV is doing some good things with the way they played Wisconsin and the game against Utah,” Patterson said. “I don’t think you can count Utah (2-3, 0-2) out. I think you can take everybody in the conference because they play each other and where they play, and you better be careful in the next six weeks.

“I do believe a team can have one or two (losses) and tie for the conference championship before it’s all said and done.”

UNLV coach Mike Sanford agreed it’s a wide-open race.

“I think it’s a very competitive conference top to bottom,” he said. “Probably BYU would be the leader, but out of the rest of the teams, I think it’s really close and jumbled together.”

Contact reporter Mark Anderson at manderson@reviewjournal.com or (702) 387-2914.

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