UNLV PREVIEW: Rebels can get big head start

The outcome of UNLV’s football season — and of coach Bobby Hauck’s future — should quickly become crystal clear.

UNLV, after opening at Minnesota at 4 p.m. PDT today and then against Arizona at Sam Boyd Stadium, faces a four-game stretch in which it might be favored each week.

The Rebels can’t waste those opportunities against Central Michigan, Western Illinois, New Mexico and Hawaii. The New Mexico game is the only one on the road.

If the Rebels don’t defeat those teams, they will be in big trouble because their schedule becomes considerably tougher in the second half.

It’s a big stretch of games for Hauck, too. He enters his fourth season 6-32 with the Rebels, and even though the identity of UNLV’s next athletic director is still unknown, the general assumption is Hauck must show noticeable improvement after three consecutive two-victory seasons.

He seemed at ease this preseason, like a man who knows he has his best team at UNLV.

Hauck, who has been careful about publicly assessing previous teams, even has casually mentioned from time to time he believes this is a good team.

Here’s why he should feel that way.

The Rebels return nine starters on each side of the ball from a team that was much more competitive last season. UNLV lost three games after leading in the fourth quarter.

“We had opportunities a year ago, and we didn’t capitalize on them,” Hauck said. “So I think really the idea for this team is to capitalize on opportunities in those close games. That will lend itself to us having a good season. I think (the players) feel like we’re going to be in games. It’s more about finishing the job.”

UNLV possesses a strong running game, led by senior Tim Cornett, who rushed for 1,232 yards and seven touchdowns last season and is 700 behind school career rushing leader Mike Thomas. Also back is sophomore quarterback Nick Sherry, who passed for 2,544 yards and 16 touchdowns, and at one point was on his way to smashing the Mountain West freshman passing record.

The Rebels appear to have much greater depth at wide receiver, running back and the defensive line.

UNLV’s defensive line, in particular, is coming off a strong training camp, an indication the Rebels might have a better chance of making life more difficult for opposing offenses.

“I think this offense and defense are coming together,” Sherry said. “The chemistry’s definitely building here, and it’s nothing like it was two years ago or last year.”

Here’s why Hauck, though, should be careful to temper expectations:

— Although UNLV led three times in the fourth quarter of games last season, the Rebels still lost those games. Winning close games remains a difficult barrier for a program that has finished seven of the past nine seasons with two victories.

— Sherry is coming off a promising first season, but he also threw 17 interceptions and had problems with picks in camp. And depth at receiver and defensive line might be improved, but much of the talent is unproven.

— Whether the defense truly takes a step forward remains one big guess. This is a unit that hasn’t allowed less than 30 points per game since 2007 and less than 25 since 2003.

That’s why new defensive coordinator Tim Hauck said the Rebels can’t rely on playing base defense and hope for the best.

“We feel like we let a lot of people down last year,” senior linebacker Tim Hasson said. “Not just defense, but team-wise. This year, we want to take it to the next level, especially with a lot of starters coming back on both sides of the ball. We do feel like we’ve got a chip on our shoulders. We feel like we’ve got a lot to prove this year.”

Whether this becomes a season that provides hope for the direction of the program or one that offers too much of the same old UNLV, fans won’t have to wait long to gauge the direction.

“For a team that has not been able to win a bunch of games, every game’s a big game,” Bobby Hauck said. “We’d love to get off to a big start, but we do play a team from the Big Ten and the Pac-(12) to start with, and we’re aware of the fact we’ll be big underdogs in those games. So we just need to go hard and try to win each week, and in our mind there’s one game that’s bigger than the others, and that’s the rivalry game (against UNR).”

Contact reporter Mark Anderson at manderson@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2914. Follow him on Twitter: @markanderson65.

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