If UNLV is to make a true run at a bowl this football season, the Rebels need to do something that hasn’t always come so easily — win what are essentially 50-50 games.
That’s what they did in 2013, the last time the Rebels appeared in the postseason. UNLV rallied to beat Central Michigan, won shootouts against New Mexico and Hawaii and survived at UNR to put itself in position to make the Heart of Dallas Bowl.
There is optimism in and around the program that this year’s UNLV team could take a similar path, that the Rebels could win just enough games to call Albuquerque or Boise or Honolulu or Tucson home at the end of the season.
“(The atmosphere) felt different in the offseason,” coach Tony Sanchez said. “It felt different in the summer. The guys’ attitude, their understanding of what’s expected, the body of work they’ve put in. They have a real understanding of the culture.
“Now three years into recruiting, you see more depth, you see more length, you see more speed. That should translate into being better on special teams, being more explosive offensively and playing better on the back end on defense. There are a lot of things we’re excited about, but we’re like everybody else. Everyone’s full of positive emotion right now.”
UNLV’s hope is based on a hotshot new quarterback in redshirt freshman Armani Rogers, a running game that averaged 241.5 yards per game last season, a set of receivers that is as good as any in the Mountain West and an offensive line that returns four starters.
And then there’s the defense, which is more athletic but brings back only two starters. Given that last season’s team gave up 36.8 points per game, maybe that’s not a bad thing.
“I think it’s going to be a big surprise on the front end and definitely with the cornerbacks and the safeties,” corner Jericho Flowers said. “We’re going to change everything we did last year.”
In the end, whether UNLV makes a bowl likely will come down to winning those tossup games.
So, using the Golden Nugget’s betting lines on UNLV games, here is a breakdown of the Rebels’ chances.
The Rebels are major favorites in only one game — Saturday’s 6 p.m. opener against Howard at Sam Boyd Stadium. The Rebels are 36½-point favorites to beat the FCS team.
UNLV is a double-digit underdog in four games — 40½ points Sept. 23 at Ohio State, 13½ against San Diego State on Oct. 7, 10 Oct. 14 at Air Force and 15½ against Brigham Young on Nov. 10.
Maybe the Rebels can steal one of those games, but if the lines are accurate, that would mean UNLV would need to go 5-2 against the rest of the schedule to play in a bowl.
Here are the games in which UNLV needs to find five victories:
■ Sept. 9 at Idaho. This is the game of the year for the Rebels, who are 1½-point favorites, because it will be a strong indication of where the season is headed. The Kibbie Dome, essentially football in a barn, is a strange setting, and UNLV lost to the Vandals last season at home.
— Sept. 30, San Jose State. UNLV is a 5½-point favorite, and this really is a game the Rebels should win. But the Spartans have won each of the past four seasons.
— Oct. 21, Utah State. The Aggies enter Sam Boyd as 1½-point favorites, so this game truly is a tossup. Utah State has won the past three meetings.
— Oct. 28, at Fresno State. UNLV is favored by a field goal, so another close call. Coach Jeff Tedford, who resurrected California, is back to do the same at his alma mater.
— Nov. 4, Hawaii. Another game that could go either way with UNLV favored by a point. The Rebels, though, have won the past two meetings, including last year at Hawaii.
— Nov. 17, at New Mexico. The Lobos, coming off back-to-back bowl appearances, are 6½-point favorites. This should be the toughest of this group of seven for UNLV to win.
— Nov. 25, at UNR. UNLV is a one-point favorite to get back the Fremont Cannon, and they have won their past two meetings in Reno. But the Wolf Pack are under a new coach, Jay Norvell, and predicting where they will be this far out is not easy.
And it’s not easy to say where the Rebels will be, either.
UNLV could be heading to UNR with bowl eligibility locked up or needing a victory to make it. The Rebels also could underperform or be hit with a series of injuries that leave them with little by Thanksgiving weekend.
“We can be very successful,” Rogers said. “It’s going to be a good, healthy season for us.”
Contact Mark Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @markanderson65 on Twitter.