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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 98: U.N.L.V.

Thinking of betting on a U.N.L.V. bowl trip in 2010? It's definitely a gamble.

Enough is enough, said the U.N.L.V. brass, putting an end to the program’s failed five-year experiment under Mike Sanford. He departed with only 16 wins in 59 tries — a .271 winning percentage — though his Rebels did win five games in each of the last two seasons. If U.N.L.V. had reached bowl play in 2009, perhaps Sanford’s job would have been safe. The Rebels did not, of course, and Sanford is now calling plays at Louisville. His replacement is former Montana coach Bobby Hauck, who brings to the table winning experience on the F.C.S. level.

Conference
Mountain West

Location
Las Vegas

Nickname
Rebels

Returning starters
16 (8 offense, 8 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 84

2009 record
(5-7, 3-5)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 85

2010 schedule

  • Sept. 4
    Wisconsin
  • Sept. 11
    at Utah
  • Sept. 18
    at Idaho
  • Sept. 25
    New Mexico
  • Oct. 2
    Nevada
  • Oct. 9
    at West Virginia
  • Oct. 16
    at Colorado St.
  • Oct. 30
    T.C.U.
  • Nov. 6
    at B.Y.U.
  • Nov. 13
    Wyoming
  • Nov. 18
    Air Force
  • Nov. 20
    at San Diego St.
  • Dec. 4
    at Hawaii

Last year’s prediction

I believe U.N.L.V. is talented enough to reach bowl eligibility in 2009. But here’s the problem: to reach seven wins – six is likely not good enough to earn a bowl trip, especially if the team finishes seventh in the conference – U.N.L.V. will need to win two games against favored opposition. Can U.N.L.V. do that? I’m skeptical. However, I believe this is a team on the rise (recruiting picked up in 2008). For 2009, I predict the Rebels to step up to 6-6. It would take an impressive upset or two in MWC play for the team to earn its first bowl trip since 2000.

2009 recap

In a nutshell Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades, it is said, and five win seasons will get you fired — eventually. So will ugly losses: ask Sanford. Last year’s Rebels lost five games by at least 20 points, all in a six-week span from Oct. 3 through Nov. 14. Yes, those setbacks came against some of the best teams in the region: Nevada, B.Y.U., Utah, T.C.U. and Air Force. If anything, these losses indicated to the university that despite the back-to-back five-win campaigns, Sanford was only marginally closer to bringing the Rebels into the top half of the Mountain West than he was when scuffling through consecutive 2-10 finishes. Of course, Hauck won’t get U.N.L.V. any closer to bowl play if this team cannot improve defensively; it was often ugly in 2009.

High point A relatively successful second half of the season: 3-3 from Oct. 17 on, with the three losses coming to B.Y.U., T.C.U. and Air Force. On the other hand, the three wins came over New Mexico, San Diego State and Colorado State. Combined total victories on the year: nine.

Low point Perhaps no loss on the season stung worse than a 23-21 loss to Oregon State, which saw the Beavers kick a 33-yard field goal with seven seconds remaining to avoid the upset. However, seeing as that was a game U.N.L.V. was expected to lose, that one loss that most damaged the team’s bowl hopes was a 30-27 setback to Wyoming two weeks later, which saw the Rebels spit up a seven-point lead in the game’s final nine minutes. When you finish one game short of bowl eligibility – and when Wyoming, at 6-6, took the conference’s final bowl post – that type of loss tends not to be forgotten.

Tidbit Most of U.N.L.V.’s victories do, in fact, stay in Vegas. While the program has not been a powerhouse over the last half-decade — 16-43, as noted  — only three wins since 2005 have came on the road: last fall’s win at New Mexico, a 2008 win at Arizona State and a 2007 victory at Utah State.

Tidbit (first edition) This year’s team will face three program firsts: they’ll play nine bowl teams from the previous season; will play 13 games; and when they head to West Virginia in October, will play a team from the Big East for the first time. About that game against the Mountaineers: it will be the first time U.N.L.V. plays in the Eastern Time Zone since facing Tennessee in 2004, and will be the farthest east it has traveled since 1972. Probably should bet on West Virginia and give the points.

Former players in the N.F.L.

4 LB Beau Bell (Cleveland), TE Greg Estandia (Cleveland), RB Frank Summers (Pittsburgh), CB Eric Wright (Cleveland).

Arbitrary top five list

Movies predominately set in Las Vegas
1. “Casino,” 1995.
2. “Oceans Eleven,” 2001.
3. “Diamonds are Forever,” 1971.
4. “The Hangover,” 2009.
5. “Showgirls,” 1995. If you fast forward through slow parts.

Coaching

Bobby Hauck (Montana ’88), entering his debut season in Las Vegas. Why does this name sound familiar? Try this: Hauck is the most successful F.C.S. coach of this generation, having led his alma mater, Montana, to an 80-17 record from 2003 through last season. His seven seasons with the Grizzlies saw the program land seven Big Sky championships and three appearances in the F.C.S. championship game, though his team lost in all three title games. While his first three seasons at Montana were impressive enough — 29-11, 16-5 in conference play — he took the Grizzlies to another level over the last four seasons: 51-6 overall and 31-1 in Big Sky action. He began his tenure in Missoula as the youngest coach in school history; he concluded it with most victories in Big Sky history, as well four more conference titles than any coach in Montana history. Without question, Hauck was ready to make the jump to the F.B.S.; my only question is why it took so long. Prior to taking over at his alma mater, Hauck spent four seasons as an assistant at Washington. From 1999-2001, Hauck served as the safeties coach and special teams coordinator; in 2002 he coached all the defensive backs. He held similar duties at Colorado from 1995-98, adding the title of recruiting coordinator for some of Colorado’s finest teams in recent memory. His recruiting acumen is an oft-overlooked aspect of Hauck’s draw. As he did with Buffaloes, Hauck was a key figure in landing Washington a number of talented recruits. Another factor that must elate the U.N.L.V. fan base: Hauck is a winner, pure and simple. He’s been an assistant on teams that have won 11 games and nearly played for a national championship; teams that have spent weeks ranked No. 1 in the nation; and played for national championships on the F.C.S. level. At this point in U.N.L.V.’s history, with the program on the verge of breaking into bowl play, the Rebels simply could not have done any better than in landing a coach of Hauck’s caliber.

Tidbit (coaching edition) When including stints at U.C.L.A., Colorado and Washington in addition to his tenure at Montana, Hauck has compiled a record of 159-57 as an assistant and head coach since 1993. That includes his 80-17 mark at Montana, a 33-16 mark at Washington, a 33-14 record at Colorado and a 13-10 mark with the Bruins.

Players to watch

U.N.L.V. has the great luxury of having three capable quarterbacks on the roster, each of whom seems worthy of holding the starting role. Two have earned starts in the past. The first is senior Omar Clayton, who enters his final season with 23 career starts and the school record for career completion percentage (60.1). Last year did represent a step back for Clayton, however, as he threw for five fewer touchdowns than in 2008 (from 18 to 13) with eight more interceptions (to 12 from 4). There’s no discounting his experience, though junior Mike Clausen has been pushing Clayton for the starting role in each of the last two seasons. Clausen’s made four starts as a Rebel, throwing four touchdowns, but his real value is a runner: 288 yards and 7 touchdowns last fall, the latter ranking second on the team. The third option is redshirt freshman Caleb Herring, who looks to be the best passer of the bunch but is likely at least a year away from claiming the starting role. This looks to be Clayton’s team, with Clausen added into the mix as a part-time starter — if Clayton should suffer an injury — a top reserve.

The majority of last season’s running backs return, including leading rusher Channing Trotter (541 yards). Trotter is in a battle to hold onto the lead role, however, as both junior C.J. Cox and redshirt freshman Bradley Randle leapfrogged ahead of him on the depth chart with solid performances during the spring. It’s hard to imagine Trotter not figuring heavily into the mix in the backfield, especially given his relative experience and nose for the end zone; he had nine touchdowns last fall, leading the team. A pair of true freshman, Dionza Bradford and Tim Cornett, will attempt to earn carries once they arrive on campus in the fall.

Plenty of experience up front. Four starters return, with right Joe Hawley’s departure opening up a spot at right guard. Left tackle Matt Murphy and right tackle Evan Marchal, neither of whom lack for size, will bookend the line. There might be a competition battle brewing at left guard, where incumbent starter Jason Heath, a sophomore, will need to outplay redshirt freshman Seth Tesoro to remain in the starting lineup. It was thought that Tesoro, an impressive prospect, would open last year in the lineup following a strong fall camp, but an early-season injury cost him the final nine games of the year. Heath did not play poorly when inserted into the rotation, however, and Tesoro’s nagging injury will likely keep him in a backup role in the early season. Keep an eye on center John Gianninoto, who earned praise from Hauck for his standout spring. He’s the captain of this offensive line.

The defense was poor a year ago, as the numbers indicate. The Rebels were especially weak against the run, ranking 112th nationally with 220.6 yards allowed per game. Fingers are pointed firmly in the direction of an often-dominated defensive line, which compounded matters by helping U.N.L.V. total only 15 sacks. The Rebels are stronger on the interior, where they return starter Isaako Aaitui (31 tackles 2.5 for loss) and leading backup Ramsey Feagai; both are seniors. The defensive end spots can receive a great boost should former JUCO transfer B.J. Bell remain healthy; I felt Bell capable of making a sizable impact in his debut season with the program, but he missed most of last year following shoulder surgery. The current starters are Daniel Mareko and Preston Brooks, the latter a former transfer from Washington State. Depth along the line is a concern: Bell can help matters, but the reserves at end are unproven, and the interior backups are redshirt freshmen.

The linebacker corps lost leading tackler Jason Beauchamp, who racked up 95 stops (12 for loss) and 6.5 sacks, but return two of last season’s starters. The first is middle linebacker Ronnie Paulo (59 tackles), who is hoping to start for the third consecutive season. Another senior, Starr Fuimaono, is back on the weak side; he’ll be challenged for the starting role by junior Nate Carter, though Fuimaono should remain in the staring lineup. It will be interesting to see if Calvin Randleman can make the move from safety to the strong side. He’s a little small for the position, leading me to believe juniors Beau Orth and Travis Trickey are better suited for his role. Randleman can run, which is a big positive.

All four starters are back in the secondary, which as a unit struggled to force turnovers in 2009. The Rebels accounted for only five interceptions last fall, with no one player making more than one pick. Senior Quinton Pointer, the team’s leading returning tackler (77), is back at cornerback; so is junior Deante’ Purvis, though Purvis currently trails junior Will Chandler in the race to join Porter in the starting lineup. Chandler played mostly on special teams last fall, but performed well during the spring. There’s been a minor shakeup at safety, where incumbent starter Travis Dixon, a former quarterback, finds his free safety spot in the hands of JUCO transfer Mike Grant. Strong safety will again be manned by senior Alex De Giacomo, who made 60 tackles a year ago.

Position battles to watch

Wide receiver It will be awfully difficult for U.N.L.V. to replace departed receiver Ryan Wolfe, who graduated as one of the finest offensive players in school history, regardless of position. Wolfe concluded his career with a program-record 283 receptions, along with 3,495 yards and 15 scores; as a senior, he had 74 grabs for 740 yards and a pair of touchdowns. His replacement as the team’s leading target, junior Phillip Payne, has shown a knack for the fade route but needs to refine his game to match Wolfe’s production. Yet there’s no discounting Payne’s nose for the end zone: seven touchdowns in each of his first two seasons, with that number coming in only 29 receptions as a freshman. Was Payne able to make plays in the red zone thanks to Wolfe’s presence on the opposite side? Yes, without a doubt. That’s a slight concern as we enter the summer. So is depth behind Payne, though the Rebels do return junior Michael Johnson, who made 43 receptions for 484 yards a year ago. The current third starter is unproven sophomore Mark Barefield, while four freshman — greyshirt, redshirt and true — will battle for playing time. Wolfe alone made wide receiver a strength over the last three seasons; this year may be a struggle.

Game(s) to watch

In terms of a must-win, look no further than the Sept. 25 date with New Mexico. Sandwiched around five 2009 bowl teams — none of which, in my opinion, will be worse than a year ago — the home game against the Lobos may be the only thing preventing U.N.L.V. from an 0-6 start.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell This team is pretty good. Really. The Rebels are talented enough to at least match last season’s win total, thanks to the pretty solid job Sanford did landing some overlooked regional talent, and now have the quality of coaching capable of lifting the program back into bowl play. Just not this season, despite the good roster. If for no other reason, the schedule gives me an eight- or nine-loss feeling, though that might just be the 13th game talking. Yet you can’t ignore this murderer’s row of opponents, both in and out of conference play: Wisconsin, Nevada, T.C.U. and Air Force at home; Utah, Idaho, West Virginia, B.Y.U. and Hawaii on the road. No other non-B.C.S. conference team in the F.B.S. has a tougher schedule. Which is unfortunate, because of the noted talent on the roster. The offensive line is experienced and the quarterback duo talented, each in their own way. I have a few issues with the defense, which must show improvement, but the hope is that four returning starters in the secondary and some new faces up front will lead to a better performance in 2010. Give U.N.L.V. a schedule like some I’ve seen thus far on the Countdown, and I’d be very tempted to say this is a bowl team. We can’t do that, however, and I have no choice but to predict the Rebels to again finish in the bottom half of the Mountain West.

Dream season Hauck and the Rebels brave this deadly schedule, ending the season a very satisfying 9-4, 5-3 in the Mountain West.

Nightmare season The coaching change, the lost starters, the tough slate; it’s all too much for the first-year coach, who stumbles to a 3-10 start to his F.B.S. coaching career.

In case you were wondering

Where do U.N.L.V. fans congregate? Only a few options out there for interested U.N.L.V. fan. Send me your message boards, your forums, your blogs yearning to be posted! You can try out Rebel Net for message board chatter and the Web site of the Las Vegas Sun for daily coverage.

Tidbit (100-word preview edition) It’s that time again. Here’s how it works: I give you a quiz question; you become the first person to answer the question in the comment field below; you win the opportunity to pen a 100-word preview of your favorite team when it appears on the Countdown. Get it? Here’s the question:

Las Vegas was one of nine cities to land a C.F.L. franchise during the organization’s ill-fated foray into the States during the early-to-mid 1990s. Four of those nine cities were also the home of an F.B.S. program, of which Las Vegas was one. Can you name the other three cities, as well as the program that fell within its borders?

Teams already spoken for: Texas Tech (Freakville) and Texas A&M (Dr. Norris Camacho).

Up Next

Who is No. 97? Much of the campus of our next university was a key training ground for bomber planes during World War II.

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Comments

  1. James says:

    Your other CFL teams that were in FBS cities were…
    Birmingham (UAB)
    Memphis (Memphis)
    Miami (University of Miami) – though they never played a down

    By the way, my nephew Bird is very disappointed that he doesn’t have to do his Virginia Tech preview in a foreign language again. He was ready to learn Dragonese just for the occasion.

    Paul: James, right out of the gate with the answer. No pig Latin this year. I assume you want to do the Hokies again? Leave a comment below to confirm.

  2. James says:

    Virginia Tech it is.

  3. Ezra says:

    the Las Vegas Review Journal has good Rebels coverage.
    http://www.lvrj.com/hottopics/unlv/unlv_football.html

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