If the UNLV football team is going to qualify for a bowl game for the first time in five seasons, this is the schedule to clear the six-win hurdle.
Even the most challenging game in front of the Rebels, a season opening trip to perennial power USC, won’t exactly be a blowout, according to oddsmakers. UNLV opened as a plus-29 underdog against the Trojans at the South Point; the Rebels are currently plus-26, meaning money has been coming in on the scarlet and gray to hang tough.
In the Rebels’ other 11 games, especially the seven Mountain West contests, you can argue that any result is possible. The league’s media days are this week in Las Vegas, where the Rebels in Tony Sanchez’s fourth season could be projected by some to be one of the Mountain West’s more competitive teams.
Oddsmakers established the UNLV win total at six games. That may be too low, when considering the following:
• The Rebels don’t play league power Boise State.
• They host Fresno State, a program that reached the league title game last year and returns many. UNLV has defeated Fresno State in the past two season, but it is still one of three games the Rebels are a double-digit betting underdog in.
• At San Diego State will be the toughest league game, but the Aztecs aren’t the same dominating running team as in past seasons and could be vulnerable when they meet late in the season.
• The initial three games at home — UTEP, Prairie View A&M and New Mexico — should each be blowout wins.
• The Rebels have one of the Mountain West’s best quarterback-running back combinations with sophomore signal caller Armani Rogers and senior Lexington Thomas. Thomas’ backup, sophomore Charles Williams, is just as dangerous out of the backfield. But if Rogers is injured — his style of play includes rushing the ball and not shying away from contact — all bets are off.
Of course, nothing is guaranteed with the Rebels, even when they appear to be the clear-cut favorite. Last season, I pegged them to win eight games, and they proceeded to lose to lower-tier Howard at home to open the season in the program’s all-time worst defeat.
This year, though, will be different. The Rebels will reach a bowl, even with a defense that was an eyesore last season and still an area of concern.
Sept. 1 in Los Angeles
What to expect: The USC offense could be ineffective early because it will have a first-time starter at quarterback. That quarterback will likely have impressive numbers by game’s end against the unproven UNLV defense, but at least early the Rebels will have a chance to hang close. More important, UNLV has been respectable in the Sanchez coaching tenure against Power 5 conference teams Michigan, UCLA and Ohio State. A good showing could propel the Rebels to a successful — qualifying for a bowl, that is — season.
Brewer’s prediction: USC 44, UNLV 23
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Sept. 8 at Sam Boyd Stadium
What to expect: UTEP has a new coach and is picked to finish last in Conference USA. Bottom line: This is a must-win in the quest for six victories. It’s the home opener for the Rebels, who are 20-point betting favorites at the Golden Nugget. While UNLV players may still be recovering from the USC game, there’s no reason to argue an upset in this spot. The Rebel offense is too good.
Brewer’s prediction: UNLV 52, UTEP 21
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Prairie View A & M
Sept. 15 at at Sam Boyd Stadium
What to expect: After last year’s nightmare defeat against Howard, the Rebels won’t need motivation for this year’s historically black colleges and universities opponent. Expect a result similar to when the Rebels played Jackson State in 2016, and not last year’s shocker.
Brewer’s prediction: UNLV 49, Prairie View A & M 13
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Sept. 22 in Jonesboro, Ark.
What to expect: Arkansas State, which is projected to win the Sun Belt Conference, returns 12 starters — 10 of whom were all-conference selections last year. That includes fifth-year senior Justice Hansen at quarterback, whose was the Sun Belt’s Offensive Player of the Year after passing for 37 touchdowns and breaking numerous school passing records. UNLV’s defense would have to be drastically improved from what we saw last season to slow down the Arkansas State attack. Plus, it’s not exactly an easy venue to travel to. The Rebels will be a better team all-around; just not good enough to win on this Saturday.
Brewer’s prediction: Arkansas State 38, UNLV 23
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Oct. 6 at Sam Boyd Stadium
What to expect: New Mexico went 3-9 last season and is projected to win four games. That may be too generous because coach Bob Davie, who is returning from a spring suspension for misconduct, is firmly at risk of losing his job. Coaches in this spot tend to lose the support of their players. So do teams with many junior college transfers, which is the route Davie has gone with hopes of salvaging his job. Still, UNLV — just an 8-point betting favorite — could be facing a confident team. New Mexico plays Incarnate Word, Liberty and New Mexico State in three of its initial four games, meaning a potential 3-1 record and enthusiasm for the Mountain West opener.
Brewer’s prediction: UNLV 32, New Mexico 17
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Oct. 13 in Logan, Utah
What to expect: Here’s the upset special. Even though the Rebels gave up 52 points last season at home to Utah State in a loss, and even though Utah State quarterback Jordan Love passed for more than 300 yards in his best outing of the season, the Rebels will return the favor by beating the Aggies. Utah State can’t score with UNLV, whose running game — Thomas, Williams and a strong offensive line — will be a strength all season and can control the clock in a coin-flip game like this.
Brewer’s prediction: UNLV 27, Utah State 22
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Oct. 19 at Sam Boyd Stadium
What to expect: This is another coin-flip game, which could swing in UNLV’s favor because it is at home on a short week. Plus, the Rebels will be motivated after surrendering a 27-point lead at Air Force last season. Neither team could stop one another last year, remember? This year’s winner will be determined by which defense is most improved, as both programs have new defensive coordinators. It could also be determined with whose running game is better.
Brewer’s prediction: UNLV 40, Air Force 27
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Oct. 27 in San Jose, Calif.
What to expect: San Jose State is the worst team in the Mountain West — a claim verified by the Rebels opening as a 10-point betting favorite on the road. At this stage of the season, San Jose State will have players on the field who shouldn’t be in the rotation because of injury. Aside from the home games with UTEP, Prairie View A&M and New Mexico, this isn’t the easiest spot on the schedule to grab a win. The Rebels will roll.
Brewer’s prediction: UNLV 41, San Jose State 20
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Nov. 3 at Sam Boyd Stadium
What to expect: There’s something about the matchup between these programs that favors UNLV. On paper, Fresno State is significantly ahead of the Rebels — and most other teams in the league. But the same was true last year when UNLV won at Fresno State as double-digit betting underdogs. This is a great spot for UNLV. Home, late in the season and on the verge of a bowl game. Sanchez has beat Fresno State the past two seasons. Chalk up another victory.
Brewer’s prediction: UNLV 33, Fresno State 24
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San Diego State
Nov. 10 in San Diego
What to expect: San Diego State is favored by 16 points against UNLV, and rightfully so. The Rebels haven’t been able to slow down the Aztecs’ running game in recent years and that trend will likely continue, even with San Diego State graduating a Heisman Trophy finalist and then a first-round NFL Draft pick in consecutive seasons.
Brewer’s prediction: San Diego State 42, UNLV 25
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Nov. 17 at Honolulu
What to expect: UNLV is a seven-point betting favorite at Hawaii and many feel this will be the victory that will make the Rebels bowl-eligible. I disagree. One, UNLV will already have qualified for a bowl before heading to the islands. Two, the Rebels won’t defeat the Warriors. The teams have a history of close finishes in recent years and this will be no different. When you factor in the travel and players likely looking ahead to the following week’s opponent —UNR — the Rebels may not be at their best.
Brewer’s prediction: Hawaii 40, UNLV 36
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Nov. 24 at Sam Boyd Stadium
What to expect: Many are firm believers that the UNLV program is heading in the right direction. This is the chance to prove it, especially because the opponent appears to be equal. The UNR matchup for some is the lone Rebel game that matters, and with the Fremont Cannon game at home, a perfect chance to make a statement. On a cold Thanksgiving weekend, look for UNLV to stick to its ground game in wearing down UNR. It won’t be easy. Remember, the Pack won in Las Vegas by five touchdowns in 2016, and have a 2-1 record against Sanchez’s Rebels.
Brewer’s prediction: UNLV 30, UNR 19
Ray Brewer can be reached at 702-990-2662 or email@example.com. Follow Ray on Twitter at twitter.com/raybrewer21