2017 UNLV football
You read it here first: UNLV football will win eight games and qualify for a bowl. But one of those wins won’t come against rival UNR.
That’s surely shocking for some to read, considering my much-documented history of pro-UNLV and anti-UNR analysis. But the rest of the season won’t be as disappointing, especially in November, when the Rebels upset BYU — scarlet and gray supporters hate them, too.
Yes, this is a generous assessment for a program that perennially struggles and hasn’t been able to overcome injuries in the final quarter of the season in coach Tony Sanchez’s initial two campaigns.
But as Sanchez explained this week at the Mountain West media days, “This is not a Rolls-Royce that we took over.”
UNLV will enter the season with 74 scholarship players, which is still 11 shy of the max allowed by the NCAA. But it is finally healthy at the skilled positions offensively and is expected to again rank in top 20 nationally in rushing yards.
More important, the schedule in manageable. Aside from the game at Ohio State, there isn’t an opponent the Rebels will line up against that they have no chance of beating. The Mountain West is as balanced as it has ever been.
I welcome your feedback. Let me know how accurate, or not-so-accurate, you think these predictions are.
Sept. 2 at Sam Boyd Stadium
What to expect: This is the lone sure-thing win on the schedule. Lower-classification Howard is the ideal initial opponent for UNLV first-time starter Armani Rogers to ease into competition. Remember, he hasn’t faced live competition, the kind where the opponent is trying to pressure and sack you, in nearly two years. The Rebels, like they did against Jackson State to open last season, should win by a lopsided fashion. It needs to be a confidence-building game for the rest of the season. Rogers should thrive, and so should the Rebels’ defense, whose secondary, Sanchez said this week, was the position of most concern.
Brewer’s prediction: UNLV 56, Howard 13
Sept. 9 in Moscow, Idaho
What to expect: Let’s label this as the most important game of the season in the quest to become bowl eligible. There’s no sugar-coating it — the Rebels can’t lose to a beatable opponent in Idaho. There will be a few spots this fall where the outcome can go either way, but if the Rebels are to take the next step in their progression, it needs to start by winning in these coin-flip spots. UNLV is a small minus-2 point betting favorite, but it’s tough to play at Idaho’s Kibbie Dome, and the Vandals last season defeated the Rebels in overtime. Idaho won a bowl game last season and returns many proven commodities at the skilled positions, such as quarterback Matt Linehan, a four-year starter. But it’s a relatively new offensive line, and the Idaho defense has many questions. UNLV should be able to control the ball with its ground attack and pull out the win. And it won’t overlook Idaho, which some feel happened last year at home.
Brewer’s prediction: UNLV 31, Idaho 20
Sept. 23 in Columbus, Ohio
What to expect: This is a great spot for UNLV because nobody expects them to beat national power Ohio State. Don’t be surprised if the Rebels, like they did two years ago at Michigan and last season at UCLA, put up a good fight. Who cares about the final score? What’s important is UNLV will collect more than $1 million for the game. With the start of Mountain West play the following week, the key won’t be keeping the outcome respectable. Rather, it’s boarding the airplane back to Las Vegas with a healthy team.
Brewer’s prediction: Ohio State 42, UNLV 7
San Jose State
Sept. 30 at Sam Boyd Stadium
What to expect: UNLV couldn’t ask for a better spot to start Mountain West play. Home game — check. Favorable opponent with a first-year coach — check. The Rebels will be the betting favorite for this game and depending on how players recover from the cross-country travel and strong opponent in the previous week, they should be in position to finish September with a 3-1 record. Yes, 3-1, and halfway to bowl-eligibility. Sure, there are no sure things, especially when forecasting results for a team with seven combined wins in the past two seasons, but UNLV should be in a great spot. San Jose surrendered 49 sacks last season, meaning UNLV’s always-in-question defense should have a chance for a good showing.
Brewer’s prediction: UNLV 36, San Jose State 16
San Diego State
Oct. 7 at Sam Boyd Stadium
What to expect: If the Rebels have a 3-1 record entering this game, will you show up? Will you help create a true home-field advantage against the reigning Mountain West champions whose fan base you dislike? A win against San Diego means UNLV would control its own destiny to win its division and reach the league championship game. Outside of UNR, this could be the game that defines the season. Now, how do you win against a team that’s expected beat you by two touchdowns? There’s only one answer — run the ball and control the clock. Charles Williams and Lexington Thomas are as good of a one-two punch out of the backfield as there is in the Mountain West, and the UNLV offensive line returns virtually everyone. That should be enough for UNLV to keep the score close through the first half and show it is an improved team. But the Rebels can’t sustain the effort, and San Diego State will win by double digits.
Prediction: San Diego State 32, UNLV 20
Oct. 14 in Colorado Springs, Colorado
What to expect: UNLV’s pass defense won’t be an issue this week, because Air Force isn’t concerned with throwing the ball. Stopping the Falcons’ triple-option rushing attack, though, is easier said than done. The Rebels started working on defending the misdirection run in spring practices and should be prepared to slow down the Falcons. Actually stopping them is another story. Falcons run wild.
Brewer’s prediction: Air Force 35, UNLV 16
Oct. 21 at Sam Boyd Stadium
What to expect: Utah State isn’t the same program that went to six straight bowl games through 2015. The Aggies won just three games last season and this season will have to replace most of their offensive line from last year, as well as their top two tacklers. This is the point of the schedule where the Rebels have started to slide in recent seasons, so there’s no telling which team will enter healthy and with momentum. Best guess: This game will be a high-scoring affair resembling the old Western Athletic Conference, which is basically the modern-day Mountain West. UNLV gets the ball last and wins — another tally in the quest for more than six.
Brewer’s prediction: UNLV 41, Utah State 36
Oct. 28 at Fresno, California
What to expect: Williams, a Fresno kid not recruited by Fresno State, has been looking forward to this game since his arrival at UNLV. Expect him to run wild in his first game back at Fresno, leading UNLV to a win against an opponent it has a 2-0 record against with Sanchez at the coaching helm. Like many Mountain West games, this is one of those coin-flip outcomes that could go either way and will partially define the season.
Brewer’s prediction: UNLV 37, Fresno State 20
Nov. 4 at Sam Boyd Stadium
What to expect: Every game in recent memory between the schools seems to go down to the final quarter, and this contest will follow a similar pattern. Dru Brown is the real deal at quarterback for Hawaii, but its defense is a gigantic question mark. Hawaii may have the league’s worst defense. All signs point to another high-scoring affair and a slim UNLV victory. This, too, would be their sixth win by my calculation, meaning a team not accustomed to qualifying for a bowl game will be bowl-eligible in the first week of November.
Brewer’s prediction: UNLV 44, Hawaii 41
Nov. 10 at Sam Boyd Stadium
What to expect: UNLV is a 14-point betting underdog in this game, and I can’t figure out why. BYU should win the game, but I expect it to be a closely contested affair. BYU closed 2016 on a five-game winning streak and should have plenty of momentum moving into the season. While BYU returns many pieces on the offensive line, it will have new full-time starters at quarterback and running back and could struggle scoring. With games against LSU, Wisconsin and Mississippi State, they’ll need to develop depth on the offense — especially at running back. UNLV, if healthy come November, will be able to score. In a surprise, I’ll take the Rebels to pull off the upset.
Brewer’s prediction: UNLV 38, BYU 33
Nov. 17 in Albuquerque
What to expect: New Mexico, which overachieved in last year’s nine-win season, only returns three starters on defense. Its passing game is virtually nonexistent. And the week before hosting UNLV, New Mexico plays at Texas A & M, meaning they’ll be beat up from facing a Southeastern Conference opponent. So, why is UNLV a seven-point betting underdog?
Brewer’s prediction: UNLV 34, New Mexico 22
Nov. 24 in Reno
What to expect: The trend of picking UNLV to win games they aren’t supposed to ends against UNR in the Fremont Cannon rivalry game. Even though the Rebels have won in their past two trips to Reno, I don’t see it happening this fall. Remember how UNR officials rallied the community to pack the Lawlor Events Center for the basketball game against UNLV last winter? Imagine that on steroids. Reno won’t be bowl-eligible, making this holiday-weekend affair its last game. UNLV will have to be near-flawless to win, and the wild atmosphere will get the best of them.
Brewer’s prediction: UNR 30, UNLV 23