UNLV Football 2016: Rebels with a Cause?
Last year the Over/Under for UNLV season wins was 2.5 games. Anyone optimistic enough to back a rookie coach in a bottomed out program ended up being rewarded at seasons' end when UNLV notched 3 wins. They came awful close to winning twice that many games, though.
This year the O/U for UNLV is between 5 and 5.5 games. Is there
reason to believe the Runnin' Rebels will win almost twice as many games in Sanchez' Sophomore season, turning the close losses into wins?
Let's take a closer look at last season's games, first.
UNLV nearly upset NIU on the road to open the season, but then lost badly at home to UCLA after starting QB Decker was injured early on. Backup QB Palandech logged a 1.7 QB rating in relief, and no scores except for a fourth quarter field goal. Ouch. There's a theme you'll see developing here...
The defense put in a spirited game at Michigan, holding them to 28 points. Decker finally led the offense to its' first touchdown with 9:17 to play in the 4th, but Palandech relieved him after that for the rest of the game, and predictably did not lead the team on any additional scoring drives.
Week #4 saw UNLV trounce Idaho State 80-8. Even without the stats from that game my numbers liked UNLV to cover at Nevada, which they did, winning outright 23-17. Tough luck set in as UNLV then lost to San Jose State in OT and then Fresno by a mere 3 points.
Still, the Runnin' Rebels fought on, and took Boise State into the 4th quarter at home only down a touchdown. The defense wilted, though, as Boise outscored UNLV 28-7 in the fourth quarter.
UNLV bounced back with solid 20 point win against Hawaii.
Decker was hurt again against Colorado State after getting out to a hot start. Palandech was finally able to lead the team to some scores in relief, but the defense couldn't hold off the Rams, allowing 49 points.
With the defense experiencing a regression renaissance, and QB Decker still out with an injury, UNLV was predictably (and profitably) pulverized by San Diego State.
Decker returned for the season finale at Wyoming, and had a pretty good day. It wasn't enough, though, as Wyoming QB Coffman put up superior numbers, as did the Wyoming running game. The UNLV defense just didn't have anything left in the tank at this point, it seemed.
2015 was a promising season that was derailed by close losses, a QB injury, and a declining defense.
Head coach Tony Sanchez was the rarest of Pokemon last year, making the jump from high school head coach directly to FBS head coach. The skepticism was substantial. Still, he was able to pull in coordinators with a wealth of experience.
OC Barney Cotton certainly had the better side of the ball in 2015. UNLV had my 80th ranked offense, even with Decker missing what added up to a few games because of injury.
DC Kent Baer's run defense started off the season gamely but was a total sieve from week 7 on. The Rebels' final 6 games all qualified as a "worst" game of run defense with my rescored stats, after allowing only two such games against their first 5 FBS opponents. That's versus the one qualifying game of "best" run defense they had for the season in the win at Nevada. At the end of the season I ranked the UNLV's run defense 125th out of 128.
Other than the season opening shredding by NIU, UNLV's pass defense wasn't horrible, finishing up with a ranking of 97th. They might have even been a little better than that, with an equal 4 "best" and "worst" qualifying games of pass defense. But as the rush defense went, so, largely did the pass defense, fading late in the season.
The key component of the Reb's offense, QB Decker, has graduated from the program. Things would like frightful for the offense if it were up to Palandech to now shoulder the load, as he was woefully not up to the task last year. The task should fall to Junior transfer Johnny Stanton.
Stanton comes to UNLV via the University of Nebraska, just like OC Cotton. Stanton never really worked out at Nebraska, and last year played at Saddleback College where he put up decent numbers. Stanton is a dual threat to run as well, running for 705 yards and 12 touchdowns last year.
UNLV returns a fair amount of experience on the offensive line, but depth could be an issue. Skill positions shouldn't be a worry. With Stanton's previous familiarity with Nebraska's offense, which has a lot in common with the imported version that the coaches brought over, there's a good chance the UNLV offense can hit the ground running...and passing.
There's less reason to be optimistic for the defense. They return 59% of their tackles, and only 38% in their secondary, which was the strength of their defense.
A few solid JUCO transfers and improvements in recruiting should help offset some of the losses. Better knowledge of the system in this, the coaching staff's second year, should help as well.
I'm not sure how much improvement you can expect out of a thin, poorly performing defense, though. They were giving it up to some poor offenses late last year.
A bet on UNLV's season wins Over/Under is the same as a bet on whether UNLV will be bowl eligible or not, and when you think of it like that you might, like me, still consider it a bit out of reach for the Rebs. I project them to win 4.9 games with a 4-8 final record. That means I have them down for a few close losses this year.
UNLV gets a week one near gimme against Jackson State, but then have to play their role as a cupcake at UCLA and Central Michigan. I give UNLV a 0% chance at UCLA and a 20% chance at CMU, which is something.
UNLV needs to have any growing pains they might have early out of the way by week 4, as their two most winnable games come back to back at home against Idaho and Fresno. I like UNLV to win both games by about 8 points.
After that comes a loss at San Diego State, followed by an important game at Hawaii. It's hard to know what to expect from Hawaii, coming off a terrible season with a completely new staff and scheme in place. Still, my best estimates are for a narrow Hawaii 3 point win.
Then it's back home for a virtual toss up against Colorado State. After that comes a probable loss at San Jose State, a bye, and then a narrow 3 point win against Wyoming at home. That's their last win of the season I project, though, with a road loss at Boise and a season ending home loss to Nevada by the narrowest of margins.
I project UNLV to go just 1-3 in games decided by less than a touchdown, but with 3 of those 4 games coming at home all of those games could swing either way. I'm willing to say that the near absolute best case scenario for UNLV will be 7 wins in 2016. As long as the offense isn't too far off of last year's production, the win floor should be 4 games. I just don't see them losing that Wyoming game, in spite of the close projection. They should win one of the closely projected losses as well, putting them at 5 wins. That's right near the betting lines.
If you put a gun to my head at midnight somewhere off the side of Highway 93 tonight, I'd take the Under, especially if you can get the 5.5. But with the prospect of so many winnable home games for UNLV, I'd breathe a sigh of relief if you just let me slump to the ground, money still in wallet, as you steamed your way to Ely under a clear Nevada night sky.