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Season Preview: UNLV Rebels

NCAA Football: UNLV at Nevada Lance Iversen-USA TODAY Sports

Coming off of a rather mediocre season the UNLV Rebels will be looking to advance past the middle of the pack and join the Mountain West elite in 2018. Finishing 5-7 overall and 4-4 in the Mountain West, the Rebels sat third in the western side of the conference. With growing experience on the offensive side of the ball and a few big signings coming on the defensive side, the Rebels will be one of the front runners in the West to challenge San Diego State and play for a Mountain West championship, and at the very least be eligible for a bowl game.

Offense

Reason for optimism:

Standing behind center at the helm of the UNLV offense is sophomore quarterback Armani Rodgers. Rodgers is coming off an impressive freshman year in which he started nine of the 10 games for the Rebels. During his freshman campaign In a season that saw him named Mountain West Freshman of the year in 2017, Rodgers threw for 1,471 yards completing 52 percent of his passes while only throwing five interceptions. With his growth as a quarterback, he is coming into 2018 as a predicted fourth team all Mountain West caliber player. Pairing him with Darren Woods Jr. and Mekhi Stevenson the Rebels should be able to compete with the most high powered offenses in the conference.

With a majority of the west division’s offenses not showing major improvement in the off season the Rebels will be able to capitalize on the stagnant improvements showed by their division rivals.

Causes for Concern:

Perhaps the biggest cause for concern for UNLV’s offense is being able to win games at home. Last season the Rebels were just 2-4 at Sam Boyd Stadium. If the Rebels are going to make a run at a bowl game and at the conference championship the offense will need to close out games better at home than they did last season. Another major concern for the Rebels on the offensive side of the ball was being able to consistently score points against higher powered defenses. While they were able to break the 40 point mark three times last season they struggled to score the ball against the conferences more elite teams putting up only 10 points in their matchup with San Diego State.

Key Stat: 7.

Will the Rebels be able to break the threshold of six games and finish the season with seven wins that have eluded them the past few seasons? With the opportunities for bowl games diminishing and the powerful Mountain division the Rebels will likely need to win seven games in order to qualify for a bowl game.

Wildcard:

The rest of the conference. San Diego State is coming into the season again as the clear frontrunner to win the conference, the remaining five spots are largely up for grabs. If the Rebel’s offense is high powered enough it could lead the team past Fresno State for that second place spot. Avoiding having to play Boise State, Wyoming, and Colorado State will benefit them next season as well.

Defense:

Reason for Optimism:

The Rebels had a strong recruiting class on this side of the ball. They added three Junior College transfers in Dominion Ezinwa, Montrice Johns, and Travis Malakius. These three will be able to address some of the depth issues on the defensive line that UNLV faced last season. The Rebel’s also added three star recruit Chris Manoa to their defense. As a senior in high school, Manoa was able to make 56 tackles and pick up 12 sacks on his way to becoming an all-state player in Arizona.

The Rebels focused a big portion of their recruiting this off-season on beefing up the defensive line. Although unproven the new members of the team bring some much needed depth to a line that had trouble putting pressure on the quarterback in 2017.

Causes for Concern:

In 2017, UNLV’s rush defense ranked 122ndin the nation allowing 238.9 yards a game on the ground. Pair those stats with the departure of senior linemen Mike Hughes Jr, Mark Finau and Jason Foa the Rebel’s may have trouble keeping the pace with the high scoring Mountain West teams.

In 2017, the Rebel’s opponents scored an average of 31.75 points a game on them. Holding their opponents to below thirty a game next season will be vital if they are to compete in the Mountain West. In 2017, UNLV allowed four teams to score more than 40 points a game on them. Excluding the 54-21 loss to Ohio State, all three losses took place at Sam Boyd Stadium and two of them were against conference foes. If the Rebel’s want to compete, they will need to protect their home field more in 2018.

Key Stat: 30.

With UNLV’s offense looking to make a jump forward and become more high powered in 2018, the defense will need to do its part to make sure they are able to do their part to make sure the opponents don’t keep pace with the offense. If the Rebels are able to keep their opponents from scoring more than 30 points a game next season they will be able to win some of the closer games that they didn’t in 2017.

Wildcard:

The Rebel’s defense is young and unproven so far. The three new signings on offensive line will be helpful, however with most of their new line never having played Division I football before, how effective they will be remains to be seen. If the new recruits are able to match the physicality of DI football then they will be an effective defense.

Special Teams:

Coming into the season the Rebel’s feature a Lou Groza award watchlist member in Evan Pantels. The Georgia native has been the starting place kicker for the Rebels since 2016 and has been amongst the Mountain West’s most elite kickers since then. In 2017, he finished atop the Mountain West in 1.89 field goals a game despite missing three games to injury. Through his career he has made 100 of his 106 field goal attempts at UNLV while never missing one within 39 yards of the end zone. As long as Pantels remains healthy the Rebels won’t have anything to worry about when it comes to needing a kicker.

Causes for Concern:

The Rebel’s do not have a dedicated punter on their roster, which leaves their place kickers to do double duty when it comes time to punt. A lot of the time Pantels acts as both the punter and kicker in games which can leave a lot of wear and tear on his legs. If the Rebels want to keep their prized place kicker.

Key Stat: 2.

The Rebels have two players on their roster who can act as the punter. While one of them, Pantels will primarily act as the kicker for the Rebels this year, the other, Sophomore Daniel Gutierrez will have to step out of his comfort zone of being a place kicker and serve as the team punter at times. During his freshman season Gutierrez impressed fans and coaches with a 52 yard punt against Ohio State during his freshman season, something the Rebels will be looking for more of this season.

Wildcard:

It’s no secret college kickers have a reputation of being inconsistent at times. UNLV doesn’t have as much worry in this because of the high caliber kicker they have in Pantels. However, if Pantels were to sustain an injury like he did in 2017, and miss several games during the season the Rebels could be in trouble when they need a field goal in a close game.

Schedule Analysis:

September 1- @ USC

September 8- vs UTEP

September 15- vs Praire View A&M

September 22- @ Arkansas State

October 6- vs New Mexico

October 13- @ Utah State

October 19- vs Air Force

October 27- @ San Jose State

November 3- vs Fresno State

November 10- @ San Diego State

November 17- @Hawaii

November 24- vs Nevada

Thoughts:

The Rebels open their season with a tough game against USC, but after that their out of conference schedule does not feature anyone that would be too much for them to beat. If they start conference play at 3-1 they’d be in a good position to beat New Mexico at Sam Boyd Stadium to start 1-0 in conference play. After that they face a tough Utah State team on the road a game in which the Rebels could struggle to stop Utah State’s high powered offense. Following Utah State, the Rebels have two very winnable games against conference doormat San Jose State and an Air Force team that is in a down year. In the month of November the Rebels play their two most important games against San Diego State and Fresno State. If UNLV wants a shot at a bowl game they will need to win at least one of those games. They close out the season with two very winnable games at Hawaii on the road and then against in-state rivals Nevada.

Best Case Scenario:

The Rebel’s start conference play 3-1 and beat New Mexico at home. Following that they are able to knock off Utah State and Hawaii on the road while being able to protect their home field against Fresno State. The Rebel’s lose to San Diego State on the road, finish 7-1 in Mountain West play and 10-2 on the season with a spot in a bowl game. If San Diego State loses a couple of its games then the Rebels will be in a position to win the West division and play near certain Mountain division winner Boise State for the Mountain West championship.

Worst Case Scenario:

UNLV has trouble protecting their home field and lose must win games to Fresno State and Nevada. The Rebel’s struggle on the road as well dropping the Utah State, San Diego State and Hawaii game. UNLV finishes Mountain West play 4-4 and goes 6-6 for the season leaving them in the same place they were with the potential of missing a bowl game.

Most Likely Scenario:

The Rebel’s make the improvements they are supposed to and challenge Fresno State for the second place spot in the West Division. With losses on the road to Utah State and San Diego State, the Rebels are able to maintain their home field advantage and finish the season 6-2 in the Mountain West and either 8-4 or 9-3 on the season with losses to USC and maybe Arkansas State.

What I Think Will Happen:

The Rebels will play well, but fall short in a couple close big games in divisional play. They finish the season 5-3 in the Mountain West and 7-5 overall with an invitation to a bowl game.