The offseason is almost over, and the beginning of the most anticipated and important season for UNLV football is about the start. Last season did not go the way many expected it to go. 2018 was supposed to be the year UNLV would go to a bowl game, but after an injury to Armani Rogers and lackluster play by the defense UNLV finished 4-8. Now the Rebels enter the 2019 season with many watchful eyes on the program. 2019 will mark the fifth season for coach Tony Sanchez, and winning is expected this year from the higher-ups in the athletic department.
UNLV was dealt a difficult blow in July when offensive coordinator Barney Cotton stepped aside from coach while he awaits a heart transplant. Along with Sanchez, Cotton has been a mainstay at the program. Cotton, a college coach for nearly 30 years, was one of the first hires for new college coach Tony Sanchez as he made the transition from high school to college. UNLV will now call upon offensive line coach Garin Justice to handle play calling responsibilities. With the offense already thin at the receiver position and trying to see who will replace Lexington Thomas, it will be interesting to see how smooth the transition is from Cotton to Justice.
At the Mountain West Media day, UNLV was picked to finish fifth in the West Division. In terms of total votes, only San Jose State and New Mexico received fewer total votes in the division rankings among the 12 teams in the conference. Usually, a fifth place finish, out of the six teams in the West Division, means a losing record and no bowl game. For the Rebels, and for Tony Sanchez, they could not afford another losing season. UNLV will play the 2020 football season in the new Las Vegas Raiders Stadium on the Strip. The program needs to build momentum to get bodies into the stadium, and a losing football program would not fill up the stadium.
Reasons for Optimism: Armani Rogers comes back to lead the Rebel offense fully healthy and with some confidence. The UNLV offense took several steps back when Rogers went down and missed six games. Now, with a healthy Rogers, the Rebel offense can reach its full potential. There are still some question marks at the receiver position, but Rogers will be playing behind a solid offensive line that will help keep him upright. One thing he will need to improve upon is his consistency as a passer. It will be important that Rogers finds a connection with these new and unproven Rebel receivers so the offense does not need to rely to heavily on the running game. A healthy Armani Rogers is critical for any Rebel success.
Cause for Concern: UNLV has taken some devastating blows to the receiver position. It started when Brandon Presley suffered a season ending injury in the spring, and Jordan McCrae decommitted from the Rebels to leave for Oklahoma State. The Rebels will now have to rely on receivers who have minimal to no D-I playing experience. Newcomers like Randall Grimes and Jacob Gasser will need to have an immediate impact. The Rebels will also need consistent play from Tyleek Collins and Mekhi Stevenson to help elevate UNLV’s production on offense. There is potential with these receivers, but most of them are unproven at this level. If they can play to their full potential, these receivers could put up some solid numbers.
Key Stat: 224.7 Rushing Yards per Game. UNLV’s identity on offense is running the ball. Last season, UNLV finished 19th in the country in rushing yards per game. UNLV was also 28th in the country for rushing yards per carry, with 5.0 yards. The Rebels must keep this up again this year. UNLV has the benefit of having one of the best offensive lines in the conference, and they will help give the backs wide gaps to run. An efficient running game will help open up UNLV’s offense, expect the Rebels to be very good on the ground once again this year.
Wildcard: The Rebels will have to replace Lexington Thomas. Thomas was the program’s all time leader in rushing touchdowns. Now UNLV will call upon Charles Williams, who is 2017 started ahead of Thomas before Williams went down in the first game of the season, to handle the running back responsibilities. UNLV will also try to get touches to Chad Magyar and Courtney Reese, backs who performed well during the spring, as well. A wildcard upon the wildcard is the eligibility of Biaggio Ali-Walsh, the NCAA has not given UNLV a ruling regarding his eligibility yet.
Reasons for Optimism: UNLV’s front seven on defense is the deepest and has the most talent compared to any front sevens under Tony Sanchez. The Rebels This group will likely have to make up for the lackluster performance from the secondary. This will be the second year under defensive coordinator Tim Skipper, expect the front seven to improve in their second year under Skipper’s system. The unit must be able to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks and help cause turnovers and with players like Gabe McCoy, Kolo Uasike, and Javin White, the Rebel front seven could be giving their opponents plenty of issues.
Cause for Concern: Just like last year, the weak link of the Rebel defense is the secondary. One of UNLV’s starters this season was playing wide receiver last year. The secondary doesn’t need to play like the Legion of Boom from the Seattle Seahawks, but they cannot be the sole reason why UNLV loses games. With a full offseason to work with Skipper, and bringing in some JUCO players, improvement must be evident among the Rebel defensive backs. Eliminating the big play is a must for this unit, and they cannot be putting the offense in a spot where they need to score in bunches.
Key Stat: 37.2 PPG This stat represents how many points the UNLV defense gave up last season. UNLV gave up 40 points six times last year, all of those games resulted in UNLV loses. The old saying is “defense wins championships,” and I can’t think of many championship defenses (or in UNLV’s case, bowl eligible team’s defenses) that gave up more than 5 touchdowns in a game. A good mark for the Rebels would be if they could knock that number down by six or seven points. UNLV cannot afford to have that number be this high again this season.
Wildcard: Vic Viramontes is one of, if not the most highly regarded recruit under Tony Sanchez. Viramontes comes to UNLV after two seasons at Riverside City College, and is expected to make an impact at the middle linebacker position. Sanchez has been impressed with Viramontes’ play on the field and leadership off. He will be playing along with Senior Javin White, and if Viramontes can play to his full potential, he could be a star on the Rebel defense.
Saturday, August 31 vs Southern Utah
Saturday, September 7 vs Arkansas State
Saturday, September 14 @ Northwestern
Saturday, September 28 @ Wyoming
Saturday October 5 vs Boise State
Saturday October 12 @ Vanderbilt
Friday October 18 @ Fresno State
Saturday October 26 vs San Diego State
Saturday November 2 @ Colorado State
Saturday November 16 vs Hawaii
Saturday November 23 vs San Jose State
Saturday November 30 @ UNR
Schedule Analysis: The best way to divide and analyze the UNLV schedule is to break it down into thirds. The first third (the games in August and September), features some coin-flip games like Arkansas State and Wyoming. UNLV cannot afford to be anything less than 2-2 after the first four games. The middle third, the October portion of the schedule, is UNLV’s toughest part of the schedule. The Rebels cannot afford to go 0-4, they need to find a way to win one of those games or else they will be in a massive hole they will need to dig out of if they want to go to a bowl game. Then, in the final third (the November games), UNLV will have its easiest part of the schedule to finish the season. UNLV must take advantage of these games to make up for the lumps they took the previous month.
Best Case Scenario: Anything short of not being bowl eligible will be a failure for the UNLV program this year, and if the Rebels do not make a bowl game they will likely be looking for a new head coach. A problem for UNLV is they have lost games they are supposed to win, like two years ago vs Howard and last year vs New Mexico. If UNLV takes care of business, and wins the games they’re supposed to, along with being on the right side of some of the coin-flip games, the path to a bowl game will be much easier for the Rebels (staying healthy also helps this scenario as well). UNLV will also need to win a game or two of the games they are underdog. The ceiling for this team is eight wins, so a seven or eight win season for the Rebels heading into a bowl game will be the best case scenario for the Rebels, (and winning a bowl game) would make 2019 a success season for UNLV.
Worst Case Scenario: The worst case scenario would be UNLV not becoming bowl eligible. How they would happen is if UNLV loses games they are supposed to win. Some of those games UNLV cannot afford to drop include the opener vs Southern Utah, Arkansas State, and San Jose State. Losing any of those games would give the Rebels an even smaller margin of error against the already difficult schedule If the Rebels enter November without a chance at making a bowl game, the program will probably be looking for a new football coach. UNLV must also stay healthy. An injury to a starter and contributor in any position could be devastating for UNLV’s chances of making a bowl game.
What’s Probably Going to Happen: The UNLV schedule has a lot many coin flip games, it’s hard to predict how they will all go. Knowing UNLV, they will likely win a game they are not supposed to win (like Northwestern or Boise State), and lose a game they are supposed to win (like Arkansas State or Colorado State). What I most likely see happening is UNLV being 5-6 entering the final game of the year. The Rebels will face a must win matchup against their arch rival UNR in the Battle of the Fremont Cannon. UNLV will have the momentum coming off winning two of its last three games, and ride that confidence to win on the road against Reno. Thus finishing the year 6-6, and being bowl eligible. We have seen 6-6 teams not go to a bowl game, like Wyoming last year, so UNLV could miss a bowl game if there are too many bowl eligible teams. Being 6-6 might not be enough for Tony Sanchez, like I mentioned earlier, it all depends on the momentum and direction the program is going in heading into 2020.