We are just a little over two months away from the UNLV Rebels season opener so it's a good time to look at what's to come for a program that could easily make a move toward the upper-echelon of the Mountain West Conference this season.
The schedule is fairly light compared to the last couple years. The Rebels miss what should be the top two teams in the Mountain West Mountain Division (Boise State and Wyoming), thus giving the Rebels a chance at a six or seven wins and a bowl appearance in head coach Tony Sanchez's third year.
UNLV has won seven games combined in Sanchez's first two seasons. With added depth and health at a number of positions, this is the time to take advantage of a weaker schedule.
Let's rank 1-12 the toughest games for the Rebels in 2017:
12. Howard (2-9) - Just like the 2016 opener against Jackson State, UNLV should have an easy time taking care of an FCS school that is predicted to finish toward the bottom of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. The most interesting thing about this game will be the quarterbacks. Who will UNLV start? And, Howard may roll out true freshman, Caylin Newton, the younger brother of NFL star, Cam.
11. Utah State (3-9) - The coach on the hottest seat in the MWC is the Aggies' Matt Wells. Utah State went 1-7 in league play a year ago. UNLV will host the Aggies at a very opportune time, sandwiched right between a pair of games against Wyoming and Boise State. If the Rebels can rattle senior quarterback Kent Myers, this should UNLV's most winnable league contest.
10. San Jose State (4-8) - Brent Brennan takes over a SJSU program that has been stuck in the mud since former coach Mike MacIntyre moved on. The Spartans return 17 starters from last season, but the team wasn't very good, so that could actually be a bad thing. SJSU went 1-5 on the road last year. Don't expect that to change much.
9. at Fresno State (1-11) - Going on the road is never a picnic in league play, however, Fresno State was one of the worst teams in the nation a year ago and I don't expect things to be much better this year. UNLV defeated the Bulldogs, 45-20, last year at home. Jeff Tedford is a good head coach, but he won't be able to rebuild the former West coast power overnight.
8. at Idaho (9-4) - Okay, now things get interesting. This game could actually be ranked higher. The Vandals defeated UNLV, 33-30, at Sam Boyd a season ago and return stud quarterback Matt Linehan. He was the difference in 2016. This is Idaho's final season in the FBS before it heads to the FCS and Big Sky Conference. Talent-wise, UNLV matches up. Winning at the Kibbie Dome will be difficult.
7. Hawaii (7-7) - Former Hawaii signal caller, Nick Rolovich, took over as head coach for the Rainbow Warriors and delivered in his first season, leading Hawaii to a bowl game after some very lean years proceeding him. The Rebels beat Hawaii last year, but it was close. Look for the same type of result in 2017 with the game coming down to the wire.
6. at Air Force (10-3) - Heading into Colorado Springs and facing Troy Calhoun's triple-option is one of the most difficult tasks in the entire MWC. It seems like the Falcons never have a down year. Throw in the fact that the Rebels are the only home game AFA has in a five week span and you would expect a very focused effort from the Falcons.
5. UNR (5-7) - Rivalry week on the road. That's all that needs to be said. After last year's embarrassing performance against the Wolf Pack (45-10 home loss), UNLV should be all-in during this showdown, regardless of how the season has unfolded. Add into the mix that a victory for either team could be the difference between a bowl game or not and this one should be exciting. Don't look for a repeat of 2016.
4. at New Mexico (9-4) - The Lobos are my pick to have a breakout season in 2017, much like Wyoming did a year ago. UNLV faces UNM on "Senior Night" in Albuquerque. If the Lobos are in contention for a league title, this game is going to be huge for the home team. One positive here for the Rebels? UNLV plays the Lobos in the middle of UNM road games at Texas A&M and San Diego State. This could be a letdown opponent for the Lobos.
3. San Diego State (11-3) - If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best. SDSU has finished 11-3 the past two seasons, which is tops in the MWC. The Aztecs will be without Donnel Pumphery, but replace the Las Vegas native with another star running back, Rashaad Penny. Forget offense, though. The reason SDSU has been so dominant is because of its defense. The Aztecs gave up a total of 29 points against the other five West division foes last year, including seven to the Rebels. That's an amazing stat.
2. BYU (9-4) - Want to sell a lot of tickets? Bring in BYU during the month of November for "Senior Night" for a nationally televised game on ESPN2. Oh yeah, it's also on a Friday night. Basketball season will be right around the corner, but this will be a huge home contest for the Rebels. The Cougars poured it on UNLV during the 2014 season. Freshmen of that Rebel team are now seniors. That will have plenty to play for in this regional rivalry.
1. at Ohio State (11-2) - "Show me the money." This game is all about getting the Rebels a paycheck to bring back to Las Vegas. The Buckeyes could be ranked No. 1 in the country when this game is kicked off. There's not much analysis needed here. This will be the toughest opponent on the Rebels' schedule. The key for UNLV in this one will be to stay healthy.