Opponent Preview — Week 1: UNLV

A program can have history. A program can have recent success. Ideally, it has both. Unfortunately for the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, some programs have neither. UNLV is coming off a 2-11 season in 2010, their fifth two-win season since 2004. They haven’t reached a bowl game since 2000, when they won the (aptly titled) Las Vegas Bowl. It was only the third bowl game of UNLV’s FBS life, covering 33 full seasons.

Simply put, UNLV is not a football school.

I don’t think the futility of football in Las Vegas is truly understood by most Badger fans, and there’s an obvious reason: September 13th, 2003. On that fateful day, the Runnin’ Rebels shocked Camp Randall Stadium and the then-14th ranked Badgers in one of the least likely upsets in recent Camp Randall history. Jim Sorgi threw two interceptions and was credited with -66 rushing yards due to sacks (unlike the NFL, sacks are considered rushes for losses in the college game), and Dwayne Smith fumbled twice, including one which was returned for a UNLV touchdown.

2003 was UNLV’s best season since the Badgers began playing against them semi-regularly in 2002, but it still wasn’t a bowl-worthy performance, as the 6-6 Rebels were shunned from consideration. Since then, it’s been cellar dwelling in the Mountain West Conference, which has struggled to find national relevance outside of TCU and will be truly devoid of compelling stories or teams in 2011.

2010 saw a truly horrific team from the Runnin’ Rebels in head coach Bobby Hauck’s first year, started by a 41-21 thrashing from Wisconsin at UNLV’s home field. That 41-21 scoreline is eerily similar to UNLV’s overall performance: the team ended up scoring only 18.4 points per game while allowing a whopping 39.7. They finished with a SRS score of -11.7 from Sports-Reference, meaning the Runnin’ Rebels were just under two touchdowns worse than an average team per game. Their ranking of 106th by SRS is difficult to argue against — would a better team lose to Idaho by 23 points, or lose to Colorado State by 33, or lose to San Diego State by 34?

The offense showed some bright spots. Specifically, wide receiver Philip Payne caught 40 passes for 689 yards and five touchdowns despite missing two games and his understudy Michael Johnson added 51 catches for 571 yards and another five scores. But the team just couldn’t run the ball — only one of the Rebel running backs managed more than 4.0 yards per carry — Bradley Randle, who will return as a sophomore this year — and he only received 25 carries the entire year. Overall, the team’s offensive struggles were apparent. 18 points per game is an unacceptable number, particularly in the Mountain West Conference, and they don’t look any better by yardage measures either.

Even this offensive incompetence pales in the face of the defensive ineptitude shown by the Rebels in 2010. UNLV not only allowed 40 points to Wisconsin, but also Hawaii (59), BYU (55), West Virginia (49), San Diego State (48), Nevada (44), and Colrado State (43). This was a remarkably tough schedule for UNLV to face, and their team was young, but they were still clearly one of the worst teams in the country at defending, particularly against the pass. It’s apparent from the raw points totals, and the advanced numbers as well.

There are growing pains with new coaches and young teams, and UNLV dealt with both last season. This team should be better. But when we say “better,” we mean with regards to the Mountain West Conference, and possibly squeezing four or five wins instead of two from that easy schedule. Outside of FCS foe South Dakota, UNLV is quite easily the worst team on Wisconsin’s schedule in 2011. There will be no excuse for a repeat performance of 2003, and anything short of a 20-plus point blowout should be considered something of a disappointment.

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