Throughout the rest of the month leading up to the 2008 season, I'll be looking at key storylines for each Mountain West Conference program. Today I look at UNLV's team, who'll either make or break Mike Sanford's head coaching career this season.
September 22nd, 2007
It was like every typical Saturday for the Rebels. A scattering of fans had poured into Sam Boyd Stadium to watch underdog UNLV take on the University of Utah. The game was supposed to be a typical slaughter, as the Utes had easily won 10-straight against Nevada Las Vegas and were coming off a near improbable victory over then #11 UCLA a week before. However, from the start, this was no ordinary game for the Sin City faithful, as they watched their UNLV Rebels scrape and claw their way to an early lead. But they had been here before, many times in fact, only to watch it wither away into a crushing defeat. Of course, Utah could not lose this game, right? UNLV was coming off an embarrassing loss to Hawaii a week earlier...at home. They hadn't defeated the Utes since the cowboys roamed the west and all this good play and their healthy lead was nothing more than false hope, right?
As the game went on, it became apparent UNLV was positioning itself for a stunning upset. The scoreboard held the realization, maybe an official acceptance of what had truly transpired. Not only did UNLV just knock off Utah, they shut them out, winning 27-0. It was, without a doubt, the biggest victory UNLV fans had witnessed in a decade and one that temporarily made Mike Sanford the King of The Strip.
Rewind two weeks earlier, as UNLV nearly stuns Wisconsin and you're looking at what appears to be solid footing for a shockingly successful season for the Rebels. After their victory over Utah, they were 2-2 and a defensive stop away from 3-2. Could UNLV, under 3rd year head coach Mike Sanford, really be moving up the ladder toward bowl contention?
The Rebels were violently brought back to reality with a deflating 27-20 defeat to Nevada Reno the week after their big win over Utah. And then, like a snowball, the losses began to pile up. Air Force, then BYU and then embarrassingly, Colorado State. As the season came to a close, UNLV found itself on an eight game losing streak and a once stirring season with high prospects ended in typical UNLV fashion: a 2-10 record. The second year in a row Mike Sanford failed to win more than 2-games. Even worse, UNLV only managed to win one conference game...against Utah, a win that felt worlds away once November rolled around.
Though Mike Sanford's job was saved by the victory over Utah, the results that followed threw him right back on the coaches hotseat. And now, entering his fourth year as the head coach there, he's in a must-win situation. Anything less than five victories will almost certainly leave UNLV coachless once again, unless Sanford can pull another surprising win out of his hat. An unlikely possibility, but as we saw last season, unlikely can often become the likely.
So this is Mike Sanford's Goonies moment. Will he lead his team to success, scrapping his way to victory and instilling the Never Say Die attitude, or will he be trampled like so many UNLV coaches before him? Looking at the schedule, Sanford will most likely end up like the Fratelli brothers than the Goonies -- or in other words, crushed in the family jewels instead of rewarded with the Big Jewels, a contract extension and possibly even a decent raise.
Here's a look at what UNLV will be facing this season:
Aug. 30 Utah State
Sept. 6 @ Utah
Sept. 13 @ Arizona State
Sept. 20 Iowa State
Sept. 27 Nevada
Oct. 4 @ Colorado State
Oct. 18 Air Force
Oct. 25 @ B.Y.U.
Nov. 1 T.C.U.
Nov. 8 New Mexico
Nov. 13 Wyoming
Nov. 22 @ San Diego State
Road games at Arizona State, Utah, BYU and San Diego State should result in losses. Home games against Texas Christian and New Mexico aren't much easier, either. That leaves Utah State, Iowa State, Colorado State, Air Force and Wyoming as their only hope for success this season. If UNLV can somehow manage to win all those games, Mike Sanford will return as head coach. That would put their record at 5-7, a dramatic increase over last year's final results. Yet even that seems too optimistic, so UNLV might be looking at 3-4 wins next year. An improvement over the 2-win 2007 season, but not enough to save his job.
So even though Mike Sanford talks tough and acts as if UNLV is only a few steps from being a Florida-type program, it won't amount to many victories and in the end, he'll be jobless. Or maybe he'll luck out and Dan Mullen will leave Florida, giving him another chance to coast on Urban Meyer's coattails. Really, though, you'll probably see the following image somewhere on The Strip in early 2009:
Poor Mike Sanford, will someone hire him?