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A quick look: UNLV

Over the summer I will be previewing all of Utah's opponents. I've already done Oregon State, Air Force and UCLA today I'll take a look at UNLV, who Utah will play the fourth week of the season.

2006 Record
2-10 (1-7 MWC, Ninth)
Season in review
Mike Sanford entered the 2006 season with high hopes of building on UNLV's 2-9 season the year before. And it appeared as if things might be heading in the right direction early, as the Rebels defeated Idaho State 54-10 and nearly knocked off a preseason hyped Iowa State team. That game offered up UNLV the most publicity the program has seen since the days of Tony Knap, as Mike Sanford had an epic meltdown. That meltdown came after Shane Steichen's pass as time expired was ruled incomplete because the receiver was out of bounds. That didn't sit well with Sanford, who stormed the field and protested the call by demanding to see Iowa State's athletic director.

That meltdown was the defining moment in an otherwise awful season for the Rebels. You can view the meltdown here. That game would mark the start of a 10 game losing streak for UNLV, which ended with a surprising 42-39 victory over Air Force.

Interesting Fact
After UNLV's 2-10 season, the Rebels have failed to finish above .500 in six seasons now. That last winning season came in 2000, which saw John Robinson lead the Rebels to a 31-14 victory over Arkansas in the Las Vegas Bowl.

Mike Sanford promised conference championships, offensive excitement and top-25 finishes when he took over the UNLV program. However, in his first two years, he's resided over the worst two year stretch for UNLV since the Mountain West Conference was formed. That has some fans in Las Vegas wondering if he's the right guy for the job and year three might be the make or break season for the Mike Sanford era at UNLV.

Luckily for Sanford, he returns some key offensive players. However, that might not be enough, as UNLV only averaged 20 points per game in 2006, and that includes a 54-point outing against Division 1-AA Idaho State. That's the biggest problem facing UNLV right now because Mike Sanford was expected to bring a high scoring, effective offense much like the one he ran at Utah as the offensive coordinator. However, it hasn't lived up to its promise, much to the dismay of the Rebel nation.

This offense brings back quarterback Rocky Hinds, who transferred to UNLV from USC two years ago. Along with Hinds, the Rebels do have a talented group of receivers, yet the same was thought last season and the offense utterly underperformed. That can't happen this year, especially with the experience they bring back on the offensive side of the ball.

The problem with Mike Sanford and his Rebels is that they expect the offense to work because the plays they use worked so well for Utah in 2004. Except this is not the 2004 Utes and it remains to be seen if the UNLV offense has the necessary tools to run a successful spread option. Right now though, it appears they do not and that will ultimately cast doubt on whether or not Sanford can succeed as coach of UNLV.

The biggest problem UNLV will have on offense, outside of finding a way to utilize their weapons, will be the fact they lose four starters on the line. Mike McKiski and Tim Goins are the only returning starters for UNLV this year and they're going to struggle with depth here. And with UNLV having a nonexistent running game last season, they will definitely need to step up their run blocking and create the needed holes to take pressure of Hinds, who while decent last season, failed to live up to the hype he had going into the 2006 season.

With a fairly inexperienced line, Rocky Hinds might be in trouble. If the opposing defenses can get pressure, it might cause some injury problems for Hinds and force redshirt freshman Travis Dixon into the starting role. Dixon is not proven and the Rebels can't afford having him start, not if they're going to do enough to save Mike Sanford's job.

While Hinds didn't have great numbers last year, UNLV will be a passing threat this year. Their receivers are filled with experience, including last year's leading receiver, senior Casey Flair. They also bring back Aaron Straiten, a senior, who had been expected to play well last year, however didn't live up to expectations. Straiten was a top JUCO transfer and for UNLV to be successful offensively, Straiten will need to step it up and take his game to the next level. Outside of Straiten, UNLV sophomore Rodelin Anthony and junior Renan Saint-Preux return. Both are credible threats for opposing secondaries.

The Rebels will also look to grow a running attack this season, something they sorely lacked in 2006. And it appears UNLV is set on junior David Peeples, who led the team with 519 yards and seven touchdowns last year. While he's quick, he didn't have a great 2006 season, but that could also be attributed to the fact that UNLV often fell behind by huge margins early and had to rely on the passing game in hopes of spurring a comeback. If UNLV again struggles on the offensive end and can't stop opposing offenses, Peeples might have a repeat performance.

Yet with all the offensive firepower UNLV might have this season, it will be their defense that will be the difference between a repeat of 2005 and '06, or a rebirth of the program. That could prove to be a major problem though, as UNLV hasn't had great defenses the past two years. And with their often sporadic offenses, failure to step it up on defense might doom them to another 2-win season.

The good news for UNLV is that they return a healthy amount of starters from last year's defense. Who knows though if that will be enough to turn out a decent enough defense this season.

UNLV's defensive line will probably be their best attribute on defense. Leading the line will be Jeremy Geathers, who recorded 32 tackles and 5.5 sacks last season. Yet even the defensive line isn't that great and could have problems, especially when it comes to stopping the run.

UNLV will also have to replace Eric Wright at corner, who was drafted by the Browns earlier this year. That won't be easy, but they hope JUCO transfer Geoff Howard is the man. While former UCLA Bruin Mil'Von James could possibly step in and help the Rebel defense like Wright did last season.

And though the Rebels could struggle at the corners, they bring back safeties Tony Cade and Daryl Forte. Cade is clearly the best of the two, as he the fifth leading tackler on the team last year. Those two will have to compensate for the possible struggles at corner. And with UNLV not having a great pass defense last year (ranked 113th in the nation in '06), it could take a lot to improve this aspect of their defense.

UNLV is not yet at the level where they are going to compete for a conference championship. And even though Sanford has done a decent job recruiting and pulling in solid transfers from BCS programs, it hasn't translated onto the football field. What's worse is that another terrible season from Sanford and UNLV will appear to be worse off than they were when he took over. This is year three and time for UNLV to make some noise -- or at least any noise. If they don't, Sanford should promptly be fired. Yet with their out of conference schedule -- home games against Wisconsin and Hawaii, and a road game at Nevada -- Sanford won't have it easy. This team should win no more than five games and even winning five might be cause for celebration. However, if they can finish 5-7, it will show the progress needed to put more faith in Sanford's leadership and it might signal a rise, albeit very slow, for UNLV football.

Quick Look
Head Coach: Mike Sanford(4-19)
Last Bowl: 2000 Las Vegas Bowl (31-14 win over Arkansas)
2007 Schedule:
@ Utah State
Wisconsin
Hawaii
UTAH
@ Nevada
@ Air Force
BYU
Colorado State
@ Wyoming
San Diego State
@ TCU
@ New Mexico