Last season in the scorching desert of Las Vegas, the UNLV Rebels gave the NIU Huskies all they could handle in a shoot out that went down to the wire. There have been some big changes over at UNLV since then. The Hustle Belt asks UNLV aficionado Keith Scheessele(@BSUKeith) from Mountain West Connection what we can expect from UNLV in this years match up.
Hustle Belt: Before we discuss any on-field action, let's touch on what's truly important in today's college athletics: uniforms. UNLV has some pretty sweet new duds this season. And NIU is rocking their own awesome retro 1965 throwbacks which are available for fans on auction. Who wins the catwalk in this contest?
MWC: As a Ball State University graduate living in Las Vegas, I have all the reason in the world to pick UNLV on this one. I can't. Those Northern Illinois unis are straight filthy. I love them. I'd bid on one, you know, if I didn't sports-hate the Huskies. That said, UNLV is going to win the uniform battle with most teams, just not NIU on this day. The battle is closer with that sweet Las Vegas sticker on the back of the UNLV helmets, though.
Hustle Belt: The Rebels have a new head coach in Tony Sanchez.. He moved up from the high school ranks to the NCAA after an amazing run of six state titles in a row at Bishop Gorman H.S. What has been the immediate impact on the team and the fans attitudes about Sanchez? How about their immediate expectations?
MWC: People are talking UNLV football. I mean it. People haven't talked UNLV football for a long time. If you turn on local sports talk radio, you'll find hosts talking Rebels football, and this is a team that isn't supposed to win more than 3 games this coming season! Las Vegas is a hotbed of high school football talent. Tony Sanchez can be successful here. The real test will come in keeping fans talking if the Rebels in fact turn in an underwhelming performance in 2015. Inflated expectations are nothing new for fans. It will be important for UNLV faithful to remember how steep the hill is that Sanchez has to climb.
Hustle Belt: UNLV also also a new offensive coordinator in Barney Cotton. Cotton comes to UNLV from Nebraska, a traditionally run heavy offense. With the Rebels strength apparently to be at wide receiver, will Cotton be open to more passing for now?
MWC: While the UNLV offense may slowly but surely start to look like the run heavy schemes that Cotton ran at Nebraska, expect the Rebels to play to their strengths early, and yes that's wide receiver. Last season Devonte Boyd caught 65 balls for 980 yards en route to being named Mountain West Freshman of the Year. Most publications named him to 2015 All-Mountain West First Team. With the loss of Devante Davis, the fourth leading receiver in Rebels history, expect to see more from sophomore Kendal Keys. Keys is a big receiver (6'4", 200 lbs) who originally signed with Boise State, and saw six starts as a freshman last season.
Hustle Belt: Speaking of Rebel wide receivers, just how awesome is Devonte Boyd? Who is another player we can expect to make some plays when the Rebels have the ball?
MWC: Devonte Boyd is every bit of awesome as you've heard. Keys has all the tools to make a big impact in 2015, and will be expected to do just that. The backfield is a 3 way battle right now. Most will say that's being led by junior Keith Whitely, but it's very much running back by committee. Freshman Xzaviar Campbell and Lexington Thomas can expect to see carries and at this point the job is still up for grabs.
Hustle Belt: The UNLV defense was pretty bad last year. Maybe the nation's worst as they were at the very bottom of ESPN's team ranking in 2014. Could they actually be worse this year as they adjust to the new staff?
MWC: New defensive coordinator Kent Baer has struggled mightily at different stops throughout his career. That coupled with airing it out and short series' on the offensive side of the football could really put the defense to work. Mountain West football always means bunches and bunches of points so the Rebels will get a challenge every week. UNLV's strength is at linebacker, led by all-conference candidate Tau Lotulelei. For 2015, even the smallest of steps forward will be viewed as a success for Baer's defense.
Hustle Belt: NIU struggled with UNLV last year as Blake Decker threw for 397 yards and two touchdowns. NIU eventually won a shootout 48-34. Can we expect the same thing or will NIU's experience and cohesiveness be too much for a Rebel team in transition?
MWC: Expect more of the same this season. Northern Illinois will knock off UNLV again but the Rebels will remain competitive. This game opened up with the Huskies as 16 point favorites. That spread has moved to 23 as of Monday night. NIU straight up is the right pick, but definitely take UNLV and the points.