Four years ago, the Las Vegas Review-Journal asked a simple question: Is there any solution for UNLV football? In their first seven seasons at the 1A (now FBS) level, the UNLV Rebels went 50-29-2, finished .500 or better six times (in their first 18 years of existence at any level, actually, the Rebels had just two losing seasons) and, behind quarterback Randall Cunningham, won 11 games in 1984. It seemed pretty easy.
In the last 25 years, however, UNLV has finished .500 or better just four times. They have been to two bowls (the 1994 and 2000 Las Vegas Bowls, handily enough), and they have cast five different coaches by the wayside. The last coach to win there consistently (Harvey Hyde, 1982-85) did so with less than reputable characters (the Big West made UNLV forfeit their 1984 wins because of ineligible players, a series of Rebels got arrested through 1985, and … defensive end Marion "Suge" Knight, everybody!). Attempting to straighten up and fly right has not done UNLV any favors in the win column.
In the above Review-Journal article, Chancellor Jim Rogers said the following:
"Something is fundamentally wrong with the football program here, and it's been that way since I was very young, so I don't see what [then head coach] Mike Sanford could do to improve the program," state university system chancellor Jim Rogers said. "I'm not sure any top-flight coach could come in and really improve the program, assuming any top-flight coach would come in here, which I don't think they would. So I don't know how to remedy the program."
In 2010, UNLV replaced Sanford with Bobby Hauck, a "top-flight coach" at the FCS level, at least, who had won 80 games and advanced to seven FCS playoffs in seven seasons at Montana. He had about as good a resume as a smaller-school coach could compile. He lost a total of 17 games at Montana; in two seasons in Las Vegas, he has lost 21. He brought with him some baggage that may have seemed familiar to UNLV in the 1980s, but he has not found 1980s-level wins. The good news, such that it exists, is that whatever upside Hauck's program may have at UNLV, the Rebels will begin to find it in 2012. Hauck brings into action a mostly experienced, weathered team, for better or worse.
What's wrong with UNLV? Quite a bit apparently. And if Hauck has a fix, we should see it soon.
Hauck is now the head coach of an FBS program, which is quite an accomplishment. But was this a smart move? Will Hauck be able to do anything that the last six guys haven't been able to do: win consistently? Since Harvey Hyde took the UNLV job in 1982, the Rebels have finished with a winning season just six times; they've done the deed just once since their move to the 16-team WAC (and, soon after, the Mountain West) in 1995. This is a tough place to win and could be a good example of a bigger job not necessarily being a better job. […]
You assume a team that went 2-11 was probably at least a bit unlucky, and to be sure, UNLV's YPP margin suggests a little bit of a turnaround. But ... they lost no close games, they recovered more than 50% of their games' fumbles ... this was simply a bad team. But they were also young, and it is possible to see their running game improving a bit and their pass defense improving significantly. They won't be a good team, by any means, in 2011, but it is possible that Bobby Hauck could be building something.
Seven road games await the Rebels in 2011, including visits to otherwise beatable teams like New Mexico and Wyoming. Between that, and the fact that they face home games versus Boise State and solid Hawaii and San Diego State teams, it is likely that UNLV will improve a lot more in the advanced stats than in the loss column. With a team this young, the future might be at least reasonably bright, but it will be another couple of years before we find out if this move up was a smart one for Hauck.
Year Two for Hauck in Vegas was startlingly similar to Year One. Aside from a strange, 20-point whipping of Hawaii, the Rebels were mostly hopeless, alternating between semi-competence and outright struggle.
First Three Games: Opponents 31.1 Adj. PPG, UNLV 24.8 (minus-6.3)
Next Three Games: Opponents 28.2 Adj. PPG, UNLV 17.4 (minus-9.8)
Next Three Games: Opponents 30.4 Adj. PPG, UNLV 26.2 (minus-4.2)
Final Three Games: Opponents 30.7 Adj. PPG, UNLV 21.5 (minus-9.2)
Toward the midway point of the season, the defense improved and the offense fell apart. Then, as the offense got its bearings ever-so-slightly, the defense regressed. At the end of the season, the offense had regressed from 111th to 116th in Off. F/+ while the defense had "improved" from 112th to 107th. And UNLV headed into Year Three of the Hauck era with no momentum whatsoever.
Example No. 923 Why Yards Per Game Is An Overused, Overrated Metric: UNLV ranked 48th in Rushing Yards Per Game in 2011 despite not being any good at running the ball. Despite almost constantly playing from behind (only one of their losses was by fewer than 17 points, only two by less than 25), UNLV ran the ball (or at least attempted to) like their collective lives depended on it. UNLV rushed 71 percent of the time on standard downs (national average: 60 percent) and 39 percent on passing downs (national average: 33 percent), yet ranked only 99th in Rushing S&P+. Granted, that was a relative strength -- they ranked 119th in Passing S&P+ -- but they gained a decent number of rushing yards primarily because they just kept trying. The running backs trio of Dionza Bradford, Tim Cornett and Bradley Randle combined for 30.3 carries (and 153 yards) per game. And if you had that passing game, you'd keep trying to run, too.
One other, more appealing, reason for running: UNLV has quite a few three-star backs from which to choose. Cornett and Randle, each three-star signees, return; they will be joined this fall by three-star freshman David Greene. In recruiting, UNLV hasn't necessarily lacked for three-star players, but a decent concentration of them show up in the offensive backfield, and Cornett might end up a legitimate star. Signs point to decent upside at running back (more than in other areas, anyway), as does the fact that a line much better at run blocking than pass blocking (89th in Adj. Line Yards, 105th in Adj. Sack Rate) returns five players with starting experience (69 career starts, including 31 career starts from now-sophomores). The run game will almost certainly continue to be the emphasis of the UNLV offense, and it should improve all-around in 2012.
Of course, if opponents don't have to respect the pass, your run game will only be so successful, and UNLV had almost the worst passing game in the country last year. Junior quarterback Caleb Herring returns after a difficult 2011, but he was pushed mightily this spring, potentially ending up in what was at least a three-way tie with senior Sean Reilly and redshirt freshman Nick Sherry. Combined, Herring and Reilly were sacked on 11 percent of their pass attempts and completed just 54 percent of the passes they actually had time to throw. This was a dreadful, dreadful passing game, so bad that it doesn't really even matter that the Rebels' top four pass-catchers, who accounted for 73.9 percent of all targets, are all gone. The leading returning wideout, sophomore Devante Davis, caught just four of 13 passes last year for 42 yards, but when he and redshirt freshmen like receiver Marquis Thompson and tight end Jake Phillips (not to mention enormous true freshman Nick Gstrein) are pressed into more action, should we really expect any sort of dropoff? Is a dropoff even possible?
UNLV's passing game: so bad that almost 100 percent turnover cannot make it any worse. Season tickets for sale here!
So basically, the relative strength of the UNLV offense (the run) should get stronger, and it is almost impossible for the weakness to get weaker. That makes for net improvement, right?
While not always competent, UNLV did have a rather active defense in 2011. They forced a healthy 16 fumbles (21st in the country), and while their totals for passes defended (40) and tackles for loss (59) were far from amazing, they weren't an overall problem for the defense. The main problem for 2012 might be that those responsible for 75 percent of the forced fumbles, 60 percent of the passes defended and 50 percent of the tackles for loss are gone. A majority of last year's two-deep is back, but some of the most proven playmakers -- end James Dunlap, linebacker Nate Carter, corner Will Chandler -- are not.
Still, depth and experience count for something, and UNLV has it. They have a nicely experienced set of defensive tackles (led by juniors Tyler Gaston and Alex Kloman), a deep group of linebackers (seniors John Lotulelei and Princeton Jackson and junior Tani Maka each had three tackles for loss last year) and, in corner Sidney Hodge, at least one solid playmaker in the secondary. So there's that. But with no obvious replacement for Dunlap up front (converted quarterback James Boyd looked exciting in the spring game, for whatever that is worth), a bad pass rush that got them into trouble last year could get worse. Dunlap accounted for 6.5 of UNLV's 14 sacks in 2011, and even with him, UNLV was unable to get any sort of pressure on the quarterback on passing downs. The result: any gains made on standard downs (UNLV ranked 75th in Standard Downs S&P+) were relinquished on second-and-9 or third-and-7 (111th in Passing Downs S&P+).
As with the offense, it does appear that the strengths will get stronger and the weaknesses will get weaker. Still, there is quite a bit of experience in the front seven, with juniors and seniors occupying at least 10 of 14 slots on the projected two-deep. If experience and good, old-fashioned veteranosity can assist UNLV's pass rush, the secondary could overcome some turnover. Last year's top three safeties are gone, but there are intriguing replacements in Tajh Hasson, Kenny Brown and redshirt freshman Peni Vea. Last year's safety were not irreplaceable; UNLV's most impressive ranking -- 58th in Passing Success Rate+ -- points more to quality and aggression at the cornerback position. If corner Sidney Hodge can build off of a strong sophomore season (and get the aforementioned rush support), then secondary won't be as much of a concern as it may appear.
The thing about the Mountain West is, while there is typically quality at the top, the bottom half of the conference is almost always quite weak. That means that, if a lesser team like New Mexico or UNLV can even improve to the 95th-100th range, they could improve their win total by a decent amount. But neither school has ranked that high in a while. Still home games versus Northern Arizona, New Mexico, Wyoming and a depleted Air Force squad (not to mention Minnesota and Washington State), should portend more than two wins. We'll be conservative and set the bar at three this time around.
Despite losses in both the receiving corps and secondary, it is fair to believe that UNLV will improve, at least slightly, on both sides of the ball. But "improvement" could just mean "110th on offense, 100th on defense." Hauck has a reasonably experienced squad, and the Rebels' recruiting rankings are not terrible, but because of both recent and long-term history, it is difficult to expect anything more than minor steps forward. Four years ago, the chancellor of the Nevada universities said he has no idea how to remedy the UNLV program. After two years in charge, Hauck has accomplished only baby steps. An elixir may be out there somewhere, but as with other maladies that originate in Las Vegas, recovery is long and arduous.