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1. Approaching the peak
If you win enough, you might become your record. That is one of the most stat-unfriendly things you'll ever see me write, but we've seen it before, and we'll see it again. In 2011, Kansas State went 10-3 and reached the Cotton Bowl with a team that ranked just 29th in the F/+ rankings, six spots ahead of 5-7 South Florida; the Wildcats won eight games by a touchdown or less, winning games with minimal margin for error and plenty of turnovers luck. The next season, they returned a healthy level of talent and experience and improved both to 11 wins and a No. 9 ranking.
In 2012, Rice went 7-6 with a No. 87 ranking, scraping by with narrow wins over two teams with a combined 3-21 record (the Owls beat 1-11 Kansas by one and 2-10 Tulane by two). But they found a new level late in the year and won five in a row, and with a wealth of experience returning, they went 10-4, won Conference USA, and improved to 69th in 2013.
Meet the Bag Man
Meet the Bag Man
Wins keep a squad glued together. Players are less likely to transfer, the head coach is more likely to receive further support from administration, etc. And even if you're a little lucky or underwhelming while you're initially winning, wins build infrastructure and beget more wins.
This is what UNLV hopes, anyway. The Rebels broke through to an extent in 2013. They won seven games and went bowling for the first time since 2000; they improved by five wins over 2012's 2-11 squad. On paper, however, they barely progressed, from 103rd to just 96th. The 2012 team was unlucky, finishing just 1-5 in one-possession games. The 2013 squad, however, went 2-1 in such games and, like Rice, showed demonstrable improvement late in the year. After taking down weak opponents early, they began to look the part of a true bowl team late. And in 2014, they return an intriguing quarterback, an explosive running back, one of the best mid-major receivers in the country, every offensive lineman, and one of the nation's most experienced secondaries. Whatever Bobby Hauck is capable of building in Las Vegas, we'll get some strong glimpses of it this fall.
Of course, there are some red flags. UNLV's late-season hot streak wasn't as long as Rice's. If you get hot for your last four to six games and return the reasons for the hotness, that could be a clear sign of a breakthrough. But UNLV's hot streak was basically three games, and the Rebels didn't look very good in their bowl game, for what that's worth.
Plus, more importantly, there are some classroom issues threatening to get in the way. Despite the fact that this will probably be Bobby Hauck's best team in Vegas, there's a chance that UNLV's APR score will fall low enough to prompt a bowl ban. Hauck has used grayshirts and transfers and every tool at his disposal to build a level of depth UNLV almost never has, and some of the tactics, along with an absolutely miserable APR score from the 2011-12 academic year, could backfire a bit. That year's score was so low that UNLV would have to post its highest score in memory for 2012-13 to stay above the cut line.
The yearlong delay between performance and potential punishment is awkward and could land UNLV in postseason jail for performance from two to three years ago. It would be a shame for this Rebel squad to meet its potential and stay home anyway, but that's the situation at hand. Regardless, a UNLV team that meets its potential could be wonderfully entertaining for 12 games anyway, even if there isn't a 13th. One does have to wonder about motivation, however.
2013 Schedule & Results
|Record: 7-6 | Adj. Record: 4-9 | Final F/+ Rk: 96|
|Date||Opponent||Opp. F/+ Rk||Score||W-L||Adj. Score||Adj. W-L||5-gm Adj. Avg.|
|29-Aug||at Minnesota||55||23-51||L||23.7 - 31.3||L|
|7-Sep||Arizona||25||13-58||L||16.0 - 25.0||L|
|14-Sep||Central Michigan||111||31-21||W||27.5 - 26.0||W|
|21-Sep||Western Illinois||N/A||38-7||W||22.6 - 29.9||L|
|28-Sep||at New Mexico||110||56-42||W||29.6 - 39.2||L||-6.4|
|12-Oct||Hawaii||82||39-37||W||25.9 - 33.4||L||-6.4|
|19-Oct||at Fresno State||49||14-38||L||21.0 - 32.6||L||-6.9|
|26-Oct||at Nevada||88||27-22||W||22.6 - 28.8||L||-8.4|
|2-Nov||San Jose State||74||24-34||L||19.7 - 30.3||L||-9.1|
|9-Nov||Utah State||32||24-28||L||38.7 - 33.0||W||-6.0|
|21-Nov||at Air Force||113||41-21||W||30.7 - 22.3||W||-2.8|
|30-Nov||San Diego State||89||45-19||W||41.3 - 19.0||W||4.0|
|1-Jan||vs. North Texas||51||14-36||L||22.0 - 30.1||L||3.6|
|Points Per Game||29.9||57||31.8||94|
|Adj. Points Per Game||26.3||81||29.3||79|
2. They closed
UNLV is hoping that it gets its own close-game hot streak because 2012 was pretty cold. The Rebels went 1-5 in one-possession games, thanks in part to a minus-3.4 point margin (per game) in turnover luck. They turned 60 passes defensed into just nine interceptions, and it cost them. Three tight losses to start the season put the Rebels in a whole out of which they could not dig. One extra bounce per game in their favor, and they might have started 4-0.
Regardless of the turnovers, UNLV's inability to close games pointed at a lack of depth we will explore below. The defense went from mediocre to bad throughout the course of each half, and the offense was demonstrably worse in the second half of games. That simply has to change if Hauck is ever going to break through.
I focused a good portion of last year's UNLV preview on the Rebels' depth and close-game issues. Again, the overall product didn't turn around that much in 2013, but while the offense continued to falter in the second half, the defense stiffened dramatically. In per-quarter S&P+ rankings, the UNLV D ranked 101st in the first quarter, 109th in the second, 56th in the third and 39th in fourth. The Rebels eventually figured out some answers on that side of the ball, and improvement in depth was one cause of that.
And though it was just a three-game stretch, UNLV really did look great at the end of the regular season.
Adj. Points Per Game (first 9 games): Opponent 30.7, UNLV 23.2 (minus-7.5)
Adj. Points Per Game (next 3 games): UNLV 36.9, Opponent 24.8 (plus-12.1)
We'll see how much of that is sustainable.
|FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||44.9%||46||Succ. Rt. +||96.1||76|
|FIELD POSITION||Def. Avg. FP||30.1||75||Def. FP+||97.4||84|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||4.5||46||Redzone S&P+||99.1||67|
|Q1 Rk||99||1st Down Rk||80|
|Q2 Rk||48||2nd Down Rk||88|
|Q3 Rk||95||3rd Down Rk||108|
Note: players in bold below are 2014 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Nick Sherry||6'5, 235||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||41||75||337||3||5||54.7%||2||2.6%||4.2|
|Jared Lebowitz||6'4, 195||RSFr.||2 stars (5.3)|
|Blake Decker||6'2, 205||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)|
3. Another go-round for Nick Sherry (maybe)
Nick Sherry looks the part. He's a tall, strong-armed, pro-style quarterback with iffy mobility, and he at least held his own in 2012 as a freshman. He appeared to be UNLV's quarterback of the future, but "the future" wasn't 2013. After an incredibly awful performance against Arizona — 6-for-22 (!) for 111 yards, a touchdown, and two interceptions — he was benched in favor of QB-turned-WR-turned-QB Caleb Herring. Herring wasn't an incredible passer, but he threw as many interceptions in 405 passes (five) as Sherry threw in 75, his completion rate was 63 percent, and he provided a decent run threat.
Herring was a senior, however. Sherry gets another shot at the top gig in 2014, but he'll have to hold off Blake Decker, a former BYU walk-on who threw for more than 4,000 yards and almost 50 touchdowns at Scottsdale Community College last fall.
|Shaquille Murray-Lawrence||RB||5'8, 180||Sr.||NR||47||418||2||8.9||22.9||27.7%|
|Adonis Smith||RB||5'11, 200||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||28||70||2||2.5||2.8||17.9%|
|Nick Sherry||QB||6'5, 235||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||12||26||0||2.2||2.8||25.0%|
|Keith Whitely||RB||5'9, 185||So.||2 stars (5.4)||10||56||0||5.6||2.5||60.0%|
|Marcus Sullivan||WR||5'9, 195||Sr.||NR||6||81||1||13.5||23.1||50.0%|
|Henri Jussila||RB||5'9, 180||RSFr.||NR|
|Devante Davis||WR||6'3, 210||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||146||87||1307||59.6%||31.8%||61.4%||9.0||211||10.1||140.8|
|Marcus Sullivan||WR||5'9, 195||Sr.||NR||67||45||505||67.2%||14.6%||54.1%||7.5||-29||7.1||54.4|
|Anthony Williams||WR||5'11, 190||Jr.||2 stars||35||21||188||60.0%||7.6%||61.3%||5.4||-76||5.1||20.2|
|Taylor Barnhill||FB||6'4, 240||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||33||21||131||63.6%||7.2%||78.6%||4.0||-125||4.4||14.1|
|Jake Phillips||TE||6'6, 255||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||30||19||143||63.3%||6.5%||64.0%||4.8||-89||5.1||15.4|
|Jerry Rice Jr.||WR||14||11||86||78.6%||3.1%||36.4%||6.1||-35||5.8||9.3|
|Shaquille Murray-Lawrence||RB||5'8, 180||Sr.||NR||13||11||66||84.6%||2.8%||58.3%||5.1||-51||5.7||7.1|
|Adonis Smith||RB||5'11, 200||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||12||9||61||75.0%||2.6%||60.0%||5.1||-40||6.1||6.6|
|Aaron Criswell||WR||5'10, 175||Sr.||NR||10||5||33||50.0%||2.2%||70.0%||3.3||-36||3.8||3.6|
|Andrew Price||TE||6'6, 240||So.||2 stars (5.4)||6||3||27||50.0%||1.3%||33.3%||4.5||-15||7.0||2.9|
|Jack Killian||WR||6'0, 195||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||5||1||0||20.0%||1.1%||N/A||0.0||-26||0.0||0.0|
|Jacobie Russell||TE||6'4, 235||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Devonte Boyd||WR||6'2, 175||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Antonio Zepeda||TE||6'6, 240||RSFr.||2 stars (5.3)|
4. Big plays? Check. Mundane Plays?
Whether Sherry or Decker wins the job at quarterback, the starter will be less mobile than Herring, which might put pressure on a running back corps that must replace its leader. Tim Cornett rushed for 3,733 yards and 35 touchdowns over his four-year career. He also caught 30 of 36 passes, mostly check-downs, for Sherry and Herring in 2013. He was well-rounded and solid, and the loss of Cornett, Herring, and possession receiver Maika Mataele deals the Rebels a significant blow in the efficiency department. But the big plays should remain
In 2014, UNLV's offense will be led by two big-play threats in Shaq Murray-Lawrence and Devante Davis. Shaq-Mu was one of the more exciting small-sample running backs in the country last fall; as you see above, his Opportunity Rate (the percentage of carries gaining at least five yards) was a decent amount lower than Cornett's, but his 13 carries that got at least five yards tended to get much more than five yards. Against Minnesota and Arizona, he had eight carries for 190 yards, and against Fresno State, he had three for 79; actually, the Fresno State game was perfectly descriptive: including two receptions, he had gains of one, three, three, four, and 73 yards. Per-play, that's fantastic. It's also a 20 percent success rate.
Davis, meanwhile, was huge early and late (10 catches for 224 yards against Arizona and CMU, 17 for 330 against Utah State, Air Force, and SDSU) and efficient in the middle. This is an explosive duo, but as it was last year, depth is still an issue. There is very little proven talent in the skill position two-deep after Davis and Shaq-Mu.
|Brett Boyko||LT||6'7, 310||Sr.||NR||29||2nd All-MWC|
|Robert Waterman||C||6'2, 290||Sr.||2 stars (5.1)||38|
|Cameron Jefferson||LG||6'6, 300||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||33|
|Ron Scoggins||RG||6'3, 335||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||19|
|Andrew Oberg||RT||6'7, 280||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||13|
|Nick Gstrein||RG||6'4, 285||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||4|
|Tom Clarkson||LT||6'6, 290||So.||NR||0|
|Eric Noone||LG||6'2, 300||So.||NR||0|
|Brian Roth||C||6'5, 300||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||0|
|Kyle Saxelid||OL||6'7, 255||RSFr.||2 stars (5.3)|
5. Find a more experienced line than this one
Murray-Lawrence is a play-maker, and if he avoids the urge to dance a bit too long, he and other runners should find some decent holes behind a line that returns 136 career starts among six players with starting experience. Big all-conference tackle Brett Boyko leads the way for a line that has basically everything you would want from an offensive line: experience, depth, talent, continuity, and size. This unit will be the least of the concerns for UNLV's offense in 2014.
|FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||43.1%||71||Succ. Rt. +||95.9||72|
|FIELD POSITION||Off. Avg. FP||31.7||31||Off. FP+||102.5||32|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||4.4||82||Redzone S&P+||96.2||72|
|Q1 Rk||101||1st Down Rk||99|
|Q2 Rk||109||2nd Down Rk||60|
|Q3 Rk||56||3rd Down Rk||97|
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Jordan Sparkman||DE||6'6, 265||Sr.||2 stars (5.1)||13||30.5||4.1%||3.5||1.0||0||1||0||0|
|Sonny Sanitoa||DE||6'3, 260||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||13||25.5||3.4%||5.5||2.0||0||1||2||0|
|Jeremiah Valoaga||DE||6'5, 245||Jr.||NR||11||20.0||2.7%||5.5||1.0||0||1||0||0|
|Siuea Vaesau||DE||6'3, 250||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||13||15.5||2.1%||3.5||2.0||0||1||0||0|
|Efrem Clark||DT||6'2, 275||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||8||9.5||1.3%||1.5||0.5||0||0||0||0|
|Asten Koki||DT||6'3, 255||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||6||5.5||0.7%||0.5||0.5||0||0||0||0|
|Najee Johnson||DE||6'5, 220||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Tui Maloata||DE||6'3, 260||Jr.||NR|
|Billy Tanuvasa||DT||6'2, 290||Jr.||2 stars|
|Joseph Salazar||DE||6'4, 230||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)|
6. Rebuilding on the interior
In two years, UNLV's defense has improved from 118th in Def. F/+, to 98th, to 87th. While there have certainly been some high-upside players on defense, especially in the secondary, this improvement has come mostly because of options. In 2013, UNLV saw eight linemen, four linebackers, and seven defensive backs log at least 15 tackles; the Rebels lost two key members of the secondary but improved anyway thanks to a viable second string.
Last year's injuries make this year's secondary one of the deepest in the mid-major universe, but the depth of the front seven has been wiped away. Four of the top eight from the defensive line are gone, including tackle and leading pass rusher Tyler Gaston. Meanwhile, three of the top four linebackers are gone, too; the linebacking corps was the thinnest on the defense already, and now it's starting over.
Perhaps most alarming is that all of the losses up front come from the tackle position. Last year's ends all return, for better or worse — the size at the position is strong, and Rebel ends are pretty good against the run, but their effect on the pass rush was minimal — but the tackles will be quite green. And of course, so will a linebacking corps that returns nothing but sophomores and newcomers.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Tau Lotulelei||WLB||6'1, 220||So.||NR||11||22.5||3.0%||4.0||0.0||0||0||1||0|
|Trent Langham||SLB||6'2, 210||So.||2 stars (5.4)||13||6.5||0.9%||1.0||1.0||0||0||0||0|
|Iggy Porchia||MLB||6'2, 210||So.||NR||9||4.0||0.5%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Malo Feula||LB||6'0, 235||So.||2 stars (5.2)||10||4.0||0.5%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Nicolai Bornand||LB||6'1, 230||So.||2 stars (5.2)||10||2.5||0.3%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|D.J. Moffitt||LB||6'3, 225||Fr.||3 stars (5.6)|
|Elexious Perkins II||LB||6'0, 210||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Peni Vea||SS||6'1, 200||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||13||88.0||11.7%||3||0||2||2||0||0|
|Sidney Hodge (2012)||CB||5'8, 180||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||13||49.0||6.3%||4||0||1||8||1||1|
|Tajh Hasson||CB||6'1, 195||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||13||44.0||5.9%||1.5||1||1||11||4||0|
|Mike Horsey||FS||6'0, 180||Sr.||NR||12||36.5||4.9%||6.5||0||1||3||0||0|
|Kenny Keys (2012)||SS||6'4, 185||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||12||35.0||4.5%||0||0||2||1||0||0|
|Kenneth Penny||CB||5'11, 170||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||13||28.5||3.8%||1||0||0||18||0||1|
|Matt Vinal||SS||6'2, 200||Sr.||NR||13||25.5||3.4%||1.5||0||0||0||0||0|
|Fred Wilson||CB||6'0, 175||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||13||18.5||2.5%||1||0||0||3||0||0|
|Marc Philippi||DB||5'11, 210||So.||3 stars (5.6)||13||10.0||1.3%||1||1||0||0||1||0|
|David Greene||DB||6'0, 200||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||13||9.0||1.2%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Brandon Baker||DB||6'1, 175||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||13||8.5||1.1%||0.5||0||0||0||0||0|
|Torry McTyer||CB||6'0, 175||So.||3 stars (5.5)||13||5.5||0.7%||0||0||1||0||0||0|
|Troy Hawthorne||FS||6'3, 195||So.||2 stars (5.3)||12||2.5||0.3%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Blake Richmond||DB||6'3, 190||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)|
|DB||5'10, 170||Fr.||3 stars (5.6)|
7. Find a more experienced secondary than this one
It appears to be a "strengths get stronger, weaknesses get weaker" situation for UNLV in 2013. The pass rush was mediocre, and the run defense was poor, and with the turnover up front there's no reason to think that will change. But the pass defense ranked 67th in Passing S&P+ despite the pass rush, and with the return of 10 of the top 11 tacklers and two key pieces from 2012, the secondary will be one of the best in the west.
Corners Kenneth Penny and Tajh Hasson combined to defense 30 passes last year (though for the second straight year, the ratio of interceptions to break-ups was painfully low), and safeties Peni Vea and Mike Horsey combined for 9.5 tackles for loss and eight passes defensed. The return of corner Sidney Hodge and safety Kenny Keys could have give UNLV a full two-deep of play-makers. And if three-star freshman Dominique Fenstermacher lives up to his recruiting hype, he could play an early role. If there's room, anyway.
There are all sorts of questions to answer in the front seven, but the pass defense should shine.
8. Shaq-Mu ... Sonny ... Iggy ... Elexious ... Fenstermacher...
Come for the names, stay for the play-making.
|Logan Yunker||6'2, 200||Jr.||65||41.8||8||13||16||44.6%|
|Nicolai Bornand||6'1, 230||So.||48||61.8||14||3||29.2%|
|Marcus Sullivan||KR||5'9, 195||Sr.||18||28.3||0|
|Keith Whitely||KR||5'9, 185||So.||18||22.6||0|
|Keith Whitely||PR||5'9, 185||So.||15||2.9||0|
|Special Teams F/+||118|
|Field Goal Efficiency||120|
|Punt Return Efficiency||76|
|Kick Return Efficiency||34|
|Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency||50|
9. A lot of pressure on the return game
UNLV's special teams unit ranked 118th in Special Teams F/+ last year, but the Rebels held steady in the field position battle thanks to return men Marcus Sullivan and Keith Whitely. That both return is a good thing, but UNLV will still have minimal margin for error in this regard unless the Rebels get improvement from its legs — punter Logan Yunker and kickoffs man Nicolai Bornand. And while they will have a new place-kicker as well, departed Nolan Kohorst didn't exactly set the bar very high.
2014 Schedule & Projection Factors
|27-Sep||at San Diego State||83|
|4-Oct||at San Jose State||82|
|25-Oct||at Utah State||69|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||-21.4% (118)|
|Two-Year Recruiting Rk||120|
|TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin*||5 / 9.4|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||15 (9, 6)|
10. An exciting, uncertain fall
Setting aside the fact that UNLV might be banned from the post-season, the Rebels should improve overall thanks to experience, offensive big-play threats like Shaquille Murray-Lawrence and Devante Davis, and extreme depth on the offensive line and in the secondary. This is an exciting squad, albeit one that could still bomb if the defensive front seven and quarterback position holds it back. But the biggest obstacles come from a schedule that doesn't do a lot of favors — UNLV plays only three teams projected worse than 93rd and plays five projected 69th or higher — and from the fact that motivation could suffer if a bowl ban comes to fruition.
Bobby Hauck's fourth-year breakthrough was encouraging, and in 2014, Hauck will field his most experienced squad yet. But without academic improvement, the on-field ceiling for his squad could be limited, both in the short and long term. It's an unusual thing, the fruits of your labor producing both an exciting team and an uncertain present. But it's exactly what Hauck finds entering Year 5.