Who Saw This Coming?

Quarterback Kaleb Herring helped turn around UNLV's season after an 0-2 start

Quarterback Kaleb Herring helped turn around UNLV’s season after an 0-2 start

NAACP Names Paula Deen Woman of the Year … Psychological Tests Prove Kanye West 100 Percent Sane … Blaine Gabbert and Brandon Weeden Share 2013 NFL MVP Honors …

These are among the headlines I figured I would’ve seen long before this one: UNLV to Play in New Year’s Day Bowl Game.

Wait … what? The same UNLV that won a grand total of six games in the previous three seasons? That hadn’t been to a bowl game (or produced a winning season) since 2000? Those Rebels are playing on New Year’s Day?

Turns out it’s true: On January 1, UNLV will play in something called the Heart of Dallas Bowl. OK, so it doesn’t have quite the ring (or prestige) of the Rose Bowl or the Sugar Bowl or, heck, even the Outback Bowl. And the opponent (North Texas) will never be confused with Notre Dame or USC. And, sure, the game is kicking off at an hour (9 a.m. PST) when most bleary-eyed Las Vegans will be lying in bed, resolving to never, ever drink again. Still, getting a chance to play on New Year’s Day is a big deal—especially for a football program that’s usually “looking forward to next season” before Halloween.

Certainly, appearing in the Heart of Dallas Bowl gives fourth-year coach Bobby Hauck some juice on the recruiting trail. And he’ll have even more should the Rebels (7-5) win. Which begs the question: Can they? The oddsmakers say it’s unlikely, installing North Texas (8-4) as a solid 6½-point favorite. But limited history suggests otherwise: UNLV is 3-for-3 in bowl games, winning the 1984 California Bowl (which the NCAA later made the school forfeit), as well as the 1994 and 2000 Las Vegas Bowls. Combined score in those three victories: Rebels 113, Foes 51. UNLV is also 4-0 all time against North Texas, winning the last two meetings (in 1999 and 2000) by a 64-3 margin.

Of course, the players and coaches responsible for those successes left the building long ago. What suggests Hauck’s current squad can keep the school’s bowl record unblemished? Well, for starters, UNLV finished the regular season with a flourish, pounding Air Force (41-21 on the road) and San Diego State (45-19 at home), part of a 7-3 closing run after an 0-2 start.

Over that 10-game stretch, the offense was consistently productive, averaging nearly 34 points per game while producing 24 points or more nine times. More importantly, the defense improved dramatically, allowing an average of just 24.8 points over the final five games after yielding 36.3 ppg in the first seven. In other words, the Rebels—to borrow a betting term—have the look of a “play-on” team. Problem is, so does North Texas. The Mean Green are 6-1 in their last seven (all as a favorite), including three straight blowout road victories. And while UNLV’s defense was stout down the stretch, North Texas’ D was stout all season, yielding just 18.1 ppg, which ranks ninth nationally.

From a wagering perspective, UNLV does enter this contest on an 8-2 run against the spread, including 6-1 ATS as an underdog. But North Texas has also covered in eight of its last 10, including six of its last seven as a favorite. And against opponents that made a bowl game, UNLV was 1-4, while the Mean Green went 3-3.

Ah, but here’s why that last stat is as misleading as a push-up bra: North Texas faced just one quality bowl team (Georgia); the others were Ohio, Ball State, Tulane, Middle Tennessee and Rice. Conversely, UNLV played Minnesota (which beat Nebraska and Penn State this year), Arizona (which beat Oregon), Fresno State (which is 11-1), San Diego State (which beat Boise State and took Fresno to overtime) and Utah State (which went on the road, with a third-string quarterback, and gave Fresno all it could handle in the Mountain West Conference title game).
Translation: If Hauck can eliminate the “we’re just happy to be here” attitude—and enforce a New Year’s Eve curfew—the Rebels absolutely have a shot against North Texas. And while I’ll stop just short of calling for an outright upset—if only because UNLV defeated just one team (San Diego State) that finished with a winning record—I’ll snatch the 6½ points in what figures to be a low-scoring contest.

That’s right: The Rebels are in a New Year’s Day bowl game and I’m betting on them. Looks like the Mayans were about a year premature with their end-of-the-world prediction.