Sept. 10, The Rose Bowl
2015 Record: 3-9 (2-6)
2015 Recap: It may not be obvious from the record, but the 2015 season was, overall, not a disaster for the Rebels. UNLV won three games, for one, which was one more than the Rebels won in 2014, and two conference games, which was also one more than in 2014. For another, UNLV was much more competitive across the board than in 2014, with four of their nine losses coming in one-possession games, as opposed to just two of their 11 losses in 2014. What's more, UNLV did it with a pretty untalented team that had basically zero depth. First-year head coach Tony Sanchez actually made UNLV a non-joke of a football team in his first year as a college coach, and that's a pretty impressive debut.
Returning Starters: 13 (6 offense, 7 defense)
2016 Projection: Look, UNLV probably isn't going to be good enough next year to compete for the Mountain West, but the team should be better than it was in 2015. The Rebels should be able to get better play out of the quarterback position, with Stanton and Rogers coming in to push incumbent starter Kurt Palandech, who was pretty miserable throwing the ball last year. Stanton, if you'll remember, is a JC bounce-back, having originally signed with Nebraska out of high school.
UNLV also has a couple of good Mountain West receivers in Devonte Boyd and Kendal Keys, as well as a returning starter at running back in Keith Whitely, who was pretty good last year. He'll be pushed by Lexington Thomas, who had a big spring, but at the very least, UNLV should be solid at both running back and receiver. If the offensive line can be a slight step up from last year, the offense as a whole could be above average in the Mountain West.
The defense has more issues. Last year, the Rebels were pretty bad, and there isn't much reason to think they'll suddenly be decent. The run defense was awful as the Rebels gave up 5.8 yards per rush, which was a bottom five number in all of college football. UNLV has some returning experience on the defensive line, but there's little reason to think they'll suddenly make a great leap forward in year two under Sanchez.
From a schedule perspective, UNLV has it pretty easy in the non-conference outside of UCLA. If the Rebels can beat Central Michigan on the road, it's easy to see UNLV going 3-1 in the non-conference. Then, in conference, getting Fresno State and Wyoming at home could turn those close losses from a year ago into wins. Bowl eligibility looks like a legitimate stretch goal for the Rebels in year two under Sanchez, and 5-7 looks like something that's eminently reasonable.
Outlook for UCLA: This should be the one patsy in the early season for UCLA, and it's a much-needed one. The Bruins will have a tough test against Texas A&M in the opener, and then after UNLV, the Bruins have to go to Provo to take on BYU and then get Stanford at home. As far as Septembers go, it's UCLA's toughest slate in years, and if UCLA can go 3-1 or better, it will mean very good things for the season as a whole.
UNLV will almost certainly be one of those wins. The Rebels should be better, but last year, UCLA beat this team by 34 points on the road in a game where the Bruins didn't play all that well. This should be a nice opportunity for UCLA to iron out whatever kinks show up against Texas A&M in week one in advance of the meat of the schedule. UCLA is probably going to run the ball a lot on Texas A&M, so we wouldn't be shocked, looking at it from a few months away, if UCLA decides to get the passing game going against UNLV.
Whether UCLA chooses to emphasize the run or the pass, the talent differential is too much, and the Bruins should be able to run away with this one. It's probably the last obvious blowout on the schedule until Oregon State in November, though, as the schedule turns to tough conference opponents after BYU.
Next up: BYU...