In the 100 days leading up to the kickoff of the college football season on Saturday, Aug. 25, HERO Sports is ranking the top 100 teams in the FBS. Each day, starting May 17 and ending Aug. 24, a new team is revealed in the HERO Sports Top 100.
[divider]RANKINGS: Top 100 FBS Teams for 2018
TRIVIA: Daily CFB Trivia Question
MORE: Best FBS Player for Each Jersey Number
MORE: Best FCS Player for Each Jersey Number[divider]
No. 88 UNLV
"We have to grow up. We have to be more mature. We have to change the culture," fourth-year UNLV head coach Tony Sanchez said in March.
Clearly, he's not satisfied with incremental improvement and an already-dramatically improved culture. The next step is a bowl game and for a program that returns most pieces from an offense that should run over — or past — most opponents with a multi-dimensional run game and a revamped defense that needs to generate pressure.
2017 Record: 5-7 (4-4, Mountain West)
UNLV won five games in a season for just the eighth time in the last 30 years. They beat eventual Mountain West champion Fresno State on the road and scored at least 30 points five times.
But when you lose to Howard at home — the biggest point-spread upset in college football history — and against bad Nevada and Hawai'i teams, a five-win season doesn't feel as good as it should have.
Head Coach: Tony Sanchez (4th Year, 12-24)
UNLV enters the fourth year of the Tony Sanchez experiment, and while the Runnin' Rebels are still chasing their first bowl berth since 2013, there has been significant progress.
Recruiting has slowed since Sanchez compiled the 81st-ranked class nationally and third-ranked class in the Mountain West in 2016 but their win total has climbed each of the last three years. He fired defensive coordinator Kent Baer and safeties coach Andy LaRussa after another miserable — albeit not as miserable — season from the defense.
“We’ve gotten better every single year," Sanchez said. "There’s no reason not to continue to get better. If we do that, this program goes to a whole other level.”
QB Johnny Stanton, WR Devonte Boyd, OT Kyle Saxelid, DT Mike Hughes Jr., LB Brian Keyes, CB Robert Jackson
The most notable loss is longtime No. 1 receiver Devonte Boyd. Another year in Vegas would've been nice for the development of Armani Rogers. Rogers is the present and future of this team but the graduation of backup Johnny Stanton, who performed well enough when Rogers went down with a concussion, still hurts depth.
All-conference players Kyle Saxelid and Mike Hughes Jr. are also gone. Hughes was one of few defenders who generated any sort of pressure last year, and Jackson led the team in passes defended.
Returning Offensive Players
QB Armani Rogers, RB Lexington Thomas, RB Charles Williams, WR Brandon Presley, WR Darren Woods Jr., WR Kendal Keys, OT Nathan Jacobson, G Justin Polu, C Sid Acosta
Last August, Sanchez said he wanted the offense average at least 30 points per game and "be closer to 40." The bad news: The averaged only 28.8, 62nd in the FBS. The good news: They'll hit Sanchez's goal in 2018.
With the recruiting hype, early enrollment and immediate time under center, it feels like Armani Rogers has been in college for four or five years, not barely two years. He was MWC Freshman of the Year, largely thanks to his rushing totals (780 yards, the most by a quarterback in program history). He never attempted more than 27 passes and only hit 20 attempts four times, three of which came in losses.
“I’m becoming more of a leader,” Rogers said in April. “Just being able to recognize defenses as quick as I can, knowing the offense like the back of my hand, just putting everything together and just working on my whole craft from accuracy to running the ball to just putting everything together.”
He played well in the spring game but didn't get much help from his wideouts, who dropped three on-the-money balls, including a deep pass to junior Brandon Presley, last year's leading receiver. Boyd is gone but they still have a lot of depth.
The UNLV staff won't spend much time this offseason worrying about the offensive line or running backs. The run game ranked 19th nationally in yards per game (231) and 18th in yards per carry (5.3). Offensive line coach John Garrison left for the same job at Florida Atlantic but don't expect any drop-off up front, where three-year starter Justin Polu anchors a strong group for Lexington Thomas and their stable of backs.
Returning Defensive Players
DE Jameer Outsey, DT Nick Dehdashtian, DT Salanoa-Alo Wily, LB Gabe McCoy, LB Bailey Laolagi, LB Javin White, LB Farrell Hester II, CB Jericho Flowers, CB Jocquez Kalili, S Dalton Baker, S Greg Francis
Pressure: The use of persuasion, influence, or intimidation to make someone do something.
Pressure: The continuous physical force exerted on or against an object by something in contact with it.
Pressure: Attempt to persuade or coerce (someone) into doing something.
Get the point?
Sanchez repeatedly lauded the defense's energy during spring practice but put me in the wait-and-see crowd after they couldn't generate any pressure last year. None. Zero. No pressure. Ever.
New coordinator Tim Skipper, most recently Florida linebackers coach, takes over a veteran unit that had 11 sacks (125th nationally), seven interceptions (102nd) and 53 tackles for loss (115th). And the lack of game-changing plays crippled them on third downs, allowing a 44-percent conversion rate.
“We’re going to do whatever we have to do to make sure the quarterback is uncomfortable,” he said in March. “So if that means we’ve got to blitz a lot to do it, we’re going to do it. If we can get there with two guys rushing, we’re going to do it. If the quarterback is comfortable, that puts a lot of stress on the defense.”
Jameer Outsey is a defensive end who began his began his career at Iowa, where moved from linebacker to tight end and played sparingly as a redshirt freshman in 2015. He transferred to UNLV, sat out 2016, and was one of only three players who had multiple sacks last year.
Jericho Flowers (below) is a corner-turned-receiver-turned-corner who had a breakout 2017 season, leading the team with two interceptions while adding 60 tackles and five tackles for loss.
"Defensively, we're more talented," Sanchez said at the start of spring practice. "You see a lot of depth out there. Again, we've got guys who have played a lot of reps now going into their junior and senior years, which is a good thing, having that experience. But now we're learning a new system, so it's almost like, "OK, let's take it easy and slow and be fundamentally sound and get lined up."
Alongside Flowers is senior Jocquez Kalili, a Vegas native who walked on at Arizona in 2014, played two years at Mesa Community College and walked on at UNLV last year. The 5-foot-11, 185-pounder has quick, strong hands and could be in line for a bump in playing time.
Leading tackler Dalton Baker is back but better not be their leading tackler again this year. He's good at or near the line of scrimmage but their front seven needs to make more plays.
“We know how much we struggled on the back end last year, especially at the safety spot,” Sanchez added. “We had to get better there, and I feel like we got better. I don’t know if we’re exponentially better, but we’re older and more confident. I think schematically with what we’re doing, we’re going to be all right.”
QB Max Gilliam, DT Kolo Usaike, S Luca Vartic
Armani Rogers had 146 rushing attempts last year and will exceed that number in 2017. With Johnny Stanton's graduation, they need a new backup if Rogers is dinged up. That will likely be JUCO transfer Max Gilliam.
"Max has a quick release. He's picked up the offense really quickly, especially the RPO game," Sanchez after a week of spring practice. "It's obvious that he's done that before. I thought he was really efficient and did a really good job this week in practice."
Redshirt freshman Kolo Usaike earned the praise of the coaching staff throughout spring practice. And keep an eye on JUCO transfer Luca Vartic, a big (6-foot-1, 200 pounds) defensive back from Arizona Western.
UNLV plays USC for just the second time ever and the first time since 1997. The next week they face UTEP for the first time since 1993. They have a Week 5 bye and open conference play in Week 6 when New Mexico comes to Vegas.
|Saturday, Sept. 1||at USC|
|Saturday, Sept. 8||vs. UTEP|
|Saturday, Sept. 15||vs. Prairie View A&M|
|Saturday, Sept. 22||at Arkansas State|
|Saturday, Oct. 6||vs. New Mexico|
|Saturday, Oct. 13||at Utah State|
|Friday, Oct. 19||vs. Air Force|
|Saturday, Oct. 27||at San Jose State|
|Saturday, Nov. 3||vs. Fresno State|
|Saturday, Nov. 10||at San Diego State|
|Saturday, Nov. 17||at Hawai'i|
|Saturday, Nov. 24||vs Nevada|