Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2012 | 2 a.m.
The buffet of choice cuts and creampuffs to open the season has come to an end.
For the first time in four years, the UNLV football team has a fair fight when it starts the 2012 campaign Thursday night at Sam Boyd Stadium.
Minnesota, in contrast to Big Ten Conference-mate Wisconsin, who was the opening-night opponent the past two years, doesn’t clearly outmatch UNLV in every nook of its roster. The Golden Gophers aren’t helpless like Football Championship Subdivision team Sacramento State in 2009 or downtrodden Utah State in 2008, either.
They’re a team coming off two disappointing three-win seasons, similar to UNLV’s back-to-back two-win failures. The matchup represents the ultimate tightrope between a blessing and a curse for the Rebels and third-year coach Bobby Hauck.
Beat Minnesota and its standing as a BCS conference program that advanced to eight bowl games in the last 12 years makes the victory respectable. Lose to Minnesota and its colossal failure of finishing in the bottom 25 nationally in both offense and defense the last two years makes the defeat unacceptable.
This is the most important game of Hauck’s tenure so far.
The reports out of camp are positive, much more optimistic than the past two years. The Rebels have an offensive line consisting of five starters who played together last year. They have a promising freshman quarterback in Nick Sherry. They have their three top rushers back, including standout Tim Cornett. And the defense is poised to improve with a group dedicated to leaving last year’s embarrassment behind.
But now it’s time to see the improvement. Excuses are no longer valid like they were the past two years.
Giving a coach time to usher in his recruits before passing judgment is an overplayed pretext in college football, but Hauck deserved that benefit.
Trying to build a winning football team out of Mike Sanford’s inheritance of scraps two years ago was the equivalent of a chef attempting to open a gourmet restaurant on the Strip with fast-food leftovers. Even last year’s fiasco was forgivable — the blowout home loss to Southern Utah notwithstanding — when considering the schedule.
It’s entirely possible the Rebels faced stiffer competition than the San Francisco 49ers in 2011. They played four teams — Wisconsin, West Virginia, Boise State and TCU — that wound up in the top 20 at the end of the year.
This year, experts rank the Rebels' schedule difficulty in the bottom-fourth of the nation instead of the top-fourth.
These are Hauck’s players, too. If releasing a depth chart in a timely manner before the first game was as easy as losing 14 straight games on the road, the exact number of this year’s starters that Hauck brought in would be common knowledge.
An estimate must suffice, and it looks like as many as 18 of the 22 players that will first take the field on offense or defense were recruited within the past two-and-a-half years.
They should be every bit as talented as those suiting up for Minnesota, which hasn’t enjoyed a recruiting class ranked outside the bottom of the Big Ten since people thought Hillary Clinton was poised to become the next president.
If the Golden Gophers throttle the Rebels, a fanbase as fickle as UNLV football’s will lose interest for the rest of the season before they head to the parking lot.
Who could blame them? Seventh-graders who grew up in Las Vegas have gone a lifetime without seeing the Rebels reach a bowl game.
A contest against a team like Minnesota after months of preparation is the type that could show whether that unfortunate streak is at risk of ending under Hauck’s watch. It’s nice to have a first game that's so telling for a change.