Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Published Sunday, Dec. 8, 2013 | 12:06 p.m.
Updated Sunday, Dec. 8, 2013 | 8:24 p.m.
When people went to bed Saturday night there was no guarantee the UNLV football team would play in a bowl game. Then came Sunday morning and a phone call to Athletic Director Tina Kunzer-Murphy that announced the Rebels would have to wait until 2014. Well, a few hours into it anyways.
“Who would have ever thought that UNLV would be playing in a New Year’s Day bowl,” said fourth-year Rebels coach Bobby Hauck.
The Rebels (7-5) accepted a bid to play in the Heart of Dallas Bowl against North Texas (8-4) on Jan. 1 in the Cotton Bowl. The game will air on ESPNU at 9 a.m. Las Vegas time.
The final tally had 79 Division I teams reach bowl eligibility for 70 spots. That included seven Mountain West teams for six league-affiliated games.
Kunzer-Murphy worked her phone all week, talking to Mountain West Commissioner Craig Thompson, bowl officials and leaders at ESPN Regional Television, which operates five of the league’s six games plus several others nationally. The Heart of Dallas Bowl is a new one under ERT control.
UNLV was one of four Mountain West teams fearing for its bowl life this week. Kunzer-Murphy felt better about the Rebels' chances after last week’s 45-19 victory against San Diego State, but there were still no guarantees.
“I believe we won our way into a bowl game, but it’s been pretty nerve wracking,” she said.
In the end the odd league team out was San Jose State (6-6). The Spartans kicked off this week of speculation with a 62-52 upset against Fresno State that cost every league team a probable BCS payout. The other teams on the fringe, San Diego State (7-5) and Colorado State (7-6), landed in the Famous Idaho Potato and New Mexico bowls, respectively.
UNLV is technically filling the Big Ten’s seventh slot, which the league couldn’t fill because it sent both Ohio State and Michigan State to the BCS. ERT moved the Rebels over to that spot instead of the Mountain West slot in the Armed Forces Bowl because it wanted to find a game for an extra Conference-USA team, in this case Middle Tennessee State. MTSU and North Texas are both in C-USA, so they couldn’t meet in a bowl game.
Ironically, or perhaps not considering how much bowl games are determined with relationships and behind-closed-doors deals, North Texas is the destination for outgoing UNLV President Neal Smatresk.
Hauck said when he heard the game in Dallas was a possibility he didn’t want to jinx it, but, “secretly I really held out hope we’d have a chance to play in that game.”
It’s on a marquee date in a talent-rich state that will allow the Rebels to show off Texas products Tim Cornett (the program’s all-time leading rusher) and Devante Davis (14 touchdown catches this year). And the extra practices are something coaches very much value in order to get a head start on next season.
Hauck and North Texas coach Dan McCarney, who go back to their days in the Big 12, both talked about how they value this game for players in programs without much tradition.
“I don’t have one player that’s been in a bowl game or been part of a winning season in college,” McCarney said.
This is UNLV’s first bowl game in 13 years, its first outside of Las Vegas since the 1984 California Bowl and only the fourth in program history. The Mean Green made four consecutive New Orleans Bowl appearances from 2001-04 and then went into the tank, winning fewer than 25 percent of its games over the subsequent eight seasons. North Texas is 1-5 all-time in bowl appearances while UNLV is 3-0.
North Texas’ campus is only about 30 minutes away from the Cotton Bowl, so their fan turnout has a chance to be good. Kunzer-Murphy said the university was working on ticket packages that would help fans get to Dallas for the game.
When the dust settled, this was probably the best possible option for the university. And for fans it’s far more affordable than a trip to the Hawaii Bowl.
That doesn’t guarantee anything as far as attendance or the outcome, but considering where things stood Saturday night it’s easy to imagine many people have new plans for New Year’s.
“We had no idea that it would be such a great ending to this crazy week,” Kunzer-Murphy said.