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Notre Dame’s Opponents: UNLV set to improve in 2022, not that that’s saying much

Fresno State v UNLV

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - NOVEMBER 07: Head coach Marcus Arroyo of the UNLV Rebels looks on from the sideline during the second half of their game against the Fresno State Bulldogs at Allegiant Stadium on November 07, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Fresno State won 40-27. (Photo by David Becker/Getty Images)

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UNLV will not be the worst team Notre Dame has faced in recent years. Bowling Green (2019), New Mexico (2019) and South Florida (2020) all come to mind as arguably worse teams than the 2022 rendition of the Rebels, but simply making that comparison shows how rough life is for UNLV at the moment.

Head coach Marcus Arroyo enters his third season leading the Rebels — though any coach making his debut in 2020 had an uphill task — still looking for his third total win.

Going 2-10 is rarely seen as progress, but for UNLV it was, particularly since the two wins came in its final few games. Furthermore, the Rebels went 0-6 in one-score games, suggesting a regression in close games should be coming and one that leaves them with a few more wins.

Freshman quarterback Cameron Friel led the way, if throwing 11 interceptions against six touchdowns can be considered leading the way.

Most notably, running back Charles Williams (254 carries for 1,261 yards and 15 touchdowns) will no longer be the piece of reliability in UNLV’s offense. Most concerning, linebacker Jacoby Windmon will no longer be that piece on defense, transferring to Michigan State with his 118 tackles with 11 for loss including six sacks.

While the Rebels were able to pull in some transfers this offseason, including possibly a new starting quarterback, losses like Windmon’s transfer will plague a team trying to find its way to a .500 season. The sole pieces of returning production instead become starters for Power Five teams.

Furthermore, some of those pieces head to the transfer portal and then find homes only at an FCS program, such as last year’s leading receiver Steve Jenkins (46 catches for 694 yards and four touchdowns), now at Southern Utah.

UNLV ranks No. 61 below at 65 percent returning production.

Friel will not start to open the Rebels season against Idaho State on Saturday. The post-preseason practices depth chart lists Tennessee transfer Harrison Bailey and initial 2021 starter Doug Brumfield (started two games, then injured) as the top-two QBs, but it does not list a starter.

Based on recruiting pedigree, Bailey, a former five-star prospect that rated as the No. 2 pro-style quarterback and No. 30 recruit overall in the class of 2020, should be the starter. Of course, recruiting pedigrees do not win games on Saturdays, but it suggests his overall talent profile is high. The No. 1 pro-style quarterback in that class? Clemson’s D.J. Uiagalelei.

Bailey played a bit in 2020 for the Volunteers, completing 70.6 percent of his passes for 8.5 yards per attempt with four touchdowns and two interceptions. The 2021 transfer of Hendon Hooker from Virginia Tech spelled the end of Bailey’s prospects in Knoxville, though.

Whoever starts at quarterback for UNLV may be running for his life frequently behind an offensive line that gave up 41 sacks last season. Even with Williams charging full force ahead, that offensive line cleared a path for only 3.9 yards per carry for the team as a whole.

UNLV brought in two offensive line transfers from FCS-level Charleston Southern and one from SMU, so reinforcements have arrived, but they may be nothing but a change in the names leading to such struggling results.

Without Windmon, it will be hard to be optimistic for the Rebels defense, coming off a year in which it gave up 32.8 points per game.

As it pertains to facing Notre Dame in late October (aired exclusively on Peacock), this defense may be the one occasion in which the Irish skill-position reserves — namely, fifth-year former walk-on receiver Matt Salerno and freshmen running back Gi’Bran Payne, perhaps as well as freshmen tight ends Holden Staes and Eli Raridon — are able to feast, both boosting their stat lines and confidence and giving the regular rotation pieces a chance to rest their weary legs. That may come at the cost of covering a five-touchdown spread, but for on-field purposes, that will be an easy decision.

Arroyo should get his third win right out of the gate, favored by 20.5 points against FCS-level Idaho State in the season opener (3:30 ET; CBSSN), and by the end of the year, UNLV should have exceeded its win total in the last two seasons combined.

PointsBet sets the Rebels’ win total Over/Under at 3.5, with the odds favoring the Over as more likely. Repeating wins against New Mexico and Hawaii will put UNLV on the precipice of that Over, with possible victories to be had also against North Texas and Nevada.

The three woeful Irish opponents of years past combined to win six games in those respective seasons. The Rebels will not match that total in 2022, but it should exceed the high-water mark of Bowling Green’s three triumphs in 2019, furthering the thought that at least UNLV is better than that Falcons’ defense.

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