The Cinderella Story: What we as sports fans love to witness. Anyone who is a fan of sports can tell you exactly where they were when they found out the No. 16 seed UMBC pulled off the unthinkable, and dominated the Virginia Cavaliers men’s basketball team in the round of 64 at this year’s March Madness tournament, and — perhaps — UNLV’s much-maligned football program is on the verge of joining this special club of “Cinderfellas.”

Sports fans will remember the run Loyola-Chicago made to the Final Four, as a 13-seed underdog every step of the way, defeating powerhouse teams left and right. Maybe you’ll recall the evil empire that is the New England Patriots, and how the rebellion that was the Philadelphia Eagles were able to dethrone the mighty Tom Brady and Bill Belichick in the Super Bowl. The Eagles were underdogs in every game of the postseason, despite having the best record in the NFC and even when they were the home team, in large part because they didn’t’ have MVP favorite but injured QB Carson Wentz.

Of course, we cannot overlook how the Vegas Golden Knights have shocked every sports fan in the world, breaking every first-year expansion team record in the book, and how they defied the odds to make it to the Stanley Cup final (500-1 odds of win, to be exact). If they could’ve pulled off the Stanley Cup victory, you could bet there would have been a movie made about it. Heck, maybe there still will be. 

All of these teams have a common theme, no one expected them to accomplish what they were able to accomplish. Some call it Cinderella, some call it luck, and some will say what it is: These teams are just flat out good. Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, fourth line forward for the Golden Knights, was quoted as saying, “I don’t think we are a Cinderella team, we’re just good.” 

UNLV Football Has Improved Its Coaching Staff, Facilities

As we shift focus to the upcoming UNLV football season in 2018, can UNLV football become this year’s next Cinderella team? A lot of Las Vegans know when they think of UNLV football as of late, the terms mediocre, underperformed, and just overall bad. With the hiring of former Bishop Gorman head coach Tony Sanchez a little more than three years ago, a new practice facility under construction and the world’s most advanced  home stadium — shared with the soon-to-be Las Vegas Raiders — due for completion by 2020, the arrow seems to be pointing up. 

UNLV fans, those days might be over.

UNLV head coach Tony Sanchez has not had the headline success that Golden Knights head coach Gerard Gallant had in his first year, but that does not mean Sanchez isn’t changing the program slowly but surely. In each of his first three seasons, Sanchez improved his win total by one in each season.

3-9 in 2015.

4-8 in 2016.

5-7 in 2017.

Obviously those are not dramatic changes, but Sanchez and his coaching staff are making improvements. According to 247sports.com, UNLV is bringing in a recruiting class that has 11 three-star recruits. 

Returning Offensive Leaders Bode Well For Improvement

UNLV’s offense went from 87th in the country to 49th last season, despite missing star players such as WR Devonte Boyd, and Mountain West Freshman of the Year, quarterback Armani Rogers, for a decent chunk of the season. When healthy, Rodgers was able to accomplish a 7.4 non-sack carry rate and is on. This gave UNLV the 33rd best rushing attack. Now enter the rushing attack of Lexington Thomas, Charles Williams, and Xzaviar Campbell.

Thomas, the senior of the group, looks to lead the way after averaging 6.2 yards per game last year. Many UNLV fans remember him as the guy with lightning speed, boasting multiple 25+ yard runs throughout the season. To put it simply, when Thomas gets going, defenders are going to need a five second head start if defenders have any shot of catching him.

Williams put up a promising freshman season back in 2016, putting up more than six yards per game four times in the season that was frequently behind in games, limiting the running game. In 2017, Williams suffered an ankle injury in the season-opener, that would eventually keep in out for the remainder of the season. Throw in Xzaviar Campbell, the 225-pound running back to stuff it in on the goal line, and the Rebels have a potent running attack.

Leaky Defense Can Only Get Better

To put it in a nicely, the UNLV defense has been atrocious (yes, I said it nicely). Last season, UNLV last season didn’t rank in the Top 100 in almost any defensive statistical category good teams want to rank in, whether it’s havoc rate, sack rate, stuff rate, fewest yards allowed per game, points per game, and many more. Coach Sanchez knew this had to change if the team was going to compete for a bowl game.

In comes new defensive coordinator, Tim Skipper. Skipper’s career being a coach ranges from stints at Fresno St, Colorado St, and most notably, Florida. Sanchez has said on multiple occasions he wants a defense where his players attack more.

The leading sack getters returning this year had a grand total of two sacks in 2017. I wish that was a typo, but it’s two.

If fans remember watching UNLV football games the last few years, they will recall many games where the defense just let the offense down. The offense will put up thirty points a game, and still lose. In some cases, even 40 points weren’t enough. UNLV opened its season in historically embarrassing fashion against 45-point underdog Howard and lost 43-40. It was a historic failure, setting the program back in many ways.

UNLV also lost at Air Force last year when they were up 27-7 in the first half. The final score? 34-30. You take those two losses and turn them into wins, UNLV would not only be bowl eligible, but they would have had a winning record. Throw in a win on the road where they lost by a touchdown to an abysmal UNR team, they are 8-4.

We can make the assumption if you ask any UNLV football fan, an 8-4 record seems like a dream. For a program that has been consistently below average since the Randall Cunningham days, an 8-4 record is something to be proud of.

Despite such a history of futility, can the UNLV football team possibly be this year’s college football Cinderalla? Absolutely. If the offense maintains its pace, if not improves, and the defense improves the way the offense did last year, they will compete for the Mountain West Conference title. UNLV Football should definitely be bowl eligible. Who knows, maybe they will take a page out of their new neighbor’s the Golden Knights playbook and shock the sports world, too?

For UNLV fans, I think all of us can agree that a winning record, bowl eligibility, winning the bowl game, and taking back the Fremont Cannon from that school up north would be a Cinderella story for a lot of us.

Can The Rebels Get Bowl Eligible in 2018?

My prediction? UNLV goes 8-4, wins the Fremont Cannon, and wins their bowl game. Rogers is a future stud who will lead the offense, along with a potent 1-2 punch in Lexington Thomas and Charles Williams. Both bolster a young receiving core with a chance to take the bull by the horns with the departure of Davonte Boyd. To help, the Rebels return an experienced defense with a new defensive coordinator to steer them in the right direction.

Why not UNLV? People have been doubting Vegas sports teams all year long, let the trend continue, and keep proving outsiders wrong.