The UNLV Rebels have the unenviable task of ranked Wisconsin Badgers.
Bobby Hauck posted a staggering 80-17 record as the head coach of Montana, so when he decided to take over the UNLV program prior to the 2010 season, fans of the Rebels were obviously excited. Unfortunately, Hauck got a crash course in the art of losing last year, as his new club won just two of its 13 games. Half of the starters from that club are gone, and that may be a good thing as the Rebels attempt to become relevant in the Mountain West Conference.
"We're going to be a very, very young group and I don't know exactly what we have on our team right now," noted coach Hauck during the conference media day. "I think we have a lot of unknowns on both sides of the ball and the special teams, but one of the things that excites me the most is exactly that, the fact that I think we'll get better almost every week this season."
As for Wisconsin, it compiled 11 victories during the 2010 season and finished seventh in the final AP poll, their first top-10 finish since 2006, en route to a share of the Big Ten Conference crown. Bret Bielema lost several key contributors from that squad, but considering the high ranking in the 2011 preseason poll, the cupboard is far from bare.
"I as a head coach focus on what I have; I don't focus on what I lost," coach Bielema said.
These two teams met to open the 2010 season, and Wisconsin beat UNLV by a 41-21 final. The Badgers hold a 7-2 advantage in the all-time series.
Sophomore quarterback Caleb Herring has been chosen to lead the UNLV offense, and he is being thrown into the fire in Madison. Herring appeared in eight games a season ago, completing half of his 56 attempts for 365 yards, four touchdowns and three interceptions.
Michael Johnson, who led the unit with 51 catches for 571 yards and five touchdowns, is back for the Rebels. Phillip Payne generated a team-high 689 yards and also scored five times on just 40 receptions. Those receivers will be counted on to make big plays immediately, as UNLV lacks a proven running game and experience along the offensive line.
The pass efficiency defense for the Rebels last season was atrocious, but don't tell that to Will Chandler who registered five of the unit's seven interceptions. Chandler even managed to return one of those picks for a touchdown, so perhaps Wisconsin would be wise to stay away from his part of the field in this opener.
On a down note, the Rebels have lost their top four tacklers, which means they have just one returning player who managed to surpass 50 stops in 2010, as B.J. Bell logged 51 from his defensive end position. Eric Tuiloma-Vaa, responsible for one of the team's three blocked kicks, is back at his safety spot, but he needs far more than just three pass breakups to be considered effective. A revamped defensive line will be under construction and might have trouble equaling the numbers from last year when the team came up with just 3.69 TFL per game (118th in the nation) and 0.92 sacks (115th).
Last season, Wisconsin finished fifth nationally in scoring offense with an average of 41.4 ppg. While six offensive starters moved on, including the quarterback, a big-time transfer is ready to step in under center with the talent to outperform last season's signal caller. Russell Wilson, a star QB at NC State, had been playing in the Colorado Rockies' minor league system before recently deciding to hang up his baseball cleats. Wilson, who has one year of eligibility remaining and can play right away, ranks third in ACC history with 76 career touchdown passes and he also ran for 17 scores.
In the Wisconsin backfield, James White was the Big Ten's Freshman Player of the Year last season after rushing for 1,052 yards. He teamed with Montee Ball (996 yards) to form a potent ground tandem, and both are back for more this year. Together, they averaged 6.4 ypc and combined for 32 rushing TDs. Redshirt senior Nick Toon, son of the former NFL great and UW Hall of Famer Al Toon, headlines the receiving corps. Toon is the top returning receiver after compiling 36 catches for 459 yards and three TDs a year ago.
Defensively, six starters return for the Badgers, and the strength is in the secondary, where senior safety Antonio Fenelus earned First Team All-Big Ten honors last year with 56 tackles (43 solo) and four interceptions. He teams with fellow senior Aaron Henry, a Second Team All-Big Ten pick at safety, who finished with 58 tackles (47 solo) and a team-high three fumble recoveries.
At linebacker, redshirt junior Mike Taylor (58 tackles) is the top returning tackler along with Henry. Taylor also had two interceptions and 8.0 tackles for loss, tops among returnees. The defensive line of Wisconsin was hit hard by the NFL Draft and graduation, so the linebackers will have to be especially strong in this opener.
"To me as a head coach, I've noticed a significant increase just in media attention to our program and recruiting," Bielema said. "It's been a fun ride to get to where we are right now."