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UNLV at Wisconsin

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UNLV at Wisconsin
Thursday, Sept. 1
8:00 pm ET

After a summer full of NFL lockout talk, it sure is nice to get back to football…college football that is. Hard to believe the 2011 season is just days away but I couldn’t be more ready. Seriously, the women’s World Cup was exciting but I’m ready to move on.

Speaking of exciting, the programming gods at ESPN started the season with a fumble for this Thursday night opener. UNLV at Wisconsin? A 35 ½-point spread? What? Were the rights to the New Hampshire-Toledo game out of their price range?

I suppose we should just look at the bright side. Quarterback Russell Wilson, who transferred to Madison after three seasons at N.C. State, has been the talk of college football recently. There are a number of folks who think that Wilson, who started 36 games for the Wolfpack, could be the piece the Badgers need to make a run at the BCS Championship.

Prior to Wilson’s announcement, quarterback did figure to be somewhat of a question mark for coach Bret Bielema. Gone was Scott Tolzien, an underappreciated signal caller who completed over 72 percent of his passes and went 21-5 in two seasons as a starter in Madison. Wisconsin knew it had plenty of offense returning with six starters back, especially with the electric running back combo of James White and Montee Ball but the addition of Wilson should add a dimension that makes this offense especially dangerous.

The other side of the ball is a bit of a different story for the Badgers. True, Wisconsin does return six starters on defense but the five they lost include critical pieces such as defensive end J.J. Watt and cornerback Niles Brinkley.

Any complaints from Bielema would just be minor quibbles, especially after the gift of Wilson fell into his lap. UNLV coach Bobby Hauck can only dream of having the “problems” that his counterpart at Wisconsin is facing this season. Hauck, who compiled an 80-17 record in seven seasons at Montana, including a trip to the I-AA title game three times, is in the midst of a full blown rebuilding project in Sin City.

The last time the Rebels had a winning season was back in 2000, when John Robinson led the program to an 8-5 record. That type of season must seem a long way off for Hauck, who suffered through a 2-10 season during his maiden voyage in Vegas.

But Hauck seems to be rebuilding the right way – by giving plenty of experience to younger players. In fact, UNLV has 23 freshmen and sophomores on their two-deep heading into this Thursday night. Eventually that talent will mature and the experience and growing pains will pay dividends.

Those growing pains will be on full display this Thursday night in Madison. The Rebels, who return seven starters on offense and four on defense, have added some nice junior college transfers including LB Princeton Jackson, CB Ken Spigner and S Dre Crawford. Those three should help fill some gaping holes on a defensive unit that surrendered nearly 40 points a game last season.

On offense, signal caller Caleb Herring picked up some decent experience last year by appearing in eight of UNLV’s 13 games. That playing time should serve him well in 2011 as should the talents of sophomore RB Tim Cornett and WRs Phillip Payne and Marcus Sullivan.

If the defense can take a step in the right direction – actually two or three steps would be best – then this team might be a bit more competitive than the experts are predicting. UNLV’s current season win total is sitting at 2 ½ victories.

Being competitive this Thursday might be asking a bit much, however.

A quick look at other Thursday night games

Miss. State (-29) at Memphis: Yikes, another large number. Bulldogs return a lot of talent on offense, including an improving QB in Chris Relf and dangerous RB Vick Ballard. Memphis has only won three games over the past two years and that might not improve much this season. Larry Porter is installing a new offense and there should be a number of “learning experiences” in this one.

Wake Forest at Syracuse (-6.5): The ‘Cuse executed quite the turnaround last season, improving from 4-8 in 2009 to 8-5 last year. However, some key players from last year are gone so it remains to be seen if additional improvement can be made in 2011. Wake’s defense was a disaster last year, allowing 35.8 points a game. Coach Grobe made that area a priority in the off-season and I anticipate a much tougher team this fall.

Bowling Green at Idaho (-7): Dave Clawson is still getting things turned around for the Falcons. He will be helped by having seven starters back on both offense and defense. Idaho will have to deal with a new QB for the first time since 2006 as Nathan Enderle finally used up all his eligibility. Look for senior Brian Reader under center for the Vandals.

Kentucky (-19) at Western Kentucky: Kentucky’s offense was decimated by graduation and there will be new faces at all the skill positions. The Hilltoppers were just 2-10 in 2010 but return senior RB Bobby Rainey who will no doubt be the workhorse of this offense. This game will be played in Nashville.

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