Saturday, Nov. 18, 2023 | 2 a.m.
It’s a simple question with no simple answer: Is this the biggest game in UNLV football history?
When Barry Odom takes his team to Air Force on Saturday (12:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network), the stakes will be as high as they’ve ever been for the program. Both contenders sit at 8-2 overall and tied for first place in the Mountain West, so the winner will emerge alone atop the standings and have an inside track to hosting the conference championship game — a scenario that would have been unthinkable for UNLV just a few short months ago.
It’s an unprecedented spot for the program. UNLV has claimed two prior conference championship, winning PCAA and Big West titles in 1984 and 1994, respectively, but the turnaround in Odom’s first year — from 7-23 the previous three seasons — and the overall landscape of college football give this showdown added importance.
But is it the biggest?
At his weekly press conference, Odom couldn’t say where this week’s matchup would fit among the program’s all-time epics.
“I don’t know about history,” Odom said. “I’m not familiar with the other really big games in the history of this program, all due respect. It’s huge for this season.”
There aren’t many other classics vying for the top spot. The consensus for UNLV’s biggest game seems to revolve around three contests in three different decades, starting with the storied 1984 team coached by Harvey Hyde.
On Nov. 10, 1984, UNLV traveled to undefeated Cal State Fullerton for a late-season clash and won in the driving rain, 26-20, to move to 8-1 on the season. The Randall Cunningham-led Rebels would go on to claim their first Big West championship and finish 11-2 after beating Toledo in the California Bowl.
Ten years later, UNLV hired coach Jeff Horton away from UNR after one season at the helm, which increased the animosity between the in-state rivals. In Horton’s first year at UNLV, his team went to Reno and defeated UNR, 32-27, to tie for the Big West title. That victory sent UNLV to its first bowl since 1984, where the Scarlet and Gray beat Central Michigan in the Las Vegas Bowl.
In 1999, UNLV moved to the Mountain West and hired college football legend John Robinson to coach. A year later, Robinson had the program turned around with a 7-5 record and a berth in the Las Vegas Bowl, where they took on Arkansas. UNLV triumphed on the shoulders of MVP quarterback Jason Thomas, finishing the year with eight wins for the first time since the 1984 team.
Now, in its 46th year of Division-I football, UNLV may be playing the biggest game of them all on Saturday.
Junior cornerback Cameron Oliver, who had a crucial interception in last week’s win over Wyoming, has been with the program for three years and thinks Saturday will be the granddaddy of them all.
“I feel like it is,” Oliver said.
The Sun asked a selection of UNLV football alumni, administrators and media to weigh in on whether Saturday is the biggest game in program history. Here’s what they had to say:
UNLV quarterback, 1996-97
“Emphatically yes. There’s been other big games we’ve played in the history of UNLV, but when I think about where we’re at in our times, the money, the stage, the stadium, how Las Vegas is as a sports town, a local kid at the helm as quarterback, I say emphatically yes, it’s the biggest game. You have to.”
UNLV admin 1993-present, currently football SID
“In 1994 we had a game that decided whether we won back the cannon after years of not having it, whether we won a conference championship and went to a bowl game, all in one game, against Nevada-Reno. There was more at stake. There was beating your main rival, getting the trophy back, winning a conference championship or not and you go to a bowl, and then knocking them out of a bowl. All that was on the line in one game. It wasn’t like now where everybody goes to bowls — only one team from the conference went to a bowl. So we knocked them out and we went instead. That’s big.”
UNLV quarterback 2010-13, UNLV radio broadcaster 2017-present
“I think given the context, given the inaugural season with head coach Barry Odom, given the improbability of the Rebels and where they’ve been over the last 20 years as a football program, I can make a great case for this being the biggest one. I’d at least say the biggest in the last two decades, that’s for sure. I think a lot is riding on this. Football has changed, and the fact that the football program has been able to turn itself around here in short order and be in this spot makes it, in my estimation, the biggest game that I can remember.”
Las Vegas Sun managing editor, former UNLV beat writer, UNLV alum
“The Air Force game is one of the most significant in UNLV history, because the program has waited years for an opportunity to play in a meaningful contest. For me, though, the biggest game is still Las Vegas Bowl against Arkansas in 2000. That’s because the fan base was desperate for something to cheer about, nine years removed from the 1991 Final Four loss to Duke. That football game, against a big-time opponent in Arkansas, packed Sam Boyd Stadium and showed Las Vegas still loved its Rebels. I remember all of the UNLV faithful at a pre-bowl rally in downtown, and it felt like those days at the Thomas & Mack Center worshipping Tark’s Rebels. That football team gave us a reason to break out the UNLV sweater, when the NCAA and everyone else told Las Vegans that we cheated and to go sit in a corner.”
Ron Scoggins Sr.
UNLV offensive lineman, 1983-85
“I can’t say that [it’s the biggest]. I think we played in some bigger games, against BYU, SMU, Cal State Fullerton. As far as them going and taking first place in the conference, it’s probably the biggest game they’ll have. But it’s a matter of opinion and the person that you’re talking to.”
UNLV coach, 1982-85
“I don’t think it’s the biggest, but it’s one of the most important. There have been a lot of crucial, big games as far as the history of the program. When we won the first conference championship the school has ever had, I would say that was a pretty good accomplishment with a great team, and they had many great victories too. We played Cal State Fullerton at Fullerton and beat them in a rainstorm down there when Damon Allen was their quarterback. They were ranked, undefeated and we had lost, I think, one game, and we beat them there, which was a huge game in the history of the football program. You can’t put one over the other. To say [this week] is the biggest game in the history of the program … I would say it’s one of the most important, because they haven’t won the conference yet. The biggest game would be the San Jose State game if they do beat Air Force. It’s very important and it could end up being close to the biggest game, depending on how big the San Jose State game will be. That could be a great setting at Allegiant Stadium.”
UNLV kicker, 1991-94
“I’m not sure if there’s been a game of this magnitude since we played Reno back in 1994. That game had a lot of implications on the line, meaning a Big West championship and berth in the Las Vegas Bowl. You had the Jeff Horton-Chris Ault thing going on there, with all that drama. It was crazy. I think that might have had as much weight as UNLV has had this late in the year. That was Week 10 back in an 11-game season back then. Now with UNLV being 8-2, having a chance to win a league championship and also, I think if they win, it could crack them into the Top 25, so I think this game is arguably the biggest in the history of the program. There have been other big games, but when has UNLV been 8-2? When we beat Reno that year, we were 7-5. They can possibly win 10 games on the year. I’m a very proud alum, and they’re a lot of fun to watch.”