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Ricky White at Air Force

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UNLV receiver Ricky White scores on a 78-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter of the team’s 31-27 win at Air Force on Nov. 18, 2023.

Bowl season isn’t quite what it used to be in college football.

The contests, aside from the national championship and College Football Playoff semifinals, were always glorified exhibitions but they typically carried extra meaning as a way for a team to play one last game together. That’s largely changed in the past few years with the advent of the transfer portal, NFL Draft opt-outs, player-pay via name, image and likeness (NIL) deals and a quicker coach-hiring cycle. In many cases now, teams competing in bowl games bear little resemblance to the ones they carried through the regular season.

The Guaranteed Rate Bowl between UNLV and Kansas, which kicks off at 6 p.m. December 26 at Chase Field in Phoenix, therefore, feels like a throwback, especially on the Scarlet and Gray’s side.

The game is highly significant for UNLV to cap a remarkable first season under coach Barry Odom and well worth watching on ESPN.

Here are five reasons why a chance to play in the postseason means so much to UNLV.

Rallying the community

A shooter officials described as a failed job candidate on December 6 killed three professors in the UNLV business college and seriously injured a fourth before being killed by police. Students and staff sheltered in fear for hours.

An outpouring of love since has included vigils, donations, prayers and moments of silence. Stores sold out of UNLV gear.

UNLV football players and coaches say they want to honor the victims against Kansas. They’ll be following the lead of the men’s basketball team, which put forth a spirited effort to stun No. 8 Creighton 79-64 with an emotional performance on December 13 at Dollar Loan Center.

The players made heart gestures toward fans and pointed to a “UNLV Strong” patch on their jerseys during the game and detailed feeling pride about giving the university something to cheer for during a difficult time afterwards.

The UNLV football team will be looking to do the same.

Defying history

Any bowl appearance is major for UNLV because it’s been such a rarity over the years.

This is the Scarlet and Gray’s first bowl game since the 2013 season, and only the team’s fifth all-time appearance. By comparison, Alabama will be participating in its 77th on January 1 in the Rose Bowl when it takes on Michigan as part of the College Football Playoff.

UNLV does have a 3-1 record in bowl games, though the last win came in the 2000 Las Vegas Bowl against Arkansas. Most recently, North Texas blew out UNLV 36-14 in the Heart of Dallas Bowl in 2014.

UNLV has never qualified for bowl games in consecutive seasons, an achievement Odom could unlock next year.

Setting the stage

Part of the reason why UNLV’s rise to a 9-3 regular season and berth in the Mountain West Conference championship game this year came as such a surprise was its youth.

Led by Mountain West Freshman of the Year Jayden Maiava at quarterback, this is not an experienced team. But it will be next year, and that’s why UNLV is using the Guaranteed Rate Bowl as a springboard into the 2024 season.

Getting two extra weeks of practice is a big deal for a team hoping to take the next step and secure the best season in school history next year. Ending the season with a victory and snapping a two-game losing streak that included a conference championship game defeat to Boise State at Allegiant Stadium should propel the Rebels with positive momentum.

Keeping the roster and staff

Future optimism is largely a result of UNLV appearing to have done the impossible by maintaining continuity with its core.

Rumors swirled that Maiava and top receiver Ricky White, who earned third-team All-America honors, could enter the transfer portal before the bowl game, but they proved to be unfounded.

Meanwhile, offensive coordinator Brennan Marion interviewed for head-coaching jobs and Odom’s name was listed as a candidate for some power-conference openings. But both are staying in Las Vegas for now.

Something could still change in the offseason, but UNLV is the rare program bringing its full team into a bowl game. And that team has already proven it’s found a formula for success.

Beating the big boys

UNLV had only three victories against power-conference teams in 15 years until knocking off Vanderbilt 40-37 at Allegiant Stadium earlier this year.

The victory felt monumental for Odom at the time, but in hindsight, the Commodores might have been the worst power-conference team in the nation this year after finishing the season on a 10-game losing streak. A victory against the Jayhawks would carry much more weight.

Kansas is enjoying a program renaissance under coach Lance Leipold, peaking midway through this season when it upset previously undefeated Oklahoma and finishing with an 8-4 record.

Upsetting a team like Kansas—UNLV is a 12.5-point underdog—on national television can make a big impact in recruiting and the transfer portal. It would show the Rebels are officially on the cusp of consistently contending.

This story originally appeared in Las Vegas Weekly.

Article written by #LasVegasSun