UNLV-North Texas Preview
Three straight seasons with only two victories. Not a single bowl appearance while losing 104 games during the previous 12 years.
To say that UNLV is excited about playing in the storied Cotton Bowl stadium on one of college football's most celebrated days would be an understatement.
The Runnin' Rebels will make their first bowl appearance since 2000 and first outside of Las Vegas in nearly three decades when they face North Texas in the Heart of Dallas Bowl on New Year's Day.
UNLV (7-5) caught a break in gaining a postseason berth for the first time since playing in the Las Vegas Bowl 13 years ago, claiming the spot vacated by the Big Ten when it sent two teams to the BCS: Michigan State (Rose Bowl) and Ohio State (Orange Bowl).
The Rebels' last two postseason games came at their own stadium in the Las Vegas Bowl, which they also appeared in after the 1994 season, and they haven't left the city for a bowl since Randall Cunningham was under center for the 1984 California Bowl in Fresno.
"Obviously our program is very excited to be playing in a bowl game, particularly one on New Year's Day," said fourth-year UNLV coach Bobby Hauck, who went 6-32 in his first three seasons at the helm. "I'm very excited for our players, who have worked so hard to have this experience."
North Texas (8-4), celebrating its 100th year of football, is also returning to the postseason after an extended absence.
The Mean Green earned their first bowl berth in nine years following a strong turnaround from a 4-8 record in 2012. Their last postseason game came when they concluded a four-year run in the New Orleans Bowl with a 31-10 loss to Southern Miss in 2004.
"We do kind of mirror each other," Hauck said. "Sort of like the guys at North Texas, we've had to kind of believe in ourselves when maybe there wasn't a whole lot of others that could, or should. It's just tremendously rewarding to be where we are right now."
With both TCU (4-8) and SMU (5-7) having down years, the Mean Green, coming off their inaugural season in Conference USA, will be the only team from the Dallas-Fort Worth area to play in a bowl game.
"We are tremendously excited to be involved in a New Year's Day bowl game at a venue with all the history of the Cotton Bowl stadium," North Texas coach Dan McCarney said.
North Texas, however, has never won at the famed stadium, losing all three of its previous games there - against BYU in 1971 and twice in 1981 to Oklahoma State and Texas-Arlington. The Rebels have played there once, losing 10-7 to SMU on Oct. 24, 1998.
UNLV, which won seven of 10 after an 0-2 start, took a balanced approach on offense this season, averaging 242.4 yards through the air and 181.4 on the ground.
Quarterback Caleb Herring passed for 2,522 yards and 22 touchdowns with four interceptions, while running back and fellow senior Tim Cornett anchored the rushing attack with 1,251 yards and 15 scores.
Herring's favorite target this season was junior Devante Davis, who caught 77 passes for 1,194 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Defense is where the Rebels struggled, allowing more total points than they scored (378-375) for an opposing average of 31.5.
The Mean Green's season got off to a rocky 2-3 start, but they bounced back with a five-game winning streak.
"This (bowl game) a validation for all the hard work put in by this team and the leadership of this senior class," McCarney said.
Defense was the key for North Texas, which beat Idaho 40-6 in its opener before allowing an average of 30.7 points over its next four games. The Mean Green clamped down during the win streak, however, giving up an average of 11.4.
Derek Thompson passed for 2,640 yards and 14 touchdowns, but also threw 13 interceptions. He played only three games this season without a pick.
He did manage to spread the ball around with three of his receivers - Brelan Chancellor (718), Darnell Smith (716) and Carlos Harris (519) - finishing with 500 or more receiving yards.
Brandin Byrd accounted for the majority of the Mean Green's carries this season, finishing with 1,023 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns.
UNLV has won all four previous contests between the schools, including by a 64-3 margin in the last two. The Rebels beat the Mean Green 38-0 in the most recent meeting on Sept. 16, 2000.