The Idaho State Bengals and the UNLV Rebels will have a national cable television audience watching them on Saturday as they kick off their respective 2022 college football seasons at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas. Both teams, which combined for just three wins between them in 2021, are looking to step forward this fall and have a rare opportunity to cash in on having most of the nation watching them play. These two teams have met eight times in their history, with UNLV leading the all-time series 6-2, including an 80-8 win over the Bengals in 2015.
Idaho State begins a new era under the leadership of Charlie Ragle, who comes to Pocatello from California, where he spent the last five seasons as special teams coordinator and tight ends coach. This hire has some intriguing potential, as Ragle has an extensive record of success as a high school football coach in Arizona, where he had a 63-7 record at Chaparral High School to go along with his time in the college ranks. The Bengals did shock the FCS world last season in their lone victory when they beat seventh-ranked UC Davis 27-17.
UNLV heads into the third season of the Marcus Arroyo era with a sense of urgency, as the team needs to show continued improvement in hopes of achieving bowl eligibility. Another issue for Arroyo is the fact that he has a new athletic director in Erick Harper, who may want to put his own stamp on the football program by making a coaching change if the season goes sideways. The 2021 season started off on the wrong foot for the Rebels with a 35-33 loss to FCS Eastern Washington in the season opener. UNLV ended up 2-10, but there were signs of growth along the way. Both wins came in the last four games and six of the losses were by one score. So there's some reason for optimism for the Rebels entering the 2022 campaign.
Idaho State at UNLV
Kickoff: Sat, Aug. 27 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV: CBS Sports Network
When Idaho State Has the Ball
Offensive coordinator Taylor Mazzone has work to do with this group as they need an injection of confidence right out of the gate. The Bengals struggled all year on offense in 2021, averaging just 15.3 points per game. The explosive plays just weren't there, generating only nine that went for 30-plus yards. Perhaps a quarterback change will spark things with junior Tyler Vander Waal taking over as the starter after appearing in three games last season. He completed just 46.4 percent of his passes with more interceptions (three) than touchdowns (two) in those games, so his numbers will have to increase significantly if Idaho State is to win many games.
On the other side, UNLV must come out attacking on defense and force Vander Waal to beat them with his arm. The Rebels can make things easier for them by making sure Raiden Hunter (239 rushing yds. in 2021) does not get going on the ground. This is one of those matchups where UNLV should be able to take advantage of its size and strength up front to control the line of scrimmage. As long as the Rebels come out with purpose they should be able to contain the Bengals' offense fairly easily. UNLV knows all too well what can happen when you don't jump on an FCS team early (see last season's opening loss to Eastern Washington).
When UNLV Has the Ball
The Rebels' offense needs to become more diverse since defenses will continue to load the box with eight or nine guys until UNLV proves it can throw the ball effectively. This imbalance was a big reason why the Rebels averaged less than 21 points per game last season. Doug Brumfield and Tennessee transfer Harrison Bailey have been in a tight battle for the starting quarterback job with Cameron Friel, last season's Mountain West Freshman of the Year, also in the mix. Regardless of who gets the nod, execution and avoiding unnecessary turnovers will be critical. Last season, four quarterbacks, including Friel and Brumfield, combined for 11 touchdown passes and 14 interceptions, along with a 58.4 percent completion rate.
Quarterback play will be even more important in 2022 because UNLV has a big hole to fill in its backfield. Charles Williams, the program's all-time leading rusher, is gone. Williams led the Mountain West in rushing yards per game (105.1) and rushing touchdowns (15) last season. The leading returning rusher is a quarterback, Brumfield, who gained 132 yards on the ground in 2021. Look for offensive coordinator Nick Holz to employ a committee approach to start in the hopes that someone emerges as a reliable ball carrier. Until then, the passing game will need to pick up the slack, which means Kyle Williams (42 rec., 601 yds, 2 TDs) will be called upon even more to help move the chains and put points on the scoreboard. Idaho State can play with a nothing-to-lose mentality on defense and the Bengals could make things interesting if they can somehow come up with an early turnover or two that gives their offense great field position.
There will be some up-and-down moments for both teams in this first game. Training camps are more controlled in terms of contact, which will result in issues on special teams and missed tackles. So, it will probably take both teams a couple of possessions to settle into the flow of the game. UNLV has more depth and a clear-cut physical advantage in terms of size and speed, which should really show up by the second half. The key for the Rebels is going to be their mental approach, as they must be motivated to build off the end of last season. UNLV should be able to take care of business at home; it's just a matter of how quickly the offense finds a rhythm and if the Rebels can turn this one into a blowout or not.
Prediction: UNLV 37, Idaho State 13
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– Written by Scott Whittum, who is part of the Contributor Network.