Rebels vs. Jayhawks: Preview of UNLV’s First Bowl Opponent Since 2014

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Kansas Jayhawks offense breaking out of huddle. Photo courtesy of The University Daily Kansan // Chad Cushing.

UNLV Football (9-4) is headed to Phoenix, Arizona, to take on the Kansas Jayhawks (8-4) in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl.

The game will be the Rebel’s fifth officially sanctioned bowl game in program history. Kickoff will be on Dec. 26th at 6 p.m. at Chase Field and will be available to watch live on ESPN.

However, before that day arrives, it’s important to look a bit closer at the structure of the Jayhawks team and a few key players to look out for come game day. 

To help do that, the Scarlet and Gray Free Press contacted Sam Winton, the sports editor for The University Daily Kansan, to give an in-depth look at the Jayhawks’ season. 

KEY PLAYERS

While the Jayhawks did finish one win behind the Rebels in regular season play with an 8-4 overall record and 5-4 in the Big 12, placing them eighth in the overall standings. 

However, its record does not tell the story of some of their Marquee players that propelled them to the eight-win season. 

DEVIN NEAL

The first player to take a look at in Crimson and Blue is star running back Devin Neal. This season, Neal competed in his third year under the Jayhawk banner and recorded some impressive stats over the course of the season. 

“[Neal] is a big problem to deal with, recording back-to-back 1000-yard seasons, He is a big part of the offense,” Winston said. “Watching him build a legacy in Kansas has been super fun.”

Neal finished the year with 1209 yards rushing on 183 attempts, nearly averaging seven yards a carry. 

Neal also proved his versatility out of the backfield, recording 24 catches on the season for 214 yards and a touchdown. 

The dual-threat running back Neal earned Second Team All Big-12 because he was also able to find the end zone 16 times in the 2023 season.

Another critical note is that Neal, while his touches were limited in some games, was able to remain healthy for the entire season, which is something other starting running backs around the nation struggle to do.

DOMINICK PUNI

The second player who has had a lot of attention on him this season is the left tackle of a strong offensive line in Kansas, Dominick Puni. 

Puni has been the anchor of a perficient offensive line for Kansas over the past two seasons. The redshirt senior led an offensive line that has allowed the fewest sacks in the Big 12 since he arrived at 27 the next team following Kansas is West Virginia at 29.

Winton also commented on the consistency of the Kansas front line, detailing, “The biggest part, I think, is that they have grown as a group, a lot of the guys have seen a lot more reps, and they are very good at both run and pass blocking, the mobile quarterbacks help that overall stat, but they are good at what they do.”

Suppose the Jayhawk offense has any chance of getting going offensively. In that case, it’s going to start with the guys on the front line doing battle with the UNLV defense, who made a name for themselves this year for finding sacks and creating turnovers at opportune times to create scoring drives for their offense, including a pick six and two fumbles returned for touchdowns. 

Puni has been projected to be a third-round draft pick in some mock drafts, such as the website Draft Wire, which has him as the ninth overall offensive lineman to come off the boards. He may be labeled an underrated offensive lineman for the upcoming draft because of his versatility, spending time in both the left tackle and left guard positions.

Cobee Bryant

The final player to highlight before the anticipated matchup comes on the defensive side of the football is cornerback Cobee Bryant. 

Bryant entered this season as a junior after playing the past two seasons with Kansas, recording 37 tackles, nine pass breakups, and creating turnovers via interception three times in his ten starts during his sophomore season. 

To end his prior season, Bryant was named First Team All Big-12 for his defensive stats, and he followed that up with more impressive recognition as well, coming in at No. 98 on ESPN’s top 100 players list entering this season. 

Following the conclusion of the Jayhawks eight-win year, Bryant recorded 30 tackles, three interceptions, and a forced fumble. Bryant will look to impose his will on the UNLV offense come game time. 

When speaking on how the Jayhawk’s defense has evolved these last two years with Bryant, Winton said, “Bryant is a lockdown corner; while his number may have taken a step back this year, it’s because people stopped throwing at him. He is especially good in coverage and can put up those interception numbers.”

With the scarlet and gray faithful at the back of this Rebels football team, they will look for its first bowl win since 2000 after securing bowl eligibility and their first bowl berth since 2014.

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