Kansas vs UNLV: The bowl matchup no one’s talking about

Kansas State v Kansas
Kansas State v Kansas / Jamie Squire/GettyImages

When we think of college football’s bowl season, there are two subject matters that come to mind: The College Football Playoff (of course), and the unique variety of matchups we’re going to see leading up to it.

If you asked someone to list the most notable of those matchups, you’d probably hear ones like Florida State-Georgia, Missouri-Ohio State, Ole Miss-Penn State, and Arizona-Oklahoma make the cut more often than not, and that shouldn’t be a surprise. They, among some others, are objectively high-profile pairings, with each one including highly ranked names from Power 5 leagues.

But wait, what would you say if I told you there’s a bowl out there that, while not meeting as high of a standard when it comes to national relevance, should still capture everything great about this sport we love so dearly?

You’d probably think I was talking about either a game between two good-but-not-great Power 5 squads (such as the Duke’s Mayo Bowl between UNC and West Virginia, both of which are 8-4) or one involving a Group of 5 hopeful that’s trying to cap off an underdog story that’s gotten love all season long (see: 13-0 Liberty or 11-1 James Madison).

However, I am referring to one that meets neither criterion, being a P5-GO5 affair that lacks the typically desired “David & Goliath'' vibe: The Guaranteed Rate Bowl, starring the Kansas Jayhawks and UNLV Rebels. Sure, when it comes in after every other matchup I just mentioned, it sounds rather lame, but those who approach a bowl pairing from all angles know that there’s much more to it than meets the eye.

What makes this bowl game special?

To kick things off, let’s give those who are less informed on these teams some context: Both Kansas and UNLV are homes to humble football programs, and that’s putting it lightly. To give an idea of just how mediocre they’ve been in recent memory, neither of them had made a post-2013 bowl appearance until the Jayhawks lost the 2022 Liberty Bowl to Arkansas. Let’s be real—that’s worse than mediocre, that’s downright hideous.

But, while that mutual hideousness may have the Guaranteed Rate Bowl coming off as a sleep-inducing duel on paper, the fact that each squad only has four losses today and is looking to cap off its best season in over 15 years adds to its notability, as it means that all non-rival fans should be able to root for either side with relative ease.

Okay, so most should agree that it’d be cool to know whoever won the game had finally reached that level of success once again. From there, though, it becomes a question of what actually makes the showdown watchable. For instance, the Jayhawks winning would be a great finale to their 2023 campaign (duh), but if they were to beat the Rebels to a pulp on their way to doing so, watching it likely wouldn’t have been the best way to spend a few hours.

Luckily for us, the game should be far more competitive than that, as the spread currently has Kansas -12.5 (as of Dec. 13). And, to make matters better, I have a good reason to believe it’ll be even closer than that—unpredictability.

What factors leave this pair so unpredictable?

There are two factors enveloping this game that leave its outcome virtually impossible to predict; the first is one that affects countless teams this time of year to varying degrees: Player opt-outs.

As of right now, there isn’t much to worry about in this regard, but multiple players from each team have already headed off to the transfer portal, with the most recognizable departure so far being Rebels running back Courtney Reese. As time goes on, more impactful talents may become unavailable due to the portal, the 2024 NFL draft, or whatever else (to follow these moves and others, click here).

The other game-changer applies more to Kansas and UNLV in particular, and that’s the inconsistency that visibly haunted them throughout their regular seasons. Interestingly enough, the specifics of it were noticeably different in terms of exposure, as while the Jayhawks showed spurts every other week or so (as noticed by yours truly), the Rebels had one huge dip late in their run that came out of nowhere.

For reference, all of the following results were experienced by Kansas: A 34-23 win over Illinois, an oddly closer 31-24 win over Nevada, a 40-14 collapse against Texas, a 51-22 beatdown of UCF, a 39-32 loss to OK State, a rare 38-33 win over Oklahoma, and a 16-13 home loss to Texas Tech. Quite turbulent indeed.

As for UNLV, it was rocking a 9-2 record that included a victory over a Power 5 name in Vanderbilt (the Commodores may suck, but they’re a Power 5 bunch nonetheless) and “excusable” road losses to Michigan (the now-top team in America) and Fresno State (eight-win conference foe that only won by seven).

That near-perfect image took quite a hit, however, when the Rebels lost back-to-back meetings to what are currently five-loss squads, the San José State Spartans (who downed them in Las Vegas) and Boise State Broncos (who took the Mountain West title from them by an embarrassing 24 points; also in LV). That's the last note you'd ever want to enter a tough bowl on.

With each party enduring those combinations of pivotal absences and extreme highs/lows—that not only saw Kansas have to escape a bad MWC power that UNLV played better, but also the Rebels get just their second win over a Power 5 opponent since 2008—this appears to be about as chaotically entertaining of a P5-GO5 postseason battle as one could realistically ask for.

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So, to summarize: The 2023 Guaranteed Rate Bowl should be a thrilling matchup between two likable brands that are almost never seen in the postseason. Especially when being played on Dec. 26, a day that is going to be rather forgettable from a “gameday slate” standpoint, that sounds like a bowl worth seeing.