Nevada-Las Vegas has decent standing in the Big West football race at 3-1.

New Coach Jim Strong downplays that because of the teams his Rebels have beaten - Pacific, Fullerton and New Mexico State. "Three teams that were comparable to us in terms of personnel," he says.The truth is, 3-1 is 3-1, and it doesn't matter at this point whom they've beaten. The Rebels are third in the league and, at least for now, come into Romney Stadium in Logan for Saturday afternoon's game as Big West contenders.

"I was telling the guys," says Strong, "that this game keeps us alive. It's our only chance, and we do have a lot to play for.

"We're still in contention," Strong adds. "We're not there by any means, but we're in the hunt."

Utah State had the same feelings last week when it went to league-leading San Jose with a 1-0-1 record, and the Aggies, after an initial period of terror, made an impressive comeback against the Spartans.

"I'm very nervous about Vegas," says Aggie Coach Chuck Shelton, who knows what that extra emotion can mean. "They're excited about their new program. This is going to be an awfully big game for them."

The Rebels, who lost a nonleague game to Nevada-Reno 26-14 last week, have won three straight conference games; the last time they won four straight was October 1985, when Utah State was their fourth victim.

Rebel split end Keenan McCardell ranks eighth nationally in receiving yards a game at 16.49, is No. 2 in Rebel records in career receptions and yards, leads the league in receptions per game (5.63), and fullback Marvin Eastman is sixth in the league in rushing (70.25 average).

What worries Aggie defensive coordinator Fred Bleil more is UNLV's speed at quarterback. The Rebels run a combination triple-option/run-and-shoot offense, lining up with double slotbacks and sometimes short-motioning one back into option territory. "They challenge you on the corners with running quarterbacks. They stretch you out pretty good, and they are a big-play offense," Bleil says.

The Rebs have decided to pretty much go with Derek Stott at quarterback, and this week moved his much-used backup Hunkie Cooper to flanker to keep one of their better athletes in the game. "Cooper's very quick," says Bleil about the league's No. 1 punt returner/No. 8 rusher. "He's just an all-around good athlete."

Cooper can be used at QB with Stott moving to free safety, if the whim strikes. Cooper's the better runner, Stott's the better passer, although the Rebel passing game ranks last in the Big West. Indeed, their last 14 touchdowns have come on the ground.

Bleil suspects that could change this week. He has a feeling the Rebels will establish a minimal running game and then work the air "because of the commitment to Stott," he says.

Stott suffered a concussion in last Saturday's 26-14 loss to Nevada-Reno, but he was released from the hospital Sunday and practiced Tuesday. He's only the fifth UNLV player to throw for more than 3,000 yards.