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Murray's Mailbag: How much better is the Mountain West than the SEC?

Air Force
Air Force picked up one of the Mountain West's seven wins over Power 5 opponents. (David Zalubowski/AP)

This is a sarcastic headline, of course. Let's get right to your questions in this week's edition of the Monday Mailbag. Thanks, as always, for the inquiries.

(Note: If you're not seeing the tweets, it's probably because you're not using Google Chrome. Use Google Chrome).

Yes, it is too early to call the Mountain West the "SEC of the West." The Mountain West has gotten off to a great start to the season, beating seven Power 5 schools. The conference should be trumpeting those numbers from the mountaintops. Still, the Mountain West is 7-9 against the Power 5 and isn't exactly beating good teams. They Power 5 teams they Mountain West has beaten so far this season include:

* Arizona: A 5-7 team a season ago

* Purdue: A 6-7 team a season ago

* Florida State: A 5-7 team a season ago

* Missouri: An 8-5 team a season ago (good win Wyoming!)

* UCLA: A 3-9 team a season ago

* Oregon State: A 2-10 team a season ago

* Colorado: A 5-7 team a season ago

When the MW has matched up against the better Power 5 opponents (Oregon, Washington, USC, Notre Dame), it has not fared well. That being said, the MW going 7-9 against Power 5 schools is a great result given the MW has a fraction of the budget for its football programs as Power 5 schools. The MW has clearly established itself as the best Group of 5 conference in football the last two seasons, passing the American Athletic Conference, which also spends way more on football than the MW. But it's not the SEC of the West. The Pac-12 is still better than the MW. It has six Top 25 schools in the latest poll compared to the MW's one. The Sagarin Ratings have the MW divisions ranked 11th (Mountain) and 15th (West) in the nation. The Pac-12 divisions are fifth (North) and eighth (South). Sagarin actually has the MW behind the AAC, but I differ on that.

These rankings are based more on how good I think every team is rather than what each team has accomplished to date (which is how I rank teams in my AP Top 25).

1. Oregon – On talent alone, this is a top-five team in the nation.

2. Utah – Perpetually underrated. Maybe even in these rankings.

3. Washington – The loss to Cal wasn't good, but Washington will still win 10-plus games.

4. Washington State – Mike Leach is a genius. Not many coaches can win in Lubbock and in Pullman.

5. Boise State – The pride of the Mountain West this season.

6. Cal – I have questions about the offense, but the defense is legit under Tim DeRuyter.

7. Arizona State – The Sun Devils' win at Michigan State is the best in the Pac-12/MW this season.

8. USC – USC should never sit this low in these rankings.

9. Utah State – The Aggies could end up higher; they really should have beaten Wake Forest.

10. Fresno State – Fresno State hasn't won a game this season, but I still believe in the Bulldogs.

11. Hawaii – The Rainbow Warriors are 2-1 against the Pac-12, beating Nos. 16 and 20 in these rankings.

12. Wyoming – Craig Bohl can coach.

13. San Diego State – SDSU is 5-1 against the Pac-12 since 2016.

14. Stanford – Been blown out by USC and UCF. Stanford doesn't like three-letter schools starting with "U."

15. Air Force – I want to see a little more from the Falcons, but the win over Colorado was big.

16. Arizona – The win over Texas Tech was nice; the loss at Hawaii was not.

17. Colorado – Buffs would have ranked higher after its win over Nebraska, but couldn't beat Air Force.

18. Nevada – Wolf Pack's win over Purdue was big, but its level of play the last two weeks hasn't been high.

19. UCLA – And I thought Chip Kelly was a good hire.

20. Oregon State – Oh, Beavs.

21. Colorado State – This could be Mike Bobo's last season despite his massive buyout.

22. UNLV – This will be Tony Sanchez's last season.

23. New Mexico – The Lobos could actually be 24th.

24. San Jose State – Per usual.

As for the tacos, I go steak, chicken and then pulled pork. I'm not eating brain or tongue.

Half of the Pac-12's football teams are in the Top 25, so that seems relevant. But oftentimes you're judged on how good your best teams are rather than the depth in your conference. The SEC is really strong at the top, so people think the SEC is great. The ACC is strong with Clemson, but doesn't have much depth. The AAC has UCF, so many think it is better than the MW despite the MW's edge in depth. So the Pac-12 has to get into and do some damage in the College Football Playoff to be viewed as an elite conference. It is just 1-2 in the CFP, although that's better than the Big 12's 0-3 mark.

Biggest positive surprise for me is Wyoming, which has started 3-0 for the first time since 2011. That includes a win over Missouri, which is the best win of the season for the Mountain West. Wyoming also played tight games against not-so-good teams Idaho and Texas State, so it's margin for error isn't huge. But that 3-0 start after being picked to finish fourth in the Mountain Division has been impressive. The biggest disappointment has been UNLV, largely because of its lopsided home loss to Arkansas State. I don't see a path to six wins and bowl eligibility for the Rebels given the remainder of the schedule, which means I don't see a pathway for Tony Sanchez to get a sixth season as the team's head coach.

Not at all.

If I were a Nevada fan, I'd be happy with the team's 2-1 record but unhappy with the team's current level of play, which needs to be upgraded a lot if the Wolf Pack is going to compete for a divisional title. There's still plenty of time for improvement, but Nevada's offense remains an issue. Outside of the fourth quarter against Purdue, the offense has struggled. That being said, it remains pretty difficult for Nevada to not make a bowl. It still has games against UTEP, San Jose State and New Mexico (three of the 10 worst teams in the FBS). Win those and Nevada is 5-1. That means the Wolf Pack only has to go 1-5 in its other six games to become bowl eligible. Reaching a bowl should not be a problem, but the Wolf Pack has to grow a lot to beat Fresno State, San Diego State, Utah State and Wyoming on the road, and it probably has to split those games (at minimum) to win the West Division.

A five-step process for Nevada to play at a level that would win the West Division.

1. Get massive improvement from the offensive line

2. Get massive improvement from the secondary

3. Stop turning the ball over at the quarterback position

4. Became a better road team (Nevada is 3-10 on the road under Jay Norvell)

5. Hope Fresno State and San Diego State don't go 6-2 or better

Yes! Torpedo-Toe Talton! Without him, Nevada could be 0-3, so he's already made a huge impact on the team's win-loss total. I'd be shocked if he ever misses a kick in a Nevada uniform.

Also in the running for "Best Player" are Elijah Cooks, who has been excellent; Toa Taua, who runs as hard as any Wolf Pack player I've covered; Gabriel Sewell, who is solid as ever; Daniel Brown, who has added the interception to his game (three of them this year) to go with his usual strong coverage; and Tyson Williams, who is the best of Nevada's underclass secondary pieces.

Brandon Talton, Golden Helmet Award winner as Team MVP. That might not be what you're looking for entering the season, but he'd have the title right now. The only other player I could see putting ahead of Talton would be Daniel Brown. But Talton was won two games with his leg.

Alabama's freshman kicker is 4-of-7 on field goals and he's missed an extra point, so the Tide could use Talton. How about Talton for Reno High graduate LB Ale Kaho? Kaho isn't getting a ton of playing time in Tuscaloosa (seven tackles in three games). Would Nevada even trade Talton for Kaho? Interesting question, but seems like a fair offer.

Assuming the game would be played at Mackay Stadium as scheduled this year, I'd install Nevada as a 7.5-point favorite and pick a 27-20 Wolf Pack victory. It's a fairly good matchup for Nevada because UNLV's offensive strength is running the ball and Nevada's defensive strength is stopping the run. UNLV wouldn't be able to expose the Wolf Pack's secondary as well as many other teams. On the flipside, UNLV's secondary isn't very good, so Nevada should be able to throw the ball well. It's actually pretty similar to the Weber State game in terms of a matchup. That being said, it's nearly three months until the game is played, so I expect a lot to change. Check back then for my real prediction.

It's an issue, as most knew it would be entering the season. The three starters on the interior of the line are a former walk-on, a former tight end and a former defensive lineman. There isn't an effort issue with the offensive line, but the group does need to improve a lot for Nevada to reach its goals. The group has been exceptionally penalty prone, hasn't opened many holes in the run game and after a strong pass protection effort against Purdue (in part because the Boilermakers somehow never blitzed), the Union has allowed nine sacks in the last two games. The offensive line and secondary remain the two biggest question marks on the team.

I would not predict the Union being an above-average group this season. And as we've noted for some time, the biggest issue at Nevada since Chris Ault stepped down in 2012 has been putting together a great offensive line, which he always had. Nevada's 2012 line has four future NFL players (Joel Bitonio, Chris Barker, Kyle Roberts, Sebastian Tretola) plus two more who made NFL camps (Jeff Nady, Matt Galas). The Wolf Pack needs to get the line back to that level for its offense to get back to the old Nevada standard.

Ask the offensive line to block better.

So here's my issue with Nevada's offense the last couple of years. It's trying to have two identities: the high-volume Air Raid passing game and the physical power run game that incorporates read-option Pistol. Those are two very different things and are hard to merge. And it's really hard to find a quarterback who can do both of those things well: beats teams with his arm on 50 passes a game and with his legs by making himself an option you must defend in the read-option game. It's also hard to find offensive linemen who can pull off both. By having split identities, Nevada ends up lacking a true strength offensively, which is why the Wolf Pack's offense under Norvell has sat at average in my mind.

Norvell and offensive coordinator Matt Mumme clearly know way more football than I do, and Norvell uses Oklahoma as an example of a school that blends Air Raid passing with power rushing. I just wonder if not picking one path is leaving the Wolf Pack "half-pregnant," as the saying goes. Given where the offensive line is, I think a scheme heavy on quick passes with some deep shots mixed in makes sense. I just don't know if Nevada has the athleticism to throw a ton of screens and get big plays out of it. The receiving corps is built more on height than elusiveness (which you see in Hawaii's Run N Shoot, for example). The good thing for Wolf Pack fans is Norvell and Mumme know decidedly more about football than me and get paid to make it all work out. I'm just curious if these two things can be blended with the result being 40 points per game like we saw with Ault's old teams.

The only reason I included this question is to say I'm not going to answer inquiries that rip unpaid college athletes by calling them names (i.e. Carson Weak). I was surprised to see another writer who covers the Wolf Pack call Carson Strong "Carson Weakling" last week. That's a cheap shot in my book. There are plenty of ways to ask a critical and pointed question without calling a 19-year-old a derogatory name (Strong turned 20 on the day Nevada played Weber State). Examples:

* Where must Carson Strong improve the most to keep the job?

* Should Nevada make a change at quarterback?

* Why has Strong struggled with turnovers the last two games?

* Why has Nevada struggled to recruit and develop an All-MW quarterback since joining the league in 2012?

We can avoid calling amateurs names.

Norvell said at his press conference today he believes Cristian Solano and Malik Henry will both play this season. And I quote: "I felt this, and I don't know why I felt this, but the dynamic of our quarterback room was that we were going to play multiple quarterbacks (this season). I feel like Cristian is going to have to win us some games. I feel like Malik Henry is going to have to play for us before the season is out. We'd love to get the opportunity to play those guys as a staff. We have confidence in both of them. We feel they both bring really good qualities to the team and they've earned the right. It's never been our nature to play multiple quarterbacks just because, but if the situation arises we will not hesitate to play either one of those guys and we feel like they're both prepared and ready to play."

I was surprised true freshman Melquan Stovall didn't play in Nevada's first two games, but he did play against Weber State, recording his first catch for 11 yards. With Kaleb Fossum, Ben Putman and Dominic Christian all capable of playing slot as seniors, there isn't a huge need this season for Stovall, who also plays the slot. I would play Stovall this season past the four games where he could keep his redshirt, but I don't know Nevada's feeling on that topic. The Wolf Pack could be trying to save his season since there's depth at slot. But with Fossum, Putman and Christian all graduating, Stovall will be needed next year, so might as well get him some experience this season. Nevada's offense is lacking a burner, and while Stovall might not fully fit that mold, he's got solid speed. At minimum, I hope he plays against Hawaii, so he'll get to face off against his brother, Melquise, who plays for the Rainbow Warriors.

Kickoff specialist Julian Diaz has handled the kickoff duties the last two games and he's done a good job. He has five touchbacks in nine kickoffs. I see no reason to take the job away from him. A lot of teams have kickoff specialists. The Wolf Pack ranks 12th in the nation in kickoff defense. This is a strength.

I noticed that, too. Montana lost to Oregon, 35-3, which was much closer than Nevada's 77-6 defeat. Montana is ranked 105th nationally in the Sagarin ratings; Nevada is ranked 106th in those ratings. So there's at least one system that says the teams are of equal caliber. It'd still take Nevada by a touchdown on a neutral field, but the difference between top-level FCS teams and lower-level FBS teams isn't that huge.

North Dakota State would compete for a divisional title in the MW's West Division. They're darn good. The other top FCS teams could compete for a bowl berth in the FBS, but that'd be tough. I like the Sagarin Ratings because it ranks FBS and FCS schools alongside each other. They make no differentiation based on division. Nevada ranks 106th in Sagarin to Weber State's 113, which makes sense given how close the game was last weekend. Currently, six FCS schools rank ahead of Nevada in Sagarin (23 FCS teams rank ahead of San Jose State). North Dakota State ranks 29th in the nation (and ranked 19th last year). That's a legit program. No other FCS team is at that level. The best of the rest would struggle to get to a bowl in a conference like the MW.

Very impressive. You go back and look at the 1991 Big Sky, the last year Nevada was in the FCS, and the other schools in the conference were Boise State, Weber State, Montana, Eastern Washington, Idaho, Idaho State, Northern Arizona and Montana State. Only two of those nine schools have successfully made the jump to the FBS (Boise State and Nevada). Idaho made the jump to the FBS before having to fall back to the FCS. I know people like to compare Nevada to Boise State and argue about what the Wolf Pack might have become in an alternative world, but just getting to this level and being a bowl regular is pretty impressive. And, yes, Ault deserves basically all of the credit. He built Nevada from a Division II independent into a program that has won multiple conference titles in two FBS conferences. Without him, the Wolf Pack never makes the jump to the FBS, which would have impacted most of the programs on campus in a negative fashion.

Better football, better opponents and fewer games on television. There was probably about 10,000 people in actual attendance against Weber State, which was disappointing. But with Nevada's remaining home games being against San Jose State, New Mexico, Hawaii and UNLV, I don't think you'll see a big boost in attendance for the rest of the season outside of the finale against the Rebels, although attendance for those games have been down in recent years. I got a little gruff for writing in April that Nevada was officially a basketball school, but the attendance totals tell you all you need to know about that. One of Nevada's revenue-generating programs is getting massive community support and the other isn't.

You mean, "the student" stayed?

I was told it was a grades issue.

(That is a reference to Ainuu Taua by the way. He was scheduled to join Nevada this year as a defensive end after playing for the Bruins from 2014-17. But Nevada has gotten plenty of production from the Taua family.)

Minimal impact on that front. It might keep a couple more players in college, perhaps athletes with kids who know they're not ready for the pros and needs extra financial support, but the allure of turning pro is so strong and the delusion of many players so great, I don't think colleges would keep a huge chunk of athletes for an extra year even with this rule change.

For starters, I don't think the NCAA will follow through and kick Stanford, USC, UCLA, et al. out of their organization. I think it will cave. But if the NCAA doesn't cave, those California schools must decide whether to form their own organization or adhere to the NCAA rules. South Carolina is looking at passing a similar law. The more states that do so, the more likely the NCAA will have to cave. I hope all of the states do so and create a new organization to replace the NCAA, which is largely a joke. We aren't even talking about paying players from athletic department funds. We're talking about athletes using their likeness to earn endorsement money. That should be allowed and is long overdue.

I don't think this would help Nevada or Group of 5 schools. The Group of 5 should be separate from the Power 5 anyway. They're playing a different ballgame because of television revenue. The Power 5 is awash with cash. The Group of 5 is not.

I'm not doing that this year as I scale back my weekend hours and do less game coverage. Instead, I'm doing Monday recaps of the game. Here is the Monday recap of the Weber State win. But if you want grades, you can ask each week in the Mailbag and I'll offer them. For the Weber State game, I'd go "C-" for the offense, "A" for the defense, "B-" for the special teams and "B" for the coaching.

Nevada last finished in the top 10 in the nation in third-down conversion percentage in 2016 when it placed ninth at a rate of 48.8 percent. The Wolf Pack went 5-7 that season, finished 91st in the nation in scoring (at 25.4 ppg) and coach Brian Polian was fired following the year. So third-down conversion rate isn't always a precursor for success.

By playing baseball?

I mean, the sport plays 162 games a year for a reason. A five-game sample size (for NLCS and ALCS series) and a seven-game sample (for the championship series and World Series) doesn't tell you much about a team. Baseball is so random anything can happen in a short sample size. The best team in the league rarely wins the World Series. Since MLB went to the wild-card format in 1996, 28 teams have won 100 games in a season (which is a great outcome). Only five of those teams have won the World Series. That's just shy of 18 percent. Only nine of those 100-win teams have even made it to the World Series. That's 32 percent. It's damn hard to make it to the World Series even if you have a great team. Baseball is dumb and wonderful and rife with luck.

I put together a six-person panel at NSN/KRNV and asked them to rank their top-five rides, including one person who used to work at Disneyland. I then compiled their answers. Here was the panel's top 10 (and we included California Adventure; get the park hopper).

1. Space Mountain

2. Indiana Jones Adventure

3. Pirates of the Caribbean

4. Splash Mountain

5. Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters (Julian Del Gaudio is a big fan)

6. Soarin'

7. California Screamin'/Incredicoaster

8. Haunted Mansion

9. Grizzly River Run

10. It's A Small World

Have fun and good luck with the lines. May peace be with you!

The last time I spoke with Nevada athletic director Doug Knuth about this (probably six weeks ago), he said the Wolf Pack had the funds to move forward with that project. But it's more for non-basketball programs because basketball already has on-campus locker rooms at Lawlor Events Center. The lockers at the Sessions Dome would be more beneficial for programs that don't have on-campus lockers (soccer, tennis, cross country, golf, swimming, etc.).

It's actually the AD position at USC (although I have no idea how Dan Guerrero at UCLA hasn't been fired yet). I don't think Nevada's Doug Knuth or UNLV's Desiree Reed-Francois get the gig. I'm not sure what Reed-Francois has done to even get an interview; it is too early in her tenure to tell what kind of an AD she is. Knuth has at least turned around Nevada's basketball program and has a history of strong hires (Eric Musselman, Jay Johnson, Neil Harper, etc.) and some facility rebuilding. USC appears to be getting shot down from Power 5 ADs, which could make the Trojans look at the second- or third-tier candidates, the bin where Knuth and Reed-Francois sit. But I think Knuth remains Nevada's AD after the USC position is filled.

For those who missed it, here's that article. Nevada slipped from 201st in the U.S. News & World Report's Best Colleges rankings last year to 240th this year. I haven't been able to figure out the dip, but most of the MW schools fell. The average decrease among the MW's Tier I schools was 25.8 spots, so there must have been some schools added that led to those decreases. Still, Nevada's decrease from No. 187 nationally in 2016 to No. 240 in 2020 isn't great. My degrees are decreasing in value! As for Air Force versus the rest of the MW, the school is listed as a liberal arts school, so it's not an apples to apples comparison to the rest of the conference. But, yes, an Air Force degree is the most valuable in the conference.

1. The NCAA rule on targeting states a penalty will be imposed "for targeting defenseless opponents above the shoulders or using the crown of the helmet to contact an opponent." So, yes, it basically has to be a hit to the head because I'm not sure what else is above the shoulders.

2. A decent amount of Packfetti.

3. I'll still take Dodgers versus Astros in the World Series, but I'm worried about potentially facing the Nationals in a best-of-five NLDS considering Washington has Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin. That's a lot of ace quality in a short series.

Are folks in St. Pete really stank butt nuts? The Rays rank 29th in attendance at 14,589 fans per game. Either way, I have the Athletics and Rays making the playoffs, which leaves Cleveland on the outside looking in. It would be fun to see the A's finally make a World Series under Billy Beane.

And I'll take crinkle cut fries in a tight race over steak fries. Both are good, though.

I have not played poker with any of these luminaries, so it's a total guess. Coach Norvell has the best poker face. He's a cowboy like that. Coach Alford is super competitive, so he'd probably take the poker match the most serious. I'll have Mr. Knuth busting first and Coach Bruce bluffing the most (I can see him being aggressive). Coach Levens wins in the end. She's smart, and thus I assume she's good with probabilities.

He asked for a waiver because he had to be closer to home due to this reason and the NCAA agreed with him and gave him said waiver. This year, McLane Mannix has 10 catches for 137 yards and two touchdowns in three games for Texas Tech.

If blame needs to be assigned, it goes on people cutting their cable cord (like I have). The fewer people who subscribe to a provider, the less revenue that provider has to buy networks to put on their air.

Yes. As long as Team USA sends its best players, it will win gold. Playing in the Olympics is a bigger deal than playing in the World Cup, so Team USA should be able to get an elite roster, and USA's best is better than the rest of the world despite other countries making big gains the last 20 years.

No idea because I don't ask until right before the season opener, but I would assume a 15 to 20 percent decline from last season, which would still leave Nevada with 7,500 to 8,000 season-ticket holders, which is a great figure. I'm sure some fans will be priced out after the latest round of increases, but I think most fans want to see what Year 1 under Steve Alford looks like. If Nevada goes to the NIT this season, however, I could see another big decrease prior to 2020-21. You can't really have a rebuilding season when you are charging the price Nevada is charging.

A promo? Like a ticket deal? I doubt it. Best to buy tickets through the Chase Center. Nevada only got 75 complimentary tickets to the event, and those will be swallowed up by players' families.

No. He's never going to get another NFL call. All 32 teams could lose their starting quarterbacks and not a single owner would have the courage to give Colin Kaepernick a job he's clearly qualified for.

Just two bands? That's tough. Pearl Jam would obviously be my main act since I have 350-plus Pearl Jam CDs. I'll take OutKast for the opening act just to get the best of rock and the best of hip hop.

I was riding a mountain bike on the road (mostly) since I only have a mountain bike (I hit a couple of dirt trails). The bike lanes out here in Damonte Ranch are quality and the path on the Southeast Connector is excellent and very safe.

We had to call a late audible and ended up at Chart House in Tahoe, which was excellent. We still want to go to La Vecchia, so I'm take suggestions on best dishes.

Zozo's Ristorante if I'm paying. The Steakhouse at Harrah's if somebody else is paying.

Wow! And with that, the Mailbag is over. See y'all next week!

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