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Murray's Mailbag: What are the Mountain West's five biggest first-half surprises?

San Diego State
San Diego State has gotten off to a 6-0 start this season. (Kent Horner/Getty Images)

My apologies for posting the Monday Mailbag on a Tuesday, but a recent ransomware attack on Sinclair Broadcast Group, which owns Nevada Sports Net, rendered posting to our website, among many other things, impossible yesterday. But some things have been restored today, including posting abilities, so better late than never. Thanks, as always, for the questions.

My five biggest surprises in the Mountain West this season are:

5. Air Force is damn good: I admit in my preseason poll every year I have no idea if Air Force will be any good. I just assume the Falcons will be bowl eligible because they always are. But Troy Calhoun has never won a MW title. So the solid-but-not-spectacular label typically fits. Air Force might be spectacular this year. The Falcons are 6-1 and boasts the MW's best "Simple Raying System" score in terms of overall strength. While the schedule has been soft, Air Force did just win at Boise State and draws unbeaten SDSU this week, a huge matchup.

4. Utah State will make a bowl: Seven MW teams are on track to be bowl eligible (although there could be more), and the most surprising of the group is Utah State, which is coming off a disastrous 2020. New head coach Blake Anderson stocked his team with FBS transfers, and they've made an impact. The Aggies upset Washington State to start the season, handed Air Force its only loss and are sitting at 4-2. I don't think Utah State is "championship good," but the remaining schedule is manageable enough the Aggies could reach the MW title game.

3. SJSU took a huge step back: The Spartans returned most of the key players from last season's MW title team that went undefeated during the regular season, the only big losses being receivers Tre Walker and Bailey Gaither, who both turned pro (neither are on NFL teams). None of SJSU's momentum carried over to this season, with the Spartans sitting at 3-4 overall and 1-2 in the MW. Yes, quarterback Nick Starkel was injured in the team's fourth game, but the offense, which is averaging just 19.4 points per game, looked rough before that.

2. Boise State's troubles: Anytime you hire a first-time head coach, there's risk involved. But Boise State has been a well-oiled machine over the last two decades. It's been a plug-and-play system at head coach. But there's a chink in the armor this year, with Boise State losing three straight home games for the first time in 25 years. The Broncos are 3-4 and will have to battle to become bowl eligible. Yes, Boise State's four losses have come by just 23 points, but the offensive and defensive lines are at rock bottom, foiling Andy Avalos' debut season.

1. SDSU is undefeated despite poor QB play: San Diego State was picked to finish third in the West Division in the preseason poll, and it still might finish there. But the Aztecs are 6-0, including two wins over Pac-12 schools, and ranked 22nd in the nation despite horrendous quarterback play. SDSU's 129.2 passing yards per game are the sixth fewest nationally. It ranks 113th out of 130 teams in quarterback efficiency. The teams below it in that metric are a combined 28-82. Despite how awesome SDSU's defense is (and it's really awesome), this doesn't seem sustainable unless the Aztecs get improved play from its quarterbacks. With games remaining against Air Force, Nevada and Fresno State, the remaining slate is tough.

Mountain West schools from least scenic to most scenic (only counting full-time members).

11. UNLV

10. Wyoming

9. Fresno State

8. New Mexico

7. San Jose State

6. Boise State

5. San Diego State

4. Utah State

3. Fort Collins

2. Nevada

1. Air Force

Yes. He ranks 113th out of 122 FBS head coaches in salary (eight private schools didn’t release their figures) and is 12-3 the last two seasons and 27-14 the last four. The eight coaches below him in salary are a combined 23-39 with none better than 4-3 this season. Chris Ault was always college football’s best bargain, and Coach Norvell has taken that title and run with it.

I’ll take football because of the 5-1 start. The Wolf Pack probably needs to go 11-2 in football to finish in the Top 25, so that won’t be easy. But the strong start at least opens that door. Nevada basketball didn’t get any preseason Top 25 votes, so that’s a long road to hoe. The Wolf Pack should pile up a bunch of wins early given the non-conference schedule, so I wouldn’t rule out entering the Top 25 at some stage around the start of league play. But finishing in the final Top 25 will be more difficult.

And I’d rank those Milk Duds then Candy Corn then Malt Balls. I don’t love any of those, but the first two are tolerable. Malt Balls are not.

Nevada’s top-five issues heading into the second half of the season:

1. Run defense, especially against Air Force and San Diego State

2. Secondary, especially against Fresno State and Utah State

3. Protecting Carson Strong, especially given the current status of his knee

4. Inability to run the ball, although the Wolf Pack’s passing attack makes up for much of those issues

5. Slow starts, although Nevada has largely overcome those issues thus far

Pro Football Focus’ college site might have that figure, but I’m not a subscriber. I’d guess Nevada is slightly above the nation average in dropped passes per attempt. The Wolf Pack throws the ball a ton – 44 passing attempts per game – so that increases the number of drops per game. But I don’t think that is a top-five issue despite a number of drops in last week's win over Hawaii.

I’m predicting a UNLV win over San Jose State on Thursday, and that’s in Las Vegas. So I’ll take the UNLV home win before the Nevada home loss. But I’d be worried of that Air Force game if I was a Wolf Pack fan. The Falcons should have a lot of success running against Nevada, and the Air Force defense has been great other than the stinker against Utah State.

Again, I don’t have these specific stats on hand, but I would guess Nevada ranks top 10 in the nation in pass attempts of 40-plus yards. Carson Strong has more 50-yard air completions than everybody else in the nation combined the last two seasons. And if you just go “deep ball” every drive it loses some of its impact as defenses will continue to drop safeties deep. I would like to see more “tempo” out of this offense to start the game. The only time we’ve really seen that was at Boise State, and it worked. The Wolf Pack scored a touchdown on its opening possession and the Broncos were worn out by the end of the contest. But Nevada takes more than its share of deep shots.

It's obvious Carson Strong’s left knee isn’t 100 percent, right? He’s been hobbled since his arthroscopic surgery on the eve of training camp. He’s usually much more mobile than he’s shown this season. He’s basically been limping the entire year. While mobility is not his strong suit, he’s a better athlete than what he’s been able to offer in 2021. I think the medical tests on that thrice surgically repaired knee is the bigger concern for his draft stock. I commend Strong’s toughness during his time at Nevada, which included playing through a broken collarbone during his freshman season and knee issues during his sophomore and junior seasons. I just hope the knee situation doesn’t impact his pro career. He has NFL starter potential if the knee holds up. But Nevada alum Virgil Green fell to the seventh round of his draft after the pre-draft medicals revealed a high school knee surgery, so the medicals will be a big deal for Strong. Green played a decade in the league, so obviously the medical concerns were unfounded in that situation.

Nate Cox, the Wolf Pack’s 6-foot-9 backup quarterback, does play on special teams on field-goal attempts, specifically to block kicks, but Nevada probably doesn’t want him on the punt team to avoid injuries. You can't really injure yourself by jumping high to try and block a field goal. You can on a punt situation where there's way more blocking and tackling involved.

The last time Nevada had a four-interception game also came against Hawaii back in 2013 when a Brian Polian-led Wolf Pack beat the Rainbow Warriors, 31-9. Hawaii played four quarterbacks in that game with Sean Schroeder and Ikaika Woolsey each throwing two picks. Markus Smith had two interceptions, Nigel Haikins one and Brock Hekking one. Hekking had six tackles, three sacks, 3.5 TFL, two forced fumbles, one interception and two pass breakups in that win. It might be the best defensive game in Nevada history.

And I would bet against Nevada leading the nation in sacks at season’s end simply because it’s going to play Air Force and San Diego State in the second half, and the Falcons try not to throw the ball more than 10 times in a game and SDSU no more than 15 times, so those could both be zero-sack outings.

Nevada didn’t have any AP Top 25 votes the week leading into the Hawaii game, so it didn’t lose any votes there. It did have seven points in the AFCA Coaches Poll heading into the week and now has zero. I can’t explain that other than saying you shouldn’t put any stock into the coaches poll. In terms of Nevada’s résumé, the Wolf Pack is indeed 5-1, but has it actually beaten a team that will reach a bowl this season? Cal is 1-5, Idaho State and New Mexico State are both FCS caliber, Hawaii probably isn’t making a bowl, Boise State is 3-4. And Kansas State, which beat Nevada by three touchdowns, might finish 6-6. A win over Fresno State on Saturday would net the Wolf Pack some AP Top 25 votes (perhaps even from me), but at this stage the résumé just isn’t strong enough.

The Wolf Pack had an announced crowd of 22,098 fans for the Hawaii game and is averaging 22,504 fans per home game, a major increase over the 2019 season (16,180 per game) and the highest since the 2014 season when the Wolf Pack averaged 23,862 fans per home game in Brian Polian’s second season as head coach. So, it’s a big positive compared to previous years. The UNLV game could approach a sellout, a big deal considering fewer than 17,000 attended the last Nevada-UNLV game at Mackay Stadium in 2019. The increase in the student section and engagement has been especially positive.

The only 2021 bowl that I know of that’s been canceled is the San Francisco Bowl, but the Fenway Bowl and LA Bowl have both been added as new bowls that will debut this season, so that’s plus-one bowls over a regular postseason. As a result, I don’t see more bowl-eligible teams than normal not getting to the postseason. Most likely that will be limited to a couple of teams, and Nevada should be well over the margin for error.

I wouldn’t be overly worried about that. Nevada didn’t close the Cal or Boise State games especially strong on offense and obviously came up short in the fourth quarter against Kansas State. But the Wolf Pack has only played two games contested into the fourth quarter, those being the matchups with Cal and Kansas State (one went well and the other did not). If there’s a concern in terms of fourth-quarter offense, it goes back to the run game. Nevada simply has not displayed the kind of run game you’d like to see from a team trying to put a game away late (the so-called “four-minute offense.”) That could bite the Wolf Pack if it tries to ride its run game late, but I don’t think the pass game all of a sudden falls apart in the fourth quarter.

It's more likely Coach Norvell stays at Nevada for 10 seasons. He’s already five seasons in, and if he doesn’t get a Power 5 job after the 2021 campaign (I think he will), it will take another couple years before building up the level of talent he has accumulated this season, if it ever happens. In terms of Eric Musselman scheduling Nevada, I could potentially see that happening at Arkansas (still unlikely, and why would the Wolf Pack schedule that?), but I don’t think he returns to Reno for a game. He is the most likely among former Nevada basketball coaches (Mark Fox, Trent Johnson, Musselman) to schedule a game with Nevada, though. I don't think he'd mine coming to Lawlor Events Center to get some applause from his old school. I just wouldn't bet on it.

No. LSU is going to shoot significantly higher than that in its next coaching search. Like, Dabo Swinney, Jimbo Fisher, Lane Kiffin, Mel Tucker high. If Coach Norvell gets a Power 5 opportunity, my guess is it’s in the Pac-12 or Big 12. Maybe the Big 10 with Nebraska. But one of the plusses of Norvell’s lengthy résumé is he’s been all over the place, so he does have the ability to get offers from most Power 5 programs. I would just bet against the SEC or ACC given his relative lack of experience in the southeast.

That makes a lot more sense. That's the kind of job Coach Norvell would be perfect for. It's a lower-level Pac-12 position that needs innovation and player development to succeed. It needs a non-traditional scheme like the Air Raid, with the Cougars' last two head coaches using pass-happy scheme (Mike Leach, Nick Rolovich). There wouldn't be a massive roster turnover required going from Rolovich's Run And Shoot offense to Norvell's Air Raid. This seems like a perfect marriage. It's the opening that should most scare Nevada AD Doug Knuth, and Norvell might even be able to take four-star quarterback Clay Millen, who is from the state of Washington and a true freshman at Nevada, with him.

No, simply because the schedules don’t line up. He’d basically have to forfeit a season of his CFL career to try and make an NFL team, so barring a guarantee he’d be on the 53-man roster, I don’t think he’d take that risk. I think he’s grateful for his opportunity with the CFL and will ride it out in that league. But he’s certainly a man of his word for sending me a Mookie Betts-themed gift after losing our bet on whether the Angels would make the playoffs this season (they did not).

Yep. It’s exactly that. It’s a website that coaches have log-ins for that display which players from which sports have entered the transfer portal and are now eligible to be contacted by coaches at other schools. It’s basically a line item that includes the player’s name, their NCAA ID number, their sport, the date they went in the portal, the school they’re currently at, the conference they’re currently at and whether they’re still actively in the portal. It also allows coaches to “favorite” certain players.

Of Nevada’s six home games, five are for sure night games with the San Jose State game to be determined. Of the six road games, three have been day/afternoon kickoffs, including Kansas State, Boise State and Fresno State. But that’s a pretty random outcome. It’s all decided by television, and sometimes you’ll get lucky and have a couple home afternoon games, and sometimes you wont. It’s worth noting Nevada’s marquee games this season, Cal and Boise State, drew 255,000 and 197,000 viewers on TV, respectively. Nevada is getting roughly $3.5 million a year for its television rights, so I get why the Mountain West hands over its kickoff times to the networks. But for about 200,000 viewers per game, it’s a hard pill to swallow.

The budgets for those Olympic sports aren’t great, but that’s also true of football, men’s basketball and baseball. It really comes down to hiring the right coaches. If you’re a Wolf Pack coach, you’re going to deal with some budget and facility issues. Great coaches can overcome those things to still reach a championship level. Nevada has reached that Mountain West championship level in men’s basketball, baseball, swimming and diving and men’s golf on a year-in, year-our basis. Football is getting there, too. The other sports haven’t, and while some have facility issues like soccer, softball, track and field and tennis, great coaches overcome mediocre infrastructure. It’s just hard to have great coaches in every sport. And Nevada has plowed more resources into men’s basketball and football in recent years, which isn’t a bad thing, by the way. Winning big in those sports leads to more resources for the other teams. But funding is an issue, and that’s something that is a result of a lack of a state income tax. The funding for higher education in general in the state is poor, which means the trickle down to college athletics is comparatively low, too. Money isn’t everything, though. Just look at the head-coaching football salaries in the MW. The highest-paid coaches are losing way more than the lowest-paid coaches. Great coaches overachieve.

The women’s soccer team has the biggest legitimate facility beef of any Wolf Pack women’s sport. Playing on a turf surface at a football stadium makes recruiting difficult. And that program has basically been bottom three in the conference every year except for 2005-06 under Terri Patraw. So while it’s easy to blame the coach in that situation, multiple coaches have struggled given Nevada’s soccer infrastructure. A standalone grass soccer field feels like a requirement to get that program to the top of the conference. Hell, TMCC has such a field.

In terms of volleyball, Virginia Street Gym is a good facility, so that’s not the issue. The move from the Big West to the WAC hurt that program as it impacted the program’s ability to recruit Southern California. But I think volleyball can get back to a championship level quicker than women’s soccer given the infrastructure available to both programs.

NFTs (nonfungible tokens) are digital assets that are verified and stored with blockchain technology that make them unique to the person with the NFT. In this case, they’re basically virtual trading cards. I would not call that his first rookie card, though. I’m no laggard, but I wouldn’t invest into NFTs. But if Strong can get some money off this thing (you can see his NFT here), more power to him. They do look cool.

Two SEC teams get in as well as undefeated Oklahoma and the winner of the Big 10. But with the ACC eliminated (barring Wake Forest capping an undefeated season) and Oregon already taking a loss in the Pac-12, the odds of Cincinnati getting into the College Football Playoff if it goes undefeated are high. If Oklahoma runs the table, it’s basically going to come down to a one-loss Big 10 team versus Cincinnati (unless Michigan or Michigan State go undefeated, and I doubt either of those things happens).

Surprised? No. Disappointed? Yes. The only way to not go down in flames after a situation like that is to be genuinely remorseful, accept blame and take actions to show you’re trying to improve as a human being. Coach Gruden certainly did not do that in explaining away the initial email that leaked, and his prepared quote upon resignation almost couldn’t have been worse. As for Mark Davis, he’s shown a brain in recent years, so his curt, “No comment. Ask the NFL,” should have been handled better. I’m sure he feels as if the NFL targeted his franchise among the 650,000 emails and was sour over that, but, like you said, he had a lot of time to come up with a good response and simply didn’t offer one. I also have no idea how nobody else in the NFL was implicated in a negative beyond Gruden and Adam Schefter. How were there no bad emails between Bruce Allen and Daniel Snyder, the owner of the Washington Football Team who was fined $10 million and relinquished day-to-day operations after an investigation into his team's workplace misconduct? The NFL had to bury some good stuff in there while sacrificing Gruden.

Boise State’s three straight home losses (to Oklahoma State, Nevada and Air Force) mark the first time the Broncos have lost three straight on the Blue since 1996 when they lost five straight home games (to Idaho, North Texas, Utah State, Northwestern State, Eastern Washington).

The biggest thing when practicing basketball is to follow through on your shot. Land in the same area where you jump unless purposely fading away or drifting to get the shot off. Hand in the basket until the shot is made or missed. And always remain confident in yourself. Avoid a leg kick in your practice or you’ll do it in the game, too.

The answer above is obviously a joke. I didn’t go to the open practice, but Warren Washington in particular is getting rave reviews for his improvements this offseason, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s an all-conference player and the best center in the Mountain West, especially considering how well he was playing at the end of last year. I also think Kenan Blackshear will be a bigger add that he appeared to be when he joined Nevada via transfer to fill Trey Wade’s spot. Nevada is really deep. In fact, this is probably the Wolf Pack’s deepest team since 2007-08, depending on how you count the 2018-19 team, which was deep but had a shortened rotation of players.

NSN’s Kirsten Moran attended the open practices and is scheduled to have a report, but because of the aforementioned cyberattack, getting things produced and onto our website is exceptionally difficult right now.

I don’t think anything will come of it. I see Nevada offensive tackle Aaron Frost as an NFL player (at guard), but he should be suspended at least a half for that knee. It was a cheap shot. Frost definitely plays to the echo of the whistle, and that’s what makes him an all-conference player. He’s a pest to those who play against him. But there are lines to these things, and Frost crossed the line with that act.

There were a couple of questionable calls but nothing egregious. The fourth-quarter incidental contact call was questionable, but I do think it was incidental. Just odd that you can basically trip a player and get away with it if you’re not looking at his feet. In the end, Nevada was flagged just four times for 50 yards compared to Hawaii’s five for 44 yards, so those figures were in line with each other.

I don’t think there’s a bias against Carson Strong, but the hurdle to hit to get any Heisman Trophy buzz from a non-Power 5 school is huge. You must play almost perfect football and your team almost always must be undefeated/ranked. Nevada is not undefeated/ranked, and while Strong has been really good this season – 68.2 percent completions, 1,990 yards, 16 TDs, three interceptions, 155.5 rating – he’s basically in line with last year’s stats, which didn’t get him any Heisman votes. He’s fifth in college football in passing yards per game and 27th in passer rating, which, again, are great but don’t get you to New York for the Heisman presentation.

SVP has been quite complimentary of Nevada over the years, dating back to the early Eric Musselman era. I don’t think he’s a fan of the Wolf Pack. He roots for Maryland. But he’s shown Nevada a good amount of respect in recent seasons. The Wolf Pack should definitely send him some gear to see if it sneaks onto the set. Sports media can be relatively easily bought.

Horrible call that will probably cost the Dodgers a World Series berth. Just let Blake Treinen pitch the eighth. Or go to Justin Bruihl, who is on the roster to get lefties out. Or Phil Bickford, who has been awesome on the Dodgers. There were lots of good options. Urias wasn't one of them. And while it was applauded at the time, using Max Scherzer in the ninth inning of Game 5 of the NLDS has basically ruined the Dodgers’ rotation for the NLCS. It caused him to miss Game 1, which led to a bullpen game, which led to the Dodgers being short on relievers in Game 2, which led to them using Julio Urias, which will impact his effectiveness in Game 4. Basically screwed up four games by pitching Scherzer for one inning.

The Dodgers would probably be four-time defending World Series champs without Dave Roberts. In 2017, he used Brandon Morrow in Game 5 of the World Series after Morrow was off limits to pitch that game due to heavy usage. Decision backfired. In 2018, he “accidentally” pulled Rich Hill out of Game 4 of the World Series. Decision backfired. In 2019, he pitched Clayton Kershaw in relief of Game 5 of the NLDS despite Kenta Maeda being available. Decision backfired. Without those calls, you could make the argument the Dodgers win each of those World Series in addition to the 2020 title. And now he’s at it again in this NLCS.

Based purely on their individual play, I’d go Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers and then Eli Manning, who is lucky he played with such great pass rushers or he’d be viewed as a bust. As is, he went 117-117 as a starter with an 84.1 quarterback rating (Colin Kaepernick had a better career passer rating at 88.9, and that doesn’t even include Kaepernick’s running ability).

I believe this is the point of “The Law of the Jungle.”

2022 Porsche 911, Dolomite Silver Metallic.

I’m not anti-snow, but I’m definitely pro-sun, which is why I’ll be retiring in an area that is more tropical than Reno, as much as I love our four seasons. Now time for me to go find some sun, so I'm flying to San Diego now. See y'all next week!

Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. He writes a weekly Monday Mailbag despite it giving him a headache and it taking several hours to write. But people seem to like it, so he does it anyway. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter @ByChrisMurray.

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