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Monday Mailbag: Predictions for each Mountain West football team in Week 1

Aaron Frost
Aaron Frost and the Wolf Pack open the season at Cal, one of a handful of marquee Week 1 games in the Mountain West. (David Calvert/Nevada athletics)

It's been a busy Monday at Nevada Sports Net as we taped our first in-studio NSN Daily in 17 months (528 days to be exact), put the finishing touches on our hour-long Mountain West Football Preview Show and are nearing completion on our 30-minute Nevada Grit training camp special that will take you behind the scenes of the Wolf Pack's crazy fall camp. That debuts Wednesday. We're cramming a lot into a little time with the Wolf Pack football team opening its season Saturday at Cal (we'll have two reporters at the game). Before that, we have our weekly Monday Mailbag. Thanks, as always, for the questions.

UNLV 27, Eastern Washington 20: Despite this being a home game against an FCS foe, this is no gimmie for the Rebels, who went winless last season and lost to an FCS team as recently as 2017.

Air Force 42, Lafayette 17: Lafayette, an FCS school, went 2-1 last year, its first winning season since 2009, so this should be a layup for the Air Force, which is one of the MW's youngest teams.

UCF 35, Boise State 30: This is the game of the week in the Mountain West, and I'll take the Knights in a nail-biter in the debut for both head coaches (Gus Malzahn at UCF and Andy Avalos at Boise State)

Colorado State 23, South Dakota State 17: The Jackrabbits reached the FCS title game last season and are ranked No. 3 in that division heading into this year, so the Rams didn't schedule a low-level FCS foe.

New Mexico 37, Houston Baptist 13: Houston Baptist formed a football team in 2013 and is 19-59 since then, including one-win seasons in three of its last four years. The Lobos shouldn't have much trouble.

Washington State 38, Utah State 17: Wazzu's Nick Rolovich is probably looking forward to playing games rather than talking about his vaccination status. The ex-Wolf Pack assistant coach should handle a rebuilding Utah State program.

Wyoming 35, Montana State 16: The Bobcats are typically a top-20 FCS program, although it didn't play any games last season and are under the direction of a first-year head coach (ex-Wyoming OC Brent Vigen) this year. They should be rusty.

Oregon 42, Fresno State 24: The Bulldogs destroyed UConn, 45-0, in its season opener, but playing Oregon is a different story. Fresno State should be able to score on the Ducks, but can it slow down Oregon's offense? I don't think so.

Hawaii 38, Portland State 14: The Vikings played only game last season, a 48-7 loss to Montana. Hawaii, playing on campus for the first time ever, should have a nice bounce-back win after getting creamed by UCLA in Week 0.

San Diego State 30, New Mexico State 7: The Aztecs' defense should remain solid. The questions come on offense, and more specifically at quarterback. NMSU went 1-1 in its spring season, beating Dixie State and losing to Tarleton State.

USC 38, San Jose State 28: This one should be fun as SJSU is out to prove it belongs in the Top 25 after finishing ranked last season. I believe SJSU can keep this one in single digits despite being a two-touchdown underdog.

Nevada at Cal: Three keys and prediction coming Friday (honestly, I don't know who I'm going to pick yet).

Outside of the Mountain West games, my top-10 September non-conference games include:

10. Iowa at Iowa State (Sept. 11)

9. Texas at Arkansas (Sept. 11)

8. LSU at UCLA (Sept. 4)

7. Auburn at Penn State (Sept. 18)

6. Cincinnati at Indiana (Sept. 18)

5. Washington at Michigan (Sept. 11)

4. Wisconsin vs. Notre Dame (Sept. 25)

3. Miami vs. Alabama (Sept. 4)

2. Oregon at Ohio State (Sept. 11)

1. Clemson vs. Georgia (Sept. 4)

While the latest round of realignment could kill college athletics as we know them, one positive would be improved non-conference games, especially if the College Football Playoff expands to 12 teams.

* Air Force: Ceiling: Bowl eligibility/Floor: Four wins

* Boise State: Ceiling: New Year's Six Bowl/Floor: Bowl eligibility

* Colorado State: Ceiling: Bowl eligibility/Floor: Three wins

* Fresno State: Ceiling: Win the Mountain West/Floor: Five wins

* Hawaii: Ceiling: Bowl eligibility/Floor: Four wins

* Nevada: Ceiling: New Year's Six Bowl/Floor: Bowl eligibility

* New Mexico: Ceiling: Bowl eligibility/Floor: Two wins

* San Diego State: Ceiling: Win the Mountain West/Floor: Five wins

* San Jose State: Ceiling: Win the Mountain West/Floor: Bowl eligibility

* UNLV: Ceiling: Four wins/Floor: Winless against FBS foes

* Utah State: Ceiling: Five wins/Floor: Two wins

* Wyoming: Ceiling: Win the Mountain Division/Floor: Five wins

Eastern Washington is a preseason top-15 FCS team and has beat two Pac-12 teams since 2013 and four FBS teams since 2001, so it wouldn't be crazy to see that happen. If you want Nevada to get to a New Year's Six bowl, you'd be rooting for UNLV to win that game, but I imagine most Wolf Pack fans would prefer a Rebels loss for the comedy angle. UNLV is currently a 9.5-point favorite. I'd bet on Eastern Washington with that line.

* Fresno State 45, UConn 0 (My take: The Huskies should drop football)

* UCLA 44, Hawaii 10 (My take: It was nice to see Reno High alum Ale Kaho get more playing than he would have at Alabama en route to a blocked punt and sack)

* San Jose State 45, Southern Utah 14 (My take: SJSU is not getting enough respect entering the season, although that has nothing to do with beating a bad FCS team)

No. They were all blowouts in lopsided games. It would have been nice to see Hawaii be more competitive against UCLA, but they all went to script.

No. 1 Cincinnati vs. No. 8 Ball State

No. 2 Coastal Carolina vs. No. 7 UCF

No. 3 Louisiana-Lafayette vs. No. 6 Boise State

No. 4 Nevada vs. No. 5 Liberty

I'd take Cincinnati to win it all. In fact, Cincinnati could make the College Football Playoff given it has Notre Dame and Indiana, two preseason top-20 teams, on the schedule. And I would be in favor of a Group of 5 playoff if the CFP stays at four teams. If it expands to 12 teams, a Group of 5 playoff makes less sense.

My top-five all-time would be:

5. Army vs. Navy

4. USC vs. UCLA

3. Texas vs. Oklahoma

2. Auburn vs. Alabama

1. Michigan vs. Ohio State

My top-five current rivalries would be:

5. Alabama vs. Clemson

4. College Football Playoff vs. Not having the same four teams every year

3. Group of 5 vs. Not getting screwed by the College Football Playoff selection committee (Coastal Carolina should have gotten a New Year's Six spot ahead of Iowa State last year)

2. Pac-12 vs. Irrelevance

1. Texas president Jay Hartzell vs. Texas State Senator/TCU alum Lois Kolkhorst ("3-7 against the Horned Frogs")

Cole Turner winning the John Mackey Award as the nation's most outstanding tight end. He ranked top five among tight ends in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns last season. If he repeats that, he should at least be one of the three finalists, and could win the award if Nevada has a Top 25-caliber season.

Yes. If Jay Norvell levels up after this season and Scott Frost gets dumped by Nebraska, the Wolf Pack would be silly not to at least look into hiring him. He did take UCF from 0-12 (the year before he was hired) to 13-0 within two seasons. It might not work out for Frost in Lincoln, but Nebraska has only two double-digit-win seasons in the last 20 years. It's not a great program anymore. That's not to say Frost has done a good job there, but he did win at UCF, and Nevada is a similar-sized program. Plus, Frost might be able to keep McQueen High running back Ashton Hayes, who is verbally committed to Nebraska, at home if it all plays out as sketched above. Frost would even come at a discount because of his Nebraska buyout, ala Steve Alford and UCLA. Of course, Nevada would prefer to keep Coach Norvell for the long term, but if a Power 5 offer comes, I don't see that being turned down.

Scott Frost by far. Frost is 12-21 overall and 9-17 in the Big Ten at Nebraska. Jim Harbaugh is 49-22 overall and 34-16 in the Big Ten at Michigan. Frost has zero winning seasons at Nebraska. Harbaugh has three 10-win seasons in six years at Michigan. While Harbaugh hasn't had as much success as Michigan fans would like, he's still won 69 percent of his games to Frost's 36 percent at their respective alma mater. Frost's tenure has been far worse.

The Mountain West preseason team included 16 players from the West Division and 10 players from the Mountain Division. If you strip out the four specialists, it's 14 for the West and eight for the Mountain. The tide turned last season with the West becoming the better division than the Mountain, and it won't change this year. The West is superior. I'd make the West a touchdown favorite over the Mountain. The West has the conference's three quarterbacks, the better offensive skill players and more talent on defense. I'd go West 35, Mountain 28.

The Mountain West champion qualifies for the Jimmy Kimmel LA Bowl, which will debut this year at SoFi Stadium, the home of the NFL's Rams and Chargers, unless that team qualifies for the Group of 5's spot in the New Year's Six, which would be the Peach Bowl or the Fiesta Bowl. It'd probably take a 13-0 season for Nevada to qualify for the New Year's Six. And if Nevada wins the MW, Carson Strong will almost certainly go in the top two rounds of the NFL draft. He's currently projected in the 40-60 range, although that will only go up if he repeats his success from 2020 against the stiffer competition Nevada will face in 2021.

If Carson Strong suffers a short-term injury, the Wolf Pack would use Nate Cox, last year's backup, to bridge the gap until Strong is healthy again. If Strong suffers a long-term or season-ending injury, I imagine Nevada would turn to true freshman Clay Millen, who is the future of the position for the Wolf Pack. Might as well get him ready now in that situation. Millen is likely to see some playing time this year to get him experience with the assumption being Strong is turning pro after the 2021 campaign. Millen can play up to four games this year without burning a year of eligibility, so he could log some snaps in blowout situations.

It's highly unlikely those high school games are made up because the season is basically backdated from the playoffs, which includes teams from Las Vegas, and games for those teams haven't been impacted, so it's unlikely the playoffs are shifted back and pushed into the winter season because the North has had some non-conference games canceled. If Northern teams have mutual byes, during the season, a game or two could be made up, but for those most part I'd list those as "canceled" rather than "postponed." And, yes, Nevada football home games could be threatened by poor air quality. Wolf Pack women's soccer had its home opener last Thursday moved because of that, although Nevada was able to squeeze in a home game Sunday. The good news on that front is Nevada football's only home game until Oct. 9 is Sept. 11 against Idaho State, so hopefully the air is clear by mid-October. If the air quality is poor for the Idaho State game, I'd guess Nevada moves the contest to Sacramento or Las Vegas, although the Wolf Pack has not publicly outlined a contingency plan.

The Pac-12 announced that it does not intent to expand. The Big 10 and ACC haven't publicly said that in the last week, to my knowledge. But the Pac-12's decision is huge news for the Big 12, which now has a chance to continue as a conference post-Texas/Oklahoma if it can pluck BYU and a couple of MW/AAC schools. That means the lack of Pac-12 expansion is bad news for the MW, which now might have to fend off Boise State, San Diego State, Air Force or Colorado State from joining the Big 12. The Big 12 has to add some teams, and it'd make sense if it was Boise State, BYU and two teams from the AAC. The pressure is on the MW to hold things together with the current membership.

Under your scenario, I would have claimed the iPad as something I created and thus become a billionaire. That's because I was in college from 2000-07 and the iPad wasn't invented until 2010, so I figure I could have filed a lot of patents and made a lot of money if I had one back in 2007. And the most embarrassing thing in my search history would have been me Googling Dashboard Confessional's "Screaming Infidelities." I was quite emo in college.

Cal's best offensive player entering this year was offensive lineman Michael Saffell, but he retired due to medical issues in late July, which should tell you about the caliber of the Bears' offense. Quarterback Chase Garbers is Cal's best offensive player now, but I don't see him as a future NFL guy. If you wanted to finger somebody from that offense being a future NFL guy, maybe running back Christopher Brown Jr.? It's not an explosive offensive group.

Among current players? No, I don't think so.

Super Bowl pick: Chiefs over Packers

"New" playoff teams: Patriots and Chargers in place of Steelers and Colts in the AFC; Cowboys, 49ers and Panthers in place of Bears, Football Team and Saints in the NFC

Impact of a 17th game: More injuries and more money; and the owners will take more money if it means more injuries 10 out of 10 times

It's Nate Burleson, Colin Kaepernick or Chris Singleton, although Kaepernick's situation is obviously different than the other two. I'd trade lives with Burleson, but Kaepernick will have the bigger culture impact, and that's only because of his athletic career gave him the platform for his protest against police brutality against minorities to resonate.

By eating a cheeseburger, which he rarely indulges in. And then shaking the hand of the devil since he clearly has a deal with him. Everything falls that dude's way.

Yes. Public pressure works, and he sure as hell deserves a blue checkmark more than I do.

Dodders probably get swept without scoring a run given how the team has hit the last three weeks.

Top-five MTV Unplugged show include:

5. LL Cool J/A Tribe Called Quest/De La Soul (I didn't know hip-hop could be played live like that)

4. Eric Clapton (simply for "Tears in Heaven")

3. Alice in Chains (Jerry Cantrell gutted through a case of food poisoning)

2. Pearl Jam (Pearl Jam is so good live and so good acoustic, so the combination of those two is great)

1. Nirvana (Even though I'm a Pearl Jam guy over Nirvana, I'm willing to admit this)

It will be awesome and a shame at the same time. Those teams should be playing each other in the NLCS, but given MLB's playoff format, one of those 100-win squads will have to get through a wild-card play-in game while the NL East winner — currently on pace to win 88 games — will get an automatic spot in the NLDS. Dumb. And also dumb that baseball's two best teams would face off in a five-game series rather than a seven-game series. It's crazy that the Dodgers and Giants haven't met in the postseason (they did play tie-breaker series after ending the regular season tied for first place in 1951 and 1962, but those are considered extensions of the regular season). This should be the first time these teams meet in the actual postseason, and it will be awesome.

Ultimately, I'd like to hire freelance writers to help grow the content on our website, although that will almost completely be in covering local sports, and there aren't many pro bouts in Reno.

These Mailbag take five or six hours to write, so I am not pining for more questions. I'm at full capacity!

I'm still wondering who made the @FakeChrisMurray account and why that person hasn't tweeted since 2013. Can I at least get that handle?

I've never seen an Ed Asner movie, and that includes Elf, Up and Home Alone: The Holiday Heist. I did start Up once but fell asleep about 30 minutes in. And that seems like an oversight. So I'm going to pop in an Elf and Up doubleheader and watch my first Ed Asner movies. Hopefully I can deal with Zooey Deschanel's quirkiness in Elf for the next 97 minutes. 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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