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Murray's Mailbag: How does Kansas State loss change outlook on Nevada's season?

Melquan Stovall
Kansas State defensive back Jahron McPherson hits Nevada wide receiver Melquan Stovall during their game Saturday. (Peter Aiken/Getty Images)

Two local teams suffered difficult losses over the weekend. One was the Nevada football team falling 38-17 to Kansas State, which drew a lot of questions in this week's Monday Mailbag. The other was my U8 soccer team, the Dark Blue Night Pack, losing a 5-1 decision to Players Club North, which thankfully drew no questions in this week's Monday Mailbag (I'm not on the hot seat yet). Let's get to your Mailbag questions. Thanks, as always, for the inquiries.

If you go back to my preseason game-by-game predictions, I had Nevada being 2-1 at this stage with wins over Cal and Idaho State and a loss to Kansas State, so it's not a shock the Wolf Pack lost to the Wildcats, who have a good team. I had Nevada going 8-1 from this point forward with its lone loss to Fresno State, which I was high on before the start of the season. The Bulldogs are now in the Top 25, so they're legit. And Nevada going 8-1 the rest of the way won't be easy. But it's doable. ESPN's Football Power Index projects the Wolf Pack to finish 7.6-4.6, so that's in your 8-4 or 7-5 range. That'd be a disappointment given the Wolf Pack's offensive personnel.

This one loss to Kansas State doesn't change Nevada's outlook that much. Yes, it wipes away the pie-in-the-sky hope of reaching a New Year's Six bowl, but that was always a long shot. Nevada's main goal of winning the Mountain West can still be accomplished, but it's going to have to win two out of the following three difficult road games (Boise State, Fresno State, San Diego State) and hold serve at home against San Jose State and Air Force, which will be a tough game if Nevada's run defense doesn't improve. I'll stick with my preseason prediction of 10-2 overall and 7-1 in the MW, although the Wolf Pack's next game (at Boise State, where I projected a win) will tell us even more about this team. A loss there could change the trajectory of the season.

As for the two things Nevada must improve the most, Wolf Pack coach Jay Norvell at his weekly press conference Monday offered three key focuses for Nevada this bye week: (1) run offense; (2) run defense; and (3) special teams execution. Nevada ranks 11th out of 12 MW teams in rush offense (77 yards per game) and ninth in rush defense (187.7 yards allowed per game). The only other MW schools in the bottom four in both categories are UNLV and Boise State, which are a combined 1-5. If you can't run the ball and can't stop the run, it's hard to win football games. Those areas must be addressed. As for the special teams, Norvell wants to see a cleaner unit. Wolf Pack fans shouldn't freak out over one loss, but there are five "losable" games still on the schedule against Boise State, Fresno State, San Diego State, San Jose State and Air Force. This team will have to rise to the challenge and play a lot better than it did last Saturday to get to the 10 wins I forecasted before the season began.

The run defense got exposed. That area didn't look good against Cal, and looked even worse against Kansas State, a team that didn't deviate from its plan (and Nevada didn't force the Wildcats to deviate from their plan by slowing the rushing attack). But I wouldn't say the team was exposed. It was a 17-17 game entering the fourth quarter before things got away from Nevada. But the run defense wasn't good all game, and if you can't stop the run, teams aren't going to throw the ball. Nevada didn't do much to stop the run against Cal, either. That's an issue that must be addressed given the Wolf Pack will play a couple of good running teams later this year (San Diego State and Air Force), and I'm not fully sold on the secondary slowing down good passing attacks (Fresno State, San Jose State, Boise State).

Also of concern: In last week's Monday Mailbag, I pointed out the stat that Nevada has averaged just 18 points per game in its seven contests against bowl teams with Carson Strong starting. This is not a criticism of Strong, who I remain high on and believe will start games in the NFL. He was fine against Kansas State and made some great throws. But toss that 18 ppg average on top of a so-so offensive showing against Cal (just 22 points whereas Cal allowed 34 points to TCU and 30 points to Sac State in its two other games this year) and so-so offensive showing against Kansas State (just 17 points), and this unit bogs down against better competition. It's not a personnel thing. Nevada has multiple NFL players on this offense, including at quarterback, but the Wolf Pack has to scheme (and block) itself to more points against bowl-caliber competition.

That's fair to say, and it's the biggest thing keeping Nevada's offense from making the leap from good to great. Chris Ault's teams always had NFL offensive linemen. They always had two or three all-conference linemen a year. Since Nevada moved to the Mountain West a decade ago, it's only had four offensive linemen win all-conference honors (Joel Bitonio, Matt Galas, Austin Corbett, Aaron Frost). That would be two good years for Nevada back in the day. The Wolf Pack's 2012 line, Ault's last year as head coach, included four NFL players on the line in Bitonio, Christian Barker, Kyle Roberts and Sebastian Tretola, not to mention Galas, Jeff Nady, who both got into NFL camps. That's how you build an elite offense.

I don't think the Kansas State loss impact Carson Strong's stock all that much. Strong still completed 67.5 percent of his passes for 262 yards and a touchdown while getting harassed. He still had some awesome throws, most notably his 23-yard pass to Romeo Doubs on third-and-20 on Nevada's first possession of the second half. That was an amazing throw. Wyoming's Josh Allen played two Power 5 schools (Oregon and Iowa) his final year before the draft and went 32-of-64 (50 percent) for 238 yards (119 per game) with zero passing touchdowns and three interceptions and was still the No. 7 pick in the draft. Allen also threw five interceptions against Nebraska the year before that. Strong has shown plenty in his two games against Power 5 schools this season.

As for Jake Haener, I've been a big fan since watching him carve up Nevada's secondary last season. He doesn't have ideal NFL height (6-foot-1), but he has an excellent arm and is a really good athlete. I'm sure Washington is missing him given the Huskies' quarterback play. I'd take Strong over Haener, but they're close. They were 1-2 on my preseason MW quarterback rankings. Fun Fact: His mom, Julie Haener, is the 10 o'clock news anchor for KTVU Fox 2 in the Bay Area, which runs nightly on Channel 11 (KRXI).

As noted above, I don't see it being a big deal. Strong went 49-of-79 (62 percent) for 574 yards (7.3 yards per attempt) with three touchdowns and two interceptions against Cal and Kansas State despite being pressured fairly regularly. Those are fine numbers. And he went 30-of-51 for 295 yards and three touchdowns against no interceptions against Purdue in 2018. Strong has played above-average in his three career games against Power 5 foes.

I believe the Mountain West will not add a school before losing one, so reactionary would be my answer. It's a tough position to be in. If the Mountain West can't lure any American Athletic Conference schools (or Gonzaga), it doesn't make much sense to add. You don't want to add North Texas or Texas-San Antonio just to add schools. The MW should put all of its focus on getting two good AAC schools (plus Gonzaga). Ultimately, I don't see the MW looking too different two or three years from now as it looks today, with the caveat that it could lose Boise State to the Big 12. That would trigger a bunch of changes. It just seems more likely the Big 12 stands pat at this stage since it's back up to 12 schools. The MW coming out of this latest realignment with the same membership is not a bad outcome considering what could have happened when Texas and Oklahoma left for the SEC. Even if the MW loses Air Force and Colorado State to the American Athletic Conference (the current popular rumor), it should be able to backfill with similar programs. The cataclysmic impact would be losing Boise State and SDSU. If the MW loses Boise State and SDSU, it's in trouble. The Big 12 holds the cards there. And the AAC could be anticipating that, which is why it is going after Air Force and Colorado State as a preemptive attack to weaken the MW.

For Colorado State, it's the new football stadium and the location, although the Rams don't draw a big chunk of the Denver market. For Air Force, it's the prestige of a military academy. But those schools are down the pecking order of "most attractive Mountain West entities" in the realignment game. San Diego State and Boise State are 1-2 with UNLV being able to make a case due to its market size. Colorado State and Air Force are fourth and fifth on my list of potential realignment candidates. And while the American Athletic Conference is reportedly targeting MW schools, it would make no sense for Boise State or SDSU to go to the AAC. They should wait for a potential Big 12 invite. That's why Colorado State and Air Force are now being rumored as the AAC's top targets because the conference can't get Boise State and SDSU. Colorado State and Air Force also fit the AAC's geographic fit better, and Air Force could be paired with Navy in the same conference. Still, if I'm Colorado State and/or Air Force, I don't see that as a major improvement, not enough to leave the MW, unless they think Boise State and SDSU are going to the Big 12 and are trying to get out before the MW crumbles.

That could be a repercussion of conference realignment, and I'd be all for it. I don't like the divisions simply because Boise State and Nevada don't play every year. I offered a solution to that issue in January while writing the MW should ditch divisions. If that suggestion isn't going to be followed, I'd at least prefer a nine-game conference schedule, which hasn't happened because Air Force is against it. If Colorado State and Air Force leave for the ACC, Boise State would at least move to the West Division as a result.

How do we know the Mountain West hasn't officially offered any American Athletic Conference schools? Just because Craig Thompson hasn't leaked it to the media? Mike Aresco, who got a three-year contract extension from the AAC today, has a conference that's in a much more dire position than the MW. He shouldn't get "good commissioner" points for leaking stuff to the media more often than Thompson.

Yeah, Tulane was in the SEC from 1932-65 before pulling out over scholarship limits (or lack thereof) in the revenue sports, which ended up being an insanely bad decision in the long run. Idaho and Montana used to be in the Pac-12 from the 1920s to the 1950s when it was called the Pacific Coast Conference. Chicago was in the Big Ten at one point. Georgia Tech and Sewanee were in the SEC. So there were a few schools that were in current Power 5 conferences a while back that never made it to the money at the end of the rainbow.

Nevada football's all-time O-fers include:

Belmont, 0-1

Bowling Green, 0-1

Dayton, 0-1

Detroit, 0-1

Eastern Kentucky, 0-1

Florida State, 0-1

Georgia Southern, 0-2

Gonzaga, 0-1

Long Beach State, 0-2

Maryland, 0-1

Massachusetts, 0-1

Miami, 0-1

Missouri, 0-2

Nebraska, 0-1

North Dakota, 0-1

Notre Dame, 0-2

Puget Sound, 0-1

South Florida, 0-1

Southern Mississippi, 0-3

TCU, 0-1

Texas A&M, 0-2

Texas Tech, 0-2

Toledo, 0-5

UCLA, 0-1

USC, 0-5

Vanderbilt, 0-1

Villanova, 0-1

Western State, 0-2

Wisconsin, 0-1

Youngstown State, 0-1

Now this is the law of the jungle,

As old and as true as the sky,

And the wolf that shall keep it may prosper,

But the wolf that shall break it must die.

As the creeper that girdles the tree trunk,

The law runneth forward and back,

For the strength of the pack is the wolf,

And the strength of the wolf is the pack

I'm not sure why the freshmen weren't allowed to run on the field, but my guess is the Wolf Pack wanted the students in their seats when the team came onto the field to set the mood for the atmosphere rather than having the students corralled up away from the field before running onto the turf. Also, the students typically ran from the south entrance to their seats in the north, so it worked logistically. With the students now sitting in the north and the only large access point for the students to enter the field also being in the north, it would have been more difficult to have the students run on the field and get to their seats unless you close the track on the east side of the stadium and make the students circle back north.

UNLV's 1990-91 team would whip any team in Wolf Pack history. In fact, it would probably beat an all-time combination of the Wolf Pack's five best players. That 1990-91 Rebels is the best team in college basketball history.

Best rushing attacks Nevada will face this season.

1. Air Force

2. San Diego State

3. Colorado State

4. Fresno State

5. San Jose State

6. UNLV

7. Boise State

8. Hawaii

9. New Mexico State

Boise State has been incredibly bad in run offense (1.75 yards per carry) and pretty bad in run defense (212.7 yards per game allowed) this season.

Improbably, I think the answer is UNLV. Arizona must wait until Nov. 19 when it plays Washington State for a super winnable game. UNLV and Arizona rank in the top three of the FBS in longest losing streak along with UMass. Congrats to all three.

UNLV's remaining 2021 home schedule includes Utah State, San Jose State, Hawaii and San Diego State. Those are probably all losses, although I could see the Hawaii or SDSU games being wins (the Aztecs' margin for error is always small given its quarterback play). But most likely UNLV's first home win comes Sept. 3, 2022 against Idaho State, which Nevada just beat 49-10.

And my favorite burger place in Northern Nevada was Ernie's All-American Burger, which closed a couple of years ago, sadly. Now, my go-to burger place is Burger Me. I get the Cowboy Burger, which includes a one-third pound all-natural beef patty, smoked cheddar cheese, bacon, fire-roasted jalapenos, lettuce, tomato and BBQ sauce.

I'm not sure about "strongest," but this year offers the most potential conference champions in recent history. I wouldn't be shocked if any of the following teams won the MW this season: Fresno State, Nevada, San Jose State, San Diego State, Boise State and (I guess) Utah State. It's usually a race between two or three teams. There are five legit potential champions, which should make for a fun year. I'd set the over/under on MW teams ranked in the final AP Top 25 at 1.5 and take the over. I think there will be two.

For me, it's Fresno State, which is funny because I tweeted the ESPN Football Power Index odds to win the Mountain West before the season began, and Fresno State topped the list at 26.2 percent. Everybody ridiculed that computer spit-out. The computers are looking good now, although it's going to be tough for any team to get out of the West Division given it includes Fresno State, Nevada, San Jose State and San Diego State. All are capable of winning the conference. That's a murderer's row of teams. But Fresno State hosts Nevada and Boise State, which is a big plus for the Bulldogs and gives them the edge for me one month into the season.

The chances of an upgrade comes down to getting to a Mountain West championship game. You don't need to get to a New Year's Six bowl to upgrade. You do need to get to a conference title game, although Colorado State's Jim McElwain got the Florida job without a MW championship game berth (we see how that worked out). I don't think the Kansas State loss alone severely hurts those chances. Nobody expected Nevada to go undefeated. If the Wolf Pack goes out and wins nine games, he'll remain an attractive Power 5 candidate.

Under Jay Norvell, the Wolf Pack is 14-7 (66.7 winning percentage) when committing more penalties than its opponent and 13-16 (44.8 winning percentage) when not committing more penalties than its opponent. Nevada needs more penalties if you ask me.

And I'll take Ruffles over Lays. I like the ridges.

That was a designed pass play but Carson Strong was flushed out of the pocket and forced to run. He came up a couple inches short, so I don't have any problem with him scrambling for the first down. If it was a designed quarterback run, it would have been worth criticizing, but that wasn't the case.

The schools with the bigger fan bases (mostly in the south) grew their revenue faster based on attendance and donor money. Those schools formed conferences. Those conferences got television deals. Those televisions deals exploded to billions of dollars. The coaches' salaries grew exponentially. The players' compensation remained "scholarships."

"Colleges" are typically smaller institutions that emphasize undergraduate degrees whereas "universities" are larger institutions that have more graduate and secondary degree programs. The difference between "University of" and "State University" is typically timeframe. First school in the state (aka the flagship) gets "University of XXXXX" distinction leaving "XXXXX State University" for the second school in the state.

The Giants were 100-1 odds to win the World Series in the preseason. Only three teams had worse odds, those being the Pirates (250-1), Rockies (150-1) and Rangers (125-1). So, yes, it's a cool story the Giants have overachieved the preseason expectations. It will be a shame when they lose the wild-card game to the Cardinals and go one-and-done in the playoffs.

I'm not going to give a high school football team comprised of 16-, 17- and 18-year-olds an "F" even if their play deserves it, so I don't think I can do grades for high school teams. Sometimes I feel bad about doing it for college teams. I know if I struck out in a big game in high school — and I did to end a game against Darrell Rasner with the bases loaded and our team down one — I wouldn't want the local reporter to give me an "F" even if I deserved it. So I'll just say McQueen in the 5A and Lowry and North Valleys in the 3A look really good. They gets early "A"s.

Nevada baseball lost Jake Jackson (to Baylor) and Owen Sharts (to the Pirates), so the rotation is the biggest question mark for me. All the key hitters except for Dillan Shrum are back, so the position player mix should be among the Mountain West's best, although Nevada's win-loss record with and without Shrum in recent years is pretty stark. He was a huge piece to the team. Nevada will probably be preseason favorites to win the Mountain West, but much of that is just because the team won the conference last year. After getting to its first NCAA Regional since 2000 last year, the goal is to now win games in the postseason and take the next step in the program's progression.

The Mountain West champion goes to the Jimmy Kimmel LA Bowl (unless that team makes a New Year's Six bowl). After that, there's no pecking order between the Arizona Bowl, Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, Hawaii Bowl and New Mexico Bowl. The MW also has backup affiliations with the Frisco Bowl, Cheez-It Bowl and Boca Raton Bowl. Only way Nevada goes to the LA Bowl is if it wins the MW or finishes second in the conference with the MW winner going to a New Year's Six bowl.

I'd pick The Presidents of the United States of America (the band) so I could ask what their motivation was when writing the song, "Peaches."

It's time for me to go eat some peaches. 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 crmurray@sbgtv.com or follow him on Twitter @ByChrisMurray.

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