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Murray's Mailbag: It is Mountain West title or bust for Nevada football this season?

Carson Strong
Carson Strong and Nevada opened the Mountain West season with a win over Boise State. (Loren Orr/Getty Images)

Mark down Oct. 2, 2021 as the day I decided to retire from coaching youth soccer. I will finish out the season with the Dark Blue Night Pack before making the transition to coaching youth baseball next spring. I am not taking questions on my decision at the moment. Thank you for respecting my privacy. (Well, if you really want to know, our team lost, 13-1, on Saturday. Our goal was illegal, but they felt bad for us and gave it to us anyway. Simply put, the talent disparity between teams is too large and makes the games not fun for the kids and coaches who haven't stacked their rosters. So I'm moving my limited coaching talents to Washoe Little League starting next spring). Anyway, on to things you actually care about with this week's Monday Mailbag. Thanks, as always, for the inquiries.

Nevada lost to Kansas State, so it can't go undefeated, but if the Wolf Pack goes undefeated in conference play and loses to Boise State in the Mountain West title game, would the season still be deemed a success? If you gave the players on the team the option today to accept that outcome, they would all decline it. This team wants to win a MW title. It won't settle for something short of that, nor should it. It's not often you have an NFL quarterback surrounded by other NFL skill-position players on a team that starts 17/18 seniors, depending on the game. This team is missing nothing in terms of being a conference championship contender, so falling short of that goal, even if means going 11-2, which your scenario above lays out, would be disappointing for the team. A successful season means winning a MW title. Period. That's what Carson Strong and his teammates would tell you, so I do believe it's MW title or bust for Nevada in 2021. It's good to have high expectations. It means you have a good roster.

It was a perfect week for Nevada, which won its first game at Boise State in 24 years and saw Fresno State lose unexpectedly to Hawaii. Nine MW teams have played at least one conference game, and only two of those teams (Nevada and San Jose State) are undefeated in league play, so the Wolf Pack has an early advantage. Couple that with San Diego State's general issues at quarterback, Fresno State's early setback and San Jose State's offensive struggles, and the Wolf Pack is the favorite to win the West Division at this stage, but it's probably a 35 percent chance compared to San Diego State's 25 percent, Fresno State's 25 percent and San Jose State's 14 percent. I'll give Hawaii 1 percent and UNLV 0 percent, only because I can't give a negative percent of winning the division. In my preseason game-by-game predictions, I had Nevada winning the MW, so I'll stick with that. In fact, I've hit all four games in that preseason prediction column but am only 2-2 in my Three Keys and Prediction column. Maybe I should have trusted my original picks. Dumb Chris.

ESPN gives Nevada a 1.3 percent chance of winning out. I'd go a little higher at 5 percent. But you're asking the Wolf Pack to win nine straight games, something it has never done in its FBS history. The program's longest in-season win streak is eight straight wins in 2009 when Nevada opened the season 0-3 and closed it with back-to-back losses but won eight straight games in the middle (just two victories against bowl teams). Four of Nevada's final eight games are against likely bowl teams (Fresno State, San Diego State, Air Force and San Jose State), so it'd take a historic effort, and I think it's possible. But I'd bet against it.

As for Nevada volleyball, they don't get any nicer than head coach Lee Nelson, but the Wolf Pack is 72-107 overall and 36-73 in MW play in his tenure, so I wouldn't be surprised if there's a head-coaching change there, although Nevada athletic director Doug Knuth has never fired a coach he hired. This year, injuries have been a major issue for Nevada volleyball, which has led the Wolf Pack to playing a young cast of players, which has resulted in inconsistency from one point to the next. But over the last four seasons, Nevada is 11-44 in MW games, so it's not just a one-year issue. Leaving the Big West for the WAC in 2000 really hurt that program's ability to recruit Southern California players. And Cary Groth's decision to fire Devin Scruggs made no sense and has clearly backfired.

The division champion with the better conference record hosts the Mountain Wet title game. If the teams are tied in record, this is the current tie-breaking procedure.

1. Head-to-head record

2. Higher College Football Playoff ranking going into the final week of regular season, excluding teams who are not ranked and/or that lost their final regular season game

3. Composite of selected computer rankings

4. Record versus common conference opponents

5. Highest overall winning percentage (conference and non-conference excluding exempt games)

6. Coin toss

He started and played a nice chunk of snaps, including on special teams (he had a key tackle on the long punt return from Khalil Shakir in the first half). Nevada rotates its defensive linemen liberally and gave Tristan Nichols and Jack Powers a lot of snaps against Boise State. Nichols, in particular, needs to be used more often than just going in on pass-rushing downs. He's played his way into a starting role, so Hammond and Kam Toomer might get fewer snaps as a result, but that's not a bad thing. Nevada has good depth at defensive line and was the fresher of the two offensive/defensive line units against Boise State as a result.

Justin Lockhart or safety JoJuan Claiborne. I did try and hint that Lockhart would play a big role in the Boise State game, writing in my position preview, "Nevada will be without Elijah Cooks (foot; team-high four TDs), so Doubs and TE Cole Turner must step up. Justin Lockhart will be featured more, too." Notice how I wrote Lockhart rather than Tory Horton, who I noticed was limited in practice and likely wasn't getting many reps against Boise State despite being the team's top reserve receiver. I also wrote in that position preview, "C Donte Harrington had four bad snaps last week, so that’s worth tracking," and then Harrington had two gigantic mistakes with bad snaps against Nevada. So while I get some of my predictions wrong, including the Boise State game, I do provide important information at times. And I'll be talking to Lockhart at practice on Tuesday for a feature story on him because he played really well against Boise State with a team-high 94 yards on five catches. Pretty crazy that he is Nevada's fourth- or fifth-best receiver. It's a deep group.

Two things: (1) They invested a ton of state money into the program and (2) They hired good coaches every time they lost their coach, going from Pokey Allen to Houston Nutt (hired by the SEC) to Dirk Koetter (hired by the Pac-10) to Dan Hawkins (hired by the Pac-10) to Chris Petersen (hired by the Pac-12) to Bryan Harsin (hired by the SEC). They simply didn't miss. But the investment that got the ball rolling? I wrote 1,500 words on it in 2015, which you can read here. It is titled, "The case for investing in athletics: Boise State" and was part of a three-story series that included the main story ("The fight to fund the Wolf Pack's future") and another secondary piece ("How the Wolf Pack must court its fans").

* Berdale Robins losing two brothers during his Wolf Pack career.

* Toa Taua and Devonte Lee being dads.

* Carson Strong, the high school basketball star (just so they can run these photos).

* Bentlee Sanders honoring his sister with suicide awareness and prevention.

* A trip with Sam Hammond to Yerington.

* Anything on Romeo Doubs since he doesn't talk to the media and I'd like to hear his voice.

* The Three Amigos (Strong, Doubs, Cole Turner) living together for four years.

We did cover some of these stories with our Nevada Grit season preview, which can be viewed here. A lot of the anecdotes used by broadcasters during games come directly from our stories. When Nevada played Oregon in 2010, Gus Johnson used stories from, like, seven of my player features during the broadcast (no credit, of course). He even mentioned Zach Sudfeld using multiple crockpots a day to put on weight, which there's no way he got other than reading my story. But nice research by Gus to read all my stuff.

No. And, also, the Mountain West has one team in the Top 25, and it's not Nevada, so pump the brakes on the "Best team in the MW" declaration until that's proven on the field.

That's not happening, and there are basically zero "pros" to it. Nevada would lose the roughly $3.5 million it gets as part of the Mountain West media rights deal. It would lose the potential for an automatic spot into the NCAA Tournament by winning the MW Tournament. It would have to build full schedules in all sports without the benefit of conference opponents, which would cost a ton in travel money and guarantee game money and decrease the team's overall strength of schedule. It would take away the opportunity of winning conference championships. The only plus would be full authorization of start times in its games.

I do to a degree, but that's a result of the timing of games more than anything else. Most Nevada football games start at 10:30 p.m. Eastern time, so, yes, a lot of writers don't get to see the Wolf Pack play live all that much, and that certainly hurts. I think people are prone to regional bias because they see teams in their region play a lot more, which can led to overrating them (I tend to see the flaws in teams and will sometimes underrate them as a result). But the AP Top 25 only has 62 voters and tries to have one voter per state to limit the bias (I've been the voter in Nevada in the football and men's basketball poll since 2012). That state-to-state spread is a great idea to try and limit bias, but late kickoff times certainly hurt West Coast teams in terms of coverage and respect. Colin Kaepernick, for example, should have finished higher than eighth in the 2010 Heisman Trophy vote, but I doubt many East Coast voters watched him play live outside of the Boise State game.

Hawaii over Fresno State because it did so with its backup quarterback who is a true freshman and was an 11.5-point underdog (Nevada's line was down to 3.5 by the end, and it has an early-round NFL draft pick at quarterback). Hawaii's roster is limited, but Todd Graham is an excellent coach who schemed Fresno State quarterback Jake Haener into four interceptions over the weekend. Plus, one good teams always loses at Hawaii every year. It's a tough place to win a game despite the roster disparity. Nevada learned that last season.

It's always in between, and Nevada has a good pass-rushing defensive line, but Boise State's offensive line is pretty bad. That line was always elite during the halcyon days of Broncos football, but it has fallen on hard times of late. Boise State quarterback Hank Bachmeier has a reputation of being tough, but that's a result of getting blasted every game, which should not be the case for a program like the Broncos that has four offensive line alums in the NFL and has consistently churned out pro-level linemen. Boise State has above-average skill players at quarterback, receiver and running back, but that line is a major issue. The Broncos are averaging just 2.4 yards per carry and was at 3.4 yards per carry last season. It has given up 13 sacks in five games with Nevada racking up six of those. So credit to Nevada for taking advantage of that weakness, and for defensive coordinator Brian Ward for increasing his blitz rate against the Broncos to take advantage of that vulnerable group. But Boise State's line should never be this bad, and it's not a young unit considering four of the starters are seniors.

This is not the first time it's been proven a chicken is smarter than I am.

I don't know my overall record because that dates back to 2008, but I can tell the story about how "Three Keys and a Prediction" became a thing. I was going to Wimbledon on a bus during a month-long vacation in Europe in the summer of 2007 and was reading one of the local London newspapers. There was a breakdown of the Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal championship match that had a cool-looking design that outlined four keys to the match. I figured if I ever became a writer for the RGJ — my first six years at the paper I just answered phones, edited stories and designed the sports section's layout — I would use that as my model to do "Four Keys and a Prediction" for every Wolf Pack football and men's basketball game. I started on the Nevada men's basketball beat in 2008 and began that feature then. I also started covering football in 2010 and used that same feature. At some point, I cut it down to "Three Keys and a Prediction." And while I keep track of my yearly record to be transparent, I haven't kept an all-time win-loss total. I feel like I'm much better in basketball than football. Straight-up in basketball, I'm usually around an 80 percent success rate. In football, it's probably closer to 70 percent straight up, although I have not been as good in the Jay Norvell era as his team has had a lot of upsets. In the last four seasons, the favored team in Nevada football games is only 23-16 straight up. Norvell-coached games have featured a lot of upsets, and, not shockingly, I tend to pick the favored team. In terms of against the spread, I don't have an accurate all-time record on that, either, but I did pick every MW football game during the 2015 season and finished 79-18 straight up (81.4 percent) and 53-32-1 against the spread (62.4). Proof here. I figured I was never going to do better than that, so I stopped that series after one season. I wish I did have my all-time record, just to see if I'm any good at these predictions. I've thought about not doing public predictions anymore, but it's one of the most-read things I write every week, and I think the "keys" part does add some insight for fans who want to know more about the important aspects of each game.

Most folks? No. But it can be addicting and ruin people's lives, so I would tread carefully. While I have not been a gambler for most of my life, I did get the William Hill app in advance of this college football season because I wanted to bet on the Nevada money line against Cal. I was confident in that game. So I put $250 in the app for the football season and am now at $400. My favorite pending bet is the Brewers to beat the Rays in the World Series, which I put in a month ago. I put $10 on that to win $380. I'm feeling confident about that one at least getting to the point where I can hedge, although Devin Williams punching a wall and breaking his hand didn't help. Gambling does make games more fun, but there is a downside of addiction for some people, so be careful to set limits.

Television spots? Not really. The Mountain West's value is the 7 p.m. window. So a lot of its games are going to be in that window regardless of whether the conference is the top Group of 5 league or not. Improved bowl spots and opponents? I'd be a little more optimistic, but I still believe the AAC will hold on to its better bowl opportunities. The key is to get into a New Year's Six bowl year in and year out, which has been the AAC's domain in recent seasons, but losing Cincinnati, UCF and Houston gives the MW a great chance at stealing that title.

Yes. With Colorado State and Air Force saying put in the Mountain West, I hope the conference considers a scheduling format I outlined earlier this year, which included zero divisions, each program having three "protected rivalries" and a rotating scheduling system thereafter. That would allow Nevada to play UNLV, Boise State and Fresno State each season. There's no reason for Nevada not to face those teams every year.

I've been on the record saying a Group of 5 school will never get into the College Football Playoff, although this could be the season I'm wrong. The Pac-12 and ACC are off to bad starts, with their top teams (Oregon and Clemson) taking losses. The Big 12 has Oklahoma, but the Sooners haven't looked impressive. The Big 10 should get a team in, and the SEC should get two teams in (Alabama and Georgia), but Florida already has two losses, so they're not getting in barring an SEC title. Things are looking good for Cincinnati, both because the Bearcats have wins over Indiana and Notre Dame and because the Power 5 conferences are going to create a path for a Group of 5 to get in barring Oklahoma going undefeated along with an undefeated Big 10 champ. Cincinnati needs at least one of those things to not happen to get into the College Football Playoff, which is possible. In terms of the impact on the Group of 5, the College Football Playoff bowls are considered New Year's Six bowls, so Cincinnati getting into the CFP does not open a second G5 spot in a NY6 bowl.

Cincinnati. But if Oklahoma or any Big 10 team goes undefeated, they deserve a playoff spot. I'd have more of an issue with a one-loss Oklahoma or one-loss Big 10 team get in before an unbeaten Cincinnati.

I love the fact Deion Sanders is making HBCU football visible again. I also love the fact he's investing himself into the program and not looking at it as a quick steppingstone to a Power 5 job, although if that Florida State job opens I'm sure he'd be a candidate. But he's pushing hard for better resources, more recognition and an improved infrastructure for HBCU programs. And that's what it would take to get the HBCU to the Group of 5 level, an investment financially that's currently not being offered. I'm fine with universities not pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into college football because it is a little dumb given it's a zero-sum change (one team will always lose and another will always win regardless of whether teams spent a combined $10 on the sport or $1 billion on the sport), but if the HBCU wants to make that jump, it's going to take a major investment into facilities and coaching staffs and the infrastructure required for football success, which comes at a higher price tag than any college sport.

Demarshay Johnson Jr., the son of the former Wolf Pack basketball player by the same name, committed to San Diego State in November 2020, so Alford would have been on the job at Nevada for 18 months, so I will assume there was recruiting contact there, but I don't know for sure. Johnson is a true freshman at SDSU after playing at Salesian College Prep in Richmond, Calif., in high school. He committed to SDSU having never visited San Diego, never met the Aztecs coaches in person and solely being recruited via his film. He's viewed as a raw, high-upside power forward whose final three schools in the recruiting process was SDSU, UNLV and Pepperdine. He also had offers from Montana and Cal Poly, so Nevada wasn't in the mix that deep on the three-star prospect if they did recruit him. Fun Fact: Johnson's lead recruiter at SDSU was Jay Morris, who was an assistant on Eric Musselman's first staff at Nevada.

And I'll take the Chargers over the Raiders and have bet on the over (51.5 points).

I was a believer from day one.

This is not a question, but yes it was. Pretty crazy that a team that won 106 games has to go into a one-game playoff to make the postseason. MLB should use the Korean baseball playoff format that uses a step-ladder playoff system that requires the KBO fifth-place team to beat the fourth-place team twice in a row to advance to the next round. The fourth-place team would only have to win one of two games to move on. But go ahead MLB and give the 88-win Braves a spot in the playoffs and make the 106-win Dodgers go to a one-game wild card format.

Wild card: Yankees over Red Sox; Dodgers over Cardinals

ALDS: Rays over Yankees; White Sox over Astros

NLDS: Dodgers over Giants; Brewers over Braves

ALCS: Rays over White Sox

NLCS: Brewers over Dodgers

World Series: Brewers over Rays. Nobody will watch because of the tiny markets. But Jay Norvell, a big Brewers fan, would rejoice.

The Brewers played the 101-loss Pirates 19 times and the 71-91 Cubs 19 times. They got plenty of games with crappy teams. Hell, I don't even want the Dodgers to play the Diamondbacks and Rockies 19 times a season. It's too repetitive. I'd prefer a 15-team AL and a 15-team NL. Each NL team plays the other NL teams in three series (nine games against 14 opponents) for 126 games. And every NL team plays 12 of the 15 AL teams in a three-game series (randomly generated) for the final 36 games. And you take the top four teams in each division to play against each other in the playoffs, with the No. 1 seed hosting No. 4 and No. 2 hosting No. 3. But if MLB is going to keep this system, go with the KBO's wild-card format and then reseed by win total for the NLDS and NLCS. The Dodgers and Giants should be playing in a seven-game series not five games (or potentially no games if Adam Wainwright shoves on Wednesday, which he certainly will).

Yes, and it's not even close. He ranks first in career WAR in a Dodgers jersey at 71.4, so he's the greatest Dodger of all-time if you take out Jackie Robinson, whose contribution to American society far outstrips his greatness as a player. Kershaw is the greatest non-Robinson Dodger ever. He's a three-time Cy Young Award winner (should be five time) and a one-time MVP. He led the majors in ERA four straight seasons, the only time he's done that. He might be facing Tommy John surgery, but he needs to retire a Dodger whenever he hangs it up even if that means putting up with a league average pitcher for multiple years. He's earned the right to retire as a Dodger.

Boise State's 16-1 streak against Nevada featured a lot of close games, but, to be fair, it also featured a number of blowouts. During that 17-game stretch, the Broncos out-scored the Wolf Pack, 745-376, an average margin of victory of 21.7 points. The four games with Colin Kaepernick were close and Cody Fajardo and Ty Gangi both came close to beating Boise State once, but it was all blowouts outside of those six games, in which Nevada went 1-5, so it did get a little unlucky in those games, but it also got two Kyle Brotzman missed from inside the 30-yard line in 2010, so it evened out to a degree.

The over/under is probably closer to 23.5, but it's likely going to take 25 wins to get to the NCAA Tournament given the lack of marquee games non-conference schedule. I quickly went through Nevada's schedule and am predicting a 24-7 regular season. In terms of an upset, I'll go with USF, a 3-point-heavy team that hammered Nevada last year and loaded up with more transfers, including ex-Wolf Pack starter Zane Meeks, this offseason. That game is also on the road for Nevada.

And I'll take yellow curry above red and green. I like Curry, both the food and the basketball player.

Basketball is not the right minor-league sport for Reno given the presence of Wolf Pack basketball, which is the No. 1 team in town. I think minor-league hockey would work in Reno, and minor-league baseball and soccer have been/were somewhat successful. Reno 1868 FC would still be here without the pandemic. But Bighorns basketball never gained a strong foothold or support system. The ultimate salesman/coach (Eric Musselman) led the Bighorns for one season and couldn't draw huge crowds, but look what he did with Nevada basketball. I don't see Reno getting another G League team, but I'd like to see if minor-league hockey would work. The Reno Ice Raiders are selling out games quickly, albeit with limited ticket inventory. Northern Nevada isn't a great sports town given the other options for entertainment, but minor-league hockey could be a winner.

It's an issue, but I've covered games at more than 30 college football stadiums and parking for those games is always difficult. It's part and parcel with attending major sporting events. And I'd say Nevada's parking situation is better than most of the stadiums I've been to to cover games. Things could be better on that front, and I do think Nevada changing the tailgating sections and rules had a big negative impact on attendance (my parents used to attend every game when they got to tailgate at Peccole Park for free and now haven't been to a game in more than half-a-decade), but it's a perennial issue for colleges. Maybe Nevada should offer free parking at Rancho San Rafael with a free shuttle service. But people would still complain about that.

The official Wolf Pack athletic department has an entire webpage designated to tailgating before football games. That's here. And if you're asking whether there should be cannabis lounges in Nevada football tailgate areas, I'll go with, "No."

I don't think I have the capacity to do that, but Coach Stallworth had a huge impact on that program, that community and high school athletics in general in Northern Nevada. I really hope Rollins Stallworth' name remains on the football field at the Wildcreek campus. But when I broke into the business, I covered a lot of games at Hug given how close the school is to the RGJ offices, and I remember vividly how great Mitchell More, Isaac Porter, Darryl Feemster, Duke Williams, Courtney Gardner and Derek Kosub were back in the mid- to late-2000s.

Two things:

1) I don't know much about the bus strike.

2) While I understand this impacts those who require busses to get to work and am sympathetic to their needs, I am pro-union and pro-workers rights, and if a larger share of my taxes needs to go to social services such as these, I would be fine with it. In fact, I wouldn't mind a state income tax to help fund our social services and education at a higher level, although I'd prefer my tax money be used in a different manner all together with less going to defense spending and more going to social services and education.

Well timed question because we are starting an NSN betting game this Friday where readers can try and beat me on three bets per week. The reader with the best against-the-spread record at the end of the football season gets a NSN swag bag and a tour of the station, including time in the NSN lounge. So you just have to beat me (and the rest of the readers who partake in the fun) in our new feature that will come out this week. Beating me shouldn't be too difficult.

"Weenie Ride?" Honestly, I don't know if there's a single Steel Panther title I can publish outside of that one.

The Rebels' offense has looked more competent in recent games. UNLV's games with Nevada, Air Force, San Diego State and Utah State look like losses. Maybe it upsets San Jose State, New Mexico or Hawaii. ESPN projects the Rebels at 2.4 wins this season, so it's a believer. UNLV has been winless over a full season just once in its history (1998 when it went 0-11), so odds are the Rebels win a game. But I'll put my money on zero wins.

You have to let UNLV beat you in football every year between announcing you're leaving the conference until the year you actually leave the conference, simply because that's the only way UNLV football is going to win a game. OK, I've got my UNLV jokes out of my system, so I'm calling it a day. 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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