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Murray's Mailbag: One hot take for every Mountain West football team in 2021

Hank Bachmeier
Hank Bachmeier, left, has won Boise State's starting quarterback job over Jack Sears.{ } (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

The Nevada football team's season opener is two Saturdays away, and by the time the Wolf Pack plays Cal on Sept. 4, it will probably have more practices completed in Palo Alto, Calif., than it does in Reno. That's how things are going these days. With the football season right around the corner, we'll start on the gridiron before branching into other topics in this week's Monday Mailbag. Thanks, as always, for the questions.

How about I give you one hot take for each team in the Mountain West? Teams listed in alphabetical order.

* Air Force: This will be Troy Calhoun's last season at Air Force (it's his 15th campaign in Colorado Springs and he's done all he can there, so it might be time for a new challenge).

* Boise State: USC transfer Jack Sears will start more games at quarterback for the Broncos than Hank Bachmeier, who won the starting job out of fall camp (although Sears should have just stayed at San Diego State where he'd already be the starter).

* Colorado State: Defensive end Scott Patchan, who at one time was a tight end at Miami (Fla.), wins the MW defensive player of the year award and becomes a top-100 NFL draft pick.

* Fresno State: Quarterback Jake Haener not only leads the Mountain West but the entire nation in passing yards as Fresno State has to play from behind a lot in 2021.

* Hawaii: After putting more than $8 million into the Clarence T.C. Ching Complex, where it will play this season, Hawaii is not allowed to have fans at home game the entire season.

* Nevada: After never having a first-round draft pick in the NFL's modern era, the Wolf Pack has two first-round picks in the 2022 draft (QB Carson Strong and WR Romeo Doubs).

* New Mexico: Second-year coach Danny Gonzales leads the Lobos to just their third bowl game in the last 15 seasons (with a soft non-conference schedule, it could happen).

* San Diego State: The Aztecs start three different quarterbacks during the season and waste yet another stellar defense by going 6-6 and finishing third in the West Division.

* San Jose State: The Spartans win the MW for the second straight season and accept an invitation into the Pac-12 (joking about the second part, but the first part could happen).

* UNLV: With the Rebels' reeling, UNLV starts Tate Martell at quarterback to try and pump up attendance at Allegiant Stadium (the Bishop Gorman alum was last seen as a wideout at Miami).

* Utah State: Linebacker Justin Rice becomes the first MW player to earn preseason defensive player of the year honors (at Fresno State in 2020) and postseason defensive player of the year honors (at Utah State in 2021) at different schools.

* Wyoming: Quarterback Sean Chambers lasts the entire year without suffering a season-ending injury. And if I could pick one thing from this list to happen, this would be it. Chambers, who is vying for the starting job with Levi Williams, has had season-ending surgery three straight season, including twice suffering those injuries against Nevada. He's due for a healthy year!

Thanks for the reference point. Marcellus Kemp was a hell of a college player, so if he's an 85, that gives me a good point of reference. I looked up some other players and Arizona's Chase Budinger was an 83, and he was an NBA draft pick. So they weren't handing out a lot of 90s. I'll go:

* Grant Sherfield (88): I'd give Sherfield the edge over Kemp because he became a star at a much younger age. Also, 100 on the clutch rating!

* Desmond Cambridge Jr. (81): Cambridge isn't in the Kemp category offensively, but he's a better defender and an elite athlete.

* Warren Washington (80): Washington was coming on at the end of last season and could blossom into an All-MW player this year.

* AJ Bramah (80): The Robert Morris transfer was super productive last year but must prove himself at a higher level.

* K.J. Hymes (77): He'd get good marks in shot blocking and 3-point shooting for a center, which would put him in the upper 70s.

* Tré Coleman (77): Coleman would be solid across the board. There weren't a lot of weaknesses to his game as a freshman.

* Kenan Blackshear (76): I'd give the slight edge to Coleman between the two, but they're fighting for the same minutes. It'll be interesting to see which player sees the court more this year.

* Will Baker (75): It's all projection with Baker, a 7-footer and five-star recruit who struggled at Texas.

* Nick Davidson (72): Playing time will be hard to come by as a freshman, but I like his future in the program.

* Daniel Foster (70): The Aussie was a starter last season but will probably come off the bench this year.

* DeAndre Henry (68): Henry was productive on a per-minute basis as a freshman but didn't get a lot of run.

* Jalen Weaver (66): The true freshman isn't likely to see a lot of playing time as a rookie given Nevada's depth chart.

* Alem Huseinovic (63): Just depends on how well he shoots this year after hitting 28 percent of his threes as a freshman.

I've tackled this subject before, and come down on the side of Nevada being a basketball school. The Wolf Pack athletic department was built on its football program. That's the reason Nevada was able to go from Division II to the Big Sky to the Big West to the WAC to the Mountain West. Credit Chris Ault and his program for that. But the last 20 years of Nevada athletics has largely revolved around its men's basketball program. Consider:

* Nevada basketball has had two $1 million head coaches; Nevada football has never even hit $700,000 for a coach

* Nevada basketball has a practice facility; Nevada football does not

* Nevada basketball has sent three head coaches to the Power 5 level in the last two decades; Nevada football has sent zero

* Nevada basketball has a top-five budget in the Mountain West; Nevada football has a bottom-five budget in the MW

* Nevada basketball has won 12 conference championships since 2004; Nevada football has won two

* Nevada basketball has had record-setting attendance at Lawlor Events Center with regular sellouts/near sellouts; Nevada football has not achieved the same attendance levels at Mackay Stadium

Heck, I could even point out the fact my stories on Nevada basketball draw way more readership than my stories on Nevada football. In terms of investment, fan interest and success the last 20 years, it's not even close. This could change if Nevada football surges and Nevada basketball falls back, but until then, it's a basketball school.

And, yes, the women's swimming and diving program is the second-most successful of the last two decades and deserves to be recognized as such. Don't sleep on men's golf, either.

Yes, Nevada football and men's basketball could have a special season in which both win Mountain West titles, but I wouldn't expected packed houses. In my conversation with Nevada athletic director Doug Knuth last Friday, he said, "Our two big revenue drivers, football and men’s basketball, we think we’re going to be really good this year. We sense that from our ticket renewals and ticket orders for the year so far. It’s not jumping-off-the-chart numbers, but at least it feels like a normal kind of year in terms of ticket sales and revenue in football and men’s basketball." So, I'd expect similar attendance numbers to the 2019-2020 season in men's basketball and a slight bump in football. While both teams should be among the best in the Mountain West, the home schedules for both are poor, and generally speaking Northern Nevada sports fans don't get close to sellouts for non-star opponents. To build a fanbase, you need multiple years of great success. The 2021 season could be the first step in building that, but you're not going to see lots of sellouts this year, especially considering we're still in a pandemic. I'd guess 18,000 per football game (it was 16,180 per game in 2019) and 8,250 per men's basketball game (it was 8,721 in 2019-20).

Nevada football's most likely losses to least likely losses in 2021 go as follows:

1. at Boise State (haven't beaten the Broncos on the road since 1998)

2. at Cal (preparation for the season opener has been a disaster)

3. at Kansas State (on the road against a solid Big 12 opponent)

4. at Fresno State (Bulldogs QB Jake Haener carved up Nevada's secondary last year)

5. at San Diego State (depends on whether the Aztecs can find a competent quarterback)

6. vs. San Jose State (we shouldn't discount the reigning MW champs)

7. vs. Air Force (the triple-option can be tricky)

8. vs. Hawaii (the Rainbow Warriors did beat Nevada last season)

9. at Colorado State (this is the regular-season finale, so a ton could be on the line)

10. vs. UNLV (basically an FCS foe, although UNLV has won three of the last four at Mackay Stadium)

11. vs. New Mexico State (basically an FCS foe)

12. vs. Idaho State (an actual FCS foe)

Ten college football teams play on Week 0, and three are from the Mountain West! My picks:

* UCLA 31, Hawaii 23 (Reno High's Ale Kaho makes his Bruins' debut)

* Fresno State 30, UConn 20 (UConn didn't even play football last year, which shows you how much the Huskies care about that sport)

* San Jose State 42, Southern Utah 17 (the Spartans open with an FCS cupcake; the Thunderbirds went 1-5 last season)

He's really good, and I already regret putting him at "just No. 18" on my list of Nevada's 21 most important players in 2021. The obvious concern is how many reps he gets during games with Romeo Doubs, Elijah Cooks and Melquan Stovall penciled into the starting lineup. But if I'm Nevada, I would try and get Horton, Cooks and Doubs on the field together as often as possible, with Doubs moving into the slot position occupied by Stovall. It's worth pointing out almost all of Horton's production last season came against Fresno State when he had five receptions for 148 yards and three touchdowns (he had 15 catches for 188 yards and two touchdowns in the team's other eight games). Given the depth chart situation, Horton's true breakout probably comes in 2022, but he's been phenomenal in the glimpses I've seen of fall camp. With Carson Strong and Doubs expected to turn pro after this year, the Clay Millen-to-Tory Horton combination will be next in line at Nevada.

Carson Strong (knee) returned to practice last week at Stanford, so he should be fine to play against Cal on Sept. 4. He's got two full weeks of preparation time to get fully up to speed.

I'm not 100 percent sure what you're asking me. If it's whether I'd take Colin Kaepernick's 2010 team or Carson Strong's 2021 team, I'm obviously taking the 2010 team, which was far more proven. That doesn't meant the 2021 team can't best the 2010 team if it goes undefeated this year. But the 2010 team is the best in program history by far. If you're asking me whether I'd rather have Kaepernick or Strong to win a game, that's a closer battle. I'm still taking Kaepernick because of his running ability, but Strong is so much better of a passer than Kaepernick was in college. So, depending on the opponent's defensive strengths, I could see taking Strong. But Kaepernick was a video game creation in the WAC. His athleticism was unparalleled and a perfect fit for Chris Ault's Pistol scheme.

Nevada head coach Jay Norvell and Stanford head coach David Shaw are friendly, and Wolf Pack director of football operations Jashon Sykes also has friends on the Cardinal staff. There's no reason for Stanford to not allow Nevada to use its field for a couple of hours a day. It's like when Nevada let UC Davis and Sac State to play a game at Mackay Stadium in 2018 due to air-quality issues. Still, the whole operation isn't cheap. You're looking at $300,000 to get in 10 practices whereas you might have been able to get in five or six of those if you just stayed in Reno. But the air-quality thing is so unpredictable.

As for Stanford, the Cardinal were picked to finish fourth in the Pac-12 North, one spot behind rival, Cal. I doubt Stanford is letting Nevada use its facilities because the Wolf Pack opens with Cal. They're just doing Nevada a solid. But Stanford and Nevada both play Kansas State and Cal this season, so there might be some cross sharing of information on the Wildcats and Bears between the staffs. Looking at Stanford's schedule, I'd guess a 5-7 season. All 12 of the Cardinal's games are against Power 5 opponents. That's a big-boy schedule!

That's the biggest "pro" of this situation for me. It's not ideal, but the chemistry being developed on these trips and against this adversity should only bring the Wolf Pack closer together. Of course, the "cons" list is longer, including the cost ($300,000), the loss of classroom time (it's odd to see Nevada leave town the day classes begin), the extra travel and the increased risk to COVID, but Nevada can't control the air quality. Let's just hope it doesn't cancel the Wolf Pack's home opener against Idaho State. The "pro" to that game potentially being canceled is Nevada wouldn't have to pay Idaho State the $350,000 it owes for that matchup, which would make up some of that money required to practice at Stanford. The "con" of that game potentially being canceled is the loss of revenue from one home game and the fact the 2020 and 2021 Hall of Fames classes are supposed to be honored at halftime of the contest. A lot of "pros" and "cons!"

Play the game at Idaho State! I'm kidding, of course, although Pocatello is only 8 hours away and Idaho State plays indoors. If I were Nevada, I'd just canceled the game rather than move it to the Sacramento area or Las Vegas. Nevada already starts the season with three road games out of its first four contests. Playing four games on the road to the start the season should be avoided (although Nevada did that in 2011, on the heels of its historic 2010 campaign, which remains one of the dumbest things in department history). But to answer your question, I don't know. Sac State is at home that weekend; UC Davis is on the road. Nevada could shift locations and play at Davis, but I'd just opt out of the contract and try and find another FCS opponent for the bye week Sept. 25. Idaho, for example, has a bye that week. With Nevada scheduled to host Idaho in 2023, maybe Idaho and Idaho State could swap years.

Unlike the NFL, college teams are not allowed to practice against each other, although that would have been a cool experience for Nevada and would have helped the Wolf Pack prepare for its season opener versus Cal against a similar-caliber Pac-12 school. If allowed, that would have been a huge benefit for the Wolf Pack to see other competition in a pseudo exhibition game/scrimmage setting.

Nevada basketball did not have any signed exhibition games on the books when my public records request for all of its non-conference contracts was fulfilled last week. But my best guess is the Wolf Pack plays one exhibition game (a $4,000 contest against a non-DI school that can drive to Reno) and plays one closed-door scrimmage against a Division I foe. That's the best formula to get ready for the season. You face one similar-caliber D-I team and one lower-level squad in front of a live audience to get the nerves out. In Coach Alford's last five seasons at UCLA, he did one private scrimmage and one exhibition a year, so that's the formula he's used in the past. No reason to deviate unless Nevada wants to try and squeeze a little more revenue out of playing a second exhibition game.

Luke Babbitt is the most private Wolf Pack star I've ever covered. He shied away from the media, not because he didn't like the media, per se. He's just a private guy. I remember interviewing him on campus at Galena High during his senior season and then covered him with the Wolf Pack and into the NBA. We're friendly enough. He just doesn't like the spotlight, and neither did his family. So outside of knowing he has two kids and is living (I think) in Atlanta — per the last time I talked to him a couple of years ago — I'm not sure what he's doing. Babbitt is expected to return to campus for his Hall of Fame induction on Sept. 10, and I'll try and get him lined up for an interview on NSN Daily so we can chat about what he's been up to since last playing in the NBA during the 2017-18 season. He was a great player and is a great guy.

Playing defensive back is already difficult enough as is, so allowing pre-snap running toward the line of scrimmage would make things even more difficult for NFL cornerbacks. I'm against that. But I'd use the CFL's overtime rules, which are the same as the college overtime rules except teams get the ball on the 35-yard line rather than the 25. In the NFL, I'd like to see both teams get one possession from the 50-yard line. I hate the NFL's overtime rules. And you're right about Cody Fajardo looking good. He's completed 75-of-95 passes for 773 yards, four touchdowns and one interception this season (and rushed for 139 yards and two scores) for the 3-0 Saskatchewan Roughriders.

All of our interviews during Nevada football fall camp have been conducted in person, so I imagine the post-game press conferences will also be conducted in person.

20 percent. The American Athletic Conference has passed the Mountain West in football (by a slight margin) in recent years, although that doesn't mean the MW can't get the Group of 5's spot in the New Year's Six bowl this season. That won't be easy with Cincinnati starting the year in the preseason top 10, but the Bearcats play Notre Dame and Indiana, two preseason Top 25 teams, so the odds they go undefeated aren't strong. That could allow an undefeated MW school to steal that New Year's Six spot.

Wolf Pack running back Avery Morrow, who tore a knee ligament during the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, is back at full strength following surgery and has been participating in fall camp. He probably won't see a ton of carries this year given Nevada returns Toa Taua and Devonte Lee, but both of those guys are seniors (technically with two years of eligibility left), so Morrow is the heir apparent and would suck up a lot of carries if Taua or Lee goes down.

No. I'll have a story on the indoor practice facility later this week — there's some news to report there, but don't get overly excited — but it wouldn't be a future home to the women's soccer team. It's embarrassing Truckee Meadows Community College, a junior college, has a better soccer field than Nevada, a Division I school. The fact the old Bishop Manogue property was never turned into the home of women's athletics at Nevada — with a softball field; tennis courts; an outdoor track; and a soccer pitch — in the 2000s remains disappointing. It was a major missed opportunity. At least the Wolf Pack got two of the four facilities over there, although the softball stadium needs some work.

No, I don't think it will be much better in week two. We can't predict the air quality a week in advance — it's more accurate in the one- to two-day range — and I don't expect the COVID-19 issues to go away. If anything, the COVID-19 restrictions are stronger this fall for high school football than they were during the spring season because unvaccinated athletes must quarantine for 10 days if they were close contacts of somebody who tested positive (and there are a lot of close contacts during football practice). Certainly, getting everybody vaccinated would help alleviate many of the COVID-19 issues, especially with the FDA giving the Pfizer vaccine full approval. There's no reason not to be vaccinated. But some will still opt against the shot, which will lead to issues, and I don't see the air-quality issues going away in the next couple of days (or even couple of weeks). So it will be a day-to-day and even hour-to-hour deal for high school football Friday nights.

In two preseason games, Trey Lance is 13-of-28 (46.4 percent) for 230 yards with three touchdowns, one interception and six sacks. And he's done that against second-stringers. He has a solid passer rating (95.8), but the accuracy and the fact he's holding the ball so long and taking so many sacks shows there's a lot to still learn. If the 49ers fancy themselves a playoff team (and I think they believe they're Super Bowl contenders), they should start the year with Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback. While I'm not a huge Garoppolo guy, he did help the team reach the Super Bowl two years ago. Give him the chance to show he can still play at that level, and if he can't then you turn to Lance, who is probably the greenest first-round quarterback draft pick of all time (only 16 college starts, all at the FCS level). Given Garoppolo's history, odds are he'll be hurt soon anyway.

I haven't played fantasy football the last few years, so I have no idea. Is Christian Okoye still a good fantasy running back? The Nigerian Nightmare was sooooo good in Tecmo.

Throwing a baseball, especially at speeds nearing 100 miles per hour, is not normal for the human body. The more you do that, especially in a fatigued setting that occurs when not fully recovered from the previous night, the more likely your shoulder and elbow ligaments will need to be surgically repaired. There's a reason most top reliever pitchers only last three or four years before blowing out and/or never being the same. Building a bullpen is the most difficult thing for a general manager to do in baseball because of the unpredictability of relief pitchers' health and effectiveness from year to year. I'm not saying coal mining is healthy for the human body. It's not. But that's an apples-to-oranges comparison to relief pitching. Both can be hazardous to your health with repeated use.

These are the steps I follow before earing chocolate chip cookies.

1) Go to store.

2) Grab bag of Chips Ahoy! soft chocolate chip cookies.

3) Eat cookies.

I would follow that recipe moving forward. And with that, I'm headed to the grocery store for some Chips Ahoy! 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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