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Murray's Mailbag: What should the Mountain West do next in conference realignment game?

Mountain West
The Mountain West continues to monitor the conference realignment situation. (Photo by David Becker/Getty Images)

I had a lot of stuff going on at work today, so this is going to be a lightning round version of the Monday Mailbag, albeit a lightning round that is still almost 4,000 words. Let's get to the questions. Thanks, as always, for the inquiries.

Gonzaga broached the idea of moving to the Mountain West in 2018, although I believe that was a bluff to try and leverage the West Coast Conference to give the Zags what they wanted. If you're Gonzaga, you'd much rather join the Pac-12 than the Mountain West, although I'm not sure the Pac-12 would add a faith-based institution to its conference, so the Mountain West might end up being its best option. The WCC losing BYU will certainly make Gonzaga think about its long-term future in the WCC. If I'm the Mountain West, I'm pushing hard to add the following four schools: Gonzaga and Wichita State to bolster its basketball enterprise and Memphis and SMU to bolster its football enterprise (and Memphis is good at basketball, too.) If the MW can add those four schools, it'd be a huge step in the right direction. And each MW school should be required to put a statue of commissioner Craig Thompson's hair on its campus if Thompson pulls that off.

There is downside to adding teams just to add teams. You're cutting the television and conference distribution money into fewer pieces, which isn't ideal. But I don't think the Mountain West can sit around, stand pat and risk losing Boise State and/or San Diego State, so it should strike first. While there are a lot of basketball fans in this conference, football matters first and foremost. So the moves must be made thinking about how you improve your conference from a football standpoint. That's why I'd add Memphis and SMU and try and double-down with the additions of Gonzaga and Wichita State for basketball. You're stretching the conference further East than you'd like, especially with Memphis, but that move would deal the American Athletic Conference a big blow after the ACC lost UConn, Cincinnati, UCF and Houston. The MW needs to go for the death blow.

I wouldn't be in favor of having a 16-team football enterprise. That's too many team. You're already stretching things at 14. Sixteen is overkill, and, again, cuts the pie too thinly. Get two solid football programs, add two Top 25 basketball programs and call it a day.

If I had to put money on it, I'd guess the Mountain West loses a school before it adds one. The Big 12 is reportedly open to further expansion and has Boise State as a potential candidate. Boise State would make a ton of sense for the Big 12 as a traveling partner with BYU. That should be the conference's first choice if it does add another school. I'm not convinced the Mountain West is willing to be the aggressor in conference realignment. It's typically been reactionary and only added schools after losing schools. I hope the conference proves me wrong and does add somebody from the AAC and/or Gonzaga, but I'd bet against that right now.

"You just lost the second-best basketball program in your conference. Do you really want to play Pepperdine, Saint Mary's, USF, Loyola Marymount, Pacific, USD, Portland and Santa Clara for three months leading into the NCAA Tournament? Come join us. We have a Top 25 program in San Diego State. We'll add a Top 25 program in Wichita State. Nevada, Boise State, Utah State and Colorado State are all solid programs. UNLV and New Mexico have great potential. And we'll give you unlimited pie if you join us. Who doesn't like unlimited pie?"

Nevada isn't going anywhere. If Boise State can't get into the Big 12, no power conference is taking Nevada, and it'd make no sense to go to any other Group of 5 conference. Nevada will be in the Mountain West for a long time as long as the MW stays upright, which it should.

Nevada has been No. 1 in my Mountain West power rankings since the start of the season. I've said Fresno State is the dark horse to win the Mountain West. I've said San Jose State has been disrespected by not being voted to win the West Division after returning almost everybody from last year's perfect regular-season team. And San Diego State would be great if it ever found a quarterback. So, yes, the West Division is strong. Way stronger than the Mountain Division. Anybody who thinks Nevada is going to easily roll to a Mountain West championship game is fooling itself. That's a tough road just to get to the title game. Any of those four teams could win the West, although I put SDSU a distant fourth because I don't believe in the Aztecs' quarterback play. Never have. Probably never will.

He still has four years left on his five-year deal signed in February 2020, so Nevada doesn't need to rush it because Coach Norvell's buyout is already strong ($1.875 million even after this year) and he's under contract at a cut-rate level (only $625,000 per year, lowest in the Mountain West). It was a great job by AD Doug Knuth to sign Norvell to a new contract the year before the Wolf Pack broke out. Could Coach Norvell get a new deal? Yes, but that'd be Nevada doing him a favor in exchange for him agreeing to a deal with a larger buyout. I'm not sure that's worth it for Coach Norvell given he may have Power 5 opportunities sooner rather than later. But if he's not scooped up by a Power 5 team after this year, I could see him getting a new deal from Nevada. It's just not a necessary step.

I'd say red zone offense. Nevada is really explosive offensively, but it remains to be seen whether this team can routinely score in the mid- to high-30s against good competition. If opponents take away the deep ball, can Nevada sustain drives and score touchdowns in the red zone? In the seven games against bowl teams with Carson Strong starting at quarterback, Nevada has scored more than 21 points just once, last year's Famous Idaho Potato Bowl against a Tulane team ravaged by absences. In those seven games against bowl competition under Strong, Nevada has averaged 18 points per game. I do think Nevada can score in the mid-30s against good competition given its talent level, but that remains a big question for me as the schedule ramps up. Remember, the team only put up 22 points against Cal in the season opener. Nevada's high-scoring games have typically come against bad competition.

The play up front, which will be tested in Saturday's game against Kansas State. The Wildcats are good in the trenches. We'll get a lot of answers about Nevada's line play, both offensively and defensively, in that game. I'm also curious how Nevada's secondary will fare against good quarterbacks, although it won't be facing one this week with KSU's sixth-year senior Skylar Thompson suffering an injury last week. He won't play against Nevada. His backup, Will Howard, has eight touchdowns, 11 interceptions and a 112.3 quarterback rating in 10 college games. That's not good, so major advantage to Nevada.

As noted above, Kansas State lost its starting quarterback, Skylar Thompson, early on against Southern Illinois. That had a huge impact on the game. Thompson is an excellent dual-threat quarterback and a fringe All-Big 12 kind of player. His backup has produced at a far lesser level. Kansas State remains good up front, so it could beat Nevada, but those odds went way down after the injury to Thompson, who suffered a non-contact lower-leg injury trying to block for his running back. The Wildcats should provide Nevada a nice test, but it's nowhere near as dangerous without Thompson. So if I had to pick one, the current version of Kansas State is closer to the Week 2 team that almost lost to Southern Illinois than the Week 1 team that beat Stanford.

Nevada would destroy Kansas, but this game with Kansas State will be more difficult. The Wolf Pack is a 2-point favorite, so the sports books still have this as a close game despite the injury to Skylar Thompson. I'll release my Three Keys and Prediction on Friday after I delve into the Wildcats some more, but I'm leaning Nevada.

There were 3,704 student fans at Nevada's home opener against Idaho State. The typical average is 1,675 student fans. So that was a major boost. I'd say 60 percent of the Zonies section was students. Whoever decided to move the students to the south end zone deserves a raise. Great call there.

I don't think it has anything to do with tailgating. Students have always been allowed to tailgate. It's a combination of an exciting team, great weather, the win over Cal, better marketing on campus and students not being allowed to go to games last season, which means you basically had two classes of students who hadn't gotten a chance to attend a home football game. First-game student attendance is usually high, so it will be interesting to track if that drops off at all. Given the show the team put on Saturday, I think you'll see a good return crowd among students for the next home game, Oct. 9 against New Mexico State.

Nevada was the only FBS school with three players on the preseason Biletnikoff Award watch list, so it's certainly in the discussion for nation's best receiving corps, although I default to Alabama for "nation's best" everything. If I were defending Nevada, I would bracket Romeo Doubs all game and try and double Cole Turner as much as possible. That leaves Elijah Cooks and Tory Horton in one-on-one coverage, but you can't double everybody. You simply cannot let Doubs get behind the defense. If he does that, you're toast. Press Doubs at the line, put a safety over the top of him and pray for the best.

Probably next Monday. There's a chance that Nevada-Boise State game slides into the Big Noon Saturday or Fox College Football afternoon slot. If not, it will be a night game. I'm guessing night game, but if Nevada can get into the Top 25 before then, it could slide into a marque time slot on Big Fox rather than FS1.

Yeah, he had cramps at Cal in the second half. Physically, he's fine. I said before the year began that Romeo Doubs was going to put up lesser numbers this season, and some poo-pooed me on that. But adding Elijah Cooks to the mix is going to spread out the targets more, which means fewer opportunities for Doubs. He'll still going to have some huge games this season. He'll just take turns with Cooks and Cole Turner being the star. There's nothing wrong with that. I just don't expect Doubs to average 150 yards per game like he did in the first half of last season given the amount of talent Carson Strong has to throw to. It's been rare for Cooks and Doubs to both have big games simultaneously. Cooks' biggest games have come when Doubs was hurt (late in 2019). Doubs' biggest games have come when Cooks was hurt (early in 2020). They've both gone over 75 yards in the same game just once — 2019 against San Jose State, the Malik Henry game!

Romeo Doubs caught a 43-yard touchdown pass against Cal and got open 50 yards downfield behind the Idaho State secondary Saturday (Carson Strong just overthrew him a little). Doubs is fine. He's also not hit 100 yards receiving in six straight games. I feel like people are going to judge him on a five-game sample that started the 2020 campaign when he averaged 155.6 yards and scored nine touchdowns. Outside of that, he's averaged 54.2 yards per game with seven touchdowns in 29 games. That five-game stretch was unsustainable as defenses learned not to let him beat you deep. I still think Doubs will catch eight or nine touchdowns this year and hit the 1,000-yard mark. But his numbers are going to be impacted by having Cooks back on the field.

It comes down to Cincinnati. If Cincinnati, a preseason top-10 team, runs the table, nobody is catching the Bearcats, especially with Notre Dame and Indiana on the schedule. Nevada (or any other Mountain West school) probably needs Cincinnati to lose two games to catch it and get into a New Year's Six bowl.

As for best team names, I always go with minor-league baseball teams. So my top five are: (5) Rocky Mountain Vibes; (4) Norwich Sea Unicorns; (3) Amarillo Sod Poodles; (2) Binghamton Rumble Ponies; and (1) Rocket City Trash Pandas.

OL Joel Bitonio (Wolf Pack/Browns), WR Brandon Aiyuk (McQueen High/49ers), LB Kyle Van Noy (McQueen High/Patriots), OL Austin Corbett (Reed High/Rams), LB Malik Reed (Wolf Pack/Broncos) and TE Jacob Hollister (Wolf Pack/Jaguars).

That hire made no sense at the time, and everybody said so. But Colorado State let Urban Meyer decide who its head football coach should be for some reason. Of the 2020 MW football hires, you have CSU's Steve Addazio, UNLV's Marcus Arroyo, New Mexico's Danny Gonzales, SDSU's Brady Hoke, Fresno State's Kalen DeBoer and Hawaii's Todd Graham. Despite Arroyo being winless, I'd guess Addazio gets axed first out of that group. With a new stadium it has to pay for, CSU can't let fan apathy set in.

At New Mexico on Nov. 6, although there's a non-zero chance UNLV goes back-to-back seasons without a win, and the athletic director who hired Marcus Arroyo has already left town, so he'll need some wins in season three.

No. UNLV would be favored by 10.5 points and would win that game 85 percent of the time. Alas, UNLV already lost its game against an FCS foe this year, the season opener to Eastern Washington.

Nevada hired a sports information director for football last week, so that stuff should be sorted out soon. That staff was down to two people. It's typically four or five full-timers plus some graduate assistants. But it was cut back heavily due to the COVID-19 pandemic layoffs. Three people from that department were let go, sadly. Those three had combined to work for the Wolf Pack for about 40 years.

No. As mentioned above, Nevada's marketing and communications staff was gutted with layoffs during the pandemic, so it didn't have the personnel to do that, and a Heisman Trophy campaign also comes with a financial cost. While that would be cool, the Wolf Pack isn't infrastructurally set up for that.

The Detroit Lions because my brother, a long-suffering Lions fan, deserves something good.

Making the playoffs. If the Raiders don't make the playoffs this year, GM Mike Mayock is gone and QB Derek Carr is probably, too. They Raiders will need to reboot that thing.

Pro Football Focus has assigned grades to Group of 5 players and teams in the past. Nevada cornerback BerDale Robins has always graded high among PFF metrics. I use those sometimes for my All-Mountain West awards, especially on the offensive and defensive line where it's hard to analyze players.

The sound system was upgraded as part of the 2016 Mackay Stadium renovation, so I would doubt you'll see an upgrade there any time soon, but Nevada has been doing a capital campaign as part of its 10-year anniversary in the Mountain West, so maybe the stadium will get some upgrades as part of that. The campaign has been going well, I hear. I went to the Nevada-Idaho State game as a regular ticket holder Saturday, and it was the best atmosphere I've seen in that stadium in several years. It was impressive. But the lines at the concessions were ridiculously long. The concession options also need major upgrading. Compare the food options and ease of delivery at a Wolf Pack football game to that of an Aces game. It's not even close. The Aces crush the Wolf Pack. And I'm not standing in line for 45 minutes for a hot dog. Sorry. If it was a Rocky Mountain candy apple maybe. But not for a hot dog.

The cannon scared me at least four times during the game, so either (a) I'm a scaredy-cat or (b) you're wrong and the cannon is still loud. I'm pretty sure the answer is (a). I'm definitely a scaredy-cat.

The attendance of 23,965 fans was the largest for a Nevada football home opener since 2013 when Nevada drew 27,052 fans for a game against UC Davis. That was Brian Polian's first game as Nevada's head coach and also the night Mackay Stadium's field was named after Chris Ault. Saturday's attendance was roughly 20 percent larger than the typical home opener under Jay Norvell and roughly 20 percent larger than the typical crowd versus an FCS school. We'll see if those figures hold as we enter the colder months, but it was a promising start from an attendance standpoint.

After last-place finishes last season, Nevada soccer and Nevada volleyball are off to poor starts again this year. Nevada soccer team is 1-5 with losses to Cal Baptist, Idaho, Sac State, New Mexico State and Pacific. Nevada volleyball is 1-8 and has won just three sets in those eight defeats. The soccer team has gotten some good production from its freshmen. I don't think coach Erin Otagaki will be fired at the end of the year. The seat under volleyball's Lee Nelson is warmer given this is his seventh season on the job (Otagaki is in year five as the full-time head coach; she also was co-interim for a season). Both programs have struggled, but AD Doug Knuth has fired just one non-revenue sport coach for poor performance (volleyball's Ruth Lawanson) in his tenure, which started in April 2013, so he gives a long leash in the Olympic sports. Knuth has never fired a coach he hired, and he hired both Otagaki and Nelson, so we'll see if the results don't perk up.

That's a good question I don't have the answer for. Maybe the Wolf Pack inducted Fred Gatlin into one of those classes and never told anybody.

I can ask her on Wednesday when she comes into our studio to appear on NSN Daily. She was at the Idaho State game. Maybe they are waiting until the next home game top honor Krysta Palmer since the halftime ceremony was dedicated to the Wolf Pack Hall of Fame class during the home opener.

So the biggest liars I've covered in my life? I don't think I want to put that list out, but a couple names pop into my head.

The A's cannot win the division, and I have the Blue Jays and the Yankees getting the two wild-card spots. Ex-Nevada quarterback Cody Fajardo also is going to owe me a Mookie Betts-themed gift in a couple of weeks (see our bet here).

He's never playing in the NFL again, although he did tell Chris Ault on Saturday he still trains five days a week and wants to play football again. I just don't see it happening. He's five years removed from the last time he played competitive football. What team would sign him now that hasn't the last five years?

I asked Coach Ault what he'd like to see in terms of Colin Kaepernick and his relationship with the university moving forward. He said:

"I think Kap would love to be involved with us. There's no question about it. And I want him involved with the university. I think that's critical for us, and all kinds of features, whether it be dealing with the social environment or athletics because he can be a big piece of it. There's no question. And I believe Kap wants to be involved and make it happen. Now, he's still doing some things, and I can't share some of the things that we talked about, which are really neat. I thought, 'Oh, man, that will be great.' But I know the university wants to be bound with him. I think what happened this week just sowed the future for success in terms of what the university meant to Kap when he was here and what it still means. I just know he's still very appreciative of everything that happened here at the university for him. And he understands probably the most important thing to me is that he is a Nevada graduate. I know he wants to be a part of things. I know he will be a part of things. And I feel great that we will be talking quite often now. I can tell you that right now."

I hope it's not a one-time return for Kaepernick, but I would not be surprised if it was. At minimum, this thaws the ice in the relationship between Kaepernick and the school. Obviously, I think he deserves a statue on campus, sooner rather than later.

I wrote 2,000 words about Colin Kaepernick's return to Reno here. In terms of Red Vines or Twizzlers, I like the taste of Twizzlers better, but I like the fact I can turn a Red Vine into a straw by biting off each end even more. So I'll take Red Vines.

The Red Lava Cobras? That team played in the Reno SportsDome league. We went 3-5. The Dark Blue Night Pack (also known as the Blueberries) is part of Great Basin Youth Soccer. We carried over five players from the Teal Pirates, which played in the GBYSL spring season. I'm definitely a re-tread coach on my last legs. I'm a tad under .500 over three teams this season, so I need a strong fall campaign to get off the hot seat. We're 1-0 after our 3-0 win Saturday, but I see a lot of tough games upcoming since we have three matchups with Players Club teams, which are All-Star teams that play regular GBYSL teams. We play a Players Club team Saturday. We'll probably lose by a good margin. If we win, I'll demand to go into the GBYSL Hall of Fame ASAP.

I actually have a tracker for that at my house that updates automatically every time the song is played. It's currently at 13,452,399 plays at rodeos. OK. Time for me to call it a day. I'm going to make dinner and blast some Cotton Eyed Joe while doing so. 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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