Joe Santoro: Media may be off in Nevada prediction | NevadaAppeal.com

Joe Santoro: Media may be off in Nevada prediction

Joe Santoro

Joe Santoro

The Nevada Wolf Pack football team just might be the best-kept secret in the Mountain West. The conference's media picked the Pack to finish fourth in the West Division behind San Diego State, Hawaii and UNLV. Yes, UNLV. That's the same UNLV the Wolf Pack whipped 45-10 last November in Las Vegas, piling up 511 yards and controlling the ball for almost 38 minutes. It's the same UNLV who finished 4-8 overall a year ago, a game behind the 5-7 Wolf Pack. How do you get picked to finish behind a team you battered by 35 points in their own backyard? Well, you get an entirely new coaching staff, you change your offensive and defensive systems and you overhaul your roster. The media obviously has no idea what to expect from the Pack this year.

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The Wolf Pack will have new coaches, new uniforms, a new quarterback, a new running back and an offense and defense that will not look like anything Pack fans have seen in a while. Head coach Jay Norvell, a career assistant, gets his first head coaching job and he has surrounded himself with an unconventional mix of coaches from all corners of the football world. It's basically a bunch of guys who couldn't find Sparks without a GPS. The last time the Wolf Pack wiped the slate clean as much as this year was 1976 when they hired a 29-year-old Chris Ault to take over the program. But, like 1976, it is time for such a drastic change. So forget everything you think you know about Wolf Pack football. All of that is now ancient history. The Wolf Pack is now starting from scratch. But they will still beat UNLV.

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This is how the Mountain West will shake out: San Diego State wins the West followed, in order, by the Pack, Hawaii, UNLV, Fresno State and San Jose State. Boise State will win the Mountain followed by Wyoming, Colorado State, Utah State, Air Force and New Mexico. The league, though, is basically Boise State and San Diego State at the top and then everybody else. The Wolf Pack is the biggest wild card in the conference. San Diego State, New Mexico, Air Force and Hawaii won't be as good as last year and Fresno State, Boise State, Wyoming, Colorado State, Utah State and, yes, UNLV, will be better. San Jose State will always be San Jose State. Boise State will beat San Diego State in the conference title game. And everybody with a pulse will go to a bowl game.

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Wolf Pack fans don't want to hear this but the Mountain West needs Boise State to be great in football. Boise State is the only football school in the conference that has even a whisper of a national presence. The Broncos have been to BCS bowl games. They have the blue turf. They have the unbelievable home field advantage. They captured the nation's imagination for about a decade as the one school none of the traditional football powers wanted to play. When Boise State is great, the Mountain West gets noticed. When Boise is merely good, the Mountain West is forgotten. Unfortunately for the Mountain West, though, it's been a while since Boise has been truly great. The last two years the Broncos have lost three (2016) and four games (2015). It's the first time they've lost three or more games in successive seasons since 1998 and 1999. This might be the year, however, Boise returns to the national spotlight. The Broncos have four winnable non-league games against Troy, Washington State, BYU and Virginia. Their toughest game might be at San Diego State in October.

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It also does the Mountain West no good to see Fresno State struggle in football like the Bulldogs did a year ago, going 1-11 overall and 0-8 in league play. The Bulldogs have one of the strongest fan bases in the conference and one of the richest football traditions. The Mountain West needs Fresno State to be at least competitive but it looks like the Bulldogs, which play money grab games at Alabama and Washington this year, are headed to another bowl-free season. The Mountain West wanted Boise, Fresno and Nevada from the old Western Athletic Conference a few years back because all three were great in football and would help ease the pain of losing BYU, TCU and Utah. None of the three, though, are as good as they were in their final days in the WAC. That needs to change if the Mountain West is ever going to become more than a regional conference.

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This season, however, could be one of the most interesting in football the Mountain West has seen in a while even if nobody east of Denver notices. Boise State and San Diego State are strong again. Nevada, San Jose State and Fresno State are starting new eras with new coaches. Ex-Pack coach Nick Rolovich has made Hawaii relevant again. Colorado State has a new stadium and big dreams. Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen might be the top pick in next April's NFL draft. UNLV firmly believes it's on the right path and is ready to join the bowl party. Utah State is looking to rebound from a 3-9 season and New Mexico wants to prove last year's 9-4 record wasn't a fluke.

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Alabama coach Nick Saban says Power Five schools need to play just Power Five schools and bowl games should be handed out like NCAA basketball tournament bids, based on power ratings and not solely on team records. Saban's plan will never happen. Playing inferior non-conference opponents is part of the fabric of college football. Everybody does it. Yes, even Alabama. Power Five schools play Group of Five schools and Group of Five schools play Football Championship Subdivision schools. The Pack this year will play Idaho State of the Big Sky Conference. It's a game nobody wants to see — Idaho State has gone 2-9 in each of the last two seasons — but it serves a meaningful purpose. It's sort of like a bye week where you get to sell tickets. These games are easy victories, they help make your school bowl eligible, players get to inflate their stats, the inferior team gets a nice payday and everybody goes home happy. It's the perfect college football weekend.

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