Waiting for kickoff: Nevada Wolf Pack’s 2021 season could be best ever

The Nevada football team, shown taking the field to face Wyoming last season, could have it’s best season in history in 2021, columnist Joe Santoro writes.

The Nevada football team, shown taking the field to face Wyoming last season, could have it’s best season in history in 2021, columnist Joe Santoro writes.

The 2021 Nevada Wolf Pack football season can’t get here fast enough.
OK, maybe it’s just me. But after a tedious two-month long pandemic season last fall that felt like two years, we need a real football season and not some made-for-your-favorite-device snooze fest with as much atmosphere as Meadowood Mall on Dec. 25.
You’d be hard pressed to find a Pack football season in recent years as highly anticipated as the one that will start Sept. 4 at the University of California Golden Bears’ Memorial Stadium.
But be patient, Pack fans. Yes, it will resemble a torturous seven-month long sleepless Christmas Eve with visions of Wolf Pack touchdowns dancing in your heads. Don’t be surprised if you imagine the clatter you hear from out on your lawn each night over the next seven months as the prancing and pawing of Toa Taua, Devonte Lee and Carson Strong as they get ready for 2021. That’s just Pack football withdrawal kicking in on a late winter, spring and summer night.
“On Dom, On Talton, On Horton and Orsini. On Kam, On Cole, On Doubs and Montini. To the top of the West Division, to the top of the Mountain West. Now dash away, dash away, dash away all.”
Did we mention how desperately we need our football?
What is all the excitement about? Isn’t this just like any other month of March, when the Pack taunts us with overly optimistic expectations simply because it can’t lose a game for another six, seven months?
Not this time. Every now and then the Pack optimism is real. This is one of those times. This Wolf Pack football program is about to embark on one of its greatest runs since it joined Division I-A in 1992.
Actually, that run has already started. The Pack went 7-2 last year and, yes, should have won the Mountain West. But why do everything in one year, especially when nobody is around to see it?
The promise of Jay Norvell and Matt Mumme’s Air Raid offense finally showed up in 2020. The Pack finally built the first hints of a solid offensive line and defense. And the year ended with a bowl victory over Tulane at Boise State, on that field of garish, look-at-what-we-did-so-you’d-notice-us blue plastic grass where all Pack dreams historically go to die. Well, not anymore, or at least not until Oct. 2 (see schedule below).
The excitement for 2021 – and here’s the best part – is also based on the fact that all of the key participants of a year ago, all of the members of the offense that averaged 31 points a game and the defense that allowed just 23 a game, can come back. Each day will be like Christmas morning in 2021 for the 2020 seniors. Not losing a year of eligibility, after all, was the perk the give-me-my-TV-money NCAA granted the players for risking their health by playing in the middle of a pandemic in deserted stadiums.
The Wolf Pack, therefore, heads into the 2021 season with a loaded roster busting at the seams with over-the-top talent and expectations not seen or felt in Northern Nevada since 2010.
And, just like 2010, they have the schedule to match their bloated, confident roster, expectations and dreams.
We might be looking at the perfect blend of schedule and roster this season. The last time that happened up on North Virginia Street was 2010 and we were treated to the best season (13-1, No. 11 Associated Press national ranking) in school history.
A look ahead to the 2021 season, keeping in mind that at least some of the dates will likely change as the Mountain West attempts to protect its TV money. But the names will remain the same.
Sept. 4: at California
If Cal wasn’t in the Pac-12 it would be just another up-and-down Mountain West team full of flaws. There really is nothing to fear with Cal except maybe the Pac-12 logos and historic stadium nestled in the Berkeley hills. The Cal Bears haven’t frightened the Pack since Woodrow Wilson, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover and Franklin Delano Roosevelt were president. Cal was just 1-3 a year ago and the Pack has won its last two games over the Fool’s Golden Bears, in 2010 at Mackay Stadium with quarterback Colin Kaepernick and in 2012 at Berkeley with quarterback Cody Fajardo. It’s now Carson Strong’s turn.
Way-too-early prediction: Wolf Pack 38, Cal 24.
Sept. 11: vs. Idaho State
Normally a game against a Big Sky Conference team is nothing more than a glorified bake sale for the Pack football program, a way to make a few bucks and get an easy victory in front of the home folks. But this is Norvell’s revenge game. Idaho State handed Norvell his most embarrassing defeat, 30-28, on Sept. 16, 2017, in just his second game ever at Mackay Stadium. Idaho State, which is currently 1-1 after two games this spring with four more to play, has a lot of nerve coming back to the scene of the crime so soon.
Way-too-early prediction: Wolf Pack 52, Idaho State 13.
Sept. 18: at Kansas State
Don’t be frightened. Yes, it’s the Big 12. But Norvell, who coached for years in the Big 12, is well aware that Bill Snyder is no longer coaching Kansas State. The Wildcats were just 4-6 a year ago, losing their last five games. But they beat No. 3 Oklahoma and TCU on the road and Texas Tech and Kansas at home and the rest of their schedule was brutal. So the Pack better not tire itself out scoring touchdowns against Idaho State. Kansas State head coach Chris Kleiman played for Northern Iowa in 1988 when Norvell was an assistant coach for the Panthers. Snyder, who coached Kansas State for nearly three decades until 2018, coached under Hayden Fry at Northern Iowa and Iowa. Fry was Norvell’s head coach at Iowa when he was a player in the 1980s. This one is meaningful for Norvell.
Way-too-early prediction: Wolf Pack 38, Kansas State 24.
Oct. 2: at Boise State
Be grateful for the week off between Kansas State and Boise State. Boise State had its worst season in more than two decades last year, battling weekly COVID-19 problems and finishing 5-2 that could have easily been 3-4. Boise State is now ripe for picking. The Broncos will have a new head coach in 39-year-old Andy Avalos, making his head coaching debut in 2021. The last time the Pack had a 39-year-old in his first season as head coach his name was Brian Polian. Draw your own comparisons. The Pack nearly beat Boise State the last time they played, falling just 31-27 at Mackay in 2018. Not even the blue carpet will frighten the Pack this time.
Way-too-early prediction: Wolf Pack 30, Boise State 28.
Oct. 9: vs. New Mexico State
The Aggies, a former Wolf Pack opponent in the Western Athletic Conference, are now a FBS independent. They just completed a two-game spring season (losing to Tarleton State Feb. 21 and beating Dixie State this past Sunday) after not playing at all last fall. The Aggies use the sport of football to simply pay for the rest of their athletic program. This coming fall they will play seven games against Mountain West teams (two, for some reason, against Hawaii) as well as bag-of-money games at Alabama and Kentucky. The Pack won’t pay them as much as Alabama but they will beat them just as badly.
Way-too-early prediction: Wolf Pack 42, New Mexico State 10.
Oct. 16: vs. Hawaii
Revenge Game II. The Wolf Pack took a 5-0 record to Hawaii last Nov. 28 and, well, came back to the mainland with its Mountain West tail between its legs. Norvell won’t be the only one looking for revenge in this game. Hawaii turned Romeo Doubs into a possession receiver, holding him to one catch. Doubs had 36 catches and nine touchdowns his first five games. Starting with Hawaii he had just 22 catches and no touchdowns the last four games.
Way-too-early prediction: Wolf Pack 28, Hawaii 21. Doubs scores four touchdowns.
Oct. 23: at Fresno State
The Pack has beaten Fresno State in each of the past two years. Make it three. Unless the Las Vegas Raiders send Derek Carr back to Fresno State the Pack will be fine.
Way-too-early prediction: Wolf Pack 37, Fresno State 27.
Oct. 30: vs. UNLV
The last time UNLV came to Mackay Stadium, in the final game of 2019, they took the Fremont Cannon back home. The Rebels, which went 0-6 last year, haven’t won a game since then, including last Oct. 31, when the Pack marked its territory on the new Allegiant Stadium turf with a 37-19 victory.
Way-too-early prediction: Wolf Pack 45, UNLV 21. The Cannon will still be blue this Oct. 31.
Nov. 6: vs. San Jose State
Revenge Game III. The Wolf Pack lost to San Jose State in Las Vegas on Dec. 11, 30-20, with a possible spot in the Mountain West title game on the line. San Jose State went on to win the Mountain West championship. The Pack won a trophy full of cold, raw potatoes and, yes, some French Fries, in Boise. Not the same.
Way-too-early prediction: Wolf Pack 27, San Jose State 20.
Nov. 13: at San Diego State
Norvell has won three games in a row over San Diego State. This won’t even feel like an Aztec game. It will be played at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, Calif., while the Aztecs new stadium back in San Diego is being completed. This game will likely be for the West Division title.
Way-too-early prediction: Wolf Pack 28, San Diego State 27. The Aztecs will once again try to beat the Pack with a 1975 offense and fall short.
Nov. 20: vs. Air Force
Nobody likes playing Air Force with its 1945 offense. But the Wolf Pack and its 2021 offense shouldn’t have many problems on its own turf. The Air Raid grounds Air Force.
Way-too-early prediction: Wolf Pack 35, Air Force 21.
Nov. 27: at Colorado State
The Rams were just 1-3 last fall and really didn’t get to play much football under new head coach Steve Addazio. So nobody really knows right now what to expect from Colorado State in 2021. But, luckily for the Pack, there will be plenty of film by Nov. 27 to study. The Pack’s Air Raid put 42 points on Colorado State in 2017 when it was still shaking off the rust of the Polian years and didn’t even know what it was doing on offense. And it dumped 49 on the Rams at Mackay in 2018 when it did. How many will they score when they’ve perfected the Air Raid in 2021?
Way-too-early prediction: Wolf Pack 48, Colorado State 30.
It’s March. Dash away, negative Pack thoughts. Dash away all.

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