Joe Santoro: Nevada on cusp of being Mountain West's flagship program

Aerial view of Mackay Stadium from 2010. (Photo: Nevada Athletics)

Aerial view of Mackay Stadium from 2010. (Photo: Nevada Athletics)

When Jay Norvell was hired to become the head coach of the Nevada Wolf Pack football program in December 2016, he made a bold statement.
“It is our charge to make this the flagship program of the Mountain West Conference,” said Norvell to a group of Wolf Pack supporters that had seen their lackluster program sleepwalk to a lifeless 18-22 record over its first five years in the Mountain West.
Fast forward nearly five years later to this week. We are about to find out over the next 17 days or so whether Norvell was serious in 2016 or just telling a room full of Pack fans what they wanted to hear. The Wolf Pack, 2-0 this season, now has a legitimate chance to become the flagship program of the Mountain West for, well, one season at least.
The Mountain West’s flag is right there in front of the Pack for the taking. But they have to prove it this Saturday at Kansas State and Oct. 2 at Boise State. If the Wolf Pack is indeed 4-0 on Oct. 3, having beaten Cal, Kansas State and Boise State all on the road, the school from the Biggest Little City in the World will indeed be the Biggest Little Football School in the Mountain West.
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A victory in Manhattan, Kansas this Saturday could vault the Pack into the Top 25. Kansas State isn’t all that powerful and mighty but they are 2-0, are receiving votes in both national polls and, above all else, they are a Big 12 team. In other words, Kansas State is exactly the type of vulnerable and artificially inflated program that can vault an upstart, overlooked program like Nevada into the national conversation.
Then again, the Pack might not be so overlooked anymore. The Pack, after all, is favored by two points this weekend. The secret is out. The Pack is good, has one of the best offenses in the nation and Kansas State, which just lost its starting quarterback to an injury, is an underdog at home to a Mountain West team. But this is the perfect time to play Kansas State.
The Wildcats, for some reason, are 36th in the Coach’s Poll and 33rd in the Associated Press rankings this week. The Associated Press has the Wolf Pack at No. 34 and the Coach’s rank them No. 40. A win on Saturday will either put the Pack in the Top 25 or on the doorstep. The next step will be a win after a bye week at Boise State. You might then see the Pack ranked somewhere between No. 15 and 20.
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The Big 12 is crumbling. In a few years it will resemble Conference USA. The Big 12, which once had Nebraska, Missouri, Texas A&M and Colorado, will now lose Texas and Oklahoma over the next few years (or sooner).
The desperate Big 12 is going to replace Texas and Oklahoma with Cincinnati, BYU, Central Florida and Houston, which is sort of like replacing Chris Ault with Brian Polian, Chris Tormey and Jeff Tisdel. Beating a team like Kansas State a few years from now won’t mean half as much as it will this Saturday.
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The Wolf Pack has a chance to do something this season that only two other Mountain West schools have accomplished. A perfect, undefeated, untied season.
It has happened just three times in the first 22 Mountain West (1999-2020) seasons by two teams that are no longer even in the conference. Utah did it twice, going 12-0 for coach Urban Meyer in 2004 and 13-0 for coach Kyle Whittingham in 2008.
The Utes, now a member of the Pac-12, beat Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl after the 2004 season and Alabama in the Sugar Bowl after the 2008 season.
TCU, now in the crumbling Big 12, went 13-0 in 2010 for coach Gary Patterson and beat Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl.
That is what going unbeaten in the Mountain West can do for the Pack. It can earn a spot in the Fiesta Bowl, Sugar Bowl and Rose Bowl. The Sugar Bowl, which will be a Big 12 team (why?) against a SEC team and the Rose Bowl, which will match the Big 10 against the Pac-12, are already spoken for. But the Fiesta Bowl, which takes two at-large teams, is right there in front of the Pack for the taking.
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Getting ranked in the Top 25 isn’t all that difficult for a Mountain West team. They have to put somebody in those last six or seven spots. San Jose State, after all, finished at No. 24 last year. Boise State and Air Force were No. 22 and 23 in 2019. Fresno State, Boise State and Utah State all finished ranked No. 18-24 in 2018. Colorado State even did it twice in 2000 and 2002. BYU, Utah and TCU, no longer in the conference, were regularly ranked in the Top 25 during the first decade of the Mountain West. Boise State, the current flagship program of the conference, finished in the Top 25 as a Mountain West team in 2011, 2012, 2014, 2017, 2018 and 2019.
The Pack won’t be breaking new Mountain West ground by getting into the Top 25. But it is a piece of ground you must be standing on if you want to be the flagship program of the conference.
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The Wolf Pack didn’t exactly fill Mackay Stadium to capacity with fans during its 49-10 victory over Idaho State on Saturday but Northern Nevada should be proud of the way it supported its football team just the same.
A crowd of 23,965 showed up for the first game fans could attend in the stadium since the end of the 2019 season. That is the Pack’s largest attendance for a home opener since 27,052 showed up to see a 36-7 win over UC Davis in 2013 (Northern Nevada was giddy about the dawning of the Brian Polian era). It is also the eighth largest home-opening crowd at Mackay since Nevada made the move to Division I-A in 1992. The crowd on Saturday is also the fourth largest at Mackay to see a game against a Football Championship Subdivision (Division I-AA) team since 1992.
If the Pack wins its next two games we likely won’t see a crowd at Mackay under 25,000 for the final five home games.
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The flagship program of the Mountain West should also have the conference’s flagship fans. The crowd against Idaho State was promising but a few other programs in the Mountain West have done better at the gate so far this year than Nevada.
Fresno State drew 26,043 for its game against Connecticut and Boise State had 35,518 fans against UTEP. New Mexico got 28,470 against New Mexico State while Colorado State got 32,327 against South Dakota State and 27,233 against Vanderbilt.
Even UNLV, which hasn’t won a game in nearly two seasons, drew nearly as many fans as the Pack with 21,970 against Eastern Washington. But there’s no doubt that Allegiant Stadium was the real draw that night and not the Rebels.
Mackay Stadium’s capacity was reduced about 10 percent a few years back to around 27,000. It might be time to figure out a way to add that lost 10 percent by the time the team returns home Oct. 9 to obliterate New Mexico State.

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