Santoro: Game-by-game predictions for Pack football

Mackay Stadium in 2010.

Mackay Stadium in 2010.

Way-too-early predictions for each game of the 2023 Nevada Wolf Pack football season.

Game 1: Nevada at USC, Sept. 2

The USC Trojans, with Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Caleb Williams, are expected to compete for the national championship. The Wolf Pack is expected to be in the battle for last place in the 12-team Mountain West. Williams is hoping to become just the second player in the history (after Ohio State’s Archie Griffin in 1974-75) to win two Heisman trophies. Nevada is a Heisman candidate’s dream. The Pack is a five-touchdown underdog and, well, if the final score does have a mere five-touchdown separation the Pack should feel pretty good about itself.

USC will also shake all of its rust off this Saturday against San Jose State so it should be ready to hit the ground running against the Pack. This one could get ugly very quickly and the bulk of the USC starters might get the second half to flirt with the cheerleaders. USC 42, Nevada 17.

Game 2: Idaho at Nevada, Sept. 9

The Vandals were 7-5, 6-2 in the Big Sky Conference last year and are predicted to finish eighth this year. The last time Idaho came to Mackay Stadium the Wolf Pack won 56-3 in 2011 as quarterbacks Tyler Lantrip and Mason Magleby combined to complete 29-of-37 passes for 361 yards and six touchdowns. The Pack had 587 yards on offense. But that was with the Pistol offense. It likely won’t be that easy this year because nothing is all that easy anymore up on North Virginia Street. But the only goal will be to end the Pack’s far-too-long 11 game losing streak. Nevada 38, Idaho 14.

Game 3: Kansas at Nevada, Sept. 16

Yes, Kansas is in the Big 12. And, yes, the Jayhawks won their first five games last year and have a dynamic quarterback in Jalon Daniels. But don’t be all that afraid. The Jayhawks are still the Jayhawks. Football is still something they do just to support the men’s basketball program. That 5-0 start last year was followed by a 1-7 finish.

Kansas finished a disappointing 6-7 last year (3-6 in the Big 12) and still hasn’t had a winning season since 2008 (8-5). Last year’s six wins are the most the Jayhawks have had since 2008. The Pack has already beaten Kansas head coach Lance Leipold twice, beating his Buffalo Bulls in 2015 and 2016. It’s hard to predict a Pack victory based on what we saw last year but if this Pack team has a heartbeat this could be Ken Wilson’s first signature win as head coach. Kansas 35, Nevada 28.

Game 4: Nevada at Texas State, Sept 23

The Pack beat Texas State, 38-14, on Sept. 3, 2022 in Reno. It is still the last time the Pack has won a game. Texas State was 4-8, 2-6 in the Sun Belt last year. But this is a different Texas State team. The Bobcats fired head coach Jake Spavital after the 2022 season and replaced him with G.J. Kinne, who beat the Pack last year as Incarnate Word’s head coach (55-41 to start the Pack’s current 10-game losing streak).

If Kinne could beat the Pack with a Division I-AA (FCS) team in Reno why couldn’t he do it with a Division I-A (FBS) team in San Marcos, Texas? One reason is because that Incarnate Word team had quarterback Lindsey Scott and the Cardinals finished 12-2 and advanced to the semifinals of the FCS playoffs. Expect Texas State to actually have an offense this year but the Pack simply needs to win this game. Nevada 28, Texas State 14.

Game 5: Nevada at Fresno State, Sept. 30

Fresno State whipped the Pack 41-14 last year at Mackay Stadium and went on to win the Mountain West championship over Boise State, finishing 10-4 overall. Fresno State won’t be as explosive this year because quarterback Jake Haener, running back Jordan Mims and most of the receivers are gone. The Bulldogs, though, still have coach Jeff Tedford and this is their Mountain West opener. And they are always tough to play in Fresno.

The Pack could be 3-1 going into this game and also might be 1-3. Either way this is a game that could set the tone for the rest of the year. The Pack at least needs to show it can compete. Fresno State 24, Nevada 20.

Game 6: UNLV at Nevada, Oct. 14

It is difficult right now to predict just what the UNLV Rebels will be this year. The Rebels have hired a new head coach yet again in ex-Missouri coach Barry Odom. Odom’s Missouri teams weren’t all that great (he was 25-25 in four years from 2016-19) but they were in the unforgiving SEC, played a difficult schedule yet always found a way to be competitive.

The Rebels have talented quarterback Doug Brumfield. UNLV has also won five of the last 10 games in this rivalry, including last year (27-22 in Las Vegas). UNLV plays at Michigan on Sept. 9 and if Brumfield survives the game the Rebels should be competitive all year. UNLV could be the surprise of the Mountain West this year. But it’s still August right now and the Rebels have had just two winning seasons in their first 24 years in the Mountain West. Odom might find out that UNLV is where head coaches go to die. Nevada 27, UNLV 24.

Game 7: Nevada at San Diego State, Oct. 21

Is this the year the Aztecs finally find an offense? San Diego State won at Mackay Stadium last year, 23-7, and didn’t need an offense. The Aztecs will host the Pack this year having already played the likes of UCLA, Oregon State, Boise State and Air Force so they might need to beat the Pack to simply help salvage their season.

San Diego State believed it was headed to the Pac-12 just a few weeks ago and that was when the Pac-12 still had a future. But the Aztecs have always had a high opinion of themselves. It’s why they always think they can win the Mountain West without an offense. San Diego State 27, Nevada 23.

Game 8: New Mexico at Nevada, Oct. 28

The Lobos are simply one of the most dreadful football programs in the nation, going 15-52 since the start of the 2017 season. The Pack and Lobos haven’t met since a 27-20 Pack win in the 2020 pandemic season in, of all places, Las Vegas. The Lobos went shopping at Alabama-Birmingham this past off season and bought a new quarterback (Dylan Hopkins) and an offensive coordinator (Bryant Vincent). Hopkins passed for 1,913 yards and 10 touchdowns last year and 2,274 and 18 the year before. How bad is it at UAB that the starting quarterback needs to jump in the transfer portal and head to New Mexico? Vincent, the interim head coach at UAB last year, might be the next Lobos head coach once Danny Gonzales (7-24 in three years) gets fired. Nevada 35, New Mexico 20.

Game 9: Hawaii at Nevada, Nov. 4

Hawaii and new head coach Timmy Chang beat the Pack in Honolulu, 31-16, last year. The Rainbow Warriors have beaten the Pack four times in the last seven games in the rivalry.

Chang, a former Pack assistant under head coach Jay Norvell, is only a head coach because he is one of the greatest quarterbacks in Hawaii history. But he does know how to draw up a pass play even though Norvell only let him coach tight ends and wide receivers. Hawaii went 3-10 in Chang’s first year and might struggle to do the same this year. Nevada 38, Hawaii 17.

Game 10: Nevada at Utah State, Nov. 11

Utah State will meet Nevada the week after the Aggies play at San Diego State and a week before the Aggies host Boise State. So the Pack has a chance to go to Logan, Utah and steal a victory.

Utah State won the Mountain West championship in 2021 (finishing 11-3) under new head coach Blake Anderson and slumped to 6-7 last year. One of the losses was 55-0 to Alabama and the year also included losses to Weber State and UNLV. The Aggies no longer have quarterback Logan Bonner or running back Calvin Tyler so don’t expect a return to the 2021 conference title level. This is a game the Pack can win but we’d be more confident if the game was at Mackay Stadium. Utah State 21, Nevada 17.

Game 11: Nevada at Colorado State, Nov. 18

If all goes well for Jay Norvell and his Colorado State Rams this year his Air Raid offense will be firing on all cylinders by the time the Pack heads to Fort Collins. And there’s no reason to expect that it won’t be with former Pack players Clay Millen (quarterback), Tory Horton (wide receiver) and Avery Morrow (running back). There, of course, will also be about a dozen other ex-Pack players on the field wearing those ugly green Rams uniforms.

The Rams, winless at the time at 0-4, strutted into Mackay Stadium last year and won an ugly 17-14 game that the Pack simply gifted to them with two early defensive touchdowns. Millen didn’t even play in the game. The loss was easily the most difficult to take for the Pack last year, even more so than the UNLV loss, simply because of Norvell’s history at Nevada.

Norvell’s Rams were just 3-9 last year and will be on the hot seat if his Air Raid doesn’t come to life this year before it sees the Pack. Coach Grit, you can be sure, will want to bury the Pack in his new home. Colorado State 33, Nevada 28.

Game 12: Wyoming at Nevada, Nov. 25

Much of what happens in the regular season finale, of course, will depend on what happens in the first 11 games. The Pack, after all, might need to beat Wyoming to get a bowl invitation. It will be Senior Night at Mackay Stadium. The Pack will have plenty of motivation against Wyoming. But Wyoming, under coach Craig Bohl, is always one of the more physical teams in the Mountain West. They are never easy to beat. The Cowboys, though, lost their last three games last year to finish 7-6, 5-3. Four of the wins were by seven points or less. But that’s how they like it. Expect another all-out brawl in this one. Nevada 13, Wyoming 12.


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