Joe Santoro: Nevada Wolf Pack football can’t be just a fourth estate | NevadaAppeal.com

Joe Santoro: Nevada Wolf Pack football can’t be just a fourth estate

Joe Santoro

The Mountain West's media have picked the Nevada Wolf Pack football team to finish fourth in the West Division this year. Don't let that discourage you. There are, after all, not many things in sports less meaningful than preseason media rankings. But if the Wolf Pack does indeed finish fourth in the West, make no mistake, it will be a disappointing second season for coach Jay Norvell, Oh, yes, the Pack could improve by three or four victories over a year ago (a 3-9 disaster) and go to a bowl game and still finish fourth and it would be considered an improvement over last year. But going to a bowl game is only slightly more meaningful than preseason media polls. There are, after all, more bowl games to go around than there are deserving bowl teams. This Wolf Pack team is better than a fourth-place finisher in the West Division of the Mountain West. Seven or eight wins and third place in the West should be the minimum requirement.

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The Wolf Pack could indeed win the West this year. Fresno State and San Diego State won't be as good as they were a year ago. UNLV is, well, UNLV. And Hawaii and San Jose State should drop the sport and take up rugby like the Wolf Pack did from 1906-14. The Wolf Pack also gets to play Fresno State and San Diego State at home. The Wolf Pack will be the most improved team in the Mountain West this season. It's not hard, after all, to improve from a 3-9 season. But last year's team underachieved. It should've won six or seven games. So getting to seven or eight wins this year isn't really all that big of a jump, especially since the schedule this year is a whole lot more friendly. The improvement this year could carry the program to the Mountain West title game. The media will be shocked but you shouldn't be.

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Fresno State went from 1-11 overall and 0-8 in 2016, changed coaches and went 10-4, 7-1 a year ago. So, yes, drastic improvement can be accomplished in one year. The key to Fresno State's improvement was defense. The Bulldogs never allowed more than 21 points in any of its eight Mountain West games and allowed the second fewest points in the league coverall. Defense will also be the key to any chances the Pack might have of winning the West. The Pack's offense, which could very well be the best in the conference this year, should be good enough to get the program to six or seven wins all by itself. But the jump from six or seven to nine or 10 will be done by the defense. The Pack has a solid nucleus of experienced and talented defenders led by Asauni Rufus, Dameon Baber, Nephi and Gabe Sewell and Malik Reed. We could be looking at the Pack's best defense since the memorable 2010 season.

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The key to whether or not this will be a special Wolf Pack football season will likely take place on back-to-back weeks (Oct. 6 and 13) at Mackay Stadium when Fresno State and Boise State come to town. Those are the two teams who won the Mountain West's division titles a year ago and they're picked by the league's media to do it all over again this year. The Wolf Pack will have a lot to say about that in October. Losses in both those games won't ruin the Pack season. But a win over Boise State or Fresno State (or both) could be enough to slingshot the Pack to a division title and a spot in the conference title game.

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Winning games on the field, though, is only just one of the challenges facing Norvell this season. He also has to find a way to revitalize the Northern Nevada football community. The Pack averaged just 16,722 fans a game at Mackay Stadium last year, its lowest home attendance since 15,776 showed up each game in 2011. Mackay Stadium attendance has declined in each of the past four seasons, from 24,939 in 2013 to 23,862 in 2014, 22,170 in 2015, 18,501 in 2016 to 16,722 last year. That is how coaches are truly evaluated (by their athletic directors) in this new bottom line world of college sports. Winning games and championships are all well and good. But winning the bottom line, especially for one of the two most lucrative sports on campus, is mandatory.

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San Jose State, whose football program is on life support, is the only school in the Mountain West that had a lower average home attendance than the Wolf Pack last fall. The Spartans averaged just 14,206 fans a game. Even UNLV, at 17,449 a game, averaged more fans a game than the Pack. And, don't forget, the UNLV-Pack game was at Mackay Stadium last year. What's football's problem? Well, winning is the problem. The Pack football team has averaged 5.7 wins a year over the last seven seasons. That, and the fact that almost all the games are on TV, parking is a nightmare, tickets aren't cheap, and many games last until midnight, can put a fan base to sleep. But fans can wake up and overlook a lot of things if the team wins. Don't forget it wasn't all that long ago (the 2014-15 season) there were spider webs over most of Lawlor Events Center's seats. Now the Pack can't print tickets fast enough for the men's basketball games. The same can happen at Mackay this fall.

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Win or lose, though, Wolf Pack football won't be boring this year. This team, led by quarterback Ty Gangi and a roster full of talented and explosive wide receivers, is going to put a ton of points on the scoreboard. Don't be shocked to see this team average at least 35 points and 550 yards a game. It might be the most entertaining Pack offense since the high-flying passing days of Chris Vargas, Mike Maxwell and John Dutton through much of the 1990s. Last year was a learning experience for everyone in silver and blue. There were a ton of mistakes made on the field and on the sideline. But those days are over. This is Gangi's team this year from start to finish. Norvell and offensive coordinator Matt Mumme struggled last year figuring out what their young and inexperienced offense could do. We'll see their entire playbook this year. Mountain West defenses are in trouble.