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2021 Preview: Returning Talent Gives No. 25 Nevada Plenty of Intrigue

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Seven months after the confetti fell on national champion Alabama, a new college football season is nearly here. As part of Sports Illustrated's 2021 preview content, we're rolling out scouting reports for all of SI's preseason top 25 teams, featuring all the names, storylines and big games you need to know. Starting with No. 25 Nevada and running through No. 1 Alabama, we'll be featuring five teams per day from Monday through Friday.

The Big Story: Nevada

Nevada enjoyed something of a breakthrough in Jay Norvell’s fourth season in 2020, turning in the best conference record (6–2) of Norvell’s tenure and beating Tulane in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. Virtually the entire team returns in 2021, headlined by quarterback Carson Strong, who was last year’s Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year. Despite all that success, Wolf Pack fans must still be howling at the moon after watching their team blow a 13-point halftime lead to San Jose State in the regular season finale that would have sent Nevada to the conference title game with a win. Is all of this returning experience enough to push Nevada over the top in 2021?

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Strong is the obvious headliner here after finishing last season ranked in the top 10 nationally in completion percentage (70.1%), passing touchdowns (27) and passing yards per game (317.6). He and offensive coordinator Matt Mumme—the son of one of the Air Raid’s founding fathers, Hal Mumme—appear to be well matched, and the offense should be just as lethal this year with all of Strong’s weapons from 2020 back. Few quarterbacks can match Strong in terms of arm strength, and another standout individual season—plus continued team success—could see his NFL draft stock rise.

Nevada QB Carson Strong

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Key Question: Can Nevada stay out of its own way?

The Wolf Pack defense ranked second to last in the Mountain West in allowing plays of 20 yards or more last season, and the team was a net neutral in turnover margin. Nevada also ranked dead last in the league in penalties and penalty yards. Add it up, and you get efficiency numbers that paint a less rosy picture of the 2020 season: Nevada ranked 74th nationally in Bill Connelly’s SP+ system, trailing division foes San Jose State and San Diego State. If the Wolf Pack can clean up their mistakes, they have enough talent to compete for the conference championship.

X-Factor: Can Nevada’s defense improve with the same personnel?

The Wolf Pack return every player who recorded a sack, tackle for loss and interception from a season ago. As a whole, the team returns 93% of its production from 2020, per ESPN. That continuity should lead to the most improvement on defense, particularly the front seven. Nevada ranked ninth in the Mountain West in tackles for loss per game (5.8) and sixth in average yards per carry allowed (4.0). Look for a pair of seniors—linebacker Lawson Hall and defensive tackle Dom Peterson—to serve as defensive cornerstones in 2021.

Date to Circle: Nov. 6 vs. San Jose State

There are a lot to choose from, particularly in a rough September that includes road games at Cal, Kansas State and Boise State. Nevada also faces Fresno State and San Diego State on the road, making the home game against the Spartans an absolute must-win. If the Wolf Pack can navigate that difficult terrain and keep themselves in the hunt for the division crown by the end of October, this game will carry immense significance for Mountain West title implications.

The Bottom Line

Nevada hasn’t won a conference championship since 2010, and hasn’t won a division title since joining the Mountain West. On the strength of a potentially elite passing attack and an experienced defense, the pieces are in place to end that drought in 2021.