* First in a series of stories taking an early look at Cal's 2021 football opponents
GAME 1: NEVADA AT CAL
Date: Saturday, Sept. 4
Nevada 2020 record: 7-2 overall, 6-2/third in Mountain West Conference; beat Tulane 38-27 in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl
Series record: Cal leads 22-3-1, but Nevada has won the past two meetings, including 31-24 at Berkeley on Sept. 1, 2012 in the re-opening game at renovated Memorial Stadium in front of 63,186 fans. The schools first met in 1899 with Cal winning 24-0.
Wolf Pack coach: Jay Norvell (25-22 in 5th season)
Top players: Junior QB Carson Strong (2,858 yards, 70.1 completion pct, 27 TD, 4 INT in 2020); senior RB Toa Taua (675 rushing yards, 5.9 yards per carry, 4 TD); senior WR Romeo Doubs (58 rec, 1,002 yards, 17.3 ypc, 9 TD); senior TE Cole Turner (49 rec, 605 yards, 12.4 ypc, 9 TD); junior PK Brandon Talton (15-for-18 FGs); DT Dom Peterson (16.5 career sacks).
Strengths: The offense is loaded, led by Strong, who became the first Nevada player to be named Mountain West Conference Offensive Player of the Year. Doubs and Turner are returning first-team all-conference picks, as is placekicker Talton. All five offensive linemen earned at least honorable mention all-MWC honors for a unit that averaged nearly 31 points and more than 440 yards per game.
Weaknesses: Nevada’s running game ranked just 11th in the MWC last season and Strong and his QB mates were sacked 20 times in nine games. The defense was middle-of-road — not terrific, but hardly terrible. The Wolf Pack was the most penalized team in the MWC.
What you should know about Nevada: The Wolf Pack is 22-13 and has played in three bowl games the past three seasons under Norvell, who runs the Air Raid offense and previously was a coordinator or assistant at Wisconsin, Iowa State, Nebraska, UCLA, Oklahoma, Texas and Arizona State, along with the Indianapolis Colts and Oakland Raiders in the NFL . . . The MWC season didn’t begin last fall until Oct. 24 and the schedule was shortened to conference play only, meaning the Wolf Pack lost non-conference games against South Florida, Arkansas, Weber State and UTEP . . . Nevada began last season 5-0 then split its final four games, with losses to Hawaii and San Jose State.
Nevada spring football status: The Wolf Pack played its spring game on May 1 and the defense excelled, collecting five sacks. While Strong sat out spring practice after what Nevada called minor knee surgery, 6-foot-9 Nate Cox, a junior college transfer, made a bid to become the No. 2 quarterback. Norvell came away pleased but said the team still needs to show greater poise and discipline.
Nevada 2021 season projection: There are high hopes in Reno for the Wolf Pack. Columnist Joe Santoro of the Nevada Appeal wrote this: “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 . . . 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.” ESPN’s SP+ ratings project Nevada to post a 9-3 record next fall, with losses to Cal, Kansas State and Boise State by a combined margin of 10 points. . . . This will not be an easy opening-game opponent for the Bears, who had better take the assignment seriously.
Cal-Nevada game prediction: Cal 28, Nevada 24
Cover photo of Nevada quarterback Carson Strong by Derek Calvert, USA Today
Follow Jeff Faraudo of Cal Sports Report on Twitter: @jefffaraudo