Thursday, March 20, 2014

Even the Losers: Nevada

Over the past three seasons, 210 teams have participated in bowl games. 47 of those teams had losing records in the years immediately preceding their bowl game. This semi-regular piece will showcase the losers from 2013 who just might find themselves participating in Capital One Bowl Week in 2014. In our eighth installment, we return to the mid-majors and examine the prospects of the Nevada Wolfpack.


2013 Record: 4-8 (3-5 Mountain West)

Summary: New head coach Brian Polian had some huge shoes to fill when he took the reigns of the Wolfpack program from hall of fame coach, and 'Pistol' purveyor Chris Ault. All Ault had done was take the Wolfpack to eight consecutive bowls since beginning his second stint as head coach in 2004. The Polian era got off to a rough start as the Wolfpack traveled to UCLA and lost by 38. They returned home and administered a beating of their own against IAA UC-Davis. The next week, they traveled across the country to take on eventual national champion Florida State, and the results were rather grisly. Returning home to lick their wounds, the Wolfpack opened Mountain West play with consecutive wins over Hawaii and Air Force and seemed poised to play in their ninth consecutive bowl despite the non-conference struggles. The Wolfpack lost their next two games, at San Diego State and Boise State to fall to 2-2 in the league before returning home to face in-state foe UNLV. The Wolfpack had beaten the Rebels eight consecutive times by an average of 20 points. That streak would come to an end in a 27-22 Wolfpack loss. The Wolfpack then lost their next two games against eventual league champion Fresno State and bowl winner Colorado State. The Wolfpack did break a five game conference losing streak in their penultimate contest against San Jose State and played BYU tough in their finale. However, the end result was a 4-8 mark and their first losing season since 2004.

What Did the Wolfpack Do Well?
Play well at home. The Wolfpack went 3-1 in Mountain West play at home, including beating a six-win San Jose State team by three touchdowns. They did lose at home to UNLV, but the game was close, and they also gave a solid BYU squad a run for their money in their only other home loss. Suffice it to say, there were not a great deal of positives in 2013.

What Didn't the Wolfpacks Do Well?
Run the ball, at least as compared to their recent historical trends. From 2007 through 2012, the final six seasons of the Chris Ault era, Nevada never finished lower than twelfth in rushing yards per game. They finished in the top ten in rushing yards per game five times. Proving their runs were as nearly as efficient as they were voluminous, they also never finished worse than 19th in yards per rush. They also finished in the top ten thrice in yards per rush. Without the virtuoso Ault calling the plays, the Wolfpack dipped to 49th in rushing yards and 87th in yards per rush. Their rushing average of 3.90 marked the first time it dipped under four since 2002.

The Wolfpack Over the Past Four Years:
The following table lists Nevada's performance (in conference play only) in a few key categories and their respective conference rank in those categories. To help you read the table here is a handy translator.
Conf: The Conference Nevada played in. With the ever-changing college football landscape, this is helpful.
Coach: Who was leading these yahoos into battle?
Rec: Conference Record
YPP: Yards per play. The number of yards per play the Wolfpack averaged in conference play.
YPA: Yards per play allowed. The number of yards per play the Wolfpack allowed in conference play.
Net: Yards per play net. The difference in YPP and YPA. Higher is better.
OTD: Offensive touchdowns. Touchdowns scored by the offense (no kick, punt, interception, or other returns are counted) in conference play.
DTD: Defensive touchdowns. Touchdowns allowed by the defense (no kick, punt, interception, or other returns are counted) in conference play.
Pythag: Adjusted Pythagorean Record. Take offensive touchdowns and defensive touchdowns and plug them into a handy formula to estimate the number of conference wins. For a full rundown of the APR, continue reading here.

Nevada enjoyed their best season in school history (at least as a IA program) in 2010 with the help of a certain senior quarterback you may have heard of. Perhaps surprisingly, Kaepernick and tight end Virgil Green were the only offensive players drafted from that team. The Wolfpack ended that 2010 season with just a single loss and a number eleven ranking in the AP Poll. Sans Kaepernick, and as expected, the Wolfpack declined the following season, but still returned to the postseason on the strength of their offense. The Wolfpack left the smoldering wreckage of the WAC following the 2011 season and began life in the Mountain West. The Wolfpack found life a little more difficult in their new conference, but sent their coach off into the sunset with another postseason bid. The offense remained one of the best in the league, but the defense continued a disturbing trend of diminishing returns. Without Ault calling the shots, the offense failed to pull its weight in 2013. The defense was unable to pick up the slack, continuing its downward trend and resigning the Wolfpack to a losing season. 

The 2014 Schedule:
If the Wolfpack are to return to the postseason in 2014, they will have to perform well in Mountain West play because there do not appear to be a great deal of wins available in the non-conference schedule. Nevada opens play against IAA Southern Utah, but the level of competition ratchets up soon after with a home date against Mike Leach and the Washington State Cougars. The Cougars have been a pretty sorry program for the last decade or so, but appear to be back on the upswing under Leach. The Wolfpack then travel to Tucson to stage a rematch of the 2012 New Mexico Bowl, a thrilling Arizona comeback that also happened to be Ault's last game as head coach. Their final non-conference game comes midway through the season when they travel to Provo to take on BYU. The Wolfpack are likely to be underdogs in each of their final three non-conference games, so even salvaging a split in non-conference play would be an accomplishment. In Mountain West action, the Wolfpack have the unenviable task of hosting four bowl participants from last season: Boise State, Colorado State, Fresno State, and San Diego State. While the Wolfpack should win at least one, and perhaps more of those games, hosting some of the weaker conference members would be preferable in terms of qualifying for a bowl. Their road conference games include trips to Air Force, Hawaii, San Jose State, and UNLV. Air Force suffered a losing season last year, but had played in six consecutive bowl games prior to last season's implosion. Hawaii did not win a single Mountain West game last year, but was better than their record indicated (five of their eight league losses came by a touchdown or less) and playing on the islands is never easy. San Jose State and UNLV both finished bowl eligible last season, with UNLV actually playing in the postseason.

Reason for Optimism:
The offense can improve. Nevada will enter the 2014 campaign with a senior quarterback, Cody Fajardo under center. No one will confuse Fajardo with his predecessor, but he has thrown for over 7000 yards and rushed for more than 2400 in his career. Fajardo does lose his number one target, Brandon Wimberly, but a pair of senior receivers, Richy Turner and Aaron Bradley return. The Wolfpack had a solid track record of offensive success prior to 2013, so a return to the upper reaches of the Mountain West on that side of the ball would not be unheard of.

Final Prognosis:
Sometimes we assign simple and specious answers to complex questions. Why did Nevada's offense decline in 2013? Obviously because the newbie coach was not able to fell the legendary shoe's of his predecessor. What about the loss of three starting offensive linemen from the 2012 team? What about a tougher schedule (all eight teams that beat Nevada went to bowl games)? And what about total randomness? Personally, I think the loss of Ault played a role, but a confluence of multiple events including the three mentioned earlier, also conspired to sink the Wolfpack. So with better luck, a more experienced line, and more seasoning under Polian, are the Wolfpack due for a rebound? Possibly, if not for the schedule. The non-conference slate is daunting by mid-major standards, with the just one near certain victory. In conference play, the Wolfpack have the misfortune of playing the teams likely to be near the top of the Mountain West at home and the mediocre to bad teams on the road. A little more variety in their home and road schedule would be more conducive to a bowl bid. Consider the following thought experiment. Let's say Nevada ends up as about the 80th best college football team in 2014 (not too far fetched since they were rated 84th by the SRS method in 2013). Now let's pretend they host a team rated about 40th (Fresno State perhaps) and travel to face a team rated 95th (what about Hawaii?). The Wolfpack will certainly stand a chance of beating Fresno at home, but the Bulldogs are a stronger team. In addition, while Nevada is a better team than Hawaii, the difference is not large, and this game is on the road. Now let's reverse the venues. Nevada would continue to be an underdog versus Fresno State (albeit more prohibitively), but they also stand a much better chance of beating Hawaii at home. In the second scenario, they have better odds of earning a split. I'll leave the math to better minds (and bigger nerds). This is how Nevada's 2014 schedule will play out, but on a much larger scale. If the venues for some of their conference games were reversed, a bowl game would be more likely. As it stands, I think Nevada will improve, but it will not be reflected in their final record. 

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