Opponent: Nevada Wolf Pack. Also known as “Nevada-Reno,” mostly by UNLV fans.
Date and Time: September 8, 11:00 AM CT. You just knew when this game was scheduled that it would be an 11 AM kickoff.
All-time series record: This will be the first meeting between the two teams.
Last meeting: N/A
Last year’s record: 3-9, 108th in S&P+
Head coach: Jay Norvell (3-9, 2nd season)
Returning starters: 14 (7 offense/7 defense)
We continue our run through Vanderbilt’s 2018 opponents with the second game of the season, an early matchup against the Nevada Wolf Pack. In 100-plus years of fielding a football team, the Commodores have never faced the Wolf Pack.
The bottom fell out quickly for the Nevada football program after Colin Kaepernick left for the NFL following the 2010 season and legendary head coach Chris Ault retired in 2012. Ault’s replacement, Brian Polian, went 23-27 over four years before being dismissed, and then the Wolf Pack went 3-9 in Jay Norvell’s first year.
Nevada started last season 0-5, including a loss to FCS Idaho State. They picked up their first win of the season over Hawaii, then scored 42 points in back-to-back games against Colorado State and Air Force (both losses), and closed the season winning two of three — granted, those were against 2-11 San Jose State and 5-7 UNLV. But Nevada showed promise on the offensive side of the ball over the season’s final seven games, averaging 34 ppg and 6.7 yards per play — both good numbers.
This will be the second potentially high-powered offense in a row that Vanderbilt will face to open 2018. That’s dangerous if the Commodores’ defense has not improved from 2017, though neither Middle Tennessee nor Nevada will be looking to line up and pound it against Vanderbilt’s defensive line. Instead, Nevada’s an air raid team. Nevada settled on QB Ty Gangi midway through the regular season (after some early-season action, um, didn’t go so well) and he ended the season throwing for 2,746 yards and 25 touchdowns. Gangi is now a senior, and he returns his top two running backs (juniors Kelton Moore and Jaxson Kincaide) and while he loses his top receiving target, the next four receivers all return.
Nevada’s leading returning receiver is a name that many Vanderbilt fans will recognize: McLane Mannix, who was a longtime Vanderbilt commit before flipping to Nevada a week before Signing Day in 2017. Mannix caught 57 passes for 778 yards and six touchdowns as a true freshman, and his decision to flip is something we should probably think about when we ponder our own receiving corps entering 2018.
The only real bad news for Nevada is that it loses three starters on the offensive line, including All-Conference left tackle Austin Corbett. That means that the Commodores might be catching them at a good time, before the retooled offensive line has time to settle in.
Now, Nevada’s offense will score points — but its defense will give them up at an impressive clip. The Wolf Pack defense got shredded to the tune of 33.9 ppg last season, and unlike the offense, Nevada never really figured out that side of the ball in 2017. They gave up an average of 33.7 ppg over the final six games, and on the season, six of their opponents scored more than 40 points. Per Bill Connelly’s preview, Nevada moved a couple of reserve WRs to cornerback and brought in a bunch of JUCO defensive linemen — neither of which is a particularly good sign about the returning talent.
In theory, Vanderbilt can recover from a loss to MTSU in the season opener. Losing to Nevada, though, is a different matter. Unless the Wolf Pack are vastly improved, this is a game that Vanderbilt should win by a fairly comfortable margin — S&P+ says Vanderbilt is favored by 9.2 points and has a 70 percent chance of winning. But there’s enough potential for a shootout in both games that if Vanderbilt’s defense is still unable to get stops, well, an 0-2 start is on the table.