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Nevada vs. New Mexico State Football Prediction and Preview

Toa Taua, Nevada Wolf Pack Football

Toa Taua and the new-look Nevada Wolf Pack open their season on the road against the New Mexico State Aggies on Saturday night.

That strong Nevada Wolf Pack team?

It's gone.

That is at least until the program builds back up into a Mountain West contender, like it was under elite quarterback Carson Strong.

But in the college football season that follows the star QB's graduation to the NFL, it looks as if Nevada is facing quite the rebuild.

Not only is Strong gone from the Reno-based squad that went 8-5 last year, but so is a heap of other starters along with head coach Jay Norvell, who left in the offseason to take the reins of the rival Colorado State Rams.

So there's plenty of new for Nevada, including head coach Ken Wilson, who's never been the boss on the sideline but has been an NCAA assistant since 1986.

Indeed, the Wolf Pack have endured plenty of change ahead of the 2022 schedule, which kicks off Saturday on the road against the independent New Mexico State Aggies in a non-conference contest at Aggie Memorial Stadium in Las Cruces.

Related: College Football Predictions for Every Game in Week 0

"I want to get better, today, tomorrow and have a good game Saturday," Wilson told reporters. "If we progress and get better everyday, there will be good results at the end of the year."

The same is hoped for at New Mexico State, where there's really only one way to go — and that's up after an ugly 2-10 campaign in 2021.

A coaching change also took hold with the Aggies, as veteran Jerry Kill replaced Doug Martin, who is out after a putrid 25-74 record in eight seasons at Las Cruces.

But unlike Nevada, which got ravaged by departures either to NFL camps or via the transfer portal to other NCAA teams, New Mexico State is returning a promising number of players, including nine defensive starters.

"We're evaluating personnel, who's going to play hard all the time — those things before we start evaluating football," Kill told KTSM 9 Sports. "The first five practices (were) like everything I've been in the last 39 years. There's ups and downs on both sides of the ball."

More ups than downs in 2022, they hope.

Nevada at New Mexico State

Kickoff: Saturday, Aug. 27 at 10 p.m. ET
TV: ESPN2
Spread: Nevada -8.5

When Nevada Has the Ball

With Strong, Norvell and the team's top seven pass-catchers gone, the Wolf Pack's Air Raid is no more. Instead, Nevada plans to run into the future with workhorse ball-carriers Toa Taua and Devontae Lee.

That makes for quite the transition on offense.

Oregon transfer Cross Patton, who followed Wilson from Eugene, is also expected to help out the rushing attack.

Just how much do the Aggies intend to run?

"Hopefully we can get two (1,000-yard rushers)," Wolf Pack running backs coach Vai Taua told NSN of his younger brother, Toa, and Lee — both senior running backs. "This year, they're looking forward to being the main focus point. Even though it is more pressure, I think these guys are old enough, they're well prepared and they're ready for this."

Despite all the run talk, Nevada hasn't said that it's abandoning the pass.

Wilson wants a balanced attack behind the fairly green Nate Cox, who's a senior, as well, but has seen just five games of action at QB for Nevada, or more polished Oklahoma State transfer Shane Illingworth, who has had his share of success — with 69-of-120, 939-yard passing and seven touchdowns against two interceptions. But that could take time, given Nevada returns just one receiver — Jamaal Bell — to the program in 2021.

So from pass to run go the Wolf Pack this year, which should help the Aggies' defense gain confidence right out of the gate. It needs that given it allowed a whopping 486.8 yards per game — fifth worst of the 130 FBS teams last year.

But the Aggies can grow under Kill, with nine returning starters to the defense, led by inside linebacking talents Trevor Brohard and Chris Ojoh. In fact, the entire front seven returns for New Mexico State.

When New Mexico State Has the Ball

It's Killing Time when the Aggies offense takes the field. Because Kill loves to run the rock and says he's slowing down the tempo at New Mexico State. Whatever works, they'll take it in Las Cruces.

That should translate into a lot of running — just like the expectations with Nevada — with newcomers O'Maury Samuels and Ahmonte Watkins likely at the center of the attack.

Both are former four-star recruits, with Samuels transferring in from Michigan and speedy redshirt freshman Watkins — a potential home-run threat — in from TCU.

Jamoni Jones is another transfer who arrives from Northeast Oklahoma A&M, and the hope is that his 225-pound frame will help improve the ground game for the Aggies, which was 123rd in the nation in 2021, after main back Juwaun Price took his 692 yards to Syracuse.

New Mexico State also has a runner of sorts in new quarterback Diego Pavia, who joins from New Mexico Military Institute after leading that school to the NJCAA national championship.

Whether it's him or true freshman Gavin Frakes under center — and it's likely to be both, says Kill — there's some growing to do at the quarterback position.

"We know what we're doing," Pavia told reporters. "And when we know what we're doing, we don't really feel pressure. Gavin is a smart kid, and I'm a smart player, and Coach Kill has prepared us very well … so I feel like we'll be in good shape."

That remains to be seen with three new starters on the offensive line, but at least for Saturday, the Aggies' offense doesn't face a ton of experience. Nevada returns just one starter — senior Dom Peterson — along the defensive line.

Still, the Wolf Pack defense has plenty of experience in the backfield with Tyson Williams, Jaden Dedman, Bentlee Sanders, and Isaiah Essissima.

Final Analysis

It should be a run-heavy start for both programs, as the first-year coaches take another step in trying to figure out their respective clubs.

With that — combined with the fact that it's the season-opener — there's bound to be fits and starts in what isn't likely to be a high-scoring game. It certainly isn't expected to look like last year's 55-28 Nevada victory, which featured six TD passes by Strong.

"There's always unknowns in the first game just because of all the different things that could happen over the summer," Wilson told reporters. "Offensive coordinator changes, new head coaches … so you've got to prepare for a lot of things. You don't have any baseline to start with, so you have to prepare for a lot of stuff, so we're just totally and deeply in the middle of that right now."

With both squads in a similar starting spot, don't assume continued domination by Nevada, which leads the all-time series 13-2. Especially since recent injuries — major ones — to offensive lineman Aaron Frost and safety Jojuan Claiborne have further hampered Nevada ahead of the season.

Instead, it's closer to a coin-flip, with the eventual winner in the Week 0 starter likely to be the one that finds a way to stop the run and force an inexperienced pass game into mistakes.

"We have a pretty good landscape of what we need to do," Kill told KTSM. "It's going to take time — we're not going to do the quick-fix thing. We believe in what we do, but it won't happen overnight."

Could positive things begin for the struggling program on Night 1? Kill, the self-proclaimed fix-it guy, might just be able to do that against a new-look Nevada crew, halting the New Mexico State's skid of 13 straight losses to Mountain West enemies in the process.

What a good start that would be.

Prediction: New Mexico State 23, Nevada 21

Podcast: Complete Week 0 Preview, Predictions, Fall Practice Updates, the Big Ten's New TV Deal and Favorite Over/Unders for 2022

– Written by Todd Saelhof, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sports editor/writer for Postmedia in Canada. Follow him on @ToddSaelhofPM at #CollegeFootballFrenzy.