Nevada season preview

Nevada Wolf Pack

Coach: Brian Polian (0-0 overall)

2012 record: 7-6 (4-4 MWC)

Key losses: RB Stefphon Jefferson, OT Jeff Nady, G Chris Barker, TE Zach Sudfeld, LB Albert Rosette, SS Duke Williams, CB Khalid Wooten

Key returnees: QB Cody Fajardo, WR Richy Turner, WR Brandon Wimberly, OT Joel Bitonio, C Matt Galas, DE Brock Hekking, DE Lenny Jones, NT Jordan Hanson

Newcomer to watch: RB Don Jackson. Jackson, a sophomore from Sacramento, Calif., has the unenviable task of replacing Jefferson, who ranked No. 2 among FBS players with 1,883 rushing yards in 2012. Jefferson was a workhorse, carrying the ball 375 times and scoring 24 touchdowns last season. Jackson signed with Washington State out of high school, but didn't qualify academically and played last season at Iowa Western Community College. He averaged 8.7 yards per carry in a crowded backfield and finished with 574 yards with five touchdowns on 66 carries, helping the Reivers finish 12-0 and win a junior college national championship. He chose the Wolf Pack over Iowa State and Western Michigan. He'll probably share carries with Kendall Brock in Nevada's one-back offense.

Biggest games in 2013: Aug. 31 at UCLA, Sept. 14 at Florida State, Oct. 4 at San Diego State, Oct. 19 at Boise State, Nov. 2 at Fresno State, Nov. 30 vs. BYU

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: Can Polian and new defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton fix Nevada's woeful defense? The Wolf Pack scored a lot of points under former coach Chris Ault, but their defense was among the country's worst in 2012. Nevada ranked 110th in run defense (211.8 yards per game), 95th in total defense (442.4 yards) and 99th in scoring defense (33.7 points). Four of the top five tacklers from last season are gone, including three starting linebackers. The Wolf Pack will utilize a Tampa 2 defense this coming season, predicated on using smaller, faster players and allowing fewer big plays.

Forecast: Polian certainly has big shoes to fill in replacing Ault, a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, who was the architect of the Pistol offense and put Nevada's program on the map.

Polian, who has never been a head coach, retained offensive coordinator Nick Rolovich, so the Wolf Pack's offense figures to look the same. Fajardo is back after completing 67 percent of his passes for 2,786 yards with 20 touchdowns and nine interceptions last season. He also ran for 1,121 yards with 12 scores.

Nevada will undoubtedly miss Jefferson, but it received a boost when the NCAA awarded a sixth year of eligibility to top receiver Brandon Wimberly because of medical hardship. Wimberly missed the 2011 season after he was shot in the abdomen, before returning to catch 70 passes for 845 yards with four touchdowns in 2012.

The Wolf Pack must replace three starting offensive linemen.

If the offense doesn't miss a beat and Polian's changes on defense are effective, the Wolf Pack might have a chance to finish in the top half of the Mountain West's West Division and play in their ninth consecutive bowl game.

But the schedule makers didn't do Polian any favor in his first season as a head coach. Along with road games at nationally ranked UCLA and Florida State for non-conference games, the Wolf Pack also plays at MWC preseason favorites Boise State and Fresno State.