Nevada hosts Southern Utah on Saturday night with high hopes of opening a successful season not only on the football field but in the grandstands, where fickle fans don't always back the Pack.
"There seems to be - from the people I've talked to - a sense of more optimism than we've had the last three years, but we'll see," said Wolf Pack Coach Chris Tormey, in his fourth year at Nevada.
"We're hoping we can pack this place for the first game. I think it will be a litmus test for what our fans are going to be like," he said.
Competing entertainment at local casinos and weekend festivals, and recent losing seasons have resulted in an average crowd of just 17,875 the past three years at the 31,545-capacity Mackay Stadium.
The biggest crowd last year was when 23,109 turned out to see Nevada knock off No. 20 Brigham Young, 31-28, largely because a big contingent that made the trip from Utah to support the Cougars. The last crowd to top 30,000 was the 30,118 for a 31-14 win over UNLV in 1997.
That's the impetus behind switching Nevada's first three home games to 7:05 p.m. kickoffs, the first time ever under the lights at Mackay.
"There really are no excuses now," Tormey said.
"We have a competitive team," he said.
Senior wide receiver Tim Fleming admits he can see the ball better in daylight, but said he's looking forward to more fans at night games.
"My greatest memory here was not that we beat a ranked team in BYU, but it was the way the fans rushed the field afterward - to see the joy in their eyes for what we did," Fleming said.
Nevada has 18 starters back from last year's team that tied for fourth in the Western Athletic Conference at 4-4, 5-7 overall. That includes a veteran offensive line and improved defense anchored by defensive end Jorge Cordova, the preseason pick to win the WAC's defensive player of the year award.
Also returning is running back Chance Kretschmer, who led the NCAA in rushing with 157.5 yards per game in 2001 before missing most of last year with a knee injury.
"I think we've got a great team," said Kretschmer, a former calf-roper from Tonopah.
"We have a lot of returning starters and almost all of our offensive line is back. I just need to get out there and hit to prove to myself and everyone that I'm OK," he said.
Quarterback Jeff Rowe, a sophomore from Reno's McQueen High, will start his first game for the Wolf Pack.
Gary Andersen, a former assistant at Utah in his first year as coach of Southern Utah, is eager to see how his team performs. The NCAA Division I-AA Thunderbirds were 1-10 last year.
"It's a very, very tough opponent obviously to get out of the gate to start with," Andersen said.
"They have two or three gifted running backs and an outstanding offensive line, so even though they may be breaking in a new quarterback, he's going to have great support. Defensively they are big and physical.
"To say it is a very big challenge is an understatement for us," he told ESPN Radio's Reno affiliate, KPTT-AM.
One of the biggest changes Andersen has made is moving Charles Henderson, a 6-1, 220-pound former prep star from Las Vegas, from quarterback to tight end. Henderson is among the school's career leaders in a number of categories, including 10th in total yards with 2,772 and net rushing with 1,734.
"He is still one of the main leaders on offense. We have to find a way to get the ball in his hands," said Andersen, who said the move was necessary to get his best players on the field.
The Thunderbirds' strength the past two seasons has been their running game. They enter Saturday's game with 15 straight games over 100 yards, topping the 200-yard mark in five of the past six.
Running back Michael Culpepper, a transfer from Utah, gained 225 yards in two scrimmages while co-starter Tremaine Cox had 44 yards on 11 carries.
"We expect big things from both of those young men," Andersen said.
"We know we are coming into an extremely hostile environment and we are playing an extremely good football team. We've got to not worry about that stuff. If we can't do the basics in all three phases of our game, we'll be in trouble."