Utah State surprised the Mountain West and the entire college football world during the 2021 season, beating two Power Five teams and handling most of their conference foes with ease en route to the Mountain West Conference Championship and a bowl victory. Coach Blake Anderson came to Utah State with players brought in from everywhere under the sun by three different coaches and turned what look liked a long-term rebuild into instant success. However, 2022 is a new season, and the question becomes, will the Aggies repeat as champions, or will another team knock them off? In this article, we list five reasons to support both claims.
Five reasons they will
1. They return a ton of talent, especially on offense
Yes, they lost players, but they still return many who were key to last year’s success. That starts with quarterback Logan Bonner, who followed Coach Anderson from Arkansas State, knows the system extremely well, and is able to execute while playing in it. Helping him out will be running back/wide receiver Calvin Tyler, who figures to be an impactful player yet again. John Gentry seems primed for a breakout season, and coaches are sensing the same for Justin McGriff. On defense, Hunter Reynolds and AJ Vongphachanh will lead the defense from his safety spot and should be able to guide the transfers in how to excel in the system.
2. The Aggies are looking to reload once again through the transfer portal
Utah State used the transfer portal to perfection last season and are hoping lightning can strike twice as they have a heavy number of transfers again this year. On offense, it will be two highly-rated wide receiver transfers in Brian Cobbs and Xavier Williams. The hope is they can replicate the big-time plays made in the offense like last year. On the other side of the ball, the big name is linebacker MJ Tafisi, who figures to step into a starting role right away. Also, don’t sleep on defensive end Daniel Grzesiak, who comes over from Nevada after productive play there.
3. Their schedule is favorable
Their out-of-conference schedule is much tougher, but they still have the easier slate of conference games for another season. Trading Washington State for Alabama won’t do them any favors to pull off another upset, and BYU is still around. Still, North Dakota and New Mexico State becoming UConn and Weber State is a pretty even tradeoff. In conference, they get UNLV, Hawaii, plus Air Force and San Jose State at home. They will need to take on Boise State again (this time in Boise), then Colorado State and Wyoming is tough at home but proved they know how to navigate conference play.
4. Winning has given the team the confidence to know they can succeed
Winning makes teams confident, and in turn, confidence helps teams win, especially in bigger games. This team started things off in a big way last year by beating Washington State and rode that instant confidence much of the year, believing they could win every game, even if they didn’t. The team trusts the process, the schemes, the coaching staff, each other, and themselves. Now that they believe they can and found success last year, they know what it takes and have the confidence to do it again this year.
5. Coach Anderson is still at the helm, and he has the winning blueprint
Blake Anderson inherited a program that was in shambles and appeared to be a long-term rebuild. He righted the ship in just one season and led them to a conference championship and bowl win. He is still there, and so are many of his coaches. Coach Anderson is 62-40 in his 9-year career as a head coach, so he knows how to win games. He figured out how to get the players to buy in last year and has the track record to prove that he can this year as well.
Five reasons they won’t
1. They lost a ton of talent on both sides of the ball.
SP+ has the Aggies at 119th in returning production, more or less at 49%. Much of that offensive production came from a trio of receivers, Deven Thompkins, Brandon Bowling, and Derek Wright. On defense, they have to replace four of their top five tacklers. That seems less than ideal. Still, they reloaded to perfection last year, so while they could do it again this year, the odds are against them.
2. The advanced stats indicate they were incredibly lucky last season.
Again referencing Bill Connelly and his Mountain West prediction and he explains his formula’s thoughts on the Aggies. For starters, they had a win probability of 25% against Washington State, 22% against Air Force, and 3% against Colorado State, based on the statistics in those games. He also claims their success was hard to replicate, built largely on explosive plays and fantastic red zone defense, not success rates on offense and defense. Perhaps the Aggies are a team that busts the metrics (it does happen), or perhaps they are due for some regression.
3. Any early season losses will kill their confidence.
Utah State had early season success last year, knocking off Washington State to start the year and winning their first three games. That allowed the team to build confidence and believe in their process and their own abilities. In 2022, they will likely not be afforded that same opportunity. They play Alabama (you may have heard of them) in Week 1 (although it’s their second game) and BYU in September as well. If they lose both of those games, two losses in the first month of the season may cast some doubt and tension as they attempt to find their way this time around.
4. In their losses last season, they looked incredibly vulnerable.
Utah State lost three games last season. In those losses, they were beaten by 24 (Boise State), 14 (BYU), and 27 (Wyoming!) points. Not scoring a TD against the Broncos and giving up 44 points to an offense that had major scoring issues last year showed they were vulnerable at times last year. This points to their boom or bust type of 2021 season for Utah State. And though it was more boom than bust, both were still present, and that could play out more in 2022.
5. The rest of the conference will be gunning for them and preparing for them
As most coaches can tell you, it’s hard to win a championship, but it’s even harder to defend that championship. The Mountain West Conference has not had a repeat champion since San Diego State in 2015 and 2016. The odds are against the Aggies. Teams will be spending lots of time and energy finding the holes in their schemes, and they will not be able to surprise anyone this season. See SJSU last year for an example of this, as teams were able to scheme against them successfully.