Can Utah State repeat in Mountain West after stunning turnaround?

With all due respect to Tennessee’s Josh Heupel and South Carolina’s Shane Beamer, co-winners of the inaugural Steve Spurrier First-Year Coach Award, the honor should have gone to Utah State’s Blake Anderson.

In late 2020, Anderson inherited a program coming off a 1-5 season in which players boycotted the final game over perceived religious discrimination by administration against interim head coach Frank Maile. Anderson arrived in Logan and told players he knew he wasn’t what they necessarily wanted, but that he would work to earn their trust.

In his first season, Anderson and the Aggies won their first road game against a power-conference team in 50 years, won their first Mountain West championship and won a bowl game to cap an 11-win season with a Top 25 ranking. They were the first team in FBS history to improve from one or zero wins to 11 the next year. So, yeah, a pretty good first season.

“Early in the year, coming out of the Washington State and Air Force wins, we had some pieces that were unique, guys that were willing to play hard and an unselfish locker room, and I realized this could get fun,” Anderson said. “So many unknowns, but there were glimpses early. I still think we could have won one or two more. That’s what’s crazy.”

Now what about the encore?

“The guys feel a sense of responsibility to uphold the standard the last team set,” the head coach said. “You look at the last 10 years here, there’s been some really good things. But with things being rough for a few years, nobody had expectations going into last season. Having won 11 games and finishing like we did, you can’t go into the weight room or the locker room without feeling a sense of high expectations and responsibility to pick up where the last group left off.”

Other than the disastrous two years of Gary Andersen’s second stint as head coach, this has been the golden era of Utah State football. The Aggies have won at least 10 games four times in history — all since 2012. They’ve finished ranked in the AP Top 25 four times, three of those since 2012, and they’ve reached nine bowl games in the past 11 years after a 13-year postseason drought.

Now, coming off one of the best seasons in school history, expectations are high for 2022. There is a lot of production to replace, especially at wide receiver and in the defensive front seven, but quarterback Logan Bonner is back after a breakout year, as is nearly the entire coaching staff. There’s also a new crop of transfers.

Though the schedule includes difficult nonconference games against Alabama and BYU, the Mountain West slate is largely favorable beyond the season finale at Boise State. The coaching staff filled a lot of roster holes last year. If the right pieces can emerge again, the Aggies could make another conference title run. But they won’t be surprising anybody this time.

Author: Lucy Green