Utah State’s football program already had ample reason to be motivated after losing five of its six games from last year’s COVID-19 shortened season.
That motivation was ratcheted up a couple of notches Wednesday when the Aggies were picked to finish fifth out of six teams in the Mountain Division of the Mountain West in the league’s preseason media poll. Additionally, USU received fewer votes than all of the teams in the West Division with the exception of UNLV.
Indeed, the Aggies have essentially nowhere to go but up after a rough 2020 campaign. USU head coach Blake Anderson talked about the upcoming season Wednesday as part of the Mountain West’s football media days, a two-day event that is being held at The Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas.
The head coaches from all 12 Mountain West programs were made available to the media on Day 1 of the annual event. Two players from each program will be on hand to chat with the media Thursday. The Aggies will be represented by senior safety Shaq Bond and senior wide receiver/kickoff return Savon Scarver.
“I don’t know how competitive we are on the field yet,” Anderson said. “It’s hard to know, gauge the talent level that you haven’t seen yet. But from what I see in our room compared to what I’m used to over the last seven years, man, I’m really excited about where we’re headed. I think we’re going to give people trouble this far. I think we’re going to be right in the mix on a weekly basis. I think the people we added in January have been helpful. The strength staff has done a phenomenal job of developing these guys. ... I’m excited about what we are capable of, but also very cautious because I don’t know exactly what we’re going to see on the field on a weekly basis.”
As expected, Boise State was picked to win the Mountain Division, and it was nearly in unanimous fashion. The Broncos received 23 of the 25 first-place votes for a total of 148 points. This is the 14th straight year BSU has been chosen to capture either a divisional or conference championship.
The Broncos welcomed back 19 of their 22 offensive and defensive starters from a year ago. Boise went 5-2 last fall and lost to then-undefeated San Jose State in the MW title tilt.
Despite returning nearly all of their starters, including nine all-league honorees, the Spartans were not projected to reign supreme in the West Division. Instead, the media selected Nevada as the favorite in the West.
The Wolf Pack are also fortunate enough to have most of their impact performers back from a year ago, including seven that garnered first- or second-team all-MW accolades. Nevada is led by junior quarterback Carson Strong, who is the defending Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year.
SJSU also has a standout returning signal caller in Nick Starkel, plus the reigning MW Defensive Player of the Year in defensive lineman Cade Hall, who is now a senior. The Spartans (7-1) defeated the Wolf Pack (7-2) 30-20 last fall.
Nevada was awarded 141 total points and 19 of the 25 first-place votes, while SJSU was second with 121 total points, which included five votes of the first-place variety. Perennial Mountain West power San Diego State was picked to finish third in the West Division with 96 points, followed by Fresno State (85), Hawaii (56) and UNLV (26). FSU received the other first-place vote.
A very experienced Wyoming team was projected to challenge Boise State in the Mountain Division. The Cowboys, who return all 11 of their defensive starters and all but one of their offensive starters, collected the other two first-place votes and a total of 115 points.
Rounding out the Mountain Division preseason poll were Air Force (104), Colorado State (72), USU (47) and New Mexico (39). New Mexico was the only team the Aggies defeated last fall, although the Lobos bounced back with back-to-back wins over Wyoming and Fresno State to end their season.
This is only the second time Utah State has been picked to finish fifth or worse in the Mountain Division since joining the Mountain West prior to the 2013-14 academic year. The Aggies were unanimously chosen to place dead last in the 2018 preseason poll after coming off a 3-9 season — 1-7 in conference action — where they lost eight of their final nine games.
That was the only time Utah State had not won fewer than half of its Mountain West contests prior to last fall. There was no divisional play a year ago and the Aggies finished 11th in the conference, ahead of only winless UNLV.
Since USU has been a member of the Mountain West, there have been four different conference champions — Boise State three times, Fresno State and San Diego State twice apiece and, of course, SJSU last fall. USU, BSU (four times), AFA and Wyoming have all represented the Mountain Division in the Mountain West championship game at least once during that timespan, while FSU (four) and SDSU (two) have teamed up for six of the seven title tilt appearances from the West Division.
The preseason all-conference teams will be released Thursday as part of Mountain West media days.
All fully vaccinated players won’t have to test for COVID-19 this upcoming season, Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson said in an interview with Idaho Press sports writer B.J. Rains. Those players who have not been vaccinated will be tested, plus the schools are responsible for covering the costs of those tests. The Mountain West shouldered all costs from COVID testing a year ago.
Anderson told Rains approximately 60 percent of USU’s players are currently vaccinated, but he anticipates that rate will soon increase.