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It is time to reset expectations for Utah State

The Aggies entered the season with few if any outside expectations. After a historic 3-0 start, that has to change.

Utah State’s Deven Thompkins, left, and Brandon Bowling celebrate a score during a 26-23 win over Washington State. 
Utah State wide receiver Deven Thompkins, left, celebrates his touchdown with teammate Brandon Bowling during an NCAA college football game against Washington State, Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021, in Pullman, Wash. Utah State won 26-23. 
Young Kwak, Associated Press

Blake Anderson didn’t mince words.

In the aftermath of the Utah State Aggies’ season-opening upset of Washington State, he made it abundantly clear that the win, a shock to many around the country, was in no way a surprise to him.

“What do you say?,” Anderson asked. “Really proud of the guys, but not surprised, to be honest with you. Not surprised at all.”

Nearly everyone else was. Entering the season, expectations were practically nonexistent for Utah State. The Aggies would rather forget their disastrous 2020 campaign, but it was that season that informed on preseason expectations for the team.

ESPN’s preseason FPI predicted USU would finish the year 5-7, but it was harsher than that. The Aggies were given a 27.9% chance to become bowl eligible, a 2.1% chance of winning the Mountain Division and a 0.3% chance to win a MWC championship.

It wasn’t just the FPI, either. Utah State was picked to finish fourth in the Mountain Division by select media and garnered the third fewest votes of any program in the MWC, ahead of only the New Mexico Lobos and UNLV Rebels.

Bill Connelly crafts ESPN’s SP+ rating, and that metric considered the Aggies the 114th best (or worst) FBS team in the country entering the season, despite the fact that Utah State returned the second most production of any team in the conference.

But nearly three weeks after the upset of the Cougars, Utah State has yet to lose a game — the program’s 3-0 start is its first since 1978 — is 1-0 in Mountain West play after a thrilling win over Air Force, and quite simply is one of the pleasant surprises in the country.

ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg recently included the Aggies on his list of nine teams nationwide who’ve rebounded from poor to dismal 2020 seasons and look to be “for real.”

“Blake Anderson is making an immediate impact in Logan.” Rittenberg wrote. “... A balanced offense is averaging 41 points and 563.3 yards per game, getting big lifts from wide receiver Deven Thompkins and others.”

ESPN’s FPI now predicts that the Aggies will win 8 or 9 games (8.6-3.6), gives USU a 99.1% chance to win six games, a 14.2% chance to win their division and a 6.0% chance to win the conference.

Those close to the Utah State program never believed preseason expectations had an accurate grasp on who the Aggies were and could be this year.

Anderson and company brought in a platoon of transfers, many from Power Five schools, to boost the team’s depth and talent level and those moves have worked. Players like linebacker Justin Rice, already a two-time MWC Defensive Player of Week, running back Calvin Tyler Jr., wide receiver Brandon Bowling and quarterback Logan Bonner have all impacted winning, and they are just a few of the newcomers who have.

Then there is the elite conditioning Utah State has aspired to. To this point in the season, the Aggies have been the superior conditioned team every time they’ve stepped foot on a field and Anderson has credited his team’s superior conditioning for every win (credit is routinely given to head strength and conditioning coach Paul Jackson).

The Aggies have blown preseason expectations away, and they believe there is a simple reason for that. As defensive tackle Marcus Moore said, “2020 is in the past. We are a new team.”

The numbers say just that. Utah State is ranked in the Top 50 nationally in as many as 19 statistical categories (team and individual) this season. In 2020, the team was routinely ranked at bottom of the FBS, the very bottom.

The successes thus far this year include:

  • Yards per game — 3rd with 563.3 yards per game.
  • Passing offense — 8th with 357.0 yards per game.
  • Sacks allowed — 15th in sacks allowed with three total, one per game.
  • Scoring offense — 22nd at 41.0 points per game.
  • First downs — 22nd with 24.7 per game.
  • Fumbles lost — 23rd with one total, 0.50 per game.

Individually, Thompkins leads the nation in receiving yards (151.3 ypg), Rice is tied for first in interceptions with three, Tyler Jr. is 36th in the nation in rushing yards per carry (6.1 ypc) and Bowling is 16th in touchdown receptions with three.

“I love this group,” Anderson said. “Any time you get a group that plays as hard as they play, buys in the way they have, doesn’t quit, doesn’t get down, doesn’t point fingers on the sideline when things don’t go well, and are as resilient as they are, it is hard not to love to come to work.”

Considering all the success Utah State has had this September, what are reasonable expectations going forward?

Projections by ESPN, Brett McMurphy and others have USU headed back to a bowl game this season — they only need three more wins to become bowl eligible — but a look at the Aggies’ schedule suggests they should have loftier goals than that.

Of the nine games remaining, USU should be the favorite to win in five of them, games at UNLV, New Mexico and New Mexico State, and at home against Colorado State and Hawaii. That collection of teams is a measly 5-12 this season and only one — the Lobos — have a winning record.

Of the other four games on the schedule, Utah State will be home for three of them — Boise State, BYU and Wyoming — and on the road against the defending MWC champions, San Jose State.

Utah State isn’t the favorite this weekend against the Broncos, and likely won’t be against the rival Cougars either, but the Aggies are always competitive with the Cowboys and traditionally have been the dominant side in meetings with the Spartans.

Even if USU loses all four of its more difficult games, a 8-4 record would be a dramatic improvement over last season. Win a game or two that they aren’t favored in, like they’ve already done against Washington State and Air Force, and the Aggies would be in contention for not only a division crown, but the MWC championship.

Anderson has made it a point of emphasis to keep his team from looking ahead. Before their win over North Dakota, he explained that he teaches that every single week the competition gets better, regardless of opponent.

This week he praised Boise State, noting that the Broncos “are a huge challenge,” the most significant challenge Utah State has faced this year.

Through three games the Aggies have been up for every challenge, though. Win one or two of the big ones and Utah State will have something special its hands.

How quickly things have changed.