As Utah State prepares for a second season under coach Blake Anderson — theme: What can the Aggies do for an encore after last year’s surprising performance? — it’s easy to forget how far they’ve come after a decadeslong struggle.

Blake Anderson and his predecessors — Gary Andersen and Matt Wells — put USU on the football map again during the last dozen years. But before that, the Aggies were a lost cause.

A little history lesson. The Aggies were a fairly strong program in the ’50s and early part of the ’60s, when they were members of the Mountain States/Skyline conferences, but then the conference fell apart with the birth of the Western Athletic Conference. The WAC did not invite USU into its ranks, and the Aggies were left to navigate college athletics as an independent. It didn’t go well. It began a long decline.

They produced only two bowl berths in 49 years, including a 30-year stretch in which they appeared in no bowl games and had just three winning seasons — and barely at that (7-5, 6-5, 6-5). Nothing seemed to help, even when they finally found a conference in 1978 (the Pacific Coast Athletic Association, which became the Big West Conference in 1988).

From 1981 to 2010, they averaged four wins per season. Their situation seemed hopeless. They went through coaches like office temps, trying to find a solution. They struggled just to maintain their Division 1-A status (as it was called then).

Gary Andersen never chose the easy way

The renaissance began with the arrival of Gary Andersen in 2010. In Andersen’s third season, the Aggies won seven games, then 11 a year later. He was followed by Wells and Anderson, who continued the upturn. The Aggies produced seven winning seasons and nine bowl berths in the last 11 years.

The problem remains coach retention. Coaches tend to leave for bigger jobs after tasting even modest success. The Aggies turned to the well-traveled Anderson last season following the bizarre 2020 campaign in which the Aggies fired their coach and their starting quarterback and won just one of their six games. The best thing that happened that season was the cancellation of their final game.

Under Anderson, the Aggies won a school record-tying 11 games, their first Mountain West Conference championship and a bowl game and were one of only five schools from the Group of Five to finish in the top 25 of the final poll (24th).

What Matt Wells’ short stint in Lubbock says about greener pastures and high expectations

It completes an amazing turnaround for a program that once ranked among the worst in the nation.

Where do they go from here?

Anderson returns 12 starters, including quarterback Logan Bonner, whom he brought with him from Arkansas State. Bonner, who was knocked out of the bowl game with a knee injury and missed spring practice, had the most prolific season ever for a USU quarterback last season. The Ags also return four starters on the offensive line and running back Calvin Tyler Jr. (884 yards). But Bonner’s top receivers are gone.

The Aggies have an ambitious schedule. They play at Alabama — No. 1-ranked in the preseason polls, as usual — in the second game of the season, sandwiched between home games with UConn and Weber State. They face one other ranked non-conference team when they play BYU in Provo. Colorado State, Wyoming and Boise State 

Utah State has been steppingstone for many quality coaches. Will the pattern continue?

Despite all they accomplished last season, the Aggies were not included in the preseason Top 25 rankings, receiving only two votes (46th place). For that matter, only three Group of Five teams made the cut, with Cincinnati, Houston and BYU taking the last three spots, respectively.

The Aggies aren’t even picked to win the Mountain West again; they’re predicted to finish third in the Mountain Division.

So, what could the Aggies do to top last year?

Earn an upgraded bowl invitation?

Earn a higher ranking?

Beat Alabama, on the road?

Beat BYU, on the road?

Beat Boise State, on the road?

Those are considerable obstacles, but one thing is clear at this point: the Aggies are back after a long struggle.

Utah State celebrates after defeating San Diego State for the Mountain West Conference championship, Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021, in Carson, Calif. | John McCoy, Associated Press