Utah State and Fresno State were both hit hard by the transfer portal. How did they respond?
The Aggies and Bulldogs are a combined 8-4 this season and both remain very much alive in the race for the Mountain West Conference championship
Both Fresno State coach Jeff Tedford and Utah State coach Blake Anderson have spoken out about it.
Tedford in the summer and Anderson during the middle of the current college football season.
The poaching of Group of Five players by Power Five programs has been a problem for both Tedford and his Bulldogs and Anderson and the Aggies.
“If we’re successful, our players are going to be sought after. It’s like free agency. So every year you have to be ready for free agency,” Tedford said at Mountain West Conference media days in July. “What would it be like if in the NFL every year every player was a free agent? It’d be pretty difficult.”
“I mean, there are (things happening) behind the scenes,” Anderson said a couple of weeks ago on his weekly coaches show. “There’s portal agents, there are seven-on-seven coaches who go into a school, know the coach, and he’s got a kid who’s performing well that he thinks is marketable. Maybe it’s as simple as them going ‘Hey, man, he’s gonna be with you guys.’ I mean, it’s just going on all the time. It’s craziness.”
Utah State and Fresno State are the last two MW champions — USU in 2021, FSU in 2022 — and both teams were hit hard by transfer portal defections in the offseason.
Many of those Aggies and Bulldogs wound up at Power Five schools, 15 in total, and nearly every one of those would be a starter if still at Utah State or Fresno State.
Those who transferred to Group of Five programs would most likely be too, or at worst would be considered important backups.
And yet, Fresno State is 5-1, with only a loss at Wyoming and wins on the road against two Power Five programs — Purdue and Arizona State.
Utah State, meanwhile, is 3-3, and though the record might not show it, is much improved from the team it was last year.
How have they done it? How have the Bulldogs and Aggies weathered mass transfer portal defections and remained competitive MW programs?
In truth, they kind of did the same thing. Barring one major exception.
Both Utah State and Fresno State made the transfer portal work for them, even as it enabled players to leave their respective programs.
The Aggies added 11 transfers from FBS programs, nearly all of whom have made an immediate impact.
Fresno State didn’t pull in quite as much FBS talent from the portal as Utah State did, but the Bulldogs did add key talent, like UCF quarterback Mikey Keene and safety Dean Clark, a transfer from Kent State.
Both the Aggies and Bulldogs also plumbed the junior college ranks for players, with Fresno State adding nine juco transfers, while USU added 23.
Those familiar with Utah State this season know the Aggies have relied heavily upon their juco additions, most notably running backs Davon Booth and Rahsul Faison. One of FSU’s most productive pass rushers, meanwhile, is a juco transfer, former Idaho Vandal Kemari Munier-Bailey
If there was a major difference in how the programs approached their offseason losses it was this — Fresno State had more in-house depth and talent to rely upon, while Utah State needed a much more significant transfusion.
“You know, they recruit well and have a lot of players right there in their footprint,” Anderson said. “They don’t have to go very far to get them.”
To that point, FSU’s leading receiver (Erik Brooks) and tackler (Levelle Bailey) are home-grown talent, as is the team’s most productive running back (Elijah Gilliam).
The transfer portal, and its effects, are likely to continue to be felt, especially by winning Group of Five programs, which is what Fresno State and Utah State happen to be.
“They kind of have always talked about Fresno’s offense and Tedford does a phenomenal job,” Anderson said. “When he’s got the right weapons, man, they’re extremely difficult to defend. But I think they have just played, quietly, very good defense for a long time. When they’ve won championships they’ve been hard to move the ball against. They create pressure and they play really good man coverage.
“They’ve got length and speed in the back end that we don’t see all the time,” he continued. “I know they’ve battled some injuries too so it will be interesting see exactly what they look like coming in, but there’s not a weakness. You look at all three phases, and they’re extremely competitive, very athletic and well coached.”
Aggies on the air
Utah State (3-3)
vs. Fresno State (5-1)
Friday, 6 p.m. MDT
TV: CBS Sports Network
Radio: Aggies Sports Network
Said Tedford: “They (Utah State) are very, very explosive. It’ll be a battle. Colorado State had them, went up early on them, and then they came flying back. They can score a lot of points in a hurry.”
There is a train of thought that G5 teams will have to completely rebuild year after year moving forward, not unlike what Utah State did by adding 60-plus new players, or what Texas State did under new head coach G.J. Kinne (adding 50 new players), or what SMU did this offseason in its second year under Rhett Lashlee, adding 40 players.
Time will tell if that is the way forward, but for one offseason at least, Fresno State and Utah State appear to have weathered mass portal defections and come out all right.
In good enough shape for Friday night’s matchup to matter in the MW title race.