Tough sledding ahead for USU in 2021
The year 2020 was not at all kind to USU’s football program. The Aggies only managed to win one game, and after an 0-3 start, Gary Andersen was dismissed as the head coach. USU limped to a 1-5 finish and declined to play their final game against CSU due to internal drama in the program.
With new head coach Blake Anderson, the Aggies are hoping to climb back to respectability shortly. Unfortunately, the SP+ rankings are not in their favor. Per ESPN, USU ranks at a paltry 121 on the list. This is easily in the cellar of the Mountain West Conference.
If we assume the Aggies will beat the teams below them in those rankings and lose to the teams above them, then USU can only hope for a 4-8 campaign in 2021.
Here is my schedule breakdown and why I think USU has a better chance at getting back to bowl eligibility than you might think:
Non-conference: at Washington State; SP+ 46th
The Cougs look to get things rolling in year two of the Nick Rolovich era. Despite having a decent offense, Wazzou’s defense left much to be desired last season. They only went 1-2 against a five-game Pac-12 slate. I think the Aggies can reasonably compete against Wazzou, but their defense has too many question marks and they’ll ultimately come up short on the road.
Non-conference: North Dakota
FCS matchup in Logan. The Aggies will handle their business just fine against an inferior foe.
Non-conference: BYU; SP+ 52
BYU had themselves an admittedly impressive season in 2020. They only lost one game and wrecked most of the remaining teams on their fundamentally reworked schedule. They even managed to knock off Boise State on the blue turf, no easy feat for any team.
This is a difficult one to pin down next season. On one hand, BYU loses key players on both offense and defense, including at some of their most productive positions such as Zach Wilson and Khyiris Tonga. They also need to replace coaches at major positions like Offensive Coordinator and Offensive line. Coming into Logan, nobody is sure who will be the starting QB for the Cougars, either. On the other hand, the Aggies were fundamentally terrible in 2020, and it’s anybody’s guess how improved they will be in 2021.
USU will have a major challenge ahead in this game. Though USU has had some solid wins against the Cougars in the last decade, it’s tough to envision a brand new staff jelling enough in just a month to put together a good game plan to take down the Cougars. It’s a program that is trying to re-assert itself and they have some solid pieces to do so in 2021, despite a harder schedule and major coaching changes of their own. Aggies would need some major breaks to win here.
Non-conference: at New Mexico State; SP+ 130
New Mexico State has been completely unable to sustain any meaningful success in the last decade. Okay, the last 50 years.
Their best season in decades during the 2017 campaign resulted in a 7-6 record and an Arizona Bowl win over a middling 6-7 Utah State team. That was New Mexico State at their best.
After that feel good season for the crimson Aggies, New Mexico State has gone 3-9, 2-10, and 0-1 if you include their recent Spring football loss to FCS Tarleton State. They have another killer schedule slate ahead of them in 2021 with mostly P5 teams on the schedule. I fully expect them to be beat up and demoralized by the time USU rolls into town the first week of November. The game will likely stay close for a half, but USU should pull ahead late with ease.
Conference: at Air Force; SP+ 93
USU has been completely unable to stop the Falcons’ triple-option offense the last couple of years. They’ve given up 30+ points in each of those seasons to the Cadets, and they scored only 7 points against them in 2019 and 2020 a piece. That is not a winning formula against a disciplined program.
In 2021, though the Falcons will almost certainly take a step back, I simply don’t know if USU will have plugged the gaping holes in their defense. Until the Aggies prove they can stop the run, I expect more of the same and a demoralizing road loss.
Conference: at New Mexico; SP+ 124
As terrible as USU was last year, New Mexico had a credible argument for being worse. Not only was this USU’s lone win in 2020, the Lobos don’t return much experience in 2021 from last season’s two-win team and their offensive identity is still up in the air. Rocky Long will breathe life into a moribund defense, but it will take time and 2021 won’t yield a ton of improvement yet. Utah State should have little trouble getting their offense going and the defense will be improved enough against an inferior opponent to win on the road.
Conference: at San Jose State; SP+ 81
This game will likely mean the difference between going bowling and having another losing season for Utah State.
As of late, the Aggies have won eight games in a row against the Spartans, most of which were not close. However, SJSU had a wonderful 2020 season with a strong defense and a star in QB Nick Starkel. The Spartans shocked everyone by not only beating Boise State, but winning the conference title as well. Head coach Brent Brennan appears to be legitimately building a program in San Jose, which is way more than can be said for the last few head coaches there.
This game will almost entirely come down to USU’s ability to contain Starkel. If the Aggie defense is noticeably improved over last year, USU will have a good shot to pick up their ninth win in a row over a historically weaker foe. But since that unit is a large question mark right now and Starkel is a proven QB, it’s a safer bet to pick the blue and yellow over the Aggie blue and fighting white.
Conference: at UNLV; SP+ 123
For UNLV’s historical prowess on the hardwood, it’s been almost nothing but futility on the gridiron. With a brand new coaching staff led by first timer Marcus Arroyo, they have a huge task of turning around a Rebel team that went winless in 2020.
Both their star QB and RB are gone in 2021. Any sense of familiarity with the old staff’s schemes are gone as well. UNLV hasn’t fielded a decent defense since 2013 and it’s extremely difficult to maintain any kind of winning culture when the head coaching position is a consistent revolving door. The Aggies shouldn’t have much trouble with the Rebels and will roll to their sixth win in a row in this series.
Conference: Boise State; SP+ 39
The Broncos own the Aggies in most years, and 2021 almost certainly won’t be any different.
Despite a down 2020 season in which their team was ravaged by injuries, Boise still made the title game. Their team culture is outstanding and they are historically great. New head coach Andy Avalos has a great recruiting class and QB Hank Bachmeier is certain to be a factor for conference offensive player of the year, if he can stay healthy.
The home field advantage won’t mean much in this game. USU will maybe stick around for a half, but the wheels will come off as soon as Blake Anderson’s young team makes any kind of mistake against a veteran Bronco team.
Conference: Colorado State; SP+ 96
This is another difficult game to pin down. The Rams were not a good team in 2020. Like the Aggies, they only scored one victory and didn’t look competitive against most of the rest of their competition.
In 2021, second year head coach Steve Addazio hopes to get the Rams back into the postseason. With returning RB Marcus McElroy and assumed starting QB John Centeio, the Rams should look better on offense. However, their porous defense has even more question marks than the Aggies, and that’s saying something considering how bad USU looked in 2020. Both of these teams ranked near the bottom of the FBS last season in points allowed.
Like most games in this series, this one should be very competitive going into the fourth quarter. Homefield might actually tip the game in USU’s favor as well. If USU finds their ground game early, it’s easy to foresee a similar outcome to the 2019 contest in Logan.
Conference: Hawaii; SP+ 105
As of late, USU has not struggled against the Warriors. In their last contest, the Aggies dominated on both sides of the ball on the islands. The year before that, the Aggies pitched a shutout in Logan. Furthermore, Hawaii tends to struggle in mainland games as it is. On paper, this is an extremely winnable game for USU in their own stadium.
With all that being said, Hawaii fielded a decent team in 2020 whereas USU did not. Hawaii went a respectable 5-4 on a shortened schedule, including a bowl win over Houston. Second year head coach Todd Graham will have an offense ready to score a lot of points paired with an opportunistic defense. I don’t expect either team to stop much of the other, so it will be a contest to see who can outgun who. Hawaii has more experience, but USU will have homefield advantage, a critical component in this series.
If the Aggies have a coherent offensive identity when this game comes around, I fully expect them to win. If not, then Hawaii will end their five-game skid against the Aggies.
Conference: Wyoming; SP+ 80
This game was cancelled last season due to Covid issues within USU’s program. Wyoming didn’t fare much better in 2020 than USU, though, only going 2-4 on a shortened schedule.
USU once again lucks out with a winnable contest in Logan. As good as Craig Bohl’s defenses have been, his offenses have struggled mightily to attain any degree of consistency. Last season, Wyoming had a poor offense again, scoring only 26.5 points per game. Injuries plagued that side of the ball and it once again seems to be a by committee approach in 2021.
Unfortunately for the Aggies, their questionable defense could allow the Pokes to get uncorked and look better than their average. USU absolutely must perform well on offense in this game to keep it close and allow themselves the chance to win. The Pokes have veteran leadership whereas USU will be largely made up of new faces. I think Wyoming wins a close one here.