Utah State is only two years removed from winning the 2021 Mountain West Conference title in blowout fashion at San Diego State. This is a strong program, but 2023 may be somewhat of a rebuilding season. That doesn't mean this program won't be a league factor and that it can't win against decent opponents and maybe still make a bowl game — but the schedule is tough and the Aggies will need some key things to go their way.
UTAH STATE 2023 PREVIEW
THE CONF.: Mountain West Conference (NOTE: MWC dropped divisions this spring)
2022 RECORD: 6-7 (lost to Memphis in the First Responders Bowl)
CONF. FINISH: 5-3 (Tied for No. 2 in the old MWC Mountain Division)
HEAD COACH: Blake Anderson (17-10 in two years; 68-47 in nine seasons - including last stint at Arkansas State)
FIVE ALL-STAR CANDIDATES: Terrell Vaughn, Sr./WR-KR (56 catches, 564 receiving yards, 5 TDs); Hale Motu'apuaka, Sr./DT (35 tackles, 5 sacks); Ike Larsen, Soph./S (33 tackles, 4 INTs as a freshman last year); Cole Motes, Jr./OT (12 starts past two seasons); Michael Anyunwu, Sr./CB (47 tackles, 12 passes defensed 10 starts); M.J. Tafisi, Sr./LB (69 tackles, 9 TFLs in 8 starts).
THE NEWCOMER: Ralph Fries, LT/Sr. (Arizona State transfer, 25 games played)
Utah State is expected to struggle on offense this year, and there's good reason for that with only four starters back. This is a brutally tough league — and some would argue it's basically a Power Five level league. This program is accustomed to being in bowl games, and has had two 11-win teams in the past five seasons but this year might be a challenge to that trend.
There are reasons to believe though that maybe the Aggies can make it to .500 and keep that bowl-streak torch lit. With Jr./QB Cooper Legas under center, that's a serious confidence builder, and receiver Terrell Vaughn may be the top returner at any position and he's exciting on special teams. But in general? This offense doesn't return a whole lot of diehard experience.
On defense, there's more back, specifically on the defensive line. Linebacker M.J. Tafisi was the third-leading tackler last year and the top guy back. But overall, again? There are only five starters back.
College football is an ebb and flow game. Not everybody has Alabama and Ohio State's ability to attack five-star level talent every single year and have incredible depth. That's not how it works at a lot of FBS programs. Head coach Blake Anderson is good, but he may be rebuilding this fall.
THE KEY GAME AND WHY
This is a tough call, and it comes down more to what Utah State produces. In non-conference play, the home game against a very strong Sun Belt team — James Madison — and the road trip to G5 independent UConn could be pivotal if Utah State is ahead of schedule and destined for six wins and a bowl game. If the Aggies are mid-range, look at the home games against Colorado State and Nevada in league play as pivotal.
THE TOUGHEST GAME AND WHY
Sure, the trip to the Big Ten's Iowa is tough in week one, but in league play it is clearly the home game against league leader Boise State on Nov. 18. This will be a challenge.
THE CHANCES OF MAKING CONF. TITLE GAME
There are players currently on this team who know what it's like to play in the Mountain West title game, thanks to the championship win two years ago. But the Aggies won't be making that trip this year. This conference is too loaded, and Utah State is in rebuilding mode.
The realistic success goal is a postseason bowl game, and this is attainable if the program "finds itself" early on. A couple of conference games are winnable, FCS Idaho State is a guaranteed win, and others in the non-conference slate are possible wins on a good day. But chances are? This may be a year where the Aggies' season wraps after knocking New Mexico off on the road the week of Thanksgiving.
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