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Familiar start: Utah State picked to finish 5th in division; Boise State, Nevada tabbed MWC favorites

Utah State Aggies quarterback Andrew Peasley (6) sets to pass against the New Mexico Lobos defense during an NCAA football game at Maverik Stadium in Logan on Thursday, Nov. 26, 2020. (Yukai Peng, Deseret News)

LAS VEGAS — Whether way-too-early or just the start of college football's regular "talking season," Utah State has found itself in familiar territory to start the 2021 season.

The Aggies found themselves in a familiar spot when the Mountain West released the annual preseason projections to open the first day of the league's media days in Las Vegas: picked to finish fifth in the Mountain division.

New Aggies head coach Blake Anderson understands the trepidation with the program. After all, Utah State was just 1-5 last year, and though they return most of the production from a year ago — including 14 "Super Seniors" who have opted to repeat the COVID-19-impacted season — on a squad that boycotted the final game of the season after many players believed then-interim head coach Frank Maile was unfairly discriminated based on his ethnic and religious background.

Maile has since moved on to Boise State, where he is the assistant head coach and co-defensive coordinator. Utah State athletic director John Hartwell and university president Noelle Cockett were eventually absolved of wrongdoing by the school's board of trustees and the state's higher education system.

Anderson says the incident is behind them, and he has reasons to prove it is — like the high number of players who came back to Utah State for his first season, including All-American kick returner Savon Scarver.

"Clearly, the whole country saw when I took over there was some turmoil. Last year didn't get well for them," Anderson said. "But I haven't seen any residual effects of that. The kids have accepted us. We've moved on from COVID, and we moved on from who got hired and who didn't get hired — and just got on to work.

"I think part of that is we've got a very mature football team, with the Super Seniors and a lot of mature, veteran guys on the squad. And the personality of the staff, how transparent they are, it's something we all benefitted from and it helped the transition. I don't know what that will look like in the fall ... but I think it will move us in a direction where we can at least be competitive."

Boise State was selected to finish first in the Mountain, with Nevada tabbed the preseason favorites in the West division. The two teams combined for 42 of 50 first-place votes in the annual prediction of league coaches and media.

The Broncos have been selected as favorites for 11 years in a row, while the Wolf Pack are making their inaugural visit atop the West since joining the conference in 2012. Led by reigning Mountain West offensive player of the year in quarterback Carson Strong and a bevy of returning talent like wide receiver Romeo Doubs, tight end Cole Turner and running back Toa Taua, the Wolf Pack have the horses to challenge.

Wyoming received the only other two first-place votes in the West division, while defending champion San Jose State collect five first-place votes and Fresno State had one.

Of course, for Spartans head coach Brent Brennan, that works out just fine. San Jose State wrapped up a 7-1 conference title-clinching season with a loss to Ball State in the Arizona Bowl, but Brennan is more concerned with what's next — and what's next starts Aug. 28 against FCS Southern Utah.

"That was last year, and it was an incredible moment," Brennan said. "But now it's about what we do now, but what we do moving forward.

"It's better than last," Brennan added about the Spartans being picked second in the West. "I think our side of the conference is really, really good. I think every game is going to be a challenge; that's what is interesting about the Mountain West Conference. Every week, you can get your ass beat."

For Utah State, the entry marks a routine starting point for the Aggies, who have never been selected better than the second-place projection it received during its inaugural season in the league in 2013. Utah State went on to win the Mountain division title that year and were projected second each of the next two seasons, as well as in 2019, when the Aggies were projected second in the division and finished third.

The two division winners will meet in the Mountain West championship game on Dec. 4 at the home stadium of the division champ with the highest winning percentage in conference games.

Mountain West preseason projections

Mountain Division (votes)

  1. Boise State (148)
  2. Wyoming (115)
  3. Air Force (104)
  4. Colorado State (72)
  5. Utah State (47)
  6. New Mexico (39)

West Division (votes)

  1. Nevada (141)
  2. San Jose State (121)
  3. San Diego State (96)
  4. Fresno State (85)
  5. Hawaii (56)
  6. UNLV (26)

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