Even Jason Shelley, who has spent all of three months in Logan with the Utah State football team, has reverence for what hangs in the balance Saturday during the Aggies' season opener at Boise State.
“We feel like it’s pretty much the whole Mountain West on the line,” the University of Utah transfer told The Salt Lake Tribune. “We feel like we have to go through them if we want to make it to the Mountain West Championship, and I’m pretty sure they might feel the same way about us.”
For each of the past 10 seasons, the Broncos have been picked to win the Mountain West Conference title. Last year they ran the table, culminating a perfect 8-0 record with a victory over Hawaii in the championship game. That marked the fourth MW title for Boise State and its third time reaching the championship game since it was created in 2013.
Coach Bryan Harsin returns for his seventh season, in which he has compiled a 64-17 record. The Broncos also feature among their 10 returning starters seven all-conference picks, including senior defensive back Kekaula Kaniho and senior punt returner Avery Williams on the first team and sophomore running back George Holani on the second team. The Mountain West freshman of the year last season, Holani torched the Aggies for 178 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries in a 56-21 win at Maverik Stadium.
Oh, and did we mention Gary Andersen is 0-4 against the Broncos, including his two stints as head coach at USU and one at Oregon State?
“It’s a tremendous challenge, but it’s a challenge that we look forward to as a measuring stick and to understand where we’ve gone, where we’ve been and where we have to go and what that three hours and change [of game time] is going to bring to us as a program,” Andersen said. “We’re excited to get up there and compete.”
Adding to the hype around what would already be one of the most pivotal games on USU’s schedule is that it’s the season opener as well as the conference opener. After clearing the 2020 season off the table because of the coronavirus pandemic, the MW called an audible last month and announced an abbreviated schedule. USU will play eight conference games in eight weeks, plus perhaps the championship on Dec. 19. The two teams with the best MW winning percentage will play for the title.
Put simply, the Aggies won’t have any opportunities to work the kinks out before digging into the game that could make or break their goals for the season.
But the timing could actually be to USU’s benefit.
For starters, Andersen’s staff has undergone a big shake-up. For the third straight year, he will have a new offensive, defensive and special teams coordinators. In addition, the team returns just half of its starters from last year. Its offense posts several new weapons in starting wide receiver Justin McGriff, a transfer from AMA College of Miami; No. 2 running back Devonta’e Henry-Cole, a graduate transfer from Utah; and, of course, Shelley, who will be replacing Jordan Love at quarterback.
All that makes them impossible to scout and completely unpredictable, according to Boise’s Harsin.
“It’s a lot more difficult than [if] we’re going to go play a team that has all their guys back and the same coaches and everybody in the same spots as the year before. You get a pretty good idea of what you might be getting into,” Harsin said. “Now it’s just so much new and so many different variables, it makes it difficult.”
So many untested pieces also makes it more likely everything won’t go smoothly for the Aggies. But that’s just part of the game, Shelley said. And he, for one, can’t wait to start playing.
“I think, you know, with no preseason you might get a couple wild things happening,” he said, "but it will be a very competitive game. Very exciting.
“Oct. 24 can’t come fast enough.”
UTAH STATE AT BOISE STATE
At Albertsons Stadium, Boise, Idaho
Kickoff » Saturday, 5 p.m. MT
TV » FS1
Radio » 1280 AM, 97.5 FM, 92.3 FM
Records » Utah State 0-0; Boise State 0-0
All-time series » Boise State leads 19-5
Last meeting » Boise State 56, Utah State 21 (Nov. 23, 2019)
About Utah State » Aggies, seeking their first MW title, open the season against last year’s undefeated champion. … Coach Gary Andersen is 0-4 against the Broncos, including two stints at USU and one with Oregon State … LB Kevin Meitzenheimer (9) and S Troy Lefeged Jr. (8) return after leading the team in tackles vs. the Broncos last year.
About Boise State » The Broncos went 8-0 last in conference play last season to win their fourth MW title and three of the last six. … Boise has won 20 straight conference openers. … Sophomore QB “Hillbilly Hank” Bachmeier will take the snaps after going 7-1 as a starter for the Broncos last season. ... Fans will not be allowed to attend games at Albertsons Stadium this season after the school saw a rise in COVID-19 cases earlier this month.