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Mountain West Championship Prediction and Preview: Utah State vs. San Diego State

Mountain West Football Championship Game Prediction and Preview: Utah State Aggies vs. San Diego State Aztecs

Aggies aim for their first Mountain West crown while the Aztecs go for their third outright title

It'll be the Utah State Aggies by air. Or the No. 19 San Diego State Aztecs by land. That's how the Mountain West will be won. 

Sure, it's too easy to say Utah State will throw its way to the triumph or San Diego State will run its way to the victory when the two teams collide in Saturday afternoon's conference title tilt at Carson's Dignity Health Sports Park.

But you get the gist of it.

The Mountain West Football Championship Game boils down to a battle of San Diego State's run game against Utah State's passing attack. Whichever can control the tempo of the contest right from the get-go will likely be crowned conference kings.

If the Mountain Division champion Aggies (9-3 overall, 6-2 in conference) move the ball fast and furious down the field and over the top — especially overcoming oft-early-game woes — then they can stay ahead to win their first-ever Mountain West belt.

If the West Division-winning Aztecs (11-1, 7-1) have their way with a plodding, time-consuming run-game — to keep their enemy's attack off the field for long stretches of time — then they should methodically make their way to a fourth Mountain West title.

"Blake (Anderson)'s got a heck of a football team," Aztecs head coach Brady Hoke, the conference coach of the year, told reporters. "They got good-looking guys when you watch the film. They're athletic up front. They're big on both sides of the ball."

That sounds like Hoke's own team, as well.

So, yes, this plays out as a punishing matchup with both teams fielding physical brands of football. It will be a battle.

Mountain West Football Championship Game: Utah State vs. No. 19 San Diego State

Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 4, at 3 p.m. ET
Spread: San Diego State -5.5

When Utah State Has the Ball

There's no question what makes the Aggies' offense click. Few — if any — do it better than quarterback Logan Bonner and first-team all-conference receiver Deven Thompkins. And it seems silly to think that connection won't impact the conference championship.

Bonner has enjoyed quite a banner year in his first with the Aggies, helping to lead them out of the wilderness and into contention with 3,242 passing yards — 16th in the nation — a 60.3 completion percentage, and 32 touchdowns against 10 interceptions. The 32 TDs tie a season-high school record with 2020 NFL draftee Jordan Love.

Plus he's hot heading into the conference finale, after lighting up New Mexico in a 35-10 no-doubter last week. Bonner tossed 306 yards and a career-high five TDs in that win.

And then there's his top target, Thompkins, who set a single-season school mark himself for receiving yards. The 1,543 yards were the most in the country, too, coming on 87 catches — nine of which went for touchdowns — making him a 2021 Biletnikoff Award semifinalist for college football's top receiver.

"Everybody sees the plays he makes on the field," Anderson told reporters of Thompkins. "But the way he works on a daily basis ... I've never seen him take a day off. He makes everybody around him better — he elevates anybody else's game. And then he is completely accountable for his own game every Saturday, regardless of who and where we're playing."

But it's not just Thompkins who Bonner can target.

He's got a couple of other seniors also racking up the receiving yardage in Derek Wright and Brandon Bowling. The connection was strong with Wright last week when they hooked up for two scores to give him a team-high 10 on the campaign. Wright has 699 yards on the year, while Bowling has 630.

Of course, the passing game is going to have to be in rhythm for the Aggies to overcome a solid Aztecs defense. It's one that's chock-full of playmakers and leads the Mountain West in picks.

It's allowed to be aggressive thanks to what is a solid wall against the run. With the second-best run defense in the nation, don't expect much from Utah State junior running back Calvin Tyler Jr. (723 rushing yards on 4.7 ypc) and sophomore sidekick Elelyon Noa (546, 4.4).

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Indeed, it's a physical no-nonsense defense capable of slowing down an Aggies attack that scores 32 points and puts up 457 yards a game.

When San Diego State Has the Ball

Who connects for the Aztecs on Saturday isn't near as clear. The first question is who gets the call at San Diego State's controls? Which senior QB will it be? Jordon Brookshire or Lucas Johnson?

Johnson settled in nicely for much of the season as the main man under center. But he wasn't as effective to open last week's pivotal contest against Boise State and might be banged up — he's been seen sporting a brace on his right knee and has been limited in practice. Brookshire stepped in for Johnson last week and led the Aztecs to the 27-16 victory and onward to this title tilt.

So it looks like he'll get the start after losing the job to Johnson (1,091 passing yards, 61 percent, nine TDs, four INTs) earlier in the season.

"Adversity is part of the job, playing sports, any position …" Brookshire (713 passing yards, 52 percent, three TDs, one INT) told reporters. "It is adversity, hardships, and getting through it, and that is what makes players so good. If everything went well the entire time, who knows how good a player could be? But it is that adversity and fighting through things that makes people better."

What makes the team better — regardless of who starts — is a successful ground-and-pound attack.

More than half of their game yardage comes via the run, with Greg Bell as the workhorse. His 949 yards, 4.5 yards per carry, and team-high eight TDs help to wear down teams, which is critical in a championship tilt. Bell may be the bell cow, but he's not the only runner the Aztecs rely on. Five others have more than 100 yards on the season, including fellow senior Chance Bell (273 yards on 60 carries) and QB Johnson (153, 37).

They are all likely licking their chops facing a Utah State defense that's troubled in stopping the run. Wyoming, for instance, had its day of 362 rushing yards against the Aggies a few weeks back.

And just in case USU opts to load up the box, SDSU isn't afraid to throw the ball. The Aztecs didn't find 11 wins by being one-dimensional but by adapting despite the QB switcheroo. Junior receiver Jesse Matthews has 400 yards on 30 receptions and is coming off a nine-catch, 133-yard game against Boise State, while senior Elijah Kothe has 355 yards on 26 grabs and senior tight end Daniel Bellinger has 344 on 29 catches.

That said, Utah State does get disruptive in the enemy backfield — tied for third nationally with 98 TFLs — and it'll need to for a shot at winning the championship.

Final Analysis

Utah State wasn't supposed to be here coming off a turbulent one-win 2020 year. But Anderson has come in and made the Aggies a bona fide contender.

"Before the season started a lot of people had questions, even the guys in the locker room," Bonner told reporters. "New staff, new philosophy, new everything … so there were a lot of questions, and you can't answer those questions until you get into the season. All you can do is work your butt off. We did."

Now they're in position to win in only their second trip to the Mountain West title game after losing 24-17 to the No. 24 Fresno State Bulldogs back in 2013. They roll into this one having gone 6-of-6 on the road and 6-of-7 in recent games, but they are not the favorites.

"We've been the underdogs in most of the games we've played this year, and we've overcome that and found a way to win nine games and get to the title game," Anderson told reporters. "It's been a fun ride."

But it's been an even more successful one — so far — for the one-loss Aztecs.

They've shaken off a Halloween loss to Fresno State to win four straight and set themselves up as Saturday's favorite for their fourth Mountain West crown.

"Really excited for this next step, because this is what you play for," Hoke told reporters. "I think there's a group of guys who want to have a legacy, and part of that legacy is winning championships."

Mark them down for one and counting.

Prediction: San Diego State 30, Utah State 27 (OT)

Podcast: Championship Weekend Preview and Predictions 

– Written by Todd Saelhof, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sports editor/writer for Postmedia in Canada. Follow him on @ToddSaelhofPM at #CollegeFootballFrenzy.