Two of the Mountain West's best teams in recent years clash
The Mountain West Conference has produced some of the best football from the Group of 5 ranks in recent years, with noteworthy successes against Power 5 opponents and members routinely finishing ranked in the Top 25. Two of the Mountain West's programs to conclude seasons in the national polls, San Diego State and Utah State, meet on Halloween night for an intriguing cross-divisional showdown.
The Aggies stunned the Aztecs in last season's meeting, snapping a 10-game losing streak in the series. It marked Utah State's first win over San Diego State since 1967, when both programs were members of the College Division (a forerunner to present-day Div. II).
In 2020, the Aggies aim for their first-ever winning streak over the Aztecs, while also trying to avoid an 0-2 hole after losing their season opener to MW powerhouse Boise State.
Air Force at San Jose State
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 31 at 9:30 p.m. ET
TV: CBS Sports Network
Spread: San Diego State -7.5
When San Diego State Has the Ball
San Diego State has been something of Running Back U. over the past decade. Ronnie Hillman, Adam Muema, Donnel Pumphrey and Rashaad Penny all ran wild on Montezuma Mesa, with Pumphrey and Penny putting together consecutive 2,000-yard seasons. Penny in 2017 built an ironclad case to be San Diego State's first Heisman Trophy finalist since Marshall Faulk, even if voters whiffed on him.
After a regression in the first two seasons following Penny's departure, a committee appears ready to reestablish San Diego State as one of the nation's premier rushing attacks. The Bells tolled for UNLV in a season-opening romp, with Greg Bell rushing for 111 yards in the first game of Brady Hoke's second stint at the helm; and Chance Bell scoring two touchdowns.
The Bells joined fellow running backs Kaegun Williams and Jordan Byrd in putting up nearly 300 yards. While it's a very limited sample size, the clear message sent to Mountain West defenses is that San Diego State will take to the ground with a multifaceted look. Utah State's coming off its loss to Boise State, in which it allowed 171 rushing yards.
When Utah State Has the Ball
The season opener may not be the most enlightening sample off which to gauge Utah State's offense. A loaded Boise State defense gave the Aggies fits, holding Utah State to just 2.6 yards per rushing attempt and only allowing quarterback Jason Shelley to complete a little more than half (14-for-27, 92 yds., INT) of his pass attempts.
A transfer from Utah, Shelley filled in for an injured Tyler Huntley down the stretch of the 2018 season, showing flashes of dual-threat brilliance — most notably, a second-half performance against BYU destined to live in Utes lore. Sustaining his flashes remains the biggest challenge for Shelley as he finishes out his career at Utah State.
San Diego State rolls into Logan with a new coaching staff, following the unexpected resignation of Rocky Long; the program's most successful head coach since legendary Don Coryell. But Hoke, who brought Long to SDSU as defensive coordinator in 2009, remains committed to the 3-3-5 odd stack. The motivation behind this system was for stopping offenses that use mobile quarterbacks and spread the field, both of which Utah State likes to do.
San Diego State and Utah State could not have faced much more different opponents in their season openers, so the first week of the belated Mountain West slate might not offer too much info to extract. Still, San Diego State's long track record of outstanding rushing offenses complemeting aggressive, stingy defenses with the 3-3-5 suggests the opener was no aberration.
Utah State was one of the nation's most explosive offenses under Matt Wells in 2018. Gary Andersen — who, like Hoke, is in his second stint with his current program — inherited a far less experienced roster in 2019. It showed. The Aggies are still a work in progress on offense, which plays into San Diego State's punishing game plan.
Prediction: San Diego State 28, Utah State 17
Podcast: Week 9 Preview and Predictions
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.