Aggies, Broncos kick off delayed 2020 season on the Smurf Turf
The Broncos are in a rare position of entering a new season as an unranked team. Given Boise State's history of success at the FBS level, that distinction likely won't last very long. The Broncos are coming off a 12-win season punctuated by a 38-7 loss to Washington in the 2019 Las Vegas Bowl. Boise State returns a wealth of talent and experience from that team, including 10 starters from a team that led the Mountain West Conference in scoring offense (34.7 ppg).
The Aggies struggled with inconsistency a season ago and still have plenty of question marks on both sides of the ball. Utah State must replace their top passer, rusher, and receiver from last season on offense and also have big holes to fill on the defensive line and at linebacker. The Aggies are looking to notch a third consecutive winning season for the first time since running off four straight seasons above .500 from 2011 to 2014.
Boise State holds a 19-5 lead in the all-time series between the two schools. The Broncos have won 16 of the last 17 against Utah State — with the Aggies posting their lone victory in 2015.
Utah State at Boise State
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 24 at 7 p.m. ET
Spread: Boise State -16.5
When Utah State Has the Ball
The Aggies enter their truncated season with a critical question on offense. Can Utah State replace the production Jordan Love brought to the team over the past two seasons. While Love is enjoying his rookie season with the Green Bay Packers, he leaves a big hole in an offense that benefited from his strong arm and playmaking abilities.
Utah transfer Jason Shelley has the credentials to be a capable successor. Shelley threw for 1,162 yards and five touchdowns while completing 58 percent of his passes during his freshman season with the Utes. He also added 192 yards and three touchdowns on the ground while making five starts. Shelley opted to transfer from Utah following his sophomore campaign rather than switch to the secondary. He gives Utah State enough big-game experience to create a smoother transition from Love. His mobility will make Shelley a genuine threat as a runner and a passer for the Aggies in 2020.
Utah State does have a multitude of weapons, especially in the backfield, to help make Shelley's job easier. Jaylen Warren returns after rushing for 569 yards and five touchdowns last season. If Warren can stay healthy, his natural explosiveness and shiftiness makes him a prime candidate to be a potential 1,000-yard rusher this time around. Devonta'e Henry-Cole, another transfer from Utah, is battling for the No. 2 spot with Pailate Makakona. Henry-Cole totaled 469 yards and four touchdowns at 5.2 yards per carry in three seasons with the Utes.
When Boise State Has the Ball
The Broncos' offense was already tough for opposing defenses to deal with last season. Boise State could take a leap forward on that side of the ball in 2020. Several key contributors return to the field for the Broncos to power their potent attack.
It starts with George Holani in the backfield. Holani earned Mountain West Freshman of the Year honors last season after racking up 1,014 and seven touchdowns on the ground. The Broncos' running back had three 100-yard games a season ago. He added 206 yards and three touchdowns on 26 catches. His 1,000-yard season marked an FBS best 11th straight season that Boise State has produced a 1,000-yard rusher.
If sophomore quarterback Hank Bachmeier can stay healthy this season, he has the tools to make Boise State dominant in the passing game as well. Bachmeier started eight games as a true freshman. He posted a 7-1 record as a starter and threw for 1,879 yards and nine touchdowns while completing 63 percent of his passes. Some of Bachmeier's top weapons downfield are back again. Khalil Shakir tallied 872 yards and six touchdowns on 63 catches as a sophomore last season. CT Thomas is also a threat to make plays after posting 522 yards and five touchdowns on 41 receptions a year ago.
Boise State has won 20 straight conference openers and also has owned this series for the last two decades. In that stretch, Utah State has notched a single victory over the Broncos. The Aggies last won a road game against Boise State back in 1996 when both teams were still in the Big West Conference. Given what the Broncos bring back on both sides of the ball, it might be too much to ask for Utah State to finally break through with a rare win on the Smurf Turf to open the season.
Prediction: Boise State 38, Utah State 20
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— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports, and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.
(Hank Bachmeier photo by John Kelly/Boise State Athletics)