This feels kind of weird to type, but Utah State is coming off an an excellent, double digit win season, including a blowout bowl victory. Their head coach, Gary Andersen, has switched to the decidedly un-Logan like confines of Madison to coach Wisconsin, leaving the Aggies in a state of transition. Do they return enough talent to compete in a suddenly very feisty looking Mountain West conference, and more importantly, do they stack up well with BYU?
Let's put all the facts and figures into the internet machine, and take a look.
Let's do first things first. Let's recap exactly how last season went for Utah State.
Yes, lets. You're probably aware that Utah State was excellent last season, finishing 11-2, completely crushed a good Toledo team 41-15 in the Potato Bowl, and was just a few bad breaks away from beating Wisconsin and BYU and finishing undefeated. They had to settle for a #16 ranking.
Most schools would be pretty happy with that, and had Utah State had a few more swings at some big boys, instead of being tied to playing the dregs of the artist formally known as the WAC (/pours one out for the WAC), like Idaho, Texas State and UTSA. The Aggies DID beat Utah (a win that probably seemed a little more impressive in week 2, but hey, BCS win!), clobbered a strong SJSU team, and managed to beat Louisiana Tech in overtime in one of the most exciting games that nobody watched on TV. All in all, lots of happy memories in Aggieland.
But that was last year. And not only is Gary Andersen gone, but perhaps just as importantly, excellent defensive coordinator Dave Aranda has followed. This year will be a great test to see how well Chuckie Keeton and company can continue this newfangled winning tradition.
Chuckie Keeton eh? In the business, I think they call that sort of thing a SEGWAY. Let's talk about the offense.
That offense is going to start with Keeton once again. Last season, he tossed an impressive 3,373 yards, completed more than 2/3 of his passes, and threw for 27 TDs against only 9 interceptions. In addition to his efficiency, Keeton is highly dangerous because of his mobility. Not only does he have the awareness to escape pressure, he's a capable runner in his own right, rushing for 724 yards and 8 TDs last season. He's probably not the best QB in the conference (that honor likely goes to possible 1st round draft pick David Fales of San Jose State), but he's close, and will be instrumental in the fortunes of the Aggies this season.
Gone is explosive running back Kerwynn Williams, and the Aggies will need to turn to Keeton and either Joe Hill (271 yards, 7 TDs) or Kelvin Lee (130 yards) to pick up the slack in the run game. Utah State's scheme will allow one of them to put up solid numbers, but it isn't hard to imagine whatever combination still being a step back from Williams.
That could potentially be a problem, as Keeton's top five pass catchers from last season are all gone. The leading returning target is 5'11 Travis Reynolds, with 25 catches for 244 yards. Bruce Natson (17 catches for 132 yards) boasts a strong catch rate, and could also be a target, but the Aggies will need to find production from some of their younger players to help fill in the gaps.
Luckily, there is still plenty of talent on the line. Utah State brings back five of their top 6 linemen from last season, including 3 All-Wac athletes, including center Tyler Larsen. This unit doesn't have a whole lot of highly regarded talent, depth-wise, at least according to recruiting experts, but their experience should help what is otherwise a pretty young offense.
Well, what about the defense?
Utah State's defense was awesome last season by any measure, smaller program or not. It will be interesting to see how well the unit will function with different leadership, but many critical parts from last season's campaign remain, so the potential is there for a very solid group.
USU returns two solid sack-masters in Jordan Nielsen and Connor Williams, who combined for 11 sacks last season. In total, six players return who had at least two sacks last season, although losing Al Lapuaho may hurt. While you may be able to run on this unit a little, there is nothing on paper that suggests this line won't be able to get pressure on the QB and be a real handful to deal with.
Perhaps the real genius of USU's defense last season was at linebacker, and while losing Bojay Filimoeatu at OLB is a big loss, the Aggies still return Zach Vigil, Kyler Fackrell and Jake Doughty in what should make up an experienced and disciplined outfit that is capable of tackling in space or rushing the passer. The trickier question comes in the secondary, as the Aggies will probably be lighter at cornerback with the loss of Will Davis and Terrence Alston, along with free safety McKade Brady. Returning back Nevin Lawson is still quite solid, but the Aggies will need young players to step up and contribute in a hurry, especially if anybody gets hurt.
What are some fun Utah State facts that you just looked up on the internet?
Well, for starters, let's take a look at the BYU/USU series history. The actual record points to a modest BYU advantage (45–34–3 in favor of the Cougars), but recently, the series has been all BYU. Since 1980 (the lifespan of a good number of our readers), the two teams have played regularly but Utah State has only won three times, in 1982, 1993 and in 2010. Last year, the Cougars won 6-3, although most of us have tried to repress memory of that game in therapy. It made 2012 Michigan State look like Mike Leach's Texas Tech squads. #WOOF.
Famous alumni include the great Nolan Bushnell (who founded Chuck E Cheese), Ezra Taft Benson, Harry Reid, and Greg Olsen (who probably painted something in the Temple nearest you). Other famous Mormons include Hugh B Brown, Quentin L Cook, Boyd K Packer, and L Tom Perry. That's not a bad group at all.
In terms of sports, you have Chris Cooley, Dick Motta, Merlin Olsen, and of course, the great LaVell Edwards. Clearly, Utah State can't be all that bad. You probably know somebody who went there.
What's the final prognosis on Utah State, and how is BYU's game going to go?
There is still a lot to like about Utah State. They return a great QB, have an experienced line, and should have a very strong front seven. They're also coming off one of their best seasons ever, and should be full of confidence. They also get two of their tougher teams on the schedule, BYU and MWC favorite Boise State, at home.
There are concerns though, and large enough ones that should make a return to a double digit season unlikely. Outside of Keeton, this offense doesn't have much in the way of experience at the skill positions. There is some concern about the secondary, and obviously they're breaking in a new coach. Most importantly though, the WAC is dead, and this schedule got a whole lot harder. In those first seven weeks of the season, USU must travel to Utah and Air Force (both potentially tough games), get a home date with Weber State, then travel to USC (lol), San Jose State (with a potential 1st rounder at QB), and then host BYU and Boise State. It's possible that even a good Aggie team only wins two of those games. The schedule clears up a lot after BYU, but it'll be important for this team to stay healthy and composed during that stretch.
BYU was able to hold this offense nearly punchless last year, and this year's squad is probably not as strong. The game is AT Utah State, and there are very few gimmies on this schedule, but the Cougars probably have enough playmakers to win this matchup by at least 10. Keeton will have to be outstanding for the Aggies to spring the upset.
What do you think?