Why Isn’t Utah State Getting Respect?
Perception, not facts are hurting Aggies football team with preseason accolades.
What are the expectations for Utah State?
Word around Cache Valley is this Utah State football team is as deep and competitive as it’s been since joining the Mountain West five years ago. The word seemingly everywhere else, including last week’s Mountain West media extravaganza in Vegas, remains unconvinced the Aggies will do much of anything this fall.
Media voters picked Utah State to finish fourth in the Mountain Division in 2018 behind overwhelming favorite Boise State, the Josh Allen-less Wyoming Cowboys and a Colorado State team full of question marks.
There is a real possibility media voters eyed last year’s final standings, pasted them into this year’s predictions, and thought to themselves “Yup, that’s how football works” as they downed various finger-foods somewhere inside the Cosmopolitan’s conference center. And there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that, because preseason polls don’t matter.
…But they do a little bit. To guys looking for something to prove, particularly an Aggie team that would’ve loved to steal wins against both CSU and Wyoming last year, it serves to heighten the motivation a notch. Every program wants and needs a few “nobody believes in us” guys, and this year Utah State has a whole team’s worth.
In fairness, the lasting image of New Mexico State’s OT Arizona Bowl win could be causing voters some trepidation. It should — that loss sucked. Some key defensive departures might be giving pause, too. Fair. There will always be doubts casting a somewhat negative light on any program coming off a 6-7 season.
That’s why taking a more careful look at the 2018-19 Aggies is absolutely necessary — because with one slight course correction, the Aggies could be in for a monster year.
Yeah yeah, it’s an offseason cliche, let me finish.
Aggie head coach Matt Wells enters his sixth year at the head of the program blessed with more returning starters than almost any team in the country (Florida and Michigan State each return 19, as if you care). Continuity for a team typically plagued with high turnover from both players and coaching staff seems reason enough to believe this team has a decent campaign on the horizon.
But if that doesn’t move the needle for you, can I interest you in what can only be described as the most favorable schedule Utah State has seen in the Matt Wells era? I don’t want to spoil it for you guys, but BYU isn’t even the worst team USU faces this year.
Bearing in mind no single football game on any schedule is actually a gimme (no, not even San Jose — looking at you, Wyoming), it’s still reasonable to expect a return to very-goodness for Aggie football if last year’s trajectory continues to climb. A so-called soft schedule is a function of a program doing its job. No team accidentally rises above its competition — you make the schedule easy by making your team harder to beat, and this fall Utah State will be a tough team for the majority of its opponents to solve.
Upon hiring new OC David Yost, the Aggie offense finished the 2017 season averaging 30.2 points per outing — a full touchdown per game better than the ill-fated 2016 campaign (23.9). USU also ranked sixth in the MW in rushing offense (171.4 ypg), sixth in passing offense (226.0 ypg) and eighth in the conference in total offense (397.4 ypg). Utah State also set single-season school records by scoring 50-plus points in three games and producing 500-plus yards of total offense in four.
Defensively, Utah State’s defense forced 29 turnovers in 2017 — good for the 6th-best mark in the country. With more potential pros patrolling the secondary and a decent pass rush (T-5 in the MW in sacks), the Aggie defense was and probably still is Utah State’s calling card.
Most of those numbers aren’t particularly jaw-dropping, but in the span of one season Yost and Wells brought a three-win team out of the dumpster and managed to fix it up enough to compete with all but the conference’s elite.
This year is all about doubling down on everything that proved to work (like passing the ball to Dax Raymond and Ron’quavion Tarver!) and mending areas that didn’t (getting stuck in 3rd and 7s literally every drive!). Getting back to .500 and a Bowl game was a start, but contending for a MW title in November is a whole lot better.