Better than expected non-conference play makes wins more weighty
The Mountain West has gotten off to a better than expected start in out of conference play. Nevada knocked off Purdue on a thrilling last-second field goal, Wyoming’s defense manhandled Missouri in Laramie, and Boise State toppled Florida State in Tallahassee with a stellar second-half defensive effort.
Even more recently, Air Force beat in-state rival Colorado in Boulder and San Diego State took advantage of key turnovers to secure a win vs UCLA at the Rose Bowl. Needless to say, much of the conference is looking good with statement wins against P5 competition. As it stands now, the Mountain West is 4-4 vs the Pac-12 and 4-2 vs the remaining P5 conferences this season. This is the highest number of wins vs P5 competition of any conference in college football right now.
Winning games in this league is going to be harder than previous years. It also means the wins carry more weight in the rankings. Journeying for the conference crown is a process, and if the Aggies successfully make that journey, they might even have more than one chance to get ranked this year (click on that link, Aggie fans!)
So what does this mean for Utah State?
It’s no secret the Aggies have struggled on the road vs P5 competition. They lost a heart-breaker to a surprisingly formidable Wake Forest team, who is now 3-0 on the year. Last season, they had another valiant effort vs. Michigan State but came up just shy in East Lansing thanks to a freakishly good play by a Spartan linebacker.
Though the Aggies have not earned a P5 win in recent tries, it still helps their strength of schedule that their conference mates are picking up some of the slack. If the Aggies can capitalize and win in the coming weeks against Mountain West competition, they have a chance at getting ranked (or at least receive votes) sooner in the season than they did last year.
In 2018, after the close loss at Michigan State, Utah State won seven games in a row before cracking the top 20. However, the wins came against mostly inferior competition.
Tennessee Tech was one of the worst FCS teams I’ve seen play in recent memory. New Mexico State, after celebrating the winter of our discontent, regressed back to their regular old rotten Raggie selves (no, that’s not a typo… and our kicker Dominik Eberle outscored their whole team, tying an NCAA record for points scored by a kicker in one game, to boot). Air Force may have been better than their record indicated, but even severe special teams miscues from USU didn’t prevent them from putting away the cadets in Logan.
The most meaningful win during the streak the Aggies put together last season was against BYU in Provo. In-state rivalries matter, and this was a BYU team that had recently knocked off then #6 Wisconsin on the road. But even after bullying the Cougars (and seeing them lose to Northern Illinois less than two weeks later), the Aggies didn’t get respect in the rankings until they traveled to Honolulu in early November. Needless to say, a paper soft schedule did the Aggies no favors in getting any national recognition.
Oh, the possibilities!
Utah State has some prime opportunities in the coming weeks to show everyone what they are made of. They take on red-hot San Diego State soon, who is currently riding a three-game win streak on the back of a stout defense. After a home tilt against an admittedly struggling CSU squad (no thanks to Collin Hill shredding his knee again), the Aggies get a shot to show their prowess off in SEC country against a top five LSU team. A win in Baton Rouge, coupled with wins over the Aztecs and Rams, would instantly catapult Utah State into the top 25.
Even if the Aggies can’t pull it off vs the Tigers, they still get some very respectable competition in October against Nevada and Air Force. Both of those teams are currently riding high, and Air Force could possibly be ranked themselves heading into the showdown against the Aggies on October 26th, if they continue to take care of business.
Wins in any of the upcoming games will reflect positively on Utah State, even if they don’t become ranked themselves. The teams they are playing are noticeably more robust than last season, too. Even if true national respect eludes USU this year, competing for the conference crown would continue to elevate the program.
But it won’t matter much if they don’t get that win vs the Aztecs. It’s been a while since the opportunity to be ranked early came along, so if the Aggies want to live up to any of the off-season hype, it’s basically now or never.
Bring it on, Mountain West.