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After coming within two points of winning league football championships in each of the last two seasons, Utah State is definitely inching closer to its goal of earning the Big West Conference berth in the Las Vegas Bowl.

The Aggies are now No. 1 - in theory, at least.On Thursday in Vegas, Charlie Weatherbie's Aggies got plenty of first-place respect from the rest of the league - which became a 10-team consortium this season with the addition of Arkansas State, Louisiana Tech, Northern Illinois and Southwestern Louisiana.

The Aggies were picked to finish No. 1 by both the Big West Conference coaches' and media preseason football polls at the league meetings in the Sands Hotel. It is the first time Utah State, a league member since 1978, has ever won the conference's preseason derby.

USU received four of 10 first-place votes and 91 points in the coaches' poll and 19 of 33 available first-place votes and 301 points in the media poll.

Nevada was second on the media poll and tied for second on the coaches' poll with Louisiana Tech.

"Yeah, I like it," said the ever-enthusiastic Weatherbie, about to enter his second year as a head coach.

"Now it's up to us to show them they were right. Now the work begins," said Weatherbie, who was expecting and hoping to be picked first, though he showed no emotion, just total attention, as the poll totals were read aloud during a luncheon.

Prior to Thursday's balloting, new Nevada coach Jeff Horton, a '92 Chris Ault UN assistant who inherits the defending-champion Wolf Pack as Ault goes to full-time athletic director, was saying, "Even though we won the championship, we felt Utah State was the best team overall."

"It makes me feel good," Weatherbie said of the poll results. "Our kids will be excited about that. I think our kids will thrive on that. They're tired of being second."

The Aggies (under Chuck Shelton) could have shared in a three-way tie for a first-place finish in 1991 if not for a 7-6 loss in a howling rainstorm at Long Beach State. In 1992, Weatherbie's initial season, they could have been champions if not for a missed field goal with less than :10 left in a 48-47 loss at Nevada.

The Aggies finally learned how to win a close game in the season finale - a 38-35 victory at University of the Pacific in November - and Weatherbie says, "I believe our kids will build upon that."

For USU to live up to predictions, Weatherbie figures the all-new kicking game must come around quickly, the team must be free of injuries to its main people, like quarterback Anthony Calvillo, and the Aggies must be able to keep a team concept in the face of the special recognition that some gifted players like Calvillo and linebacker Jermaine Younger will likely receive.

That's going on the assumption that Younger, an All-America candidate, can play. He's serving a 25-day jail sentence for failure to report an incident to his parole officer and faces a university review of the situation.

The Aggies have their most favorable schedule in years, starting with a conference game, facing no Nebraskas or Oklahomas, having two of the top five finishers on the poll (Nevada, Louisiana Tech) at home and not playing the other two (San Jose, Northern Illinois).

The 1993 season is an important one for the Big West. It is the conference's 25th-anniversary year. And it is a year of expansion, with the four football-only members - Arkansas State, Louisiana Tech, Northern Illinois and Southwestern Louisiana - entering the 10-team Big West Consortium. Also, there are three new coaches including former Denver Broncos/Stanford/Utah State head coach John Ralston at San Jose State.

The last new team to enter the league - Nevada - won a title in its first year and is again projected to be in the neighborhood. "People in Reno expect that. There's a lot of pressure," says Horton, who has nine offensive starters back as "the strength of the team." That includes comeback-special quarterback Chris Vargas, who beat USU last season. As a backup, Vargas has been in nine comeback games, winning six and putting Nevada in position to win two others. He's the undisputed starter now with the graduation of Fred Gatlin.

Louisiana Tech has potential to do this year what Nevada did last: win a title as a newcomer. "That could be true," says coach Joe Raymond Pease. He adds there are holes to fill with the graduation of 16 starters - six still in NFL camps Thursday. "Some guys have to grow up in a hurry," Pease says.

Other BWC coaches are wary of the Bulldogs' reputation for playing national powers to near standstills. They lost 13-0 at Alabama and lost 14-13 at South Carolina. Pease acknowledges he'd like to play a team like that at home and see what happens.

Northern Illinois boasts running back LeShon Johnson, second only to San Diego State's Marshall Faulk in Division 1 as a returning rusher with 1,338 yards last season.

San Jose State returns All-Big West quarterback Jeff Garcia (2,418 yards), but Ralston, who started the job March 15, says he has "no supporting cast. Jeff is going to have to lead the team with all new people." Don't bet against him, though. Ralston says Garcia is superb at reversing bad fortune. "He takes a lemon and turns it into lemonade," he says.

UNLV was set back when starting quarterback John Ma'ae injured a wrist in the spring. He's lost for the season. Chuck Shelton's Pacific graduated QB Troy Kopp, RB Ryan Benjamin and WR Aaron Turner, all national statistical phenomena, but has more steady players than before on defense. New Mexico State improves again, but progress is slow, and Southwestern Louisiana and Arkansas State aren't expected to make a big splash in their first seasons.



Big West football polls

Coaches' poll


Team Pts place

1. Utah State 91 4

2. (tie) Louisiana Tech75 3

Nevada 75 1

4. San Jose State 68 1

5. Northern Illinois 62 1

6. UNLV 60 0

7. New Mexico State 49 0

8. Pacific 30 0

9. Southwest Louisiana 28 0

10. Arkansas State 12 0

Media poll

1. Utah State 301 19

2. Nevada 289 9

3. San Jose State 234 1

4. Louisiana Tech 232 3

5. Northern Illinois U.206 1

6. UNLV 164 0

7. New Mexico State 137 0

8. Pacific 112 0

9. Southwest Louisiana 98 0

10. Arkansas State 42 0