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Brad Rock: How USU's Matt Wells can get to a safe place

LOGAN — Matt Wells was a 50 percent passer as a quarterback at Utah State. Now he’s roughly a 50 percent coach. He has been part of the longest stretch of bowl invitations in school history, earning four trips in five seasons. Counting two years as an assistant, he has attended six bowls in seven years.

At the same time, Wells’ overall win-loss record is a modest 34-32, 23-17 in conference. His best success in Mountain West competition came in his first two seasons, when he gained 13 of his 23 wins. Since then he’s 10-14.

Overall, USU won 19 games Wells’ first two seasons, but just 15 in the next three. The last two years have been particularly sketchy. In 2016 they went 3-9 overall and 1-7 in league play. Last year they were 6-7 and 4-4.

Wells’ team earned a last-minute bowl invitation in 2017, but lost. How much this weighs on him is obvious. Talking about it makes his Aggie blue eyes turn the color of iron. He lives by the coaching adage that nobody applies more pressure on him than himself. That might be true, but, over time, external pressure builds. A below-.500 season this year would make it four straight losing years.

Utah State isn’t Alabama or USC, where championships are routine. It’s a place where reaching the top is, well, a reach. That doesn’t deter Wells, who openly allows that bowl games alone aren’t good enough.

“I think getting to bowl games is an indication of maybe a good season,” he says. “The goal around here will always be to put ourselves in position to compete for the Mountain West Conference championship in November. We haven’t done that the last couple of years. That’s the biggest goal; that’s the trophy that’s not in this building.”

USU did win a division championship in 2013, his first year as head coach, but lost in the conference title game. In 2014, his team was 10-4 and 6-2, including a bowl win. The 2016 Aggies almost had a strong season, but they lost four games by a combined 17 points. Winning those would have resulted in records of 7-5 overall and 5-3 in the conference.

“I always think the bowl game is a significant thing around any program, and I don’t take it lightly that we’ve been in bowl games six of the last seven years at Utah State,” he says. “I also recognize that’s the best stretch ever here at Utah State, and we’re very proud to be a part of that.”

But it’s not the end all, be all.

This season’s schedule won’t make things easy. The Aggies play Boise State, Wyoming and Colorado State — the three division teams rated ahead of them in the preseason poll — on the road. They meet BYU in Provo and Michigan State in East Lansing. They host New Mexico State on Sept. 8, the team that beat them in overtime in last December’s Arizona Bowl. So there’s not much wiggle room. Only Tennessee Tech, San Jose State and New Mexico look vulnerable. UNLV drew the same number of votes in the preseason poll as the Aggies.

USU does get a break by not playing either of the West Division’s best teams, Fresno State and San Diego State.

Wells points to a scheduling quirk that could jumpstart the season or doom his team to oblivion. The second, third and fourth games of the year are all in Logan on consecutive weeks, against New Mexico State, Tennessee Tech and Air Force.

“The thing about this year’s schedule is the three straight home games right out of the gate,” he says. “It’s an opportunity for us to get out to a great start in front of the home crowd.

It’s also an invitation to pack up early and wait for winter.

Should Wells finish below .500, his job will rightly be questioned. USA Today’s list of coaching salaries had him at $1.05 million last year, fifth highest in the Mountain West and 76th nationwide. His contract runs through next season.

Is winning championships too much to expect? On a regular basis, and given the university’s humble athletic revenue, yes. USU’s earnings are second lowest in the conference.

A disastrous season would likely doom Wells as a coach. But USU isn’t successful enough, or wealthy enough, to readily fire coaches who reach the postseason. Winning those bowl games is a bonus.

In his sixth year as head coach, Wells needs to go ahead and do so, and remove all doubt.