LOGAN — This is a pivotal year for the Utah State football team.
The Aggies, after several strong seasons, including a three-year stretch from 2012 to 2014 when they went 30-11, captured two Mountain West Conference division titles and won three bowl games, have been a dismal 15-23 over the subsequent three seasons.
So logically this looms as a critical season for the Aggies and coach Matt Wells, who will be in his sixth year as USU’s head coach.
With three straight losing seasons after two excellent seasons that came on the heels of Gary Andersen’s turnaround of a program that suffered through 13 straight losing seasons under three coaches, Wells’ future could be on the line.
An experienced team — 18 returning starters and a favorable schedule — has many folks expecting the Aggies to produce their first winning record since 2014 and perhaps contend for the Mountain West Conference title.
The Aggies have their entire offensive line back, not to mention up-and-coming quarterback Jordan Love and receivers Ron’quavion Tarver and Jordan Nathan and tight end Dax Raymond. On defense, the Aggies return nine starters, led by safety Gaje Ferguson and linebackers Suli Tamaivena and Chase Christiansen. Also back is Lou Groza Award finalist Dominik Eberle at place-kicker.
The favorable part of the schedule comes in the Aggies’ draw for Pacific Division teams. They avoid the two that are far and away the best in the division — San Diego State and Fresno State — and get to face the other four, which combined for a 13-36 record last year.
The bad news is that the Aggies must face the top three teams in their own division on the road. Two of those games are the last two of the regular season, at Colorado State and Boise State. That makes a division title unlikely, especially with the Broncos fielding another top-25 caliber team this year.
So what should the Aggies hang their hat on? How about a victory over in-state rival BYU on Oct. 5?
Of course the Cougars aren’t what they used to be, at least they weren’t last year when they went an abysmal 4-9. But with Utah clearly the No. 1 program in the state right now (seven straight wins over BYU, 14 of the last 15 versus USU), the Aggies are in position to show who’s No. 2.
BYU faithful might scoff at the idea that Utah State is on the same level as the Cougars, but the gap has been narrowing. Over the past 20 years, BYU owns a 12-3 edge in the series, but if you look closer, it could just as well be 8-7.
In 1999, the Cougars eked out a 34-31 win in overtime. In 2002, they had to come back from a 34-7 halftime deficit to win 35-34. In 2011, they needed Riley Nelson’s last-minute heroics to pull out a 27-24 victory, and the following year hung on for a 6-3 victory. Meanwhile, USU’s three victories were all by at least 15 points.
Still, the Aggies haven’t beaten BYU in consecutive seasons since 1974, when they won for the fourth straight year. So a win over the Cougars this season, to accomplish something that hasn’t been done in 44 years, would be significant.
The Oct. 5 game, as usual, on the Friday night before general conference, sets up much better for the Aggies. After their three winnable home games against New Mexico State, Tennessee Tech and Air Force, they get the last weekend of September off for a bye.
On the other hand, BYU, after having opened with a gauntlet of Arizona, Cal and Wisconsin and a home breather against McNeese State, must play at Washington on Sept. 29. The Huskies are ranked No. 6 in the preseason polls and are favored by everyone to win the Pac-12 and perhaps make it to the football playoffs.
Let’s assume for a moment the Aggies can take care of the four West Division opponents, UNLV, Hawaii, Nevada and San Jose State as well as the two teams picked behind them in the Mountain Division, Air Force and New Mexico. Along with wins over New Mexico State and Tennessee Tech at home, the Aggies would get to eight wins. Perhaps they can pull out a win at either Laramie or Fort Collins. Then a win at BYU would give them 10 wins for just the third time in school history.
Of course, Wells and his players will tell you that a Mountain West Conference title is their main focus, which it should be. However, a 10-3 regular season with no title and a win over BYU is something Aggie faithful would take right now and never have a second thought.