SALT LAKE CITY — Utah State produced one of the prouder games in its football history in a 38-31 loss at No. 11 Michigan State on Friday. Not once did the Aggies appear intimidated or dismayed.
Chances are slim they will ever play in a power conference, but they can always dream. That’s how Utah reached the Pac-12 and BYU won a national championship.
USU officials haven’t expressly stated their goal is to be in a P5 conference, but isn’t that everyone’s? “Follow the money” is a tried and true adage. But for USU, that would mean transforming one of the lowest-funded FBS programs in the country. For now, the Aggies are just trying to show their competitive worth.
They made a strong case against MSU.
“Now, we have a lot of things to take confidence in,” coach Matt Wells said on Monday. “There are a lot of things to be proud of, but hopefully that's a major motivation for us to … improve a tremendous amount between Week 1 and Week 2 … which is absolutely the goal here."
Encouraging as the game was for the Aggies, it underscored the fact USU can play big-name schools closely, but it virtually never wins. It beat ACC lightweight Wake Forest in 2014 — a year the Demon Deacons finished 3-9 — but before that, the last game against an ACC team was a 35-6 loss in 2004 to Clemson. The only win against a Big Ten team was in 1968. USU has three wins against the Big 12 — all via Kansas State — the most recent in 1992.
The Aggies did shock Oklahoma in 1972, but the win came on a forfeit, following a 49-0 loss.
The last time the Aggies beat a Pac-12 team, except in 2012 against Utah, was in 1965 against Arizona State. But at that time the Sun Devils were in the Western Athletic Conference.
USU is 5-35 against the Pac-12, not counting games against Colorado and Utah — which were once in the same conference as USU.
The Aggies are 1-17 all-time against current Southeastern Conference teams, 1-15 against the Big Ten, 1-4 against the ACC and 4-9 (counting the Oklahoma forfeit) against the Big 12.
They are 5-56 all-time against ranked teams, but none of the wins came against a power conference opponent. The successes were against Fresno State, Louisiana Tech, Northern Illinois, BYU and Boise State.
If nothing else, the Aggies have opportunities ahead. They play Wake Forest in 2019, Washington State and Washington in 2020, Washington State in 2021, Alabama in 2022.
For a blueprint on elevating its program, USU needs only to look a few miles south. Utah and BYU wrote the book on selling themselves. Chapter 1: Beat “name” teams on a regular basis.
The Cougars got back on track last week by dispatching Arizona for the second time in three years. Other BYU power conference wins came against Mississippi State and Michigan State (2016), Nebraska (2015), Texas (2013, 2014), Virginia and Cal (2014), Georgia Tech (2013), Washington State and Georgia Tech (2012), Ole Miss and Oregon State (2011), Washington (2010), Oklahoma and Oregon State (2009) and Washington and UCLA (2008). The Cougars rose to prominence in the LaVell Edwards years with wins over Miami, Texas A&M, Michigan, Notre Dame, Arizona State, Colorado and Baylor.
Meanwhile, Utah won its way into the Pac-12 by beating Michigan, UCLA, Oregon State, Cal, Alabama, Pitt, Georgia Tech, Stanford, Oregon and Texas A&M.
Utah State’s only wins over P5 teams since 2009 — Gary Andersen’s first year — have been against Wake Forest (2014) and Utah (2012). There were 12 losses. That doesn’t mean the Aggies haven’t come close in other games. They lost by eight to Texas A&M, seven to Oklahoma, four to Auburn, two to Wisconsin, four to Utah (by then in the Pac-12), and three to USC.
After citing all the good things his team did last Friday, Wells sounded ready to move on.
“Given all that,” he said, “we didn’t find a way to win the game.”
It’s something BYU and Utah long ago figured out.