Don’t look now, but Utah State has a chance to do something special over its last six games.
At 3-3 this year, the Aggies have battled back to the .500 mark after starting the season 1-3 with losses to Iowa, Air Force and James Madison.
Beat Fresno State Friday night in Logan — no small feat, given the Bulldogs are 5-1 and roundly considered a top-10 Group of Five program — and USU will move over .500 for the first time this season (and for the first time since mid-November last year).
It is what lies beyond the Bulldogs that is most promising, though.
If Utah State can defeat Fresno State, and even if it can’t, the remainder of the Aggies’ schedule lines up in a way that can be described as advantageous.
Right now, even with the Bulldogs included, Utah State is tied with San Diego State for the easiest schedule remaining in the Mountain West Conference, based on opponents’ records.
Fresno State, San Jose State, San Diego State, Nevada, Boise State and New Mexico are a combined 13-21 this season, with a combined winning percentage of .380.
Take FSU out of it and USU’s remaining five opponents this season are 8-20 overall with a winning percentage of just .286.
ESPN’s Football Power Index, meanwhile, rates Utah State’s remaining schedule the fourth-easiest in the MWC and the 112th-easiest remaining slate in all of the FBS.
The Aggies now have a 78.5% chance to become bowl eligible, according to FPI, and even have some MW championship odds (2.5%), though those admittedly are not great as of yet.
It isn’t just records that say that Utah State has a favorable late-season draw, though.
Per Sagarin, four of USU’s six remaining opponents — San Diego State, San Jose State, Nevada and New Mexico — are worse than the Aggies, and the two that are better (Fresno State and Boise State) must travel to Logan.
ESPN gives the Aggies a 50% chance or better to defeat four of their remaining six opponents, with only Fresno State and Boise State being favored to take down USU.
Moreover, multiple future Aggie opponents have been featured in both ESPN’s and CBS Sports’ worst of college football rankings.
ESPN’s Ryan McGee has both Nevada and San Jose State in his latest version of the Bottom 10. McGee considers the Wolfpack the worst team in the country, the Spartans the 10th worst.
CBS Sports’ Bottom 25 rankings feature three future Aggie opponents, including No. 1 Nevada, No. 17 San Diego State and No. 24 San Jose State.
It isn’t just that Utah State has favorable competition going forward, either.
It also helps that the teams that have defeated the Aggies are all top-60 teams, per Sagarin, with Iowa ranking No. 28, Air Force at No. 36 and James Madison at No. 58.
Those teams are a combined 15-1 this season and the Aggies lost to them by a combined 35 points, the majority of that coming in USU’s 39-21 loss at Air Force.
Simply put, the Aggies have been competitive with the best teams they’ve faced this season, and with James Madison (No. 58), Fresno State (No. 55) and Boise State (No. 52) all rating similarly by Sagarin, the ever-improving Aggies have reason to be increasingly optimistic about their chances.
And yes, Utah State has steadily improved, yet another reason for optimism.
“We’ve gotten a lot of confidence with our quarterbacks and receivers and the connection between them,” receiver Micah Davis said. “We just keep growing and getting better every day.”
Here are some Utah State numbers:
- Leads the MW and ranks 15th in the nation in scoring offense at 38.2 points per game.
- Rate first in the MW and 24th in the nation in total offense (462.8 yards per game).
- Rank second in the MW and 32nd in the nation in passing efficiency (156.9).
- Is third in the MW and 20th in the nation in passing offense (296.0 ypg).
- Comes in at fourth in the MW and 41st in the nation in completion percentage (.643).
- Is sixth in the MW and 55th in the nation in rushing offense (166.8 ypg).
All told, Utah State ranks in the top 40 nationally in nine offensive categories and even the Aggies’ maligned defense — rightfully so, at times — has started to improve.
USU’s secondary is a particular strength, rated by Pro Football Focus as the 18th-best coverage team in the country, but the Aggies are no longer rated among the worst teams in the MW defensively, instead generally falling in the middle of the conference.
The Aggies have proven elite at forcing turnovers, with 14 takeaways, tied with California, Louisville and UAB for the third most nationally. USU is also fifth in the nation in passes intercepted with eight, averaging out to 1.6 picks per game, and eighth in the nation in fumbles recovered with six.
Additionally, Utah State is one of 24 FBS teams in the nation with two defensive touchdowns.
It all — the favorable schedule, competitiveness in losses and improving performance — gives real reason for optimism for Utah State going forward.
The Aggies can feel it too, with some even comparing this year’s team to the 2021 group that won the conference title.
“I definitely feel like this team is special,” defensive tackle Hale Motu’apuaka said. “And I felt like that even coming in from the offseason. Discipline-wise and I feel like our locker room is very player-led. There’s a lot of great leaders in the locker room that lead by example, even just doing the little things, not just on the field.
“I definitely feel like this locker room is special in that there is a lot of love in the locker room. Some of the best teams I’ve been around were player-led, just like 2021 (team). We had some great leaders and I feel like this team is just like that.”
Aggies on the air
Utah State (3-3)
vs. Fresno State (5-1)
Friday, 6 p.m. MDT
TV: CBS Sports Network
Radio: Aggies Sports Network
Head coach Blake Anderson has, in one form or another, said the same thing week after week this season, though never going so far as to compare this team to the 2021 title-winning group.
He believes these Aggies have the potential to do something special, and it is because of the players themselves.
“You can have good teams that they’re coach-led, but you can have great teams that are player-led,” Anderson said. “If the culture is right and the guys really care about each other and will fight for each other and don’t let each other down, then you’ve got the chance to do things that are special. ...
“... They’ve never ever stopped coming to work every day and given us what we need. You can (attribute) that to culture. (We have) a locker room that is very close-knit, wants to lift each other up, lift us up, lift me up, and continue to fight. And you’re seeing us get better because of it,” Anderson continued. “You are seeing us not give up in games that are not going the way we want. You’re seeing us fight back. I think all that has to do with the culture that we have and you gotta give the kids credit. Because without them it doesn’t happen. They’ve got to buy in and they have.”
And now things are lined up to give Utah State a chance at a special season-ending run.