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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 84: Utah State

While Utah and B.Y.U. are making moves – to the Pac-12 and to Independent status, respectively – Utah State is staying put. If not moving back, should the WAC disband in the near future, as some have predicted. What about on the field? The Aggies are treading water in the win column under Gary Andersen, at least through two years: 4-8 in 2009, 4-8 in 2010. But while there are major concerns about the program’s future should it find itself searching for new conference affiliation, hopes are high that Andersen, himself a former Utah assistant, has what it takes to lead the Aggies to bowl play after a 14-year absence. Unfortunately, we’ve been here before. We believed in Dave Arslanian, Mick Dennehy and Brent Guy – well, perhaps not Guy – prior to Andersen’s arrival, and each were underwhelming, to put it lightly.

Conference
WAC

Location
Logan, Utah

Nickname
Aggies

Returning starters
15 (9 offense, 6 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 90

2010 record
(4-8, 2-6)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 90

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 3
    at Auburn
  • Sept. 10
    Weber St.
  • Sept. 24
    Colorado St.
  • Sept. 30
    at B.Y.U.
  • Oct. 8
    Wyoming
  • Oct. 15
    at Fresno St.
  • Oct. 22
    Louisiana Tech
  • Nov. 6
    at Hawaii
  • Nov. 12
    San Jose St.
  • Nov. 19
    at Idaho
  • Nov. 26
    Nevada
  • Dec. 3
    at N.M.S.U.

Last year’s prediction

This could be the year for Utah State. Emphasis on “could,” of course. I think I should preface my following remarks by saying I don’t believe the Aggies will reach bowl play in 2010. Yet I do firmly believe this to be the best team Utah State has put forth in nearly 15 years. There’s a lot to like, particularly on offense. The key, of course, is getting an improved performance from the defense. The good news here is the return of eight starters, even if this unit was sub par a season ago. Bowl hopes hinge on this improvement. Can it happen? Without question: this is, as stated, the best Utah State squad in years. However, I feel safer in predicting a one-win improvement: five wins would mark another progression for a program accustomed to stepping back, not forward.

2010 recap

In a nutshell No progress in terms of wins and losses. Utah State went 4-8 for the second straight year under Andersen, actually taking a step back in terms of competitiveness, if we measure that standard by the margin of defeat in each loss. In 2009, Andersen’s first year, the Aggies lost five games by a touchdown or less; that number dropped to just one last fall, though the seven-point defeat came at Oklahoma. The biggest gripe with last year’s team wasn’t in the win column, but rather on offense. In 2009, it was the offense that carried this team for weeks on end: at the end of the year, the Aggies ranked 36th nationally in passing and 20th in rushing, finishing 12th overall in total offense. The numbers took a steep dive while the defense remained below average, down to 93rd in passing — with many more turnovers — and 41st in rushing, 84th overall. Injuries played a role, but the offense was a disappointment.

High point Are you sitting down? The Aggies beat B.Y.U., 31-16, on the first day of October, ending a 10-game losing streak and restoring some order to a series that was once far more even than recent history suggests. Utah State was also very lucky to get B.Y.U. when they did; if the two met in November, the Cougars would have won handily. That was the only good win on the year, with the other three coming over Idaho State, New Mexico State and San Jose State.

Low point Rarely did the offense and defense play in tandem, except when neither showed up at all. Such was the case against San Diego State, a 41-7 loss, or Hawaii, a 45-7 loss, or Boise State, a 50-14 loss. The Aggies will always be behind the eight ball with the better teams in the WAC and on the non-conference slate, meaning a game with an Idaho or Louisiana Tech, for example, is a must-win. The offense was nowhere to be found against the Vandals and Bulldogs in 2010, scoring six points in each loss.

Tidbit B.Y.U. and Utah play in the Holy War. Utah State and B.Y.U. for the Old Wagon Wheel. Utah State and Utah meet in the Battle of the Brothers, with this rivalry the most-played of the trio. Combine the three teams, along with Weber State, and you get a rivalry played for possession of the Beehive Boot, with supremacy typically decided by head-to-head results. Sometimes, however, all three of the F.B.S. programs involved in the rivalry don’t meet in a given season; this was the case in 2010, when Utah State played B.Y.U. and B.Y.U. played Utah but the Aggies did not play the Utes. (Checking to see if that sentence makes sense.) When this does occur, the winner of the Beehive Boot is decided by a media vote. Well, since the Aggies topped the Cougars by 14 points and the Utes topped the Cougars by only a single point, Utah’s media contingent handed Utah State the Beehive Boot — the program’s first since 1997. In fact, three of Utah State’s seven series wins have come via media vote.

Tidbit (turnovers edition) Good teams don’t just force turnovers: they capitalize on them. Utah State didn’t do much of the former and did even less of the latter, forcing only 16 turnovers and converting only 6 of those 16 into points. Why does this matter? Beyond the mental edge of potentially demoralizing an opponent, these added possessions are where games are won — or lost, depending on your point of view. When losing by seven point to Oklahoma, U.S.U. forced a pair of turnovers but didn’t turn either into as much as a field goal.

Former players in the N.F.L.

9 S James Brindley (Seattle), CB Jarrett Bush (Green Bay), DE John Chick (Indianapolis), TE Chris Cooley (Washington), WR Kevin Curtis (Kansas City), CB Curtis Marsh (Philadelphia), OG Shawn Murphy (Denver), TE Rob Myers (Indianapolis), OT Donald Penn (Tampa Bay).

Arbitrary top five list

Worst team names in professional sports (soccer counts)
1. magicJack (of Women’s Professional Soccer).
2. New York Red Bulls.
3. Utah Jazz.
4. Houston Texans.
5. New Jersey Nets.

Coaching

Gary Andersen (Utah ’86), 8-16 after two seasons in Logan. Andersen has posted back-to-back 4-8 marks, not making much progression in the win column but beginning the development process associated with such a rebuilding project. It’s clear that the Aggies are — and will continue to be — far more competitive than they’ve been in the recent past. Anderson was the head coach at Southern Utah for one season (4-7 in 2003) between extended stints as an assistant at his alma mater (1997-2002; 2004-8). Southern Utah’s four-win total in 2003 bested its total from the previous two seasons combined (2-9 in 2001, 1-10 in 2002). Anderson’s first stretch as a Utah assistant began as the defensive tackles coach (1997-2000) and culminated with his being named the assistant head coach to go with defensive line and special teams duties, positions he held for his final two seasons with the Utes. After his one-year head coaching sabbatical, Anderson returned to Utah, first as defensive line coach (2004) before being promoted to assistant head coach and defensive coordinator (2005-8). On paper, Anderson seems like a good fit for the Aggies. For starters, he brings a well-regarded defensive background to a program desperately in need of an overhaul. He has a strong familiarity with the area, something his predecessor did not have. Anderson also brings strong recruiting acumen to his new stop; he was once named the nation’s best non-B.C.S. conference recruiter by Rivals.com. No one says Utah State is going to beat out B.Y.U. and Utah for the premier players in-state, but Anderson should begin to bring in a higher level of talent. My only question is this: Does Anderson have the fortitude to build this program from the bottom up? Other have tried and failed, and we’ve been waiting a long time for Utah State to turn the corner.

Players to watch

The Aggies must replace leading rusher Derrvin Speight (779 yards rushing) but return a vital piece in junior Robert Turbin, who tore his A.C.L. last winter and missed all of 2010. When healthy, Turbin is one of the WAC’s best: he rushed for 1,296 yards in 2009, a school record for a sophomore. He’s still shaking off some rust in his recovery, and Utah State held him out of spring ball for cautionary reasons, but Turbin should be ready to go come the fall. And that’s great news for the Aggies, who sorely missed Turbin a year ago despite Speight’s fine senior campaign. Junior Joey DeMartino (157 yards) and sophomore Robert Marshall (146 yards) are there if Turbin needs time to get back in the swing of things, as is receiver-running-back-return man extraordinaire Kerwynn Williams (451 yards), who set a new F.B.S. record with 1,444 kick return yards a season ago.

It will be interesting to see this offensive line transition from blocking for a quarterback with great running skills to one who’s more of a pocket passer, as may very well be the case. This group has the talent to fare pretty well regardless of who’s taking snaps; this is Utah State’s best line under Andersen, if not the best line in Logan for years. It does hurt to lose Spencer Johnson, a four-year starter at left tackle, but the Aggies hope that JUCO transfer Ian Maguire is good enough to step in right away on the blind side.

Another new addition, Stetson Tenney, might make things interesting along the interior of the line should be prove to be the best fit at right tackle. Eric Schultz will move inside if that’s the case, where he’ll battle returning starters Funaki Asisi and Phillip Gapelu. Competition is always a good thing, as is depth. Saving the best for last: sophomore Tyler Larsen is a keeper at center. Having his talent in the middle of the line really steadies the U.S.U. front. This line is actually pretty good, and could be better than just good if the two new additions anchor both tackles. That would increase depth and competition inside — again, a good thing.

Utah State will need to find some receivers if Andersen, offensive coordinator Dave Baldwin and first-year quarterbacks coach Matt Wells opt for a pass-first quarterback. This search lost one potential answer when leading receiver Dontel Watkins (42 receptions for 492 yards) was moved to the defensive side of the ball. But the search gained a target with the return of junior Stanley Morrison, who was the team’s leading receiver in 2009 but missed all of last fall with a foot injury. Morrison’s a weapon if he can pick up where he left off; all signs point toward that being the case. Utah State is also counting on a pair of seniors, Eric Moats and Xavier Martin: Moats (20 catches) finished second on the team in receptions last fall, while Martin, a former JUCO transfer, was very impressive during Utah State’s spring game. And Utah State made a late addition its 2011 recruiting class with Brandon Swindell, who fell into the program’s lap after scholarship offers from several big-name programs fell through. He might break into the rotation immediately.

I love Andersen’s decision to become his own defensive coordinator: if you can’t find someone to do it for you, do it yourself. And Andersen is surely the finest defensive mind in Logan — that’s an understatement — and he’ll have an immediate impact on an underachieving group. Like Bronco Mendenhall at B.Y.U., I expect this change to alter not just how Utah State’s numbers but also its mentality, which is the first step towards putting together a unit capable of getting stops in and out of WAC play.

Andersen’s first order of business was implementing a 3-4 defense, which does take advantage of Utah State’s dearth of linemen while accentuating the depth at linebacker. We’ve seen some issues with 3-4 teams already previewed: a lack of a prototypical linemen to play on the nose. I don’t think Utah State has that problem. Adding massive transfer Evan Huahulu, formerly of S.M.U., gives the Aggies a presence inside, one who can stand up and occupy blockers. But the line is still raw, and I wonder about depth on the nose — Huahulu can’t afford to get injured, and at his size, I doubt he can handle a huge workload. Most of the experience comes at end, where the Aggies bring back starters Quinn Garner (43 tackles, 5 for loss) and Levi Koskan (41 tackles, team-best 4.5 sacks).

The Aggies have the linebackers to make this new system work; the key will be getting some push up front, which is why a player like Huahulu is so vital. When you mention the U.S.U. linebacker corps — the defense in general, in fact — you have to begin with all-WAC pick Bobby Wagner (133 tackles, 8 for loss). He’s a strong talent who has been lost on a poor defense, and Wagner deserves more attention than he’s received, even inside the WAC. This alignment will really put Wagner in a position to make plays, so he could even improve upon last season’s totals.

Wagner is one of three returning starters at linebacker, joining senior Kyle Gallagher (91 tackles, 4 for loss) and sophomore Jake Doughty. Gallagher will start alongside Wagner; Doughty is in a fight to remain in the lineup thanks to the play of fellow sophomore Zach Vigil and redshirt freshman Tavaris McMillan. And U.S.U. is anxiously awaiting the arrival of JUCO transfer Bojay Filimoeatu, who could really alter the depth chart at outside linebacker. If I had to predict it now, I’d say Wagner and Gallagher — these are set in stone — in the middle, with Filimoeatu and McMillan or Virgil on the outside. This is a deep and pretty talented group, and the strength of the defense.

The holes at cornerback are a little daunting: both starters, Curtis Marsh and Chris Randle, must be replaced. Andersen will turn to a pair of sophomores to fill these two vacancies, each of whom landed solid playing time a year ago. One is Cameron Sanders (28 tackles), the other Nevin Lawson; Sanders look like the more polished of the two, thanks to his edge in experience, but Lawson was praised several times for his play during the spring. Junior Quinton Byrd is best-suited as a nickel back, but he’s a valuable part of the cornerback rotaton.

The aforementioned Watkins might end up playing cornerback. For now, however, he’s penciled in at free safety. A former JUCO transfer, Watkins hasn’t played defense since high school, which is a slight concern. But there’s no doubting his physical gifts, which translate well to the secondary — his ball skills might come in handy at free safety, patrolling the middle of the field. Senior Walter McClenton (62 tackles, an interception) will help ease Watkins’ transition.

Much hinges on the line, but the defense could be much better. I really like Andersen’s decision to take over; I also like the move to the 3-4, which takes some pressure off the line and plays to the strength at linebacker. There are some issues at cornerback, but Andersen and his staff seem high on the new sophomore starters.

Position battle(s) to watch

Quarterback The competition lost a name when sophomore Jeremy Higgins transferred to Hawaii in early May, a move that is great for Higgins and the Warriors. His departure does hamper depth at the position for the Aggies, but if spring returns were any indication, Higgins was riding third in the race for the starting job behind JUCO transfer Adam Kennedy and redshirt freshman Alex Hart. Joining the mix this fall is incoming freshman Chuckie Keeton, a very nice recruit for Utah State. So despite being the most experienced returning quarterback on the roster — the only one to attempt a pass in Logan — Higgins probably saw the writing on the wall: he wasn’t going to move ahead of this threesome. So it’s down to three, though I think it’s really down to two. Hart or Keeton might be the future; one of them is, actually. But I think it’s Kennedy’s job in 2011, thanks to his ability to make the sort of throws his two freshmen competitors can’t, at least not at this point in their careers. Kennedy has the type of arm, and while he does not have the legs of a Diondre Borel, his successful predecessor in Logan, perhaps Turbin’s return lessens the importance of having a quarterback who make plays with his feet. If U.S.U. wants to play a dual-threat like Borel, however, Holt or Keeton would be a better fit.

Game(s) to watch

The same old story: no letdowns. Every season finds a few clear losses, so it’s vital that Utah State beat the weaker teams on the schedule. That list would surely involve San Jose State and New Mexico State, as well as Weber State. The toss-up games — Colorado State and Wyoming, for example — are where the season will be decided.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Is this the year Utah State cracks the bowl-free drought? Hold that thought. Instead, ask this: Is this the year Utah State breaks the four-win barrier? I’m confident of the latter, contingent on a few developments. The first is that U.S.U. finds an answer at quarterback. I think Kennedy will be the guy, and his arm and experience, relative to his competition, is a definite plus. The Aggies must also get improved play from both the offensive and defensive lines, with the latter group a huge question mark heading into 2011. The defense at large is a concern, in fact, and while the Aggies will be better offensively it won’t mean much if the defense can’t get stops more consistently. Nevertheless, I think the Aggies do get to five wins. That would entail finishing 4-2 at home, which is certainly possible, and beating one of the two road teams — Idaho and New Mexico State — that come in November. What would it take to get to six wins? Probably a 5-1 home mark with one of those two road wins; or a 4-2 mark with a road sweep over the Vandals and Aggies, which is possible but not a certainty. So back to the original question: Is this a bowl team? If I had to guess today, I’d say no. But it will be close. I see five wins, and getting a sixth would require merely one win as an underdog — certainly doable. Year by year, Utah State is getting better. Even if that sixth win doesn’t come the Aggies are improving under Andersen, and I don’t think a bowl trip is all that far away.

Dream season The Aggies double last season’s win total, posting a program-high for victories in a season since 1979 and heading back to bowl play for the first time since 1997.

Nightmare season A slide down to 2-10, while perhaps possible, would be an absolute nightmare. It might also spell the end for Andersen after three seasons.

In case you were wondering

Where do Utah State fans congregate? I asked for help with Utah State sites in last year’s preview, and the readers delivered. Now, in addition to just Scout U State, I can list the following: the Web sites of the Deseret News and The Utah Statesman, the latter the school’s fine newspaper; and the message board at USUFans.com, which has some healthy chatter. If there are more, please list them below.

Word Count

Through 37 teams 101,242.

Up Next

Who is No. 83? The football fortunes at tomorrow’s university rise and fall, but one thing is certain: the school’s synchronized skating team is second to none.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. wildcat6 says:

    Miami (OH) is next. The RedHawks have won seven straight national championships.

  2. Kenneth says:

    Synchronized skating team? That’s a new one for me.

    A quick google search shows that Miami University has quite the dominate squad, but they were 10-4 last season so 84th seems a little low for the RedHawks.

  3. jon c says:

    i agree with the above, miami (oh) is next. they have a rather large program (50+ within the program, and 3 varsity teams), and have won in the past. moreover, they are not currently on your list and this is about where i would expect them on the countdown.

    actually, i’d say that WSU from the pac-10 should be above this school on your list, as i believe that they would beat them twice in a home-and-home engagement. and i don’t even like the cougettes…

  4. Adam Nettina says:

    I think Watkins is a better DB than WR. He had dropsy problems last year, but this spring, I was impressed with his aggresivness and ability to hit in the open field. You look at his 40 time and go “wow, ball skills” but I think it’s a misnomer. He hasremarkable body discipline for his size, and he stays square through tackles and will come and hit thicker guys. I don’t think losing him on “O” is that big of a loss – Moats and Bartlett are solid pass catchers, while Martin and Williams (slot type guys) are explosive. We will see about Morrison and how he returns.

    I like the depth at running back. If anything, having Turb back has pushed everyone harder. DeMartino and Marshall looked more comfertable this spring. Everything you said on Kennedy I agree with, but you may have more confidence in the O-line than I do (or Baldwin does, for that matter).

    Thank you for the kind words about the Statesman. Basketball has long dominated the school’s interest, but I’m confident that the student body is coming around to football.

  5. Alachua Aggie says:

    Just a quick note that Aggie fans also follow the team at:

    Salt Lake Tribune: http://www.sltrib.com
    Tony Jones Blog AggieVille: http://www.sltrib.com/Blogs/ususports

    Herald Journal: http://www.hjnews.com
    USU official site: http://www.utahstateaggies.com
    obviously si.com and espn.com team web pages.

    Looking forward to shocking the World at Auburn!

  6. Dave Johnson says:

    Better coverage than we get from the local media. Thanks for the great write-up. Go Aggies!

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