Utah State released its 2014 football schedule this past week and, especially with the basketball team's dismal season, fans are starting to gear up again for another exciting season on the Aggie gridiron. After three successful seasons in a row, including three consecutive bowl game appearances for the first time in school history, expectations have never been higher for USU. The team that, until recently, was seen as a perpetual "little brother" in Utah football- in terms of athletic prowess and national attention- has become the most successful in the state; the Aggies are the only Utah team to finish the season ranked or with votes to be ranked the past two seasons. From all indications, the progress should continue this coming year.
With such high expectations, scheduling is critical to the growth and public opinion of a mid-major team like USU. Playing high profile teams is an important aspect in garnering attention outside of the conference, but winning is obviously the end goal at any level of competition. The Aggies have made a name for themselves the past several seasons for being willing to play anyone, anywhere, and for putting the fear of God into whoever they play; over the course of the past five seasons, the Aggies have played Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Auburn, Wisconsin, Utah and USC on the road and displayed excellent tenacity, skill, and coaching. Unfortunately, they've also made a name for themselves as the greatest chokers in the country by losing every one of those games, by an average of 4.67 points. They did shake off a little of the stigma by winning their past two bowl games in convincing fashion, including a blowout win over Heisman candidate Jordan Lynch and his high-powered NIU offense, and beating Utah at home two years ago. The Aggies have beaten a ranked team both of the past two seasons, and have won conference and division titles for the first time since 1997.
Looking at the coming season, there is plenty to be excited about. Here's the full schedule:
Week 1 - August 30th, @ Tennessee
Week 2 - September 6th, vs. Idaho State
Week 3 - September 13th, vs. Wake Forest
Week 4 - BYE
Week 5 - September 27th, @ Arkansas State
Week 6 - October 3rd (Friday), @ BYU
Week 7 - October 11th, vs. Air Force
Week 8 - October 18th, @ Colorado State
Week 9 - October 25th, vs. UNLV
Week 10 - November 1st, @ Hawaii
Week 11 - November 8th, @ Wyoming
Week 12 - November 15th, vs. New Mexico
Week 13 - November 22nd, vs. San Jose State
Week 14 - November 29th, @ Boise State
Championship Game - December 6th, Opponent/Location TBD
Tennessee: Despite the hideous color/design of the Volunteers' uniforms and their mediocre play in recent history, the Aggies will be considered underdogs in this game for one simple reason: Tennessee plays in the SEC. After going 5-7 last year, it would be tempting to dismiss them as a lower class team in a big boy conference; seeing their schedule last year grants some level of understanding, however, as the Vols played seven ranked teams- six of the seven were ranked 11th or better- and beat one of them. It should be a reasonably even matchup, and it provides the Aggies with a solid chance to get their first signature road win over a Big 5 conference team. Game expectation: toss-up.
Idaho State: The Bengals are an FCS team without much hope of pulling off an upset here. Anything less than a blowout would be disappointing and surprising in the home opener. Game expectation: guaranteed win.
Wake Forest: Not exactly at the top of their game, the Demon Deacons are going to be considered underdogs coming into Logan. Wake plays in the ACC, but hasn't made much noise in recent years; their last winning season was in 2008, and they hold a 23-38 record over the past five seasons. While a win here for the Aggies would mark a rare win over a team from a Big 5 conference, it wouldn't be an upset in any way; it would be shocking, frankly, if the Aggies didn't come out of this game with on top. Game expectation: probable win.
Arkansas State: The Red Wolves are a traditionally mediocre team that has, much like the Aggies, taken off and improved markedly over the past few seasons. Since 2011, Arkansas State holds a record of 28-11, and has won two bowl games in a row. Playing in the Sun Belt certainly doesn't hurt when you're looking strictly at wins and losses, but simply playing in a lightweight conference shouldn't cause USU to take them lightly at all. Assuming healthy play from guys like Chuckie Keeton, it should still be marked as a W at the end of the game, but if the Aggies overlook them by getting geared up for BYU too early, this could certainly be a trap game. Game expectation: probable win.
BYU: This will be one of the most emotionally charged games of the season. After being convinced to play for USU after watching the Aggies upset the Cougars in Logan four years ago, Chuckie Keeton has lost three years in a row to the in-state rivals. This will be his last chance to recreate the scene that persuaded him to decommit from the Air Force Academy in favor of Logan's quaint charms. It was also during the BYU game last season that Keeton suffered his season-ending ACL/MCL tears, the second time in his college career that he's been seriously injured midway through the season. Despite being on very even footing athletically, and despite superior overall performances by the Aggies when looking at the seasons as a whole, USU has struggled to find a way to close out games against the Cougars. With the game being played in Provo, the edge is probably tilted in BYU's favor. But with rivalry games, who knows what will happen? Game expectation: toss-up.
Air Force: After a dismal season this past year for AFA, including zero wins in conference play, the outlook is pretty good for USU to win this one at home. The triple option offense Air Force brings is always a potential threat, but with the discipline and talent that the Aggies bring to the table on defense, it shouldn't cause too much trouble. The biggest item on the agenda for USU in this game is to make sure that they get through it without any serious injuries. Game expectation: guaranteed win.
Colorado State: A freezing cold game with little offense allowed USU to come away with its first shutout in recent memory when these two teams played in Logan last year. With CSU on the rise, however, and a bitter taste after that last game, I expect to see CSU come out with fire and determination on their home field. The Aggie defense should keep Garrett Grayson in check, but I don't expect USU to have anything but a fight on their hands in this one. Game expectation: toss-up.
UNLV: An impressive season last year gave the Rebels renewed hope for their football team, which has struggled greatly till very recently. In spite of their upward trend, however, USU pulled out a close win in Las Vegas last year, and should do the same or better at home this year. Game expectation: probable win.
Hawaii: The Rainbow Warriors played more like Rainbow Wahine last year, narrowly avoiding a winless season. With a few potentially talented QB's coming to the island, there may be an improvement for Hawaii's chances this year, but not enough to pose a serious threat in this game. The only thing keeping me from putting this in the guaranteed win column is the fact that the game is going to be played in Hawaii; sometimes visiting teams lose concentration and focus while enjoying the scenery around them. I don't expect that with Matt Wells at the helm for the Aggies, but you never know. Game expectation: probable win.
Wyoming: The Cowboys got thumped in Logan to end their season last year. Wyoming lost quarterback Brett Smith and Jason Thompson transferred to Utah, but even with that the Cowboys should give USU a good game since this game is at War Memorial Stadium. One of the questions in this game will be whether a relatively newer Aggie secondary can keep Smith and receiver Shaun Wick (among others) under wraps. The other big question is whether anyone can fix what was one of the worst defenses in the country last year; Wyoming went through so many Defensive Coordinators over the past couple of years that any sense of continuity is long gone. For my part, until they shut me up by showing up, I don't expect much out of them. Game expectation: probable win.
New Mexico: The Lobos boasted one of the top running games in the country last year. The Aggies stifled that run offense, however, and blew UNM out in New Mexico. With Kasey Carrier leaving, and the Aggie defense basically remaining intact, I don't expect to see much from the Lobos in this contest. Game expectation: guaranteed win.
San Jose State: SJSU had a somewhat rough debut in the new Mountain West Conference; even though the Spartans were the only team in the MWC to defeat Fresno State, they finished with a mere 6-6 record, and missed out on bowl game. QB David Fales is leaving, and the defense can't pull its own weight. With the game being played in Logan, this should be a no-brainer for the Aggies. Game expectation: guaranteed win.
Boise State: This could be the biggest test of the season for the Aggies. A road game on blue turf is never easy, and the Broncos consistently create quality teams. With a new QB and a new head coach in Boise, it may be the best opportunity the Aggies have to get an away game victory against the Broncos, but it isn't a given by any means. Game expectation: toss-up.
After analyzing the games, the Aggies have four games I feel should be automatic wins, five that are probable wins, and four that are still up in the air. Worst case scenario for the Aggies this season, they lose all four toss-ups, two of the games in the probable win category (maybe UNLV and Wyoming), and lose a bowl game to a random C-USA team, ending the season with a 7-7 record. Best case scenario, the Aggies go undefeated, win the MWC Championship game, and garner a spot in one of the premier bowl games. With the schedule the Aggies have this year and the talent they bring back, it's certainly not an unreachable goal. Season expectation: 11-2 record, possible MWC title game appearance, and a fourth straight bowl game.