Before the 2015 season started, Aggies and Cougars alike circled November 28th on their football calendars as one of the most important games of the season. Both teams felt that they had the chance to do something special this season, and both flirted with New Year's bowl game aspirations (well, maybe BYU was hoping for something more, but for the sake of parity, we'll leave it there). Eleven games later, neither team has a shot at anything other than a mediocre-at-best bowl game. USU is barely bowl eligible, and BYU, despite hitting eight wins, hasn't really beaten anyone worth talking about.
Despite sub-par seasons from both schools, however, this game carries a lot of weight with both respective fan bases. After all is said and done, this game can be summed up in one word: rivalry. Now, there may be some Cougar fans from last decade who will scoff. But when the players, the coaches, and most fans call it a rivalry, there's not really anything else to call it. You can tell that this game means more than just saving face at the end of a disappointing season; this game is a miniature bowl game in itself.
Both the coaches and the players on both sides have a lot of respect for the other, at least in terms of respecting their talent. And despite lackluster seasons, it's hard to argue with them. With players such as Hunter Sharp, Bronson Kaufusi, Kyler Fackrell, Nick Vigil, and Kai Nacua on the field, there's plenty to respect.
And the results the past several years have been far closer than in the previous years. Five years ago, USU beat BYU at home, 31-16, in the game that brought Chuckie Keeton to USU. Four years ago, BYU came back from behind on a miracle throw (BYU seems to get a lot of those...) from Riley Nelson- Nelson relieved the chosen one, Jake Heaps, in that game- in the final seconds of the game to win 27-24 at home. Three years ago, in the second consecutive home game for the Cougars, the defenses were out in full force, and BYU held onto a 6-3 lead that proved to be enough. Two years ago, BYU used stifling defense and an injury to Keeton to run away with the game on USU's home turf, winning 31-14. And last year, the Aggies repaid the favor in full with a dominating performance that saw an unfortunate number of injuries to the Cougars and a USU victory in Cougar territory, 35-20.
USU dominated the series for the first few decades of the rivalry, which began in 1922. They led the series 32-23-3 in 1982; it wasn't until 1992 that BYU gained the advantage, and it wasn't until 1994 that BYU took the series lead for good. So what should we expect this year? USU has typically had a big home field advantage the last couple years; of course, that won't matter in this game, as "typical" doesn't apply. I'll break it down by matchups.
USU offense vs BYU defense: USU's offense is a Jekyll and Hyde production this year. They have scored over 50 points three times this year, and scored in the low teens four times. The lack of continuity has been hard, and injuries/ejections have taken their toll as well. That being said, they have occasionally played inspired, and one can only hope this week will be one of those occasions, because BYU's defense is nothing if not consistent. They have only allowed over 30 points to an opponent twice this year, and have never allowed 40. The key to watch will be whether USU can establish a ground attack against a solid run defense. The Aggies have won 17 straight games when they've had a player hit 100 yards on the ground, while BYU only allows 140 rushing yards per game.
USU defense vs BYU offense: Boise State has the 21st ranked passing offense, and USU has the 9th ranked passing defense. Seemingly playing to USU's advantage, the numbers are a bit deceptive. I'd say rather that the Aggies pass D is an unknown, given that they have played against such power run games as San Diego State, Air Force, and New Mexico. While teams have largely been held in check by the Aggies aggressive defense, they have allowed far too many big plays, and BYU has a big play kind of offense. The key in this facet is whether the Aggies can rattle Tanner Mangum with their blitz schemes and force errors as they did against Boise State. With a healthy defensive line, they should be able to cause problems in the backfield; the question is whether they'll contain the big plays.
USU vs BYU on special teams: USU has had huge plays from their special teams all year, and should maintain the advantage in this area against a BYU special teams group that has been average. USU has returned three kicks for TDs this year, and has consistently given the Aggies solid field position. They will need to shore up the stupid mistakes they've been making in recent games, though, such as the bobbled punt catch last week.
Summary: Throw everything I just said out the window, this is rivalry week. No one has any idea what is going to happen, but whatever it is, it should be exciting. If these were just any two teams playing each other, I'd say USU has the slight advantage in a defensive battle due to special teams play, and comes out with the slim win, 24-21. Given the actual situation, I'll go with the gut instinct of my homerism and say USU pulls out a huge win riding the wings of a Chuckie reborn, finally claiming his first win against the Cougars in a 31-16 repeat of the game that brought him here.