By multiple measures Utah State has the hardest schedule in the Mountain West. Every week the Aggies will have to face a formidable opponent. If they are going to pass all expectations and dethrone Boise State these three are the biggest.
The Big 3
October 16th - vs. Boise State
Boise State has been the Aggies kryptonite for years. The last time Utah State beat the Broncos was back on November 1st, 1997. The last four meetings have seen USU walk away losers by an average of 27 points. There are three things, however, that should give Aggie fans reason for hope this season.
First, Chuckie Keeton has never squared off against Boise State. Secondly, the Broncos are replacing two critical offensive pieces at quarterback and running back. Last year Jay Ajayi beat down the aggies to the tune of 227 yards and five touchdowns. Thankfully both he and last years starting QB Grant Hendrick are no longer there. Lastly, the game is in Logan. The last time these two met in Logan Utah State, despite losing Chuckie in the game before, kept it close losing by just 11.
How Boise State Wins: Strait from Boise State contributor Chris Strickley:
The Broncos are able to use their short screen passes to perfection, chewing up 5-10 yards at a time. Being content with small ball and moving the offense methodically down the field, the Broncos win 42-30.
As long as Boise keeps the ball moving and wears down Utah State's defense the Aggies could be in for another long night.
How Utah State Wins: The Aggies defense has to show up and shut down the run game. If they are able to shut down the run they can force the game into the hands of an inexperienced QB. A healthy Chuckie Keeton will test the discipline of a very stout Bronco defense. For Utah State to win this has to become a defensive battle where chuckie Keeton is able to take advantage of a couple defensive breakdowns for big plays.
October 23rd - @ San Diego State
San Diego State should be the team to beat in the West Division. Traveling to San Diego the week after Boise State will not be an easy task. SDSU returns four starters on the offensive line to make Offensive Player of the Year candidate Donnel Pumphrey even more dangerous. While there are questions at the QB position a strong offensive line and run game will ease the burden of whoever wins the starting job.
SDSU returns seven to a very stingy defense that finished 13th nationally in scoring defense at 19.8 points per game. With three of these returning starters in the secondary Utah state will hope to establish a run game early against a relatively inexperienced front seven.
How San Diego State Wins: Replicate Boise State's 2014 performance against Utah State. Establish a strong ground game early with just enough from the QB to keep the aggressive Aggie defense honest. If the Aztecs can get an early lead and force the Aggies to become one dimensional on offense they will be able to grind out a defensive slugfest.
How Utah State Wins: Stopping the run is the key to a victory in San Diego. If the Aggies are able to stop the run and get ahead early it will place the pressure on a young Aztec quarterback. An aggressive defense will be able to take advantage of this by forcing mistakes and creating turnovers. If the defense is able to do that the Aggies will cruise to a comfortable victory.
November 23rd - vs. BYU
The battle for The Old Wagon Wheel. BYU fans will tell you they have dominated the Aggies for decades but the reality is over the last five seasons this has been a very evenly matched series. The average score of a game over that time has been Utah State 21.4 to 20 for BYU. BYU could come in a lot better than their record will show after a tough slate of road games against P5 teams. There is even a chance BYU will come in needing a win to become bowl eligible.
Additionally this game comes after Utah State has wrapped up its conference slate and, if the games above go their way, the Aggies will already have secured a spot in the Mountain West title game. It is the perfect storm for a let down game.
How BYU wins: Contain Chuckie Keeton. The reason BYU lost last year was the inability to get to the quarterback (1 sack) and stop the big. Chuckie will present a much more elusive threat this year than Darrell did last year. If BYU is able to keep Chuckie contained and stop the big plays from happening I think they have the ability to grind out a close game.
How Utah State Wins: Contain Taysom Hill. Taysom Hill was a dynamic runner last year and Utah State was able to hold him to just 32 yards on the ground before he left with an injury. If the Aggie defense is able to contain Hill and force Hill to throw the ball where accuracy has been an issue the Aggies should win comfortably.
The Aggies have the hardest schedule in the Mountain West which made it impossible to limit the list to just three. Here are the games that just missed the cut.
September 11th & 19th - @ Utah, @ Washington
While The Aggies have vastly improved over where they were just five years ago but they still have been unable to break through in big time games. A Painful reminder of how close the Aggies have been: Lost by four at Auburn in 2011, lost by two at Wisconsin (missed a game winning FG) in 2012, lost by three at USC in 2013. Utah State is looking for that signature win on the big stage.
These games will provide Utah State with two opportunities to gain big time wins. Both games are winnable games too. Utah is much improved from the last time the Aggies beat them (2012) but Utah's strength, running the football, matches with the strong Utah State defense. Washington is trying to replace four players who were drafted in the first 44 picks of the NFL draft. There could be some big holes for the Aggies to exploit when they travel to Seattle.
November 7th - @ New Mexico
Yes, New Mexico was 4-8 last year. Yes, they should still be scary. Utah State will be favored in this game but the Lobo's will be a much improved team this year. New Mexico's ground game allows them to be in any game they play. Last year they led Boise State at home* by as many as 14 and even held an eight point lead entering the fourth quarter. If the Lobos control the clock and manage long sustained drives then this game will come down to the wire. Utah State will need to get a quick lead and force to the Lobos to rely on the pass, something they have struggles with in the past.
Those are the Aggies toughest games. That's not to say games at Air Force and at Fresno State don't make me nervous. If the Aggies are able to conquer their toughest schedule in years it will earn them a shot at the biggest game on the biggest state Utah State has even seen.
*Originally the article credited New Mexico for almost beating BSU in Boise, ID. The game was in fact a home game for New Mexico played in Albuquerque, NM.