College football 2013: With USU's revival, tug-of-war is on
In their own ends of the Seattle Seahawks' locker room, former Utah State football stars Bobby Wagner and Robert Turbin made the same declaration about the Aggies: "Best team in the state."
They're biased, but those boasts of last November were not entirely off base. Any notion of in-state parity was inconceivable as of only four years ago, when USU was being pounded by Utah and BYU in rivalries that seemingly had outgrown their usefulness.
Then came 2012, when the three games among Utah's Football Bowl Subdivision schools were decided either in overtime or by three points, with each team winning once. If not for Utah's being flagged for offensive pass interference in overtime at USU, BYU's field-goal attempt hitting the upright on the last play at Utah or USU barely missing a tying field goal in the fourth quarter at BYU, any of those outcomes may have been reversed.
USU's 27-20 victory in Logan broke a 12-game losing streak against Utah, and was viewed as a significant upset. So not since the mid-1990s could the three schools be considered anywhere close to even, going into a season.
Now, for the unthinkable: Led by junior quarterback Chuckie Keeton, USU hopes to beat both Utah and BYU for the first time since 1974.
Utah is regrouping after a 5-7 season, having missed a bowl game for the first time in 10 years. BYU has an entirely new offensive coaching staff. The Aggies, meanwhile, are riding the momentum of an 11-2 season Â even if that was in a weakened Western Athletic Conference, and they lost the school's most successful coach in nearly 40 years.
"There's an expectation of excellence here that wasn't here when I first got here," said USU safety Brian Suite, who arrived in 2010. "Before, it was, 'Let's do the best we can.' But now, we know where we stack up. We know that we can match up against anyone in the country."
Certainly, there's a distinction between current teams and overall programs. This snapshot of August 2013 elevates USU into the realm of Utah and BYU, but nobody's suggesting the Aggies have played their way up to that strata of college football permanently.
USU barely averaged 20,000 in home attendance during one of the best seasons in school history, accounting for about 80 percent of Romney Stadium's capacity in 2012. The program's facilities and recruiting efforts have improved measurably, making the Aggies believe they'll compete favorably upon arrival in the Mountain West. Yet they can only envy Utah's new $32 million complex, Pac-12 television money and drawing power at Rice-Eccles Stadium, as well as BYU's 64,000-seat stadium and ESPN contract.
Aggie football no longer is a joke, however. USU has gone from parody to relative parity in the state. The Aggies went a combined 0-19 against Utah and BYU from 1998-2009, losing by an average of 21.7 points. In five visits to Logan in this century, prior to last September, Utah outscored USU 212-33.
Even in 2009, when Gary Andersen's first USU team lost at Utah and BYU by identical scores (35-17), those performances were considered acceptable. Andersen beat BYU in 2010 and knocked off Utah last season before moving to Wisconsin and being replaced by offensive coordinator Matt Wells.
Asked what's behind USU's improvement, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said, "Chuckie Keeton. You can sum it up in one name, Chuckie Keeton. He's the difference-maker."
USU's defeat of BYU came the season before Keeton's arrival, but he helped the Aggies reach their first bowl game in 14 years and then delivered their first win over Utah in 15 years (the schools did not meet in 2010 or '11).
With five players taken by NFL teams in the past two drafts compared with seven in the previous 21 years the Aggies have raised their talent level, beyond Keeton. But he's the one player who gives USU a chance against Utah and BYU, opponents the Aggies have beaten a total of seven times in 30 seasons, covering 52 games.
That's a lot of history for USU to overcome in one year.
The 2013 meetings of Utah's three FBS schools:
Date Game Time
Thursday USU at Utah 6 p.m.
Sept. 21 Utah at BYU TBA
Oct. 4 BYU at USU 6 p.m.
The cream of Utah's three FBS programs:
WR - Cody Hoffman, BYU
WR - Kenneth Scott, Utah
TE - Jake Murphy, Utah
RB - Kelvin York, Utah
RB - Jamaal Williams, BYU
QB - Chuckie Keeton, USU
OL - Tyler Larsen, USU
OL - Jeremiah Poutasi, Utah
OL - Eric Shultz, USU
OL - Ryker Matthews, BYU
OL - Jeremiah Tofaeono, Utah
DL - Tenny Palepoi, Utah
DL - Eathyn Manumaleuna, BYU
DL - Trevor Reilly, Utah
LB - Kyle Van Noy, BYU
LB - Kyler Fackrell, USU
LB - Spencer Hadley, BYU
LB - Jake Doughty, USU
CB - Nevin Lawson, USU
CB - Justin Thomas, Utah
S - Eric Rowe, Utah
S - Daniel Sorensen, BYU
K - Nick Diaz, USU
P - Tom Hackett, Utah
RS - JD Falslev, BYU