Logan • He doesn’t always acknowledge it, but he is aware of it.
Matt Wells knows the stakes going into his first season as Utah State football coach: the expectations entering the Mountain West Conference and the pressure to duplicate last year’s 11-2 season. He can’t escape it, but that’s OK — he feeds off it.
“We talk about it,” he said. “We understand the outside expectations, we understand the outside pressures. We also understand the internal pressures and internal expectations, and those always supersede anything from our fans or media or anybody else outside.”
If that’s the case, the Aggies’ own goals are astronomical. Their bar has never been set higher.
Some expect the Aggies to pick up where they left off, to keep rolling from the success they had with Chuckie Keeton at quarterback and with one of the nation’s best defenses. Some expect them to charge into the Mountain West with full force and challenge for the conference title.
Still others are waiting for Utah State to fall back into place as the “little brother” of in-state rivals Utah and BYU. It wasn’t long ago when the Aggies were in the basement of FBS football, when the program didn’t have a winning season for 15 years. The team is determined to keep the program pointed in the right direction. Really determined.
“It’s nice to say, ‘We’re not little brother anymore,’” Zach Vigil said. “We want to keep it that way.”
Even returning 15 starters on offense and defense, it’s on the Aggies to prove they can sustain their success.
There aren’t a lot of new faces at the key positions, but there are a lot of new faces in new roles. Wells quickly seized the top job after Gary Andersen’s departure in December and hired five new position coaches, including offensive coordinator Kevin McGiven and defensive coordinator Todd Orlando.
Since spring, the team has worked hard to blend in the new staff to work fluidly with an experienced group of players. The most notable returner is Keeton, who racked up nearly 4,000 yards of offense as a sophomore. But five starting offensive linemen return, as well as eight of 11 starters on defense.
Utah State is used to success at this point, going to back-to-back bowl games while recording an 18-8 record in the last two seasons. The team has not lost a conference game since October 2011.
A tough schedule will test that record — and the team’s resolve.
“I get kind of mad because sometimes I think we don’t get the respect we deserve,” tight end D.J. Tialavea said. “We know who we are. We know how great we can be up here. We’re trying to show people Utah State is a legit program. It’s for real.”
The offense is able to pick up where it left off last year, and Chuckie Keeton stays healthy and productive as ever. But the defense is the key to beating the likes of Utah, BYU and Boise State in a 10-win season and a berth in the Mountain West title game. The Aggies get a shot in the Las Vegas Bowl.
Injuries could cripple this team in the wrong places: Offensive line, receiver, safety and quarterback would be the worst places to get hit. Also, the Aggies could struggle early on and lose some momentum. If they can’t win on the road early at Utah, USC or San Jose, that could take some spring out of their step on the way to a five- or six-win season.
The Aggie defense has many of the same playmakers and leaders as last year and should be pretty stout. Offensively, almost everything relies on Keeton staying healthy and his receivers helping to open up the run game. Matt Wells and the new members of his staff will be graded early on in their execution under pressure and adversity, and they need to answer the call when the game is on the line.
3 players to watch
Chuckie Keeton, quarterback • After proving last season that he could carry the offense, Keeton will look to stay sharp. His arm and his legs make him a versatile threat that opens up a lot of options for the Aggies’ offense. He may not quite reach his stat peaks from last season against a tougher schedule, but he’s still the engine of this attack.
Kyler Fackrell, linebacker • After making a splashy debut as a freshman, Fackrell might have the highest ceiling of any Aggie. His speed and length give him versatility that many other linebackers lack. Even though he’ll be rushing the passer more this year, he can be dangerous in coverage: He picked off three passes in 2012.
Tyler Larsen, center • The most experienced lineman for Utah State is also its best. Larsen is a smooth operator under center and one of the top blockers. One of the Aggies’ biggest keys to success is keeping Keeton on his feet, and Larsen will head up the offensive line as it tries to accomplish that.
Travis Van Leeuwen/Travis Reynolds, receivers • Talk about pressure: The fan base still wants more assurance that the Aggies will be able to score at the same pace without its five top receivers from last season. Both Van Leeuwen and Reynolds have been solid with occasional flashes of brilliance in camp. They’ll need to demand respect for Utah State’s passing game, at least enough to create running room for Keeton and Joe Hill.
Utah State schedule
All times mountain
Thursday • at Utah, 6 p.m. (Fox Sports 1)
Sept. 7 • at Air Force, 1:30 p.m. (CBS Sports Network)
Sept. 14 • Weber State, 6 p.m. (ESPN3)
Sept. 21 • at USC (TBA)
Sept. 27 • at San Jose State, 7 p.m. (ESPN)
Oct. 4 • BYU, 6 p.m. (CBS Sports Network)
Oct. 12 • Boise State, 6 p.m. (CBS Sports Network)
Oct. 19 • at New Mexico, 7 p.m. (ROOT Sports)
Nov. 2 • Hawaii, 2 p.m. (CBS Sports Network)
Nov. 9 • at UNLV, TBA (ESPN Networks)
Nov. 23 • Colorado State, 1:30 p.m. (CBS Sports Network)
Nov. 30 • Wyoming, noon (ROOT Sports)