The Utah State football team had a splashy first season in the Mountain West, winning eight games and playing for the conference title. If the Aggies want to repeat or improve on their rookie performance, it'll be a tough road.
Utah State announced its 2014 13-game football schedule on Wednesday afternoon, setting up a mix of non-conference foes and tough road games that should make the season challenging, to say the least.
The highlights of the non-conference schedule are visits to Tennessee (Aug. 30), Arkansas State (Sept. 27) and BYU (Oct. 3). Utah State will host games against Idaho State (Sept. 6) and Wake Forest (Sept. 13) as well.
Because Utah State is traveling to Hawaii this year, an NCAA rules provision allows the Aggies to schedule an extra home game to make up revenue. The Demon Deacons will be the first BCS auto-bid conference school - with the exception of Utah - to play a home game at Romney Stadium since Oregon in 2001. Wake Forest and Utah State have never played a football game, and an ACC team has never visited Logan.
Athletic director Scott Barnes said in a school release that the Aggies had been searching for a non-conference opponent for a year and a half since both joining the Mountain West and losing a home game with Utah had left the schedule with a hole.
"After 18 months of searching we are excited to be able to fill one of the open slots with an ACC opponent," Barnes said. "I know our fans will enjoy seeing that level of competition at home next year. It will be a fun challenge that our student-athletes will look forward to as well."
Seeing foes from the SEC and the ACC is rare enough for Utah State, which will play one from each next year. Road games against Arkansas State and BYU, both bowl teams this year, will provide difficult environments.
That adds on to a Mountain West schedule that Utah State has known for some time. As home-friendly as the Aggies' schedule was in 2013, the inverse will be true in 2014. Road games against bowl-bound opponents Boise State and Colorado State could be fierce, and Utah State will also have to travel to notoriously tough locales for games against Wyoming and Hawaii.
Conference home games against Air Force, New Mexico, San Jose State and UNLV round out a schedule with very few "gimme" games. Conference dates will be announced later.
The teams that were bowl-eligible this year speak for themselves. Although teams such as Tennessee, Wake Forest, Wyoming, Air Force and Hawaii didn't fare well this year, any of them could have a bounce-back effort next year with either new coaches or coaches who are just digging into their tenures.
"Our 2014 schedule will be extremely challenging for our players and coaches as we open our season at Tennessee and play four road games against bowl teams from a year ago" coach Matt Wells said in the release.
Any program that wants to prove it is a consistent winner has to put its money where its mouth is. 2014 could well be that year for Utah State. If the Aggies don't meet the challenge, they could come back to earth.
Kyle Goonkgoon@sltrib.comTwitter: @kylegoon