LOGAN — Once is a fluke, twice is a trend, so the saying goes.
Making a bowl game for the first time since 1997 was a nice accomplishment for the Utah State football team, but the Aggies are determined to make postseason appearances the rule, not the exception.
"As a program we've come a long way," senior wide receiver Matt Austin said. "I can't even tell you how much we've grown as a team since I've been here."
At first blush it seems the Aggies will be rebuilding rather than reloading. Last year's stars Bobby Wagner, Robert Turbin and Michael Smith have moved on to the play-for-pay circuit. That, coupled with the fact the Aggies have just 16 returning seniors — among the fewest of all the teams in the FBS — and one might conclude a difficult season for the Aggies is on the horizon.
But despite the youth, there is still plenty of talent returning. On offense, quarterbacks Chuckie Keeton and Adam Kennedy both proved themselves capable under center in 2011 and are among the eight returning starters. Keeton looks likely to get the nod on opening day against Southern Utah and will have a full complement of returning offensive weapons, including running back Kerwynn Williams, wide receivers Matt Austin and Chuck Jacobs, and tight ends D.J. Tialevea and Kellen Bartlett.
On defense the Aggies return six starters, but have looked bigger, faster and stronger than last year's unit in camp. Al Lapuaho, Bojay Filimoeatu and Tavaris McMillian will anchor the defense from the front seven while safety McKade Brady and cornerbacks Nevin Lawson and Jumanne Robertson will return to the secondary.
If offseason work is any indication, the Aggies will not be satisfied just making a bowl game again this season. The team worked hard in the weight room and came into camp in shape.
"When kids have had the opportunity to reach a goal it validates all the hard work that we do," said Utah State coach Gary Andersen. "From that standpoint it's helped them understand the grind. On the flipside of that, our kids learned last year how fragile wins are and how fragile losses are."
With the memories of those fragile finishes in 2011 firmly etched in their memories, the Aggies better understand the importance of closing out games strong. A whopping 11 of Utah State's 13 games were decided by one touchdown or less and in every one of those games the outcome was in doubt until the final minute. A couple bounces and the Aggies could have just as easily finished 13-0 or 2-10.
This year's schedule bodes well for another winning season. The nonconference slate features three in-state games against Southern Utah and Utah at home and BYU on the road. Other games of note include games against future Mountain West Conference foes UNLV (in Logan) and at Colorado State, and a road trip to face No. 12 Wisconsin.
In conference, the Aggies are one of the favorites to win the league title in a watered-down final year of WAC football. Defending champion Louisiana Tech is back, but last year's third-, fourth- and fifth-place finishers — Nevada, Fresno State and Hawaii — have already completed their moves to the Mountain West.
The 2011 team set the precedent that winning was not just a dream in Logan, but an expectation. Now this year the Aggies want to prove that winning football in Logan is the trend and propel Utah State into the postseason in back-to-back years for the first time since 1960-1961.