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Brad Rock: USU athletics can go home again

Published: Friday, May 17 2013 6:24 a.m. MDT

Utah State University athletic director Scott Barnes is thrilled the Aggies are in the MWC.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — It has been a long time — half a century, really — since Utah State athletics had a home like this.

Since it had a real place of its own.

After that, the Aggies were in the PCAA/Big West, but what did they have in common with Long Beach, Fullerton, Santa Barbara and Irvine? In football terms, those were glorified community colleges. Some didn’t even have football.

Later came a turn in the Sun Belt Conference, featuring glamour trips to Jonesboro, Murfreesboro and Monroe. If you don’t know where those towns are, well, neither did the Aggies.

The whole thing fit like buckle-up galoshes.

The WAC was OK, but its football programs started leaving when realignment commenced.

Nowadays, though, things are changing. July 1 the Aggies will join the Mountain West Conference, in what will be their best fit since the Skyline Conference in the 1950s and early ’60s. That league included Utah, BYU, New Mexico, Montana, Colorado, Denver, Colorado State and Wyoming.

Although the Cougars and Utes moved on in search of national acclaim — and continue to do so — the Aggies are happy where they are, with good reason. They’re scheduling games in places they know. Along with former WAC opponents San Jose State, Fresno State, Nevada, Boise State and Hawaii, there will be such logical inclusions as Colorado State, Wyoming, Air Force, New Mexico, San Diego State and UNLV.

Playing with the neighbors — what a concept.

“When you look at the changes across the college landscape, I don’t think any conference got it any more correct than the Mountain West, when it comes to like institutions,” USU athletics director Scott Barnes said. “Some of them have 115, 120-year histories.” (USU first played CSU in 1902; Wyoming in 1903.)

It’s a respectable conference in both football and basketball. Furthermore, it’s the most comfortable company USU has kept since the Eisenhower Administration. As Barnes describes it, “relative stability as it relates to conference alignment.”

It’s good to be back in the neighborhood.

“The Mountain West got it right,” Barnes said.

The MWC isn’t the country’s biggest conference, but USU is set to play seven football games this year on national sports networks. The school is pushing ahead on four building projects, including a strength and conditioning center, which will open in about a month. Additionally, there is a new basketball/volleyball facility, a remodeling of the old football weight room into locker rooms for women’s sports, and the installation of bleacher seats in the south end zone.

Three years ago, things didn’t look nearly this good. Alignment fever was sweeping the nation. BYU had looked into joining the WAC as a non-football member, but suddenly Fresno State and Nevada announced they were joining the MWC. With BYU going independent, the WAC was left vulnerable.

This didn’t entirely imperil Aggie athletics, but it did leave conference stability in question. Meanwhile, independence had already proven unworkable in Logan.

So USU leaped at the chance to join the MWC.

“Certainly, when we look in the mirror … we’re thankful and excited and can’t wait to have a chance to compete for championships on this new level and platform,” Barnes said.

The MWC is actually what some conferences wish they were, a league of philosophically and academically aligned, geographically connected universities. Best of all, they have a chance to develop true rivalries.

It’s not hard to imagine Colorado State, Air Force or Wyoming becoming both good friends and bitter enemies of the Aggies.

The bad news for USU is there will be fewer New Mexico States or Idahos on the schedule. It’s hard to envision USU annually beating Air Force, or Boise State, which has defeated the Aggies 10 consecutive times. Despite back-to-back bowl games, the Aggies won’t match last year’s 11-2 record for a long time. They are a combined 186-246-14 (.430) against this year’s opponents and only 174-245-14 (.415) if you discount FCS-level Weber State. But they’re better (127-151-8, .457) all-time against current Mountain West teams.

Still, it’s a big jump. Games will be tougher, size and speed more important. But they’ll be playing in places they know by spirit and by sight. That’s a good thing. Because as any spelunker, scout or jewel thief can attest, when you’re on an expedition, it never hurts to know the lay of the land.

Email: rock@desnews.com; Twitter: therockmonster; Facebook: therockmonster

Email: rock@desnews.com; Twitter: therockmonster; Facebook: therockmonster

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