LOGAN — This is a bold, glorious new era in the history of Utah State University's football program.
The Aggies are no longer a distant third in the Beehive State's pecking order. They are steadily closing the gap on their in-state big brothers to the south, BYU and the University of Utah, and are riding a run of success that Cache Valley hasn't seen in four decades.
Entering the 2014 campaign, Utah State has posted three consecutive winning seasons. Sure, that'd be a "big deal, so what?" accomplishment in Provo, where the Cougars' losing seasons under former coach Gary Crowton were the exception, not the rule, in an amazing 40-year run that began with LaVell Edwards and, following that hiccup with Crowton, has continued through the Bronco Mendenhall era.
The same was true at Utah, for the most part, since the early 1990s, beginning with the program-turning hire of Ron McBride and carrying on through Urban Meyer and Kyle Whittingham — until the last couple of years, at least.
But at Utah State, winning seasons haven't been taken for granted since the early 1970s, when head coaches Chuck Mills and Phil Krueger combined for five consecutive above-.500 campaigns from 1971-75. Bruce Snyder then came on the scene and put together three more from 1978-80, followed by a .500 season in 1981.
Then the Aggies' once-proud program fell on tough times, and winning seasons seldom came along for a span of 30 years — until 2011. That's when the Aggies broke through with a 7-6 mark, and followed it with an illustrious 11-2 record in 2012.
That was good enough to get then-USU head coach Gary Andersen the high-paying gig at high-profile Wisconsin, and his successor, Matt Wells, followed up with a solid 9-5 slate last season.
That's three straight winning seasons in what was once the Land of the Lost, and now the Aggies are poised to make it four straight — which would be the first time that's happened up here since that distant run of five in a row in the mid-1970s.
Indeed, the Aggies are back, standing tall and proud on the college football landscape of, not just Utah, but the entire country.
"Yes, we sense that," Wells said of the USU program's resurgence and growing reputation. "We are stringing together some good seasons up here, and we're not a one-year flash in the pan program.
"It’s not about one player, it’s not about one person, and it’s not about one coach. It’s about our program and our culture, all of us working and playing together, and it continues to keep getting passed down from one group of kids to the next.
"Our kids expect to win, they train to win, and they do not accept losing," Wells said. "They’re not perfect, but that’s the culture we’re building here — we expect to win every time we walk out on the field, and that’s the type of attitude that’s contagious to me, and one that players and coaches want to be a part of it."
The Aggies' program has taken such giant strides forward that, when they open their season on Aug. 31 at Tennessee, they are actually given a solid shot at possibly knocking off the Volunteers of the almighty Southeastern Conference.
That's something that even the most ardent Aggie fan could've never imaged a few years ago. And it's a shimmering reflection of just how far this program has progressed over the past few seasons.
In recent years, though, they've suffered tough, heartbreaking losses against other big-name opponents like Auburn, Wisconsin and USC.
Wells is hoping they're learned from those disappointing experiences.
"This is a culture which was created by Gary Andersen, and hopefully we’ll be able to carry that on," Wells said. "Our kids don’t flinch; our kids expect to win. We’ve gotten to that fourth quarter the last three or four years and couldn’t quite seal the deal. By no means are those moral victories, but we came out of those games with added confidence in knowing that we can play with those teams. Now we just need to find a way to win those games."
What's more, with high-profile players like Heisman Trophy-candidate quarterback Chuckie Keeton, and the current Seattle Seahawks' tandem of linebacker Bobby Wagner and running back Robert Turbin before that, it appears that Utah State is now able to land some blue-chip, big-time playmakers in what was, for many years, almost a forgotten program in this state.
"Yes, our success has impacted our recruiting, it really has," Wells said. "It doesn’t sign a kid for you, and it doesn’t guarantee that you’re going to get them, but it allows you to be in the conversation and to get in the door now. And it allows us to go after a little better recruit perhaps than we could in the past as far as competing with other programs and building interest in our program.
"But we want to stay true to our roots, continue to find guys that fit us, and fit the Aggie way. We want kids who are good in the community and have high character and values, as well as talent. So while I am excited about the positive impact this has had on our recruiting, we’re going to continue to recruit the right way and recruit the right kids that fit Logan, Utah, fit our program and fit our culture. We’re going to continue to develop kids in our program and continue to pass down how we do it to the new kids, so they can learn how to be followers and learn the Aggie way as well."
And Aggie fans have to like what they're seeing from that Big Blue team in Logan these days.
Consider this: Utah State has won nine or more games in each of the last two seasons, including back-to-back bowl victories for the first time in school history. Pretty impressive, right?
Well, then consider that the Aggies won a TOTAL of just nine games from 2005-08, a dreadful four-year span that is best forgotten.
Having Keeton, who missed the last half of last season after suffering a torn ACL against BYU, returning to ignite their offense this season should certainly help that winning trend continue. And he has looked sharp in fall camp, Wells says.
"He looks great. The knee looks good, and he’s been very dynamic in camp," Wells said. "His passing has been extremely accurate, and (the injury) hasn’t set him back any. He’s still very explosive, very accurate — just the way you’d expect Chuckie to be."17 comments on this story
And if they can keep him healthy, that certainly bodes well for Utah State's chances this season.
"It’s the most exciting, best time ever to be an Aggie," Wells said.
And it definitely seems like the man knows what he's talking about.