The Aggies are less than a week away from a huge clash against the University of Tennessee. That gives us enough time to break down each of the possible scenarios facing Utah State in what I like to call the good, the bad and the most likely.
Utah State overcame long odds a year ago to have a successful season even with the losses of some very key players due to injury during the course of the season. The short-handed Aggies ended up making an appearance in the Mountain West Conference championship game before falling 24-17 to Fresno State. They bounced back to secure a 21-14 win over Northern Illinois in the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl and a 9-5 record for the year.
This time around, senior quarterback Chuckie Keeton and running back Joe Hill are back on the field and looking to pick up where they left off when each had their seasons end so abruptly. That should bode well for the people of Logan, Utah, and Aggie fans everywhere.
While they were hit hard by graduation on the offensive line, the Aggies have plenty of talent returning on the offensive side of the ball. While back-up quarterback Darell Garretson led the Aggies to a solid season, the success or failure of Utah State rests on Keeton's shoulders. Keeton was in the middle of a monster season last year when he tore his ACL in a game against the BYU Cougars. Before the injury, he completed 69.4 percent of his passes for 1,388 yards and 18 touchdowns to just two interceptions. He also registered 241 yards and a pair of scores on the ground as one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation. Playing alongside him in the backfield will be running back Hill. Hill is an impressive back with a substantial amount of potential. He isn't the only skill-position player with the ability to make plays, however. The Aggies return three of their best five receivers in Brandon Swindall, JoJo Natson and Ronald Butler. Natson isn't a big target, but he led the team with 59 receptions for 395 yards and two scores. While Swindall didn't have as many catches or yards as Natson, he did lead the team with six touchdowns receptions.
The defensive side of the ball also has its fair share of returning starters who made a big impact in 2013. The talent starts on the defensive line where B.J. Larsen and Jordan Nielsen are back. While neither has stats that will blow you away, they are both fantastic at controlling the line of scrimmage and opening up lanes for linebackers to make plays. That kind of pressure up front will leave plenty of space for Kyler Fackrell, and brothers Nick Vigil and Zach Vigil to hit everything that moves. All three are sure tacklers who can get into the backfield and create problems for opposing offenses.
With so much returning talent, the best-case scenario for the Aggies is a Heisman-caliber season from Keeton and a shot at an undefeated season. They do have three very tough road games against Tennessee, BYU and Boise State, but all three are winnable if Utah State can play mistake-free football. If the offense struggles to get it done on occasion, the Aggies can lean on its gifted front seven to carry the team to help bring wins.
While more than a handful of stars return to the field for Utah State, the Aggies were still hit very hard by graduation. Only one full-time starter on the offensive line is back in Kevin Whimpey. With two of their most important players on the mend, the line will have to gel quickly to make sure they can stay totally healthy. Also gone on offense are leading rusher Joey DeMartino (1,221 yards and 13 touchdowns), as well as the two leading receivers based on yards in Travis Reynolds (51 catches, 832 yards, four touchdowns) and Travis Van Leeuwen (52 catches, 661 yards, three touchdowns).
Even though there were significant losses on offense, the Aggies will take the biggest hit in the secondary. Starters Maurice Alexander, Nevin Lawson and Tay Glover-Wright are off to try to make their mark in the NFL. They will be nearly impossible to replace thanks to some wonderful production a year ago. There is also a big hole left in the line backing corp with the loss of 2013 leading tackler Jake Doughty. Doughty finished the season with 148 tackles, including 13 for loss.
With so many losses on both sides of the ball and Keeton coming back from a serious injury, the Aggies will be vulnerable in a handful of their games. The Mountain West Conference will be a tough place to play if the line can't give Keeton enough time to operate. The worst-case scenario is that Utah State will drop five of its 13 regular-season games, but still make it to a bowl game for the fourth year in a row.
The most likely
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Keeton is as talented a signal-caller that Utah State has had in a long time. He will make up for the inexperience on the offensive line by using his legs to get out of trouble. He will complete nearly 70 percent of his passes for more than 3,500 yards and 30 touchdowns to go along with plenty of production on the ground. Hill will return to form and be the next Utah State back to cross the 1,000-yard mark.
The front seven will get enough pressure to make sure that the corners won't be exposed very often. When they don't, Brian Suite and Devin Centers will be there to give enough safety help to limit the damage through the air. Fackrell, B.J. Larsen and Zach Vigil will all earn plenty of recognition because of stellar play, including all-MWC honors. The Aggies will find their way back to the 10-win plateau and earn a trip to another bowl game.