Do we want the results of last year to change? Absolutely, and I think there is a lot of resolve among the coaches and players. —Matt Wells
LOGAN — The day before fall camp on Friday, Utah State football coach Matt Wells was feeling the pulse. He was saying “there is excitement to this season” and predicting a “very, very competitive camp.”
Soon, though, he was back to the reality of a team that went 3-9 last season; a year that included just one conference win. Losing “stunk,” he said, and the final record was “embarrassing.”
Those are terms that easily could describe how it feels to get fired, too. But Wells knows the stakes. Even though Utah State could have been 6-6 or even 7-5 (his team lost four games by seven points or less) he’s taking no consolation.
“Do we want the results of last year to change? Absolutely, and I think there is a lot of resolve among the coaches and players,” he said. “When it comes down to it, the bottom line is winning close games.”
A year ago, optimism reigned. Romney Stadium had become Maverik Stadium, following renovations. The Aggies were coming off a 6-7 season, but had made it to a bowl game in 2015. More important, that year they made compost out of Boise State on an October night, winning 52-26.
But all the cheese in Cache Valley couldn’t keep them from their problems in 2016. They missed a bowl game for the first time since 2010. USU lost by seven to Air Force and Colorado State, two to New Mexico and one to Nevada. Winning those games would have put the Aggies 7-5 overall and 5-3 in the conference.
So naturally nobody on the team is seriously talking about championships this year. They’re talking about improvements. The Aggies return starting quarterback Kent Myers, who two years ago had a nice introductory campaign. But last year his passing efficiency plummeted, thanks to eight interceptions and just 10 touchdown passes. An honorable mention all-conference player in 2015, Myers is in the top 25 in career rushing and passing at USU. Meanwhile, senior cornerback Jalen Davis has started 36 games.
That wasn’t enough to impress the media that gathered for the Mountain West Conference preseason bull session last month. The Aggies drew the fewest votes of any team. They are projected to finish last, after a 1-7 conference run last year.
No Aggie player is on the preseason all-conference teams.
“Did our players see it? I guarantee you,” Wells said. “Are we dwelling on it? Absolutely not. Will it be some internal motivation? Possibly.”
For his part, Wells knows a terrible year could endanger his career. After winning 19 games in his first two seasons, his teams have won just nine the last two. Though his contract runs through 2019, a buyout is always possible, even at a cash-disadvantaged school like USU.
Wells is rated No. 23 on the website Coacheshotseat.com. He acknowledges there is pressure inside and out.
“I think honestly you have both. But I can promise you the external pressure doesn’t outweigh the internal pressure,” Wells says.
He goes on to say that even though the Aggies have been succeeding in the classroom, “winning is what I get judged on, and I understand that we’re in a competitive business.”
It won’t be easy to tell how good the Aggies are for several weeks. Their first five opponents are Wisconsin, Idaho State, Wake Forest, San Jose State and BYU. Talk about a roller coaster. The schedule actually favors him, in that the BYU, Colorado State, Wyoming and Boise State games are all in Logan.
So it’s a pivotal year for Wells. He has had two good years, one lukewarm one and one disaster. If his team gets back to bowling, he’ll be fine. If it misses postseason play, his future will be in doubt.
“I understand fully the ramifications,” Wells said.
Outside the football office, the weather was on the hazy side.
It will stay that way for awhile.