SALT LAKE CITY — I've lived and worked in Utah for nearly 12 years now, and during that time Utah State has never defeated the University of Utah in football. The closest the Aggies have come was a four-point loss in 2001, the first football season I worked here in the Beehive State.
In the nine meetings between the two schools since I began covering the series, Utah's average margin of victory has been 26.6 points per game. This year — the 110th meeting in this rivalry game — things feel a little bit different. It might have everything to do with Gary Andersen, now in his fourth full season guiding the Aggies.
The moment that Andersen accepted the head coaching job at Utah State after the Utes' Sugar Bowl run of 2008, I knew that the culture and fortunes of the Aggies would be changing. Andersen's success as a defensive coordinator and recruiter at Utah was recognized nationally, both by the media and his peers.
I had no doubt that Andersen would change the mindset of the players in the program and USU fans; that's where he's always thrived. The key was going to be getting talent to come to Logan, something the previous two or three regimes had struggled to accomplish.
During his short time at the helm of the Aggie program, Andersen has coached six players who are currently in the NFL, plus a good number of current Utah State players who are on preseason watch lists.
So there is now talent to go with leadership in the program, which gives this week's game a different feel than most over the last two decades.
Adding fuel to the fire of this year's game is the chance that it could be the last time Utah pays a visit to Romney Stadium. Though nothing is set in stone, there's a good chance that if the game is to be played moving forward, it might only happen in Salt Lake City. I expect that things on Friday night in Cache Valley will be a tad rowdy around 6 p.m.
These two programs are intertwined with family and longtime friendships. Gary Andersen played and graduated from Utah in 1986. He was on staff as an assistant coach for 11 seasons and remains one of Kyle Whittingham's best friends in and out of the business.
But that's not where the connections stop. Three current members of the Utah staff (Chad Kauha'aha'a, Ilaisa Tuiaki and Robert Conley) were on Andersen's staff, while five members of the Aggie staff (Mike Sanford, Bill Busch, Kevin Clune, Spencer Toone and Kite Afeaki) have coached or played at Utah.
Then add to that Utes corners coach Sharrieff Shah's son Sharrieff is a freshman linebacker at Utah State. Between the two schools, they have 99 players from the state of Utah on their rosters. So it's pretty fair to say that these two programs know each other very well.
Despite the familiarity between the coaching staffs and the players on the field, the game ultimately comes down to talent. There is no doubt that the talent level in Logan has improved greatly in the last four seasons, but has it improved enough to beat a Pac-12 Utah team that has dominated the series and has big expectations for the season?
Maybe you've noticed and maybe you haven't, but throughout this column I've not once mentioned the word "rivalry" — and for good reason. A rivalry can't be one-sided and that's exactly what Utah and Utah State has been over its history, especially its recent history. My guess is Friday night in Logan, fans will see a much more competitive game — a game that will test the Utes much more than Northern Colorado did.
Ultimately, I think talent and history win out again for Utah, but this matchup between in-state schools — whether future games are played in Logan or not — may soon be a rivalry again thanks in large part to a Utah man, Gary Andersen.
Bill Riley is the co-host of the Bill and Hans Show weekdays from 2-6 p.m on ESPN 700 AM. You can follow Bill on Twitter @espn700bill.
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