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Utah State football: Aggies cautiously optimistic after being picked to finish 2nd in MWC's Mountain Division

Published: Tuesday, July 7 2015 9:30 a.m. MDT

Fresno State's Josh Harper, left, straight-arms Colorado's Kenneth Crawley in the second quarter of an NCAA college football game in Fresno, Calif., Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012.  (Gary Kazanjian, ASSOCIATED PRESS) Fresno State's Josh Harper, left, straight-arms Colorado's Kenneth Crawley in the second quarter of an NCAA college football game in Fresno, Calif., Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012. (Gary Kazanjian, ASSOCIATED PRESS)

LAS VEGAS — Excited, humble, but most of all determined.

Utah State coach Matt Wells and players Chuckie Keeton and linebacker Zach Vigil took part in their first Mountain West Conference media day Monday with an aura of optimism and respect for their new surroundings.

The Aggies were greeted into their new conference with high expectations from the attending media members, who picked them to finish second in the Mountain Division — second to Boise State, which earned 40 of 41 possible first-place votes.

“It’s definitely a great feeling being in a new conference like the Mountain West. It’s a great honor that we’re going to work to live up to,” Vigil said. “We feel like we deserve to be here, but we haven’t done anything yet.”

Utah State has earned lofty expectations because of its recent body of work. The program is coming off its first bowl win since 1993, a 41-15 shellacking over Toledo in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.

Utah State Aggies linebacker Kyler Fackrell (52) runs back an interception as Utah State University defeatsToledo 41-15 as they play football in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl  Saturday, Dec. 15, 2012,in Boise, Idaho.
 (Tom Smart, Deseret News) Utah State Aggies linebacker Kyler Fackrell (52) runs back an interception as Utah State University defeatsToledo 41-15 as they play football in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl Saturday, Dec. 15, 2012,in Boise, Idaho. (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

The Aggies are determined to achieve even more.

“We’ve worked hard to be where we are,” Keeton said. “We’ve put in a lot of hard work and I think we’ve done a lot to change the perception of the program. We’ve been able to be competitive against some of the top programs in the country and competitive against both BYU and Utah. But that’s not enough.”

For Keeton, winning is what matters.

In recent years, the Aggies have taken teams such as Wisconsin, Auburn and BYU (twice in two years) to the brink before coming up just short. Moving forward, Keeton and his teammates are determined to change from being "just there" to "coming out on top."

“A loss is a loss and a win is a win at the end of the day,” Keeton said. “It doesn’t matter and no one cares how close you were. Winning is what matters and our goal now is to quit coming up just short and winning close games against tough opponents.”

Joe Southwick of the Boise State Broncos looks to pass against BYU during NCAA football in Boise, Thursday, Sept. 20, 2012.  (Ravell Call, Deseret News) Joe Southwick of the Boise State Broncos looks to pass against BYU during NCAA football in Boise, Thursday, Sept. 20, 2012. (Ravell Call, Deseret News)

There is no shortage of difficult opponents in what looks to be the most competitive schedule Utah State has faced in a long time. The Aggies will face both Utah and USC on the road, BYU at home and a conference schedule considerably more challenging than what they’ve had in recent years.

“We feel we’re ready for it and have made the steps necessary in the program to take on a schedule like this,” Wells said. “We’re not just happy to be here. We expect to be competitive every week, but we’re going to have our hands full every Saturday. We don’t feel there’s a week off for anyone in this conference and we’re going to approach it like that.”

Utah State’s conference schedule includes home games against Boise State, Hawaii, Wyoming and Colorado State and roads games versus New Mexico, Air Force, San Jose State and UNLV.

Utah State begins its debut season in the Mountain West conference as a team well-respected by conference opponents. (Brandon Gurney) Utah State begins its debut season in the Mountain West conference as a team well-respected by conference opponents. (Brandon Gurney)

Being competitive in their new conference is the focus, but players and coaches are determined to stay competitive in state. For decades the Aggies were viewed as more of an in-state afterthought to both Utah and BYU, but that’s changed in recent years.

“I know that BYU and Utah, or at least a lot of their fans, think of us as ‘little brother,’ and I don’t know why that is, but we’ll be ready for both of them and we’re definitely looking forward to both those games,” Vigil said. “It’s frustrating going to stores and seeing tons of Utah and BYU gear, but hardly anything or nothing for Utah State. We feel that’s changing though and it starts this year. We need to stay competitive in state and we feel we can do just that.”

The Aggies feature a dominating defense for 2013 and, of course, Chuckie Keeton as quarterback. (Brandon Gurney) The Aggies feature a dominating defense for 2013 and, of course, Chuckie Keeton as quarterback. (Brandon Gurney)

On paper the Aggies looked poised to repeat, if not surpass, last year’s success. Keeton returns with his entire offensive line intact, along with a dominant defense that returns almost everyone from last season.

“Defense wins championships and we feel we’re going to be very good defensively again this season,” Wells said. “The defense leads this team, but I also think we have a lot of potential offensively and it all starts with Chuckie Keeton. He’s very good, obviously, and I think he’s done the work necessary to be that much better. We’re excited for this season and excited for our opportunities in the Mountain West Conference.”

Email: bgurney@desnews.com; Twitter.com/BrandonCGurney

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