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Doug Robinson: Utah State using a familiar formula to make waves

Published: Thursday, Aug. 14 2014 6:50 p.m. MDT

USU coach Matt Wells during Utah State University football team practice, Aug. 5, 2014, in Logan. (Tom Smart, Deseret News) USU coach Matt Wells during Utah State University football team practice, Aug. 5, 2014, in Logan. (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

Have you noticed? Utah State’s football team is getting a lot of love this summer in anticipation of the upcoming season.

Quarterback Chuckie Keeton was the subject of a profile on the Sports Illustrated website this week. In USA Today’s preseason Top 25, Utah State was mentioned in the “barely missed the cut” category. Linebacker Kyler Fackrell (39th) and Keeton (86th) were included on a list of the top 100 players in the country by the National Football Post; only one other instate player made the list: Utah receiver Dres Anderson (52nd). Keeton was the only instate player to be included on several other top-100 lists.

The media picked the Aggies to finish second in the Mountain West Conference — but they did receive 12 of the 33 first-place votes, despite the presence of Boise State.

USU quarterback Chuckie Keeton during Utah State University football team practice, Aug. 5, 2014, in Logan. (Tom Smart, Deseret News) USU quarterback Chuckie Keeton during Utah State University football team practice, Aug. 5, 2014, in Logan. (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

Athlon Sports included Utah State’s second-year coach Matt Wells on a list of college football’s “Top 12 Coaches on the Rise.” Writer Steven Lassan wrote, “Gary Andersen left behind plenty of talent in Logan, but Wells deserves a lot of credit for getting Utah State to a 9-5 mark last year.” After noting that Wells did it while playing half the season without Keeton, Lassan concludes, “All indications point to Wells being able to continue to build on Andersen’s success.”

How times have changed. The Aggies are college football’s new fair-haired boy, a former wallflower who is now one of the popular girls at the dance. Only a few years ago the Aggies were a doormat; now they are considered a team on the rise and ready to play the big boys. Meanwhile, their instate rivals aren’t faring so well. Utah is perceived as being in decline and BYU is floating around somewhere in independent limbo and unable to be taken seriously by some of the elite conferences.

USU running back Joe Hill during Utah State University football team practice, Aug. 5, 2014, in Logan. (Tom Smart, Deseret News) USU running back Joe Hill during Utah State University football team practice, Aug. 5, 2014, in Logan. (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

All of which is strangely ironic, because the Aggies are now doing what the Utes and Cougars used to do — building a national reputation by beating conference opponents. The Utes got starry-eyed and/or greedy and joined the Pac 12. Since then, they have gone from national powerhouse to putting their coach on the so-called hotseat. Life will never be the same, nor as fun. The Cougars turned to independence to broaden their reach and facilitate the school’s mission — but also because they couldn’t find a big-time conference that would have them. They have no conference championship for which to play and no margin for error if they want national respect or a big-time bowl berth.

In another ironic twist, the Aggies are beating many of the same teams that the Utes and Cougars used to beat regularly as conference opponents in the Western Athletic and Mountain West conferences. That is what propelled Utah and BYU to elite status. Piling up wins — any wins — is good in this business, where perception almost always trumps reality. Since Utah and BYU vacated those conferences, the Aggies have played in the WAC and, beginning last year, the MWC, and their fortunes have changed.

USU linebacker Kyler Fackrell during Utah State University football team practice, Aug. 5, 2014, in Logan. (Tom Smart, Deseret News) USU linebacker Kyler Fackrell during Utah State University football team practice, Aug. 5, 2014, in Logan. (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

USU was 7-6 in 2011 after winning their last five regular-season games, all against fellow WAC teams — Hawaii, San Jose State, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico State. They were 11-2 in 2012 after winning their last six regular-season games, all against WAC opponents — San Jose State, New Mexico State, Texas-San Antonio, Texas State, Louisiana Tech and Idaho. They were 9-5 last season after winning their last five regular-season games, all against MWC opponents — New Mexico, Hawaii, UNLV, Colorado State and Wyoming.

That is a remarkable accomplishment for the Aggies, especially when you know their history, which includes just two winning seasons in 30 years before the current three-year run. The Aggies wouldn’t have won those conference games a few years ago.

On the other hand, the perception of them as a burgeoning top-25 program is probably not reality. During the aforementioned three-year stretch, they lost to BYU three times and split a pair of games with Utah. They lost hard-fought games to Boise State, USC, Fresno State and Ohio. Of their 27 wins during that span, 17 were against WAC and MWC opponents, and they claimed three other wins against Southern Utah and Weber State (twice).

USU quarterback Chuckie Keeton during Utah State University football team practice, Aug. 5, 2014, in Logan. (Tom Smart, Deseret News) USU quarterback Chuckie Keeton during Utah State University football team practice, Aug. 5, 2014, in Logan. (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

Utah and BYU made a living beating those WAC and MWC teams years ago, during their glory years. Now USU is heading down the same path.

Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: drob@deseretnews.com

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