If the right teams lose between now and Jan. 1, BYU could start the New Year with another national championship.

That scenario, however, requires that the Cougars beat Utah State today at Cougar Stadium, starting at noon. That might not seem like much of a challenge, based on recent BYU-USU games, but this contest has the potential to be different.For one thing, Utah State is playing its best football of the Chuck Shelton era. BYU Coach LaVell Edwards says this is "the best Aggie team I've seen in probably 10 years."

The Aggies have won four games in a row, outscoring opponents by an average of 46-20 - the kind of scores BYU has rolled up against Western Athletic Conference foes lately.

Edwards even compared the Aggies to a WAC team. "Utah State is like Colorado State," he said. "Both teams have a good running game and are skilled in passing to set it up."

He didn't mention that BYU walked all over Colorado State, 52-9. And at this point, it might be unfair to compare the Aggies to the Rams: Utah State is better than CSU in at least one key area: quarterback.

When the Rams visited Cougar Stadium, they were supposed to have a genuine passing attack to complement a solid running game. CSU was billed as having two starting QBs, a passer in Kevin Verdugo and a runner in Mike Gimenez. Or maybe it was the other way around. No matter; BYU held the WAC's leading rusher, Brian Copeland, to 38 yards on 12 carries, while both quarterbacks, forced to pass more than usual, combined to throw five interceptions.

The problem that day was that CSU couldn't make the run enough of a threat to keep BYU's defense from mounting an all-out pass rush.

The Aggies, on the other hand, seem to have a legitimate quarterback in Ron Lopez. The junior's pass efficiency has been improving weekly, and is now at 119.54. He's completed 54 percent of his passes, with 13 TDs and nine interceptions. Since he became the starting quarterback, the Aggies are 5-2-1.

"I think he's been the catalyst that's brought their whole team together," Edwards said. "That added dimension of throwing the ball has made all the difference."

But more important to the Aggies' offensive hopes may be halfback Roger Grant, who has gained 1,319 yards this season while averaging 5.4 yards per carry. Grant has rushed for big yards in the Aggies' win streak, but against schools closer to BYU's caliber - Oregon and Missouri - the Aggies averaged less than 50 yards per game on the ground. Even Utah held USU's running game to 39 yards.

If Grant and the other runners can't pick up big yards, Lopez won't have much time to throw.

Defensively, the Aggies know that they have to put pressure on BYU quarterback Ty Detmer - physical pressure, in the form of a pass rush, and mental pressure, in the form of varied defenses. And they had better do both, because one without the other won't have much effect. A team can mix up its defensive schemes perfectly, but if Detmer has all day to throw he will find the open man. And a good rush won't help if Detmer is reading the defense like a first-grade primer.

Perhaps of more concern for BYU is the possibility of a letdown. Those who have watched BYU all season know the team did not play its best game last week against Utah, and in-state rivalry hoopla notwithstanding, it wouldn't be surprising to see them stumble some against the Aggies.

Edwards, though, said his team has practiced with intensity all week, and he doesn't expect any letdown.

Halfback Matt Bellini is the only Cougar expected to miss this game, Edwards said. Stacey Corley will replace Bellini as the starter, backed up by Scott Charlton.