Utah State University might have a robust for the Aggies two-game winning streak.
But they also still have only six total wins over the past three seasons. And that fact, coupled with the loss of several impact players on offense, means Utah State's football team is back where it's accustomed to being last in the Western Athletic Conference preseason polls.
The Aggies were predicted by both the WAC coaches and the media covering the conference to finish ninth. The conference is holding its football preview meetings at the Salt Lake City Airport Hilton, and much as in recent years, Utah State is expected to struggle.
"It's just motivation for the football team and the coaching staff," USU coach Brent Guy said Wednesday morning after the polls were released. "I guess they see where we've been and see that we lost two NFL draft picks, and everybody thinks that we've got to be down."
Boise State, which got 25 first-place votes, was selected by the media as the favorite to win the conference crown, while Fresno State, with seven first-place votes, earned the top spot in the coaches poll. The Broncos were second in the coaches poll, and the Bulldogs were second in the media balloting.
A year ago, Utah State finished 2-10 but held leads in the final quarter of six games. Guy said he hopes those close losses, and the modest success of winning two games down the stretch, will translate into a few more wins.
Still, the last-place showing in the preseason polls carries a little bit of a punch to the ego.
"It's just an opinion," Guy said. "Everybody's entitled to an opinion. It's where we are in November that matters most."
Also announced at the meetings were the preseason selections for conference offensive and defensive players of the year.
Boise State running back Ian Johnson was tabbed as the top offensive player. The senior returns with 3,417 rushing yards and 46 touchdowns to his name but had an injury-plagued junior year when the Broncos finished 10-3. He is 12 rushing touchdowns shy of breaking the WAC record of 57 set by San Diego State's Marshall Faulk from 1991-93.
Hawaii linebacker Solomon Elimimian is the choice for defensive player of the year. The senior led the Warriors with 141 tackles last year.
BULLDOGS THINKING BIG: Boise State and Hawaii have seemingly had a stranglehold on the WAC championship trophy for the past few seasons. That might change this year, however, as Fresno State found itself on top of the coaches poll by a healthy margin over the Broncos.
"Our expectation levels are always high," Fresno State coach Pat Hill said, noting undefeated seasons are fast becoming the standard for success in the WAC. "We've had high demands before, like in 2001, we went 11-2 and didn't finish it."
FSU returns 15 starters, including eight on offense, and finished the season with nine wins in its last 11 games falling only to Hawaii and Boise State. This year, the Bulldogs could be the WAC team to break its way into the BCS party.
"Why not think big," Hill said. "Maybe I'll go down as a dreamer. But why not."
THE ENVY OF THE LEAGUE: Utah State's football team might not be the most feared squad in the conference, but the coaches are certainly expressing their admiration of the new athletics complex at the north end of USU's Romney Stadium.
As coaches gathered and expressed greetings at the WAC Football Preview, that one topic of conversation came up over and over when coaches chatted with Guy.
"It's incredible," Guy told Hill of his new digs. "I've got 20,000 square feet, just on the one level, that are pretty much devoted to the football team. It's going to make a big difference for us."
The new facility is scheduled to open before the first home game of the season, and Guy said there are third-level suites already leased as well as academic and medical facilities located on site to consolidate the team's game-day preparations.
TOP TO BOTTOM: Nobody questions the quality of play among the WAC's top tier of football teams. It's the bottom rungs of the ladder that have become a concern as the team tries to establish itself as the "second-most recognized conference in the West."
"We definitely need to get better at the bottom half of the conference," WAC commissioner Karl Benson said. "It has an effect on the teams in the top half in terms of BCS selection."
Benson said he is not among those who believe the gap between the Boise States of the conference and the Idahos and Utah States of the WAC is getting bigger.
"We're seeing improvement," Benson said. "We're seeing investment in their football programs. Our programs are going to grow as they join the WAC and compete against better teams."
ESPN DEAL NOT DONE YET: Benson said that contrary to reports made in some areas, the WAC and ESPN have not yet reached an agreement to extend their current contract which expires in 2010.
The exposure the WAC receives as a result of having football and basketball games on ESPN has proven invaluable, and the conference would like to wrap up an extension soon while also hoping to secure more revenues for the schools in the league.
One thing that will most likely stay a part of any future deal, Benson said, is a weekly Friday night game."We've given them some great programming," Benson said. "We are closing to becoming a Friday night franchise for ESPN ... it's an ideal window for the WAC."
WAC preseason polls
Team (First-place votes) Points
1. Fresno State (7) 63
2. Boise State (2) 57
3. Nevada 43
4. Hawaii 41
5. Louisiana Tech 33
5. San Jose State 33
7. New Mexico State 26
8. Idaho 15
1. Boise State (25) 383
2. Fresno State (20) 379
3. Nevada 296
4. Hawaii 243
5. Louisiana Tech 209
6. San Jose State 183
7. New Mexico State 167
8. Idaho 87
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