We have kind of been in the same situation over the years, trying to build a program and keep on fighting through some things. —Utah State coach Gary Anderson
No one at Utah State was kidding himself. The Aggies were far from smelling the roses, i.e., anticipating a Rose Bowl invitation.
But at least they should have been smelling French fries.
The Aggies took a big step in that direction by abusing New Mexico State 41-7 on Saturday, becoming bowl-eligible at the earliest date in school history. That opens the door to a possible return trip to the (Not Particularly) Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. They'll need momentum to make the postseason, but this much is certain: USU looks increasingly unlikely to fizzle in the drizzle, once winter approaches.
"Nothing yet," cautioned USU coach Gary Andersen. "We've got long ways to go, a lot of games to play."
Fair enough. Although a 6-2 record is impressive this far into the season, it's even more notable that the Aggies didn't pause on their way to eligibility. They did what they should have by trampling a bad team. Mugging 1-6 New Mexico State isn't a huge accomplishment, but clearly this year's USU is even more focused than the one that played in last December's bowl game. Check out Saturday's 31-0 lead for proof.
Good teams don't humor bad teams; they treat them like something that got lodged in the drain.
There was no better way and no better day to show how far USU football has come than Saturday, as the teams stared into the looking glass. Aggie vs. Aggie, one seemingly headed to new heights, the other wondering if the next day might be its last.
For Utah State, it was like viewing high school prom pictures and saying, "That was me?"
Not that the blue Aggies have things wrapped up. They might need to beat Louisiana Tech in Rushton, La., on Nov. 17 to ensure that happening. Still, it's hard to deny the buzz in Cache Valley. Look no farther than across the sidelines. The NMSU Aggies are a program in need of a life preserver. With the pending collapse of the WAC as a football conference, those Aggies will go independent next year. That might work for a program like BYU with a wide fan base, TV drawing power and its own network. But NMSU has none of those.
"It's obvious," said NMSU coach DeWayne Walker, "it's going to be a long season."
The red-clad Aggies and Idaho, another independence-bound program, plan to play one another twice next year, just to fill out their schedules.. Can games against the National Guard be far behind?
Thus Andersen, architect of USU's turnaround, found himself inadvertently sympathizing with the other Aggies this week.
"We have kind of been in the same situation over the years, trying to build a program and keep on fighting through some things," Andersen said.
In other words, not so long ago USU was wa-a-a-a-y down there.
As one Aggie team struggles on, the other continues to surge as it awaits entry into the Mountain West Conference. Enough so that the USU Aggies can even afford to smile. Andersen said that on the Friday before games, his team becomes "light hearted and squirrely" and added that it "drives some of us coaches crazy, but I like it."
Ah, levity, the spice of life.
Just don't try any gag lines when you're 1-6.
Although USU is bowl-eligible, the details remain hazy. For instance, the Potato Bowl is the only one with a WAC tie-in. But if USU doesn't win the conference, it could be at the mercy of other bowls, which are notoriously fickle. Still, the Military, Fight Hunger, Hawaii, New Orleans and New Mexico bowls could have trouble filling their spots, thus making an opening available.
The Aggies would rather not worry about that.
"Idaho is fine, but the greatest part just is being up there with my team," said quarterback Chuckie Keeton. "Hopefully we'll do a little more and get into a bowl game."
At least on Saturday, USU looked more than prepared to step into any of them. It had two 76-yard touchdown plays and a 53-yard field goal. It moved the other Aggies all over the field, rolling for 516 offensive yards.
The win was exactly what USU needed — a blowout against its polar opposite.
When you have places to go and things to do, sometimes it's a good idea to look far beyond yourself.