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1. Now what?
Don't pretend like you know what's going to happen next. You don't. Neither do I.
For both Utah State and San Jose State, fortunes have changed dramatically in recent years. Before Gary Andersen, Utah State was basically nonexistent on the football landscape. The Aggies had gone to bowls in 1993 and 1997, sure, and they had certainly made some noise 50 years earlier under eventual Stanford head coach John Ralston (they finished 9-1-1 and 10th in the AP polls in 1961). But they also didn't experience a winning season between 1996 and 2011, and they hadn't ever been ranked since Ralston left for Palo Alto.
In 2012, not only did Utah State finish 16th in the polls and win 11 games (more than former head coach Brent Guy won in four seasons from 2005-08), but the program looked like it belonged, like it had always belonged. With a steady quarterback, an explosive running game, and the best mid-major defense in the country -- at ninth overall in Def. F/+, the Aggies ranked ahead of BYU, Rutgers, TCU, and Notre Dame -- the Aggies had the look and feel of a great team and came within six points of finishing undefeated.
But that was 2012. In 2013, the vast majority of last year's playmakers return, but the makeup on the sideline (and in the booth) is totally different. Gary Andersen, who inherited a team that ranked 105th in F/+ in 2008 and improved from 100th, to 66th, to 17th in his final three seasons, is now the head coach at Wisconsin. Magnificent defensive coordinator Dave Aranda followed Andersen to Madison. Former offensive coordinator Matt Wells, a USU grad, takes over as head coach, and Kevin McGiven (former Montana State offensive coordinator) and Todd Orlando (former UConn and FIU defensive coordinator) are his top assistants.
This could work out swimmingly, of course, but at this point we have no idea. What we do know, however, is that the back half of USU's schedule is filled with enough easy games that, even if Wells is not able to maintain last year's pace, the Aggies should be successful enough to attend a third straight bowl for the first time.
2012 Schedule & Results
|Record: 11-2 | Adj. Record: 13-0 | Final F/+ Rk: 17|
|Date||Opponent||Score||W-L||Adj. Score||Adj. W-L|
|30-Aug||Southern Utah||34-3||W||36.8 - 11.9||W|
|7-Sep||Utah||27-20||W||29.1 - 18.5||W|
|15-Sep||at Wisconsin||14-16||L||24.8 - 12.5||W|
|22-Sep||at Colorado State||31-19||W||34.0 - 22.2||W|
|29-Sep||UNLV||35-13||W||35.3 - 20.3||W|
|5-Oct||at BYU||3-6||L||24.5 - 19.5||W|
|13-Oct||at San Jose State||49-27||W||51.6 - 22.6||W|
|20-Oct||New Mexico State||41-7||W||36.2 - 24.9||W|
|27-Oct||at UTSA||48-17||W||34.0 - 17.4||W|
|3-Nov||Texas State||38-7||W||36.8 - 11.8||W|
|17-Nov||at Louisiana Tech||48-41||W||38.4 - 26.1||W|
|24-Nov||Idaho||45-9||W||17.7 - 12.9||W|
|15-Dec||vs. Toledo||41-15||W||40.1 - 14.0||W|
|Points Per Game||34.9||26||15.4||7|
|Adj. Points Per Game||33.8||30||18.0||6|
2. From very good to great
For the first half of the season, Utah State looked, basically, like your typical mid-major upstart. The Aggies took out Utah in what seemed like a more impressive win at the time (as it turned out, Utah wasn't very good), then missed a late field goal that would have beaten eventual Big Ten champion Wisconsin. A competitive win over Colorado State and a tight, no-offense loss to BYU suggested the Aggies were a Top 40 team, but perhaps nothing too much more than that.
Starting with the San Jose State game, however, USU found another gear.
Adj. Points Per Game (first 6 games): Utah State 30.8, Opponent 17.5 (plus-13.3)
Adj. Points Per Game (last 7 games): Utah State 36.4, Opponent 18.5 (plus-17.9)
The defense was tremendous from start to finish, but the offense found its rhythm after struggling so much against BYU. The Aggies gained 485 yards against a pretty good San Jose State defense, then improved their yardage total for another four games in a row: 516 versus New Mexico State, 522 versus UTSA, 593 versus Texas State, and 646 versus Louisiana Tech. By late-November, this was one of the best teams in the country at any level. A whipping of Toledo in the Idaho Potato Bowl just sealed the deal.
|Q1 Rk||45||1st Down Rk||49|
|Q2 Rk||27||2nd Down Rk||33|
|Q3 Rk||49||3rd Down Rk||17|
Note: players in bold below are 2013 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Chuckie Keeton||6'2, 200||Jr.||** (5.3)||275||407||3,373||67.6%||27||9||17||4.0%||7.7|
|Craig Harrison||6'2, 208||Jr.||NR||8||9||63||88.9%||0||0||1||10.0%||5.5|
|Jeff Manning||6'4, 200||RSFr.||** (5.2)|
|Darrell Garretson||6'0, 190||Fr.||*** (5.5)|
3. Seriously, how did Chuckie Keeton get out of Texas?
Chuckie Keeton was a successful quarterback at Houston's Cypress Creek high school, but despite decent measurables (6-foot-2, 185 pounds) and lovely stats (961 rushing yards, 2,320 passing yards), he received no major offers, eventually choosing Utah State over Air Force, Memphis, Nevada and Rice. He was given a low two-star rating by Rivals.com. But while Texas quarterbacks with better ratings and bigger offers were either redshirting last year or, in David Ash's case, getting thrown into the fire in Austin, Keeton was completing 61 percent of his passes, avoiding interceptions and rushing for nearly 400 yards for a rock solid offense in Logan, Utah.
In 2012, Utah State's overall offensive ratings sank a bit, mostly because of a couple of games in the first half of the season, but it's hard to pin that on Keeton. The then-sophomore improved his completion percentage from 61 to 68, lowered his sack rate from 5.4 to 4.0, improved his yards-per-attempt from 6.1 to 7.7, and improved his yards-per-carry from 6.3 to 6.5. He struggled against the two best defenses he faced (Wisconsin, BYU), but even in those games he struggled in a "playing it safe" kind of way: 40-for-72 passing for 383 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions. He is, for the most part, a low-risk quarterback, but if you've got Keeton's legs, you can get away with that.
And when you're sharing the backfield with an outright stud, that's even better.
|Chuckie Keeton||QB||6'2, 200||Jr.||** (5.3)||112||724||6.5||6.4||8||+17.8|
|Joe Hill||RB||5'11, 185||Jr.||** (5.2)||44||271||6.2||5.8||7||+6.8|
|Kelvin Lee||RB||5'10, 183||So.||** (5.3)||29||130||4.5||3.4||0||-3.1|
|Robert Marshall||RB||6'0, 223||Sr.||** (5.4)||17||74||4.4||2.6||0||-1.1|
|Devonta Glover-Wright||CB||6'0, 170||Sr.||*** (5.5)||12||66||5.5||3.2||0||-0.5|
|Joey DeMartino||RB||5'11, 210||Sr.||NR|
|Rashad Hall||RB||6'1, 205||Jr.||** (5.2)|
|Karris Johnson||RB||5'11, 205||Fr.||** (5.4)|
4. System vs. Star
It's easy to look at USU's rushing stats from the last couple of seasons and assume that the Aggies had something of a plug-and-play run game. In 2011, Robert Turbin ran for 1,527 yards (6.1 per carry) and scored 19 touchdowns while backups Michael Smith and Kerwynn Williams combined for another 1,397 (7.1 per carry). In 2012, Williams took over and produced numbers nearly identical to Turbin's (1,512 yards, 6.9 per carry, 15 touchdowns) with solid backup play from Joe Hill and Kelvin Lee (401 yards, 5.5 per carry). With Matt Wells taking over as head coach, one could reasonably assume that, with Williams gone, Hill (or whoever) will assume the No. 1 spot and rush for about 1,500 yards. And maybe that ends up being a correct assumption.
But let's not downplay just how explosive Williams was in 2012. With a faulty line ahead of him -- USU's Adj. Line yards ranking sank from 20th in 2011 to 87th in 2012 following the loss of two two-year starters and a three-year starter up front -- Williams didn't get a high percentage of chances to break loose into the secondary. But when he did, he went all the way. Of the 52 FBS players with at least 200 carries in 2012, Williams had the best per-carry Highlight Yardage average, and it wasn't even close.
Highlight Yards Per Carry (running backs with at least 200 carries)
1. Kerwynn Williams (10.0)
2. Ka'Deem Carey, Arizona (7.1)
3. Venric Mark, Northwestern (6.5)
4. Todd Gurley, Georgia (6.5)
5. Zac Stacy, Vanderbilt (6.5)
6. Johnathan Franklin, UCLA (6.4)
7. D.J. Harper, Boise State (6.2)
8. Adam Muema, San Diego State (6.1)
9. Kasey Carrier, New Mexico (5.9)
10. Kendial Lawrence, Missouri (5.8)
With better blocking, Williams could have approached 2,000 yards. Hill certainly showed some solid explosiveness himself, but he didn't show that. The line should improve a bit, but with a new receiving corps (and the issues that might present to the passing game), it might be difficult to approach the same rushing totals from the running back position.
|Travis Reynolds||WR-Z||5'11, 180||Sr.||** (5.2)||33||25||244||75.8%||7.4||8.3%||57.6%||7.3||32.7|
|Bruce Natson||WR-T||5'7, 151||So.||** (5.4)||20||17||132||85.0%||6.6||5.0%||70.0%||6.7||17.7|
|Travis Van Leeuwen||WR-X||6'3, 195||Sr||** (5.2)||17||12||143||70.6%||8.4||4.3%||70.6%||8.2||19.2|
|Joe Hill||RB||5'11, 185||Jr.||** (5.2)||13||9||181||69.2%||13.9||3.3%||53.8%||14.0||24.2|
|D.J. Tialavea||TE||6'4, 266||Sr.||** (4.9)||9||6||31||66.7%||3.4||2.3%||77.8%||3.3||4.2|
|Robert Marshall||RB||6'0, 223||Sr.||** (5.4)||5||4||34||80.0%||6.8||1.3%||60.0%||6.8||4.6|
|Brandon Swindall||WR-Z||6'4, 194||So.||*** (5.5)||3||3||19||100.0%||6.3||0.8%||33.3%||5.0||2.5|
|Jordan Jenkins||WR-T||5'10, 199||Jr.||NR|
|Ronald Butler||WR||6'0, 190||Jr.||** (5.4)|
|Ryan Watson||WR||6'0, 180||Jr.||** (5.4)|
|Tyler Fox||WR||5'11, 160||Fr.||** (5.4)|
Meet your new receiving corps, Chuckie Keeton. Keeton's top three targets from 2012 combined to average an explosive 10.1 yards per target last season, but all three are gone, as are No. 4 and No. 5. The top three returnees combined for just 7.4 yards per target, albeit while combining for about five targets per game in complementary roles. Between the lost players and the three new junior college transfers coming in, Keeton is tasked with building a rapport from scratch with his receivers.
Maybe that will work out just fine, but that's pretty scary, especially considering he won't be able to lean on Williams (who, as you'll notice, was also pretty incredible in the pass-catching department).
|Tyler Larsen||C||6'4, 312||Sr.||** (4.9)||38 career starts; 2012 1st All-WAC|
|Eric Schultz||RT||6'4, 308||Sr.||NR||32 career starts; 2012 1st All-WAC|
|Jamie Markosian||LG||6'2, 302||Sr.||NR||15 career starts; 2012 2nd All-WAC|
|Oscar Molina-Sanchez||LT||27 career starts|
|Kyle Whimpey||RG||6'6, 310||Sr.||NR||13 career starts|
|Kevin Whimpey||LT||6'5, 300||Jr.||NR||12 career starts|
|Bryce Walker||LG||6'8, 310||Jr.||** (5.4)|
|Joe Summers||C||6'2, 307||Jr.||NR|
|Logan Molohifo'ou||LT||6'6, 310||So.||NR|
|Taani Fisilau||LG||6'2, 296||So.||*** (5.6)|
|Sini Tauauve'a||RG||6'2, 331||Sr.||NR|
|Jake Simonich||RT||6'5, 278||RSFr.||** (5.4)|
|Andrew Chen||OL||6'3, 260||Fr.||** (5.4)|
|Brandon Taukeiaho||OL||6'4, 340||Fr.||** (5.2)|
6. More help from the line
Utah State's line held up well against blitzes and created a decent amount of opportunities for Williams overall. But it struggled mightily in short-yardage situations, allowed linemen into the backfield at a pretty high rate in the run game, and, generally speaking, regressed considerably from 2011. That the Aggies claimed three spots on the first- and second-team all-WAC list tells you a lot about the WAC, I guess.
This time around, all five starters return, so one should expect improvement to some degree. But while Gary Andersen proved he could win without a load of stud recruits, he could potentially use a little bit more star power on the line. Four of the five returning starters, and seven of the top 10 returnees overall, weren't even in the Rivals.com database. Experience will help, but the ceiling might not be very high here.
|Q1 Rk||3||1st Down Rk||7|
|Q2 Rk||24||2nd Down Rk||33|
|Q3 Rk||48||3rd Down Rk||21|
7. Can the defense hold on?
The USU run game was all-or-nothing, and the offense didn't really pick up the pace until midway through the season, but the defense was ridiculous from the start of the 2012 season. The Aggies showed hints of potential, improving from 102nd to 72nd in Def. F/+ in 2011, but they hadn't hinted at this. A solid run defense (led by an outstanding set of linebackers) combined with a ridiculous pass defense on a unit that really had no weaknesses. The Aggies were No. 3 in the country in the first quarter and No. 11 in the fourth; they were capable of putting you behind schedule without risking big plays.
And now they're in the hands of a completely different head coach and defensive coordinator. Quite a few of the stars return, but how much of the Aggies' success was due to talent, and how much was due to coaching?
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Jordan Nielsen||DE||6'5, 260||So.||NR||13||24.0||3.2%||6.5||5||0||1||0||0|
|Connor Williams||DE||6'3, 278||Sr.||NR||13||23.5||3.1%||7||6||0||0||1||0|
|A.J. Pataiali'i||NG||6'3, 307||Sr.||NR||13||15.0||2.0%||2.5||1||0||1||0||1|
|B.J. Larsen||DE||6'5, 271||Jr.||NR||13||14.0||1.8%||5||4||1||1||0||0|
|Paul Piukala||DE||6'5, 275||Sr.||*** (5.5)||11||8.0||1.1%||1||0||0||1||0||0|
|Travis Seefeldt||NG||6'2, 310||So.||** (5.4)||13||6.0||0.8%||0||0||0||0||0||1|
|Elvis Kamana-Matagi||NG||6'2, 298||Jr.||** (5.2)||12||1.0||0.1%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Ricky Ali'ifua||NG||6'3, 275||Fr.||** (5.2)|
8. Aggression looks good on you
Like the offensive line, the defensive front had little in the way of recruiting prowess. But while that showed a bit in terms of run support -- opponents were able to convert on short-yardage situations pretty easily, and the Aggies did not make that many plays in the backfield against the run -- the Aggie line more than did its job in the pass rush department. Four different linemen had at least three sacks, and five non-linemen had at least two. Due in part to the pressure the line was able to generate, USU was able to blitz and attack from anywhere, confusing offenses and forcing a ton of mistakes.
This year, of the eight players with at least two sacks last year, six return, including a dynamic trio of ends in Jordan Nielsen, Connor Williams, and B.J. Larsen. We'll see if the Aggies can do anything to shore up the run defense, but the pass rush should be as good as ever. And if there's one thing Todd Orlando proved at FIU, it's that he will be quite aggressive if he gets the opportunity.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Jake Doughty||ILB||6'0, 230||Sr.||NR||13||72.5||9.6%||3.5||1||1||4||0||1|
|Zach Vigil||ILB||6'2, 231||Jr.||NR||13||69.5||9.2%||9.5||5.5||0||1||1||0|
|Kyler Fackrell||OLB||6'5, 245||So.||NR||13||57.5||7.6%||8||3||3||3||1||1|
|Tavaris McMillian||ILB||6'2, 235||Jr.||** (5.2)||13||29.0||3.8%||5||2||0||2||0||0|
|Michael Okonkwo||OLB||6'1, 219||So.||NR||11||4.0||0.5%||1||1||0||0||0||0|
|Terrell Thompson||OLB||6'1, 220||Sr.||** (5.2)||8||3.5||0.5%||0.5||0.5||0||1||0||0|
|La'Bradford Harold||ILB||5'11, 225||So.||*** (5.5)||8||2.0||0.3%||1||0||1||0||0||0|
|Nick Vigil||ILB||6'2, 230||RSFr.||** (5.4)|
|Travis Parrish||OLB||6'3, 225||RSFr.||** (5.2)|
|Keylon Hollis||LB||6'2, 235||Jr.||** (5.2)|
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Nevin Lawson||CB||5'10, 186||Sr.||** (5.4)||13||55.0||7.3%||4||2||0||10||0||1|
|Brian Suite||SS||6'3, 205||Jr.||** (5.2)||13||51.5||6.8%||0||0||1||6||0||0|
|Frankie Sutera||FS||6'1, 201||Jr.||NR||13||51.0||6.7%||1||1||0||1||0||0|
|Maurice Alexander (2011)||FS||6'2, 212||Sr.||** (5.4)||12||36.0||4.7%||7||3||0||1||0||0|
|Devonta Glover-Wright||CB||6'0, 170||Sr.||*** (5.5)||13||13.0||1.7%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Cameron Sanders||SS||5'11, 190||Sr.||** (4.9)||9||9.0||1.2%||0||0||0||1||0||1|
|Rashard Stewart||CB||5'11, 185||Jr.||** (5.2)||12||7.0||0.9%||0||0||0||1||0||0|
|Quinton Byrd||NB||5'10, 181||Sr.||NR||3||2.5||0.3%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Ladale Jackson||NB||5'11, 175||RSFr.||*** (5.5)|
|Marquan Ellison||CB||5'11, 175||RSFr.||** (5.2)|
|Devin Centers||FS||5'9, 180||RSFr.||NR|
|Jeremy Morris||CB||5'11, 185||Jr.||*** (5.5)|
|Marwin Evans||CB||6'1, 190||Jr.||** (5.4)|
9. Hold the fort at cornerback
Despite the loss of Bojay Filimoeatu, USU linebackers should once again be quite strong, capable of cleaning up a lot of messes in run support and rushing the passer reasonably well. But the Aggies will have to adapt after losing two-thirds of their incredible unit of cornerbacks. Nevin Lawson does return -- and considering how much Orlando liked attacking with his corners at FIU, Lawson should have a hell of a stat line at the end of 2013 -- but USU must replace both Will Davis and Terrence Alston, who combined for 6.5 tackles for loss, six interceptions, and 25 passes defensed last year. Utah State used its deep stable of cornerbacks to great effect, often transitioning into a nickel defense on passing downs last season. But if Orlando wants to do the same, he'll have to count on some unproven newcomers, either or the JUCO or redshirt freshman variety.
|Jaron Bentrude||6'1, 207||Jr.||2||29.0||1||0||0||0.0%|
|Jaron Bentrude||6'1, 207||Jr.||71||63.1||26||36.6%|
|Brock Warren||6'2, 176||RSFr.||6||64.2||1||16.7%|
|Nick Diaz||5'8, 193||Jr.||40-40||5-6||83.3%||5-7||71.4%|
|Josh Thompson||5'9, 191||Sr.||11-12||4-6||66.7%||0-0||0.0%|
|Travis Reynolds||KR||5'11, 180||Sr.||4||17.2||0|
|Special Teams F/+||38|
|Field Goal Pct||68|
|Kick Returns Avg||67|
|Punt Returns Avg||39|
2013 Schedule & Projection Factors
|7-Sep||at Air Force||91|
|27-Sep||at San Jose State||72|
|19-Oct||at New Mexico||122|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||79|
|Two-Year Recruiting Rk||111|
|TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin*||-1 / +9.9|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||15 (7, 8)|
10. Tests early, wins late
Sometimes a new coaching staff can craft a strong, unexpected identity with the talent it inherits, something that takes opponents a while to figure out. On the other hand, sometimes the new staff takes a while to figure out what it has. Whether Matt Wells leads the former or the latter could decide whether USU starts the season 5-2 or 2-5. The Aggies start the season with a rather cruel four road games in five contests (including trips to Utah, USC, and SJSU), then return home to face what should be strong BYU and Boise State squads. That's brutal. If the Aggies are struggling to get up to speed, then they could find themselves in a hole in mid-October.
Of course, they should then dig right out of that hole. Assuming chemistry hasn't suffered following the losses, Utah State should clean house in its last five games, likely reaching bowl eligibility in the process. And despite the impressive list of returnees, I think bowl eligibility is the correct place to set the bar, even if that seems pretty conservative. The lines aren't great, the receiving corps and secondary got thinned out, one of the most explosive running backs in the country is gone, and the margin for error for players like Chuckie Keeton and the strong defensive ends has disappeared. This will still be a solid team, but the schedule is front-loaded, and there are enough changes on the staff to wonder about a temporary step backwards. I hope I'm proven wrong -- I loved watching this team last season (except against BYU, anyway), and I hope to see a similar squad this fall -- but while I freely admit that I really don't know what to expect here, I'm tamping down my expectations a bit, just in case.