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Utah State is Mountain West football’s biggest wildcard

Either the slide stops in 2017 or the Aggies consider a coaching change.

NCAA Football: San Diego State at Utah State Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

This preview originally published April 10 and has since been updated.

Matt Wells inherited an impossible task four years ago. When a mid-major loses the head coach responsible for a peak, it regresses back toward its self-defined mean.

That’s how things have worked since before “mid-major football” was even a term. It’s been part of the circle of life for decades, from Bob Devaney (left Wyoming for Nebraska) and Don James (left Kent State for Washington) to the present.

On rare occasions, they stay — Fisher DeBerry at Air Force, Lavell Edwards at BYU, Larry Blakeney at Troy. But it surprised no one when Gary Andersen, architect of the best Utah State team ever, left for Wisconsin.

Andersen’s 2012 Utah State Aggies went 11-2 and ranked 12th in S&P+. The Aggies lost at Wisconsin and BYU by a combined five, beat Utah, and knocked off four strong mid-majors (SJSU, UTSA, Louisiana Tech, and Toledo, which won a combined 37 games) by a combined 86. Andersen left some exciting pieces for Wells, but there was no way Wells was going to maintain that.

The slide has been steady. The Aggies went 19-9 in Wells’ first two seasons but slipped first to 32nd, then 57th in S&P+. The offense has been mediocre, but the defense has slipped from elite to mortal. And while USU held steady at 62nd in 2015 and 70th in 2016, the wins have vanished. The Aggies are still keeping games close, but now they’re losing those games; they’ve dropped seven of their last eight one-possession finishes, and after winning 10 games in 2014, they won a combined nine in 2015-16.

Wells was the most sensible hire USU could have made; a former Aggie quarterback, he had unique experience (a few years with Steve Kragthorpe at Tulsa and Louisville, Charlie Weatherbie at Navy, and Rocky Long at New Mexico) with a couple of seasons under Andersen. The Aggie offense had taken a big leap forward with Wells.

Wells is still on the job, and that’s a testament to patience. Everyone had to know a reset was coming, and the fact that Wells was still producing a top-70 product in year four was encouraging. But that only matters so much if the wins don’t keep trickling in; the Aggies either need to rebound or re-discover how to win tight games.

There’s an interesting contrast this year. The defense, still a top-50 unit, has some rebuilding to do in the front seven. For that matter, the offensive line is rebuilding as well.

Still, exciting quarterback Kent Myers is back, as are most skill weapons, and Wells brought in an intriguing name to liven up the Aggie attack: David Yost. The former Missouri coordinator spent the last four years at Washington State (inside receivers coach) and Oregon (quarterbacks coach), and he has been tasked with establishing a faster identity.

I’m betting on a 2017 rebound for USU. The Aggies are an interesting mix of proven pieces and new blood, and they weren’t nearly as bad as their 3-9 record suggested. Still, when your ranking has dropped for four straight years, betting on a turning tide isn’t the smartest move in the world.


2016 in review

2016 USU statistical profile.

Utah State was far more like a 5-7 team than 3-9 in 2016. Based on win expectancy — which takes the key stats from a given game and says, “You could have expected to win this game X percent of the time” — the Aggies had a 67 percent chance of beating New Mexico and a 92 percent chance of beating Nevada. There was about a 62 percent chance of them winning both and a 3 percent chance of them losing both. They lost both.

Five wins still probably isn’t enough in Logan, but having a chance at bowl eligibility heading into the season finale would have changed the tenor. Instead, this was a year in which USU started 2-1 and then lost eight of nine.

  • First 4 games (2-2): Avg. percentile performance: 58% (47% offense, 67% defense) | Yards per play: USU 5.5, Opp 4.9 (plus-0.6)
  • Next 5 games (1-4): Avg. percentile performance: 45% (42% offense, 45% defense) | Yards per play: Opp 5.7, USU 5.5 (minus-0.2)
  • Last 3 games (0-3): Avg. percentile performance: 55% (40% offense, 70% defense) | Yards per play: USU 6.4, Opp 4.8 (plus-1.6)

It’s hard to outgain opponents by 1.6 yards per play over three games and lose all three.

Regardless, Utah State was an incomplete team. The offense was consistently mediocre until a brief, late burst against UNM and Nevada, and while the defense was mostly solid, a midseason funk likely cost the Aggies a win or two.


Offense

Utah State offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

Utah State’s 2016 offense was a walking contradiction. The Aggies lost expected workhorse back Devante Mays two games in and at times gave up on the run. Quarterback Myers averaged 7.2 yards per non-sack carry and only 5.7 yards per pass attempt (including sacks) but ended up throwing 47 passes against Air Force and 50 against Boise State. Halfback Tonny Lindsey averaged 5.2 yards per carry but “led” the Aggies with eight carries against Boise State and five against Wyoming.

Game state plays a role in how much you’re able to run or pass, but it seemed as if USU didn’t realize what it was and wasn’t good at. The Aggies attempted balance, but they ranked 24th in Rushing S&P+ and 116th in Passing S&P+.

That makes the Yost hire interesting. At their best, Yost’s Missouri offenses were efficiency machines, combining a solid zone run game with quick passes. He also lost his way at times from an identity standpoint, and then he spent three years coaching for Mike Leach. He doesn’t have the most run-friendly résumé, but he’ll utilize the zone read if it is available.

Here are some of the pieces he inherits:

  • Myers. He rushed for 641 yards in just 89 non-sack carries, but while he was named the leader in the QB battle after spring practice, he wasn’t named the outright starter. Myers completed just 59 percent of his passes at 11.3 yards per completion last year, and if Yost needs more passing, one could see redshirt freshman Jordan Love becoming a viable option.
  • Lindsey. Lindsey probably deserved more carries, but consistency would have helped his cause. He averaged 5.4 yards per carry in the first three games of 2016, then 1.3 in the next two. He averaged 8.1 against Colorado State, 3.7 against Fresno State and SDSU, 15 against Wyoming, 2.2 against New Mexico, and 7.4 against Nevada and BYU.
  • Rayshad Lewis and Ron’Quavion Tarver. Lewis, the sophomore son of NFL great Ray Lewis, might be USU’s best receiver and cornerback; he played both in spring ball [update: he’s since transferred to Maryland]. His per-target productivity wasn’t amazing, but he was a freshman, and over a six-game span in the middle of 2016, he caught a promising 22 passes for 339 yards. Tarver started slowly but had three games with at least 84 receiving yards.
  • Jaren Colston-Green. Okay, the senior caught just six passes in 2016, so you probably shouldn’t rely on him to post big numbers. But three of those went for more than 40 yards. If the run is working, and the quick passing attack is reasonably dangerous, Colston-Green could be the deep threat.
  • Damon Hobbs. The quarterback-turned-tight end scored six touchdowns on the ground and could be an interesting short-yardage and possession threat. No idea how Yost will use him.
NCAA Football: Air Force at Utah State
Tonny Lindsey Jr.
Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

That’s not the worst list of assets, but unless Colston-Green is busting loose, there’s not a surefire big-play threat, and the line is starting over.

Three honorable mention all-conference linemen are gone, and while three players return with starting experience (tackles Preston Brooksby and Cody Boyer, guard KJ Uluave), they have combined for only 16 starts. Transfers — JUCOs Rob Castaneda and Roman Andrus, plus BYU transfer Quin Ficklin — could play a major role up front.


Defense

Utah State defensive radar

The Utah State defense was still mostly solid in the Aggies’ first year with co-coordinators Frank Maile and Kendrick Shaver. But each year a few more cracks have formed as Wells attempts to maintain a successful balance of local JUCO transfers and five-year, diamond-in-the-rough recruits.

The Aggies still ranked a healthy 46th in Def. S&P+, and the pass defense was dynamite, but the run defense was inefficient. Considering the offense’s up-and-down input, opponents were able to generate just enough of a lead that they could lean on the run.

Depending on whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist, you might view the turnover up front in a couple of ways. The front seven was a little disappointing at stopping the run, so now isn’t the worst time for some turnover. At the same time, last year’s backups weren’t better than the starters, in theory, so there’s no reason to expect improvement.

There are still some intriguing players up front, though, if a couple youngsters develop as planned. Nose tackle Christopher ‘Unga played well late in his freshman campaign, and Chase Christiansen was showing promise as an attacking inside linebacker before he got hurt.

NCAA Football: Utah State at Wyoming
Chase Christiansen
Troy Babbitt-USA TODAY Sports

If both ‘Unga and Christiansen are ready to play like starters alongside returnees like end Ian Togiai and linebackers Derek Larsen and Alex Huerta, the Aggies might hold steady up front. But they’ll need some newcomers to come through if they want to improve against the run. JUCO transfers at end (Devon Anderson) and linebacker (Suli Tamaivena, Louy Compton) could be answers, as could three-star redshirt freshman ILB Kevin Meitzenheimer or any number of RSFRs at end.

Regardless, the balance is obvious. If the run defense can hold, the pass defense should thrive again. There was constant shuffling on the two-deep in the secondary, and good offenses (USC, Boise State, and Wyoming, all of which ranked 33rd or better in Off. S&P+) were able to take advantage.

If you didn’t have an elite offense, though, you weren’t throwing. Those three teams produced a 174.2 passer rating; the other nine: 113.7.

USU has to replace safety Devin Centers and corner Daniel Gray in the defensive backfield [plus Lewis], but there are more than enough returnees to get you excited. Safeties Dallin Leavitt, Jontrell Rocquemore, and Gaje Ferguson all got starter-level experience last year even though all three missed time.

Corners Jalen Davis, Wesley Bailey, and Cameron Haney combined for 5.5 tackles for loss (mostly from Davis) and 15 passes defensed. If three-star JUCO Deante Fortenberry is ready to play at a high level, this secondary might match last year’s. Maybe it will struggle when good offenses like BYU, Colorado State, Wyoming, or Boise State come to Logan — all four of those come to Logan — but it’s hard to imagine the Aggie secondary struggling much.

Boise State v Utah State
Jalen Davis
Photo by Loren Orr/Getty Images

Special Teams

Like the defense, the Utah State special teams unit has regressed incrementally. The Aggies ranked 66th in Special Teams S&P+ in 2014, 98th in 2015, and 106th in 2016.

USU wasn’t awful at anything, but Brock Warren and Dominik Eberle had a small field goal range (USU was 91st in field goal efficiency), and while Aaron Dalton’s punts were high and unreturnable, they weren’t long (101st in punt success rate).

Dalton and Eberle are back, but the rest of the unit gets a reset. That might not be the worst thing.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep at Wisconsin 11 -22.8 9%
7-Sep Idaho State NR 40.2 99%
16-Sep at Wake Forest 64 -6.6 35%
23-Sep at San Jose State 105 6.6 65%
29-Sep BYU 46 -4.0 41%
7-Oct Colorado State 43 -4.4 40%
14-Oct Wyoming 80 4.7 61%
21-Oct at UNLV 118 8.9 70%
28-Oct Boise State 29 -8.0 32%
4-Nov at New Mexico 110 7.6 67%
18-Nov Hawaii 109 12.2 76%
25-Nov at Air Force 116 8.5 69%
Projected S&P+ Rk 73
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 71 / 70
Projected wins 6.6
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -0.4 (70)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 109 / 110
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -5 / -12.7
2016 TO Luck/Game +3.2
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 66% (76%, 56%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 4.8 (-1.8)

Utah State lost a ton of close games last year but benefited from turnovers luck in keeping at least a few games close. The Aggies’ stronger unit (defense) deals with turnover, while the offense has continuity (and a new coordinator). They get four of their toughest opponents (BYU, CSU, Wyoming, Boise State) at home and a lot of weaker opponents on the road.

If you wanted to, you could use that paragraph as proof that the Aggies won’t bounce back in 2017. Regress further on defense, lose to good teams at home, drop a couple of tricky road games, and you’re 3-9 again.

You could also use that paragraph as proof that a rebound is imminent. Improve on offense, take down a couple of solid teams in Logan, handle your business, and you’re 8-4 or better.

Perhaps not surprisingly, S&P+ splits the difference. It says the Aggies will again only rank in the 70s, but that should be enough to get them back to six or seven wins. They have six games with win probability between 61 and 70 percent, and while they probably won’t win all of those, they could also snare at least one of four games between 32 and 41 percent.

I lean more toward the optimistic view than the pessimistic one, but that might be because I’m an optimist.


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