For all intents and purposes, the WAC, as currently constituted, is a AAA affiliate. Louisiana Tech sits in the shadows of LSU. San Jose State is down the road from Cal and Stanford. Idaho will forever be attempting to play catch-up with Boise State. Texas State and UTSA are in the shadows of any number of Texas schools. Utah State is not far from Utah and BYU.
(The analogy begins to fray with New Mexico State, so we'll ignore them for now.)
Permanent relegation to AAA status, however, possibly galls Utah State more than the others. USU has nearly the same enrollment numbers as Utah (despite a much smaller overall staff), the facilities have been upgraded recently, and as the basketball program has proven, USU fans can be loyal, ridiculous, and quite a bit of fun. But they have experienced little to no success on the gridiron, attending more bowls before 1962 (when there were very few bowls) than in all the years since.
But has the tide begun to turn? Utah State might not be accused of Utah- or BYU-level heights any time soon, but with the aforementioned upgrade, with the 2009 hire of Gary Andersen (Utah's defensive coordinator) as head coach, and with a bit of a breakthrough in 2011 -- seven wins, a Famous Idaho Potato Bowl appearance, and a near-upset of defending national champion Auburn -- they seem to have generated some legitimate momentum. That they experienced a breakthrough with a freshman quarterback playing a key role was even more intriguing. Louisiana Tech looks like the strongest overall program in this new WAC, but Utah State could be gaining ground quickly.
Here's what I said in the 2011 Utah State season preview:
For what it's worth, Utah State is closer to playing decent football now than they have been in a while. The last three years, they have at least played at or near the level of your average WAC team, even if they've won just 11 games in the process. They battle through a downright cruel number of injuries in 2010, and they could be better for it this fall. At least, if they don't fall apart upon losing their interesting, athletic quarterback. […]
Despite projecting as the 13th-worst team in FBS, they have a projected record of 5-7 and are given a 24 percent chance of finishing with six wins or better (17 percent chance at 6-6, 6 percent chance at 7-5, 1 percent chance at 8-4). Home games against Weber State, Colorado State, Wyoming, Louisiana Tech and San Jose State are all incredibly winnable, as are road games New Mexico State and maybe Idaho. The problem, of course, is that the other five games (@Auburn, @BYU, @Fresno State, @Hawaii, Nevada) are, to put it kindly, less winnable, meaning their bowl eligibility hopes hinge on winning almost every single winnable game. That's rough, especially for a team not used to winning more than four games in a season. [...]
That "incredibly easy schedule" played out in an odd way. Nine of USU's 12 regular season games were decided by one possession, including three of the "incredibly winnable" games and four of the "less winnable" games. They lost their first four one-possession games of the year (they led the first three in the fourth quarter) and fell to 2-5 overall, and the season began to feel like a terribly missed opportunity. Then they won five games in a row, by a combined 19 points, to finish the regular season. Like San Jose State, they were an almost guaranteed close game, and they backed up that reputation with a last-minute, 24-23 bowl loss to Ohio. They improved from 101st to 70th in the F/+ rankings, but they were literally a handful of plays from both 2-10 and 11-1. It is difficult to know what to make of that as it pertains to 2012, but a lot of the gains the Aggies made do seem rather sustainable.
Unless you are one of the 10-12 programs that can simply recruit a team of blue-chippers and tell them to do blue-chip things on the field, it would probably behoove you to develop an identity for your offense or defense, and recruit to that identity. Andersen has built a run-heavy identity -- they run as much as San Jose State passes, basically -- and with coordinator Dave Baldwin, a couple of interesting quarterbacks, and a deep stable of backs, the Aggies doubled down on the ground game in 2011. It was a rousing success. Despite losing a solid running quarterback in Diondre Borel, the Aggies improved from 100th in Rushing S&P+ to 27th last fall; and they did it with a freshman quarterback leading the way for the first half of the season.
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.
Both Keeton and, when Keeton got injured, junior college transfer Adam Kennedy, led the Utah State offense quite capably in 2012. Keeton played most of the first six games, and USU averaged 30.8 Adj. Points per game. With Kennedy leading the way over the last seven, the Aggies averaged 30.4. Of course, just about anybody could have succeeded to some degree behind center: just hand it to Robert Turbin, Michael Smith or Kerwynn Williams and get out of the way.
USU's three-headed rushing attack combined for 2,954 yards, 31 touchdowns and a plus-50.3 Adj. POE last season. Those are magnificent numbers. The line, led by all-conference blockers Tyler Larsen and Philip Gapelu, opened solid holes and Turbin, Smith and Williams (and occasionally Keeton and Kennedy) barreled through them. USU poked and prodded opposing defenses until they found a weakness, then they surged. They scored touchdowns on three consecutive drives against Auburn, then scored 17 points on their final three drives. They went on a 42-0 run after falling behind Wyoming, 21-19, in the second quarter. They outscored Hawaii 28-3 in the second half. They averaged 10.5 yards per play during the first four drives of the second half in the Idaho Potato Bowl. Granted, the Aggies couldn't maintain leads as well as you would think a run-heavy team might, but they were potent.
Will this be the case again in 2012? Perhaps. Both Keeton and Kennedy return, as do Williams and Larsen. But both Turbin and Smith, who accounted for not only 2,412 rushing yards but also 32 receptions, are gone, as is Gapelu. Plus, Baldwin left to take the offensive coordinator position at Colorado State. (Andersen replaced him with last year's quarterbacks coach, Matt Wells.) In all, the line returns 75 career starts (a healthy total) but still loses three multi-year starters. If a running back like junior Robert Marshall or incoming freshman Tavarreon Dickerson can help Williams out, and if a couple of linemen can fill in next to Larsen and tackles Oscar Molina-Sanchez and Eric Schultz, then with quality leadership from the quarterback position (and the return of decent receivers Matt Austin, Chuck Jacobs and Travis Van Leeuwen), the Aggies could still field a Top 50 offense.
While the Utah State offense was doubling down on its identity, the defense was changing its own. Following a season in which his team fielded a solid pass defense despite the complete lack of a pass rush, Andersen, serving as his own defensive coordinator, shifted from a 4-3 base defense to a 3-4. The results were mixed. USU's Adj. Sack Rate improved from 100th to 69th, and their Rushing S&P+ improved from 106th to 94th; but their Passing S&P+ drooped from 52nd to 83rd, primarily because of efficiency -- their Passing Success Rate+ fell from 49th to 93rd. A drop was to be expected following the loss of strong corners Curtis Randle and Curtis Marsh, however. With the top three corners from 2011 returning this fall, Andersen would have probably been able to act a little more aggressively, that is, if he had retained the coordinator title.
Instead, Andersen has handed the reins of the defense to former Hawaii coordinator Dave Aranda. Aranda spent two seasons in charge of the Warriors' defense, and the results were solid: Hawaii's defense improved from 114th in 2009 to 71st in 2010 and 79th in 2011. They went after the ball as well as anybody in the country, ranking 20th (in 2010) and second (in 2011) in forced fumbles and 26th (in 2011) and sixth (in 2010) in passes defended. Aranda's defenses are aggressive and potentially blitz-heavy. At first glance, according to the pre-spring depth chart, it appears Aranda might be maintaining Andersen's 3-4 attack. Obviously you can be as aggressive as you want to be from that formation.
The front seven will undergo a little bit of transition for a couple of reasons. First, stalwart Bobby Wagner is gone. The inside linebacker racked up 204.0 tackles in the last two seasons and perhaps benefited the greatest from the move to a 3-4. He got to attack more in 2011, and he did it well, posting 11.5 tackles for loss, four sacks, and two interceptions. His counterpart in the middle of the linebacking corps, Kyle Gallagher (72.5 tackles, four TFL) is also gone. According to the pre-spring depth chart, then, outside man Tavaris McMillian will move inside, and last year's most successful defensive end (though he served as more of an OLB-DE hybrid), Bojay Filimoeatu, will move to outside linebacker, where he should fit in just fine. He is light for a 3-4 end, but in wrangling up 11 tackles for loss and three sacks, he has shown he can attack well. Meanwhile, 290-pound nose guard Al Lapuaho will move to end, perhaps giving the Aggies a bit more size up front.
If the front seven can maintain last year's levels without Wagner, an experienced secondary should help the Aggies' overall numbers improve. Corners Nevin Lawson and Jumanne Robertson struggled at times but still managed to combine for one interception and 22 PBUs (and if we've learned only one thing at Football Study Hall recently, it's that your interception rate can change dramatically from year to year). Senior strong safety McKade Brady also returns, though the safety unit thins out quickly beyond him.
The table is set for another bowl season. Utah State hosts an FCS team (Southern Utah), an FBS newcomer (Texas State), and three teams projected to rank 114th or worse next season (UNLV, New Mexico State, Idaho). That's an easy path to five wins. Take out eminently beatable teams like San Jose State, Colorado State and UTSA on the road, and you've got your first eight-win season since 1974. But with the losses on offense, we'll say that if USU can simply consolidate and maintain its gains from last season, it's a success. Seven wins or (minor) bust for USU.
It is always a bit of a red flag if a program makes gains too strong in just one year, and one could say Utah State's improvement from 4-8 to 7-6, from 104th in F/+ to 70th, was a bit too much, too soon. And perhaps it was. Perhaps the Aggies are due a bit of a regression. But the foundation of the USU program appears relatively strong; it was improving at the end of the Brent Guy era, and it has continued under Andersen. And frankly, with the schedule at hand, you might not notice if USU regresses or not -- the win total may stay the same even if the Aggies are a little worse.
No matter what happens in 2012, however, one has to like the trajectory of this program. They have a strong identity on offense, one that should still produce decent results despite the loss of a couple of strong running backs, and they are beginning to forge one on defense as well. Their AAA affiliation in the state of Utah will probably continue for a while -- they aren't exactly candidates for the Pac-12, after all -- but with the mid-major environment changing, perhaps drastically, the Aggies are timing their improvement quite well. Whether the "Mount USA" conference indeed takes shape (and what a tease it would have been if it doesn't), or whether the Mountain West simply looks to expand by a couple of teams, the Aggies should be well-positioned to improve their lot in life rather soon, and both the hire, and progress, of Andersen will be one of the major reasons why that (probably) happens.