The Utes kick off the 2009 season with a very familiar foe - an opponent who is in just as much transition as Utah. It will also mark the return of Gary Andersen, who left the the Utes to take the head gig up in Logan after the Aggies fired struggling coach Brent Guy.
Those struggles last year have pretty much been the norm for Utah State, who haven't produced a winning record in over a decade. Their push through mediocrity has forced them back in this series, which is evident by their lack of any recent success against Utah. It's probably unlikely to expect - in his first season - that to really change. Though the Aggies do offer an inexperienced Ute offense a test.
Those offensive questions are the biggest issues facing Utah this season. Last year, Brian Johnson cemented himself as the most successful quarterback in Utah history and his loss will not be easy to replace. The fact the Utes have yet to decide on a starting quarterback at this time also creates a bit of doubt heading into Thursday's game.
For Utah State, Andersen does not have much talent to work with. This is the problem when taking over a historically bad program. The talent gap between you and your opponents at times can be extremely wide and I expect that to be the case this week. With that said, Andersen is a good coach and I believe he has the ability to squeeze out every last drop of talent from what returns this season.
At quarterback, junior Diondre Borel returns. Borel had been the third option entering the 2008 season, yet took control of the offense three games in and didn't do too bad of a job. He led the Aggies in both passing and rushing - and in the latter set a school record for a quarterback. He is dangerous and as a duel-threat, will most certainly test Utah's defense early.
Beyond Borel, though, there isn't much to be nervous about. If Utah State is going to take it up a notch on offense, running back Robert Turbin needs to step up. Last season, he wasn't bad, but didn't get nearly as many touches as he should have. On the season, Turbin ran the ball for 485-yards and only had three games with double-digit carries. That will have to change, because as good as Borel can be, without a solid running game to lean on, the offense could struggle.
Senior wideout Omar Sawyer will also play a role in how far the Aggie offense goes this season. The coaching staff feels he could be one of their best weapons on the offensive side and with sophomore Stanley Morrison and senior Nnamdi Gwacham joining him, things could progress far better this year than last.
Ultimately, USU's offense will live or die by their line. Last year, they ranked near the bottom in the nation in sacks allowed, giving up nearly 3 per game. That number needs to change or it could be a long season again for an Aggie offense that ranked 84th in yards-per-game in 2008.
Of course, Andersen is a defensive guy and if there is one place USU needs to work on, it's here. Last season, Utah State ranked near the bottom in points allowed - they gave up almost 35 - and that number needs to come down dramatically, or they're going to finish just as poorly as they did in '08.
They do have some talent, however, and Andersen should get the most out of it because of his background. If he can, things will improve and they'll be in far more games than they were a year ago.
If there are concerns, it's the Aggies secondary. The responsibility to turn that around lies with senior cornerback Kejon Murphy and senior James Brindley. Brindley led the team in interceptions last season with three and Andersen will be counting on that type of play again this year.
That secondary did have issues, though. Last year, they gave up on average 251 yards through the air per game and again, this is a number that will need to change if they're going to improve this season. If it doesn't and the Aggies are locked down toward the bottom once more, it seems unlikely they could be much better than their 2008 counterparts.
Which seems to be very possible. I'm not saying Andersen won't get things turned around there, but it might be asking too much for them to get it turned around that fast. Especially when you realize, like Andersen, Guy was a former defensive coordinator who came in highly touted. Just because you're a defensive coach does not necessarily mean you are capable of getting it done right away.
Because of this, I find it hard to expect much out of USU against the Utes. That isn't to say they won't play them tough and maybe they can take this game into the fourth quarter (USU did do that in 2005), but it seems very unlikely victory is attainable for them. There hasn't been enough change over the course of the year to lessen the problems that led to Utah's 58-10 pounding last season.
Unless disaster happens, the Utes should start the season 1-0.
Utah wins if...There isn't disaster. I don't really foresee a scenario where the Aggies march into RES and walk away victorious. Yes, that sounds like I'm overlooking them, but I'm not. Until USU proves it on the field, it's hard to expect anything different than the last eleven results.
Utah State wins if...Terrance Cain or Jordan Wynn aren't very good and they turn the ball over a ton of times. If that happens, which would essentially require a disaster, then the Aggies just may pull out a stunner.
What will happen...Utah's offense will struggle a bit early, as Wynn/Cain get the feel of the game. The defense will create a few turnovers - maybe even score on them - and put the Utes in easy scoring position. By the second half, Wynn/Cain look far sharper and lead Utah to a fairly solid victory. Utes win 35-13.
Let's hear your predictions...