There was a time when Utah fans looked to the Utah State game as nothing but a tune-up game - a chance to work the kinks out before bigger and better competition came along. This was generally the norm for the last fifteen years and then, abruptly, 2012 came along.
For the first time since the 1997 season, the Utah State Aggies, often relegated to third-tier level locally, stunned the Utes in overtime and set in motion the unthinkable as they waltzed through the WAC and won 11 games for the first time in school history. The once bullied brothers to the north became the bully and the shift in the rivalry now leads to an all important encore to kickoff the 2013 season.
Will Utah rebound or will the Aggies establish their presence on the local scene?
Who could have thought these questions would be asked just a year ago? Sure, we all expected Gary Andersen to succeed in Logan - but succeed enough to own victories over both Utah and BYU? The last coach to beat both the Utes and Cougars during his stint in Logan was Bruce Snyder - all the way back in 1978 (BYU) and 1979 (Utah). So, it's been quite the drought and yet, in such a short time, Andersen turned the Aggies into a truly competitive program that has an actual future ... even if he decided not to stick around to witness it.
Utah State is now a team the Utes can't overlook and all they have to do is rewatch last year's game to see why.
That means, unlike most seasons, this rivalry game is more than just a tune-up - it's an actual measuring stick. In fact, you could make the case it's one of the most important games on the schedule because it's hard to imagine Utah coming back from another loss to the Aggies - at least this season. That's both intriguing and nauseating because I can't recall the USU game ever feeling this important. My granddad, who graduated from Utah State and then the University of Utah, would be proud that this is more than just another game for the Utes - this is kind of a rivalry.
For one year, anyway.
Sure, it's never going to reach the emotional exhaustion we often experience from the Holy War, and it's more likely the Aggies step back than leap forward, but for the time being, for the first time since the mid-90s, this game isn't a given. Utah very well could start the season 0-1 and you know the faithful in Cache Valley are feeling pretty confident about this contest (and it's not that faux-confidence they've often nervously proclaimed in the past). And why shouldn't they feel confident? They won last year, have proven tough in their two road contests against the BYU Cougars (the last two losses down in Provo have been by a combined six-points) and they return their stud quarterback Chuckie Keeton, as well as a stellar offensive line. This is a team built for an inaugural run through the Mountain West and could give Utah's young defense fits.
Still, it's important to not get too high on Utah State. This is a transition year in every sense of the word. They've changed coaches (though promoting should help with continuity) and more importantly, they've changed conferences. The WAC of 2012 is nowhere near as challenging as the Mountain West of 2013. It's unlikely, with their schedule, they will be a ten-win team again, especially with road games against Utah, Air Force and USC (along with home games against BYU and Boise State). It was easy winning ten games in a conference filled with the likes of New Mexico State, Idaho, UT San Antonio and Texas State - but the MWC will prove an entirely different animal.
Plus, we can't forget that, even with a losing season and an injured quarterback, the Utes came scarily close to defeating the Aggies in regulation. It was a crazy game with an excited Friday night atmosphere with students who had never witnessed a Utah State win over Utah. It was big deal and even though the Utes played poorly and had to dig in and fight back, the game hardly resembled the beatdown the Aggies put on the Cougars in a similar Friday night game a few years ago.
Not much of a consolation prize, but all things considered, it could indicate that talent really is the driving force in these games. If it is, and this year's game isn't necessarily won by the intangibles, it becomes increasingly difficult for me to accept a potential Utah loss. This program far exceeds the talent of the Aggies and if they once again lose, then it's completely on the coaches - no matter how experienced Utah State appears to be.
That sounds like a fairly contentious point, and I concede as much, but we're a Pac-12 team and we've been recruiting at a high enough level where these losses are not excusable. Let's get real here - the Aggies are not BYU and they're definitely not Boise State. I don't take anything away from them, of course, and maybe it sounds like I am, but the reality remains is that when you get down to it, as it was last year, Utah State will once again be one of the worst teams on our schedule. That isn't because they're bad. It's just because there are too many consistently good and talented teams in the conference. Beyond Weber State, Washington State and Colorado, is there a team the Aggies best (maybe BYU)?
So, it becomes pretty evident the Utes need this win. But they needed it last year, too, and couldn't get it. Of course, back then, we didn't quite know how the season would unfold. Now we do. Now we know how difficult it is to pull it together after a loss to Utah State. More than any game, specifically with how close it was, Utah lost last year - the USU one you can point to as the reason they weren't bowling. I don't think they'll go bowling if they lose to the Aggies again this year.