For first time this century, the Utah State Aggies actually enter a rivalry contest against Utah with some swagger and, albeit maybe premature, the talk of potentially upending our fair Utes.
That is a radical shift from what we've experienced in this rivalry for most of its run and should make Friday's game far more intriguing to Ute fans than any recent contest against the Boys from Logan. Because of their emergence as a bowl contending team under former Utah defensive coordinator Gary Andersen, they do pose somewhat of a challenge and that makes this a true measuring stick game. We'll get a good idea where the 2012 Utes stand when their buses roll out of Logan Friday night.
We haven't been able to say that about the Aggies since John L. Smith's three-season run there back in the mid-90s - not coincidentally the last time Utah State defeated Utah.
So, on history alone, this is a game Utah should have no problem winning. Of the last ten contests, the Utes have won by an average margin of 26 points. In their last meeting, all the way back in 2009, Utah won 35-17 ... and that was one of the closer contests the last few years.
But a lot has changed since Andersen's first game. He's got things moving in the right direction, the first coach to do so there since the aforementioned Smith, and even guided the Aggies to a rare bowl berth last season - they would lose, in a close one, to Ohio. He's already knocked off BYU once (in 2010, up in Logan) and nearly did it again last season, so, this is a program that, for the first time in 14 years, has really tasted success. I'm sure every player on last year's squad loved it and wants more of it ... and they would love nothing more than beating Utah. It's the last feather in Andersen's cap as a coach there and this is really their best shot of doing it.
They're confident, of course, because they return quarterbacks Chuckie Keeton and Adam Kennedy and wide receivers Matt Austin and Chuck Jacobs, among four other returning starters. Their hope is that this experience will help transition the team in the absence of the mega-talented Robert Turbin, who was drafted 106th by Seattle in this year's draft. That's a big if and why so many people aren't as bullish on the Aggies as they were a year ago. Turbin was a workhorse who dictated the offensive flow. Without him, it remains to be seen what Utah State can do, though, in their opener against Southern Utah, both Kerwynn Williams and Joe Hill appeared to bring a balanced running attack.
In that game, the Aggies won 34-3 and out-gained the Thunderbirds 581 yards to 209, showing this offense can be damaging ... even if it's against a FCS squad (Utah's offense, against Northern Colorado, put up more points, but far less yardage). Of those 581 yards, 277 came on the ground and 304 through the air, proving Utah State isn't just a one-horse offense. They'll try to beat you in a couple dimensions.
But beyond their performance this past week, Utah State fans are confident because this game is shaping up similarly to their showdown with BYU a couple years ago - namely, we're looking at a Friday night contest live from Logan being aired by ESPN. Sometimes magic happens in situations like that and, let's be honest, for the Aggies to win, they'll need a bit of special magic because, on paper, as good as they were last year, as many questions as Utah has this year, the teams are not equal.
For one, the Utes boast one of the best defensive lines in the country. That alone makes it hard for me to get on board with this idea Utah State will be able to run much on Utah. That cuts down their offensive production considerably and leaves the game in the hands of Keeton, who, while a solid quarterback, doesn't have Turbin to rely on this go around. If they can't move the ball on the ground, which will certainly help diversify their offense, it could be difficult countering with a pass attack.
Against Southern Utah, Keeton looked good, connecting on 22 of 26 passes and throwing for two touchdowns. He did have one interception, but he did throw for 304 yards, in a performance that many of us were hoping to see from Jordan Wynn in our game against an overmatched lower-level institution.
So, there is definitely talent on the offense, but will it be enough?
That's where Utah's offense needs to step up and perform well. The Aggies win this game not by matching Utah blow for blow, but by drawing the Utes into a corner early. A couple quick turnovers will definitely change the dynamics of this game and that could be Utah's undoing if they're not careful. That means Wynn has to perform at a level we expect from him because bad throws and stupid throws most certainly could lead to turnovers and Aggie points and then a potential dire situation.
It's also important the offensive line develop more holes for John White IV and give him the blocking needed to create some big runs. That will take a bit of pressure off Wynn and that should only lower the potential for shooting ourselves in the foot. One good thing about having a consistent and stellar running attack is that you can lean on it if things aren't going your way through the air. While I hope Wynn will be able to move the ball down field with his passing game, I would much rather White bulldoze the Aggies for most of the night than Wynn try to force something that isn't there.
This is going to be an intense game because I think the Utah State players are probably entering it with more confidence than at any point we've played 'em the past ten years or so. Give that advantage to the Aggies. It's a huge one, especially if you come out and go up on top early. That confidence will also be in the stands, as their fans are ready to unleash a decade and a half of losing emotions to the Utes. If they sense even the slightest bit of momentum for their Aggies, things could get rough.
But this is still Utah-Utah State and that alone could play against the Aggies. If the Utes come out hitting first and go up on Utah State, while I wouldn't expect them to fully retreat, it wouldn't surprise me if they become a bit more anxious, a bit less confident and start questioning themselves a bit more.
Like I said, on paper, and paper alone, Utah is the better team and it's probably not close. Utah State's pure talent makes this arguably one of the easier games left on the schedule. We should win and, frankly, we need to win. Lose this game and not only are the Utes the butt of the Pac-12, but they're also the butt of the state. Just ask BYU.
The Aggies are banking on a frenzied crowd, Utah apathy and emotion to pull them through. Let's not give them that chance. Bury 'em early, take their best hit and answer with your best and we should be all right.
Utah wins if...They play smart, turnover-free football. This is all about mind games, it almost always is when you're facing an inferior foe. The Aggies will be looking for one mistake, one bad play, to set the tone. Utah can't let it happen.
Utah State wins if...They dictate the flow of this one. If they can score early, put the Utes on their heels a bit, get a couple turnovers, this one just might unravel similarly to the 2010 BYU-Utah State game.
What will happen...The Utes won't overlook the Aggies. They'll come out charged behind a crowd that will be filled with a great deal of Ute fans, and look to make a statewide statement. I don't anticipate a blowout like we're used to in the past, but I do think Utah wins and I suspect it won't be all that close. The Utes win 31-13.
What's your prediction?