USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.
Merlin Olsen Field at Romney Stadium is named after former Utah State defensive lineman Merlin Olsen, as the name suggests, along with former coach Dick Romney, the winningest coach in program history.
If not necessarily a house of horrors for visitors – USU will lose at home, if rarely – the Aggies' newfound home-field advantage has become emblematic of the program's growth at large, a slow, painful and laborious project that took flight in 2011, Gary Andersen's second-to-last season in Logan.
That team went 4-2 inside the friendly confines, helping the program land its first winning season since 1996. Two seasons ago, in Andersen's last hurrah, the Aggies went 6-0 at home, propelling the team to a school-record 11 victories; the program's previous high was nine wins, set in 1960 and 1961.
Last year's group went 4-2, notching back-to-back wins against Colorado State and Wyoming in November to secure the Mountain West's Mountain Division championship. Locals paid attention: USU drew 139,576 fans into Romney Stadium – and that might not mean much on the major-conference landscape, but the total blew the program's previous high-water mark out of the water.
You'll recognize the timeline: win, make noise, repeat, profit. By taking care of business at home, Utah State has essentially established the same formula that made Boise State a success, albeit to a slightly smaller degree – USU is winning at home, securing bowl eligibility, and then taking the fight on the road.
LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:
A 2-2 mark in non-conference play will lead to an 8-4 regular season. A 1-3 mark – getting swept by USC, BYU and Utah – will lead to a 7-5 finish. Either way, USU is going to continue its winning ways in a tougher league despite the coaching change.
In a nutshell: The Aggies transitioned to coach Matt Wells and didn't suffer anything more than an insubstantial hiccup: USU did drop two wins of its 2013 total, true, but let's remember the shift in conference affiliation, injuries, a rowdy non-league slate – Utah, USC, Brigham Young – and the coaching change itself, though Wells brought more to the table than your normal first-time hire. That the Aggies claimed the division crown despite those nicks and bruises, including a season-ending injury to quarterback Chuckie Keeton, helps to illustrate the strong, rock-solid foundation put into place by Andersen, with Wells' support, during his tenure with the program. This is true: Utah State is about more than one player. This is also true: Utah State is built to last.
High point: The five-game winning streak to cap the regular season. The Aggies topped a pair of bowl teams, UNLV and Colorado State, and held all five opponents to 24 points or less.
Low point: Losing to both Utah and BYU.
Tidbit: Few teams played better defense in November. During the season's final month – all wins, remember – USU ranked 10th nationally in yards allowed per game, sixth in yards allowed per game, eighth in opposing completion percentage, second in yards allowed per carry and fourth in scoring.
Tidbit (slim edition): Quietly – well, not that quietly – the Aggies have won 25 of their past 33 games. And even the losses have been close: Utah State's eight losses have come by a combined 48 points. Five have come by less than a touchdown, including both defeats in 2012. If we remove last year's 17-point loss to BYU, the Aggies' remaining seven defeats have come by just 31 points – less than five points per game.
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:
NFL defensive linemen of the 1960s
1. Deacon Jones
2. Bob Lilly
3. Alex Karras
4. Merlin Olsen
5. Willie Davis
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Offense: After a brief intermission, the Chuckie Keeton show resumes its regularly scheduled programming. Tickets are going fast: Keeton has begun to accumulate a heavy degree of national attention – the bandwagon is getting full – despite missing the final eight games of last season; it seems as if the nation remembers just what Keeton can achieve when at full strength. Oh, he can do it all. Keeton is basically another Colin Kaepernick, and don't roll your eyes at the comparison: Like Kaepernick, the Aggies' starter is long, agile, speedy, long-stepped, big-armed, accurate and supremely dangerous, assets that move him into an elite class of Football Bowl Subdivision quarterbacks. The talent – and the grasp of the system, and the way the system grasps his skill set – stands off the charts; the only question might be how quickly he can bounce back from last year's injury. Early returns have been positive, but Keeton needs to prove it against Tennessee. If he's rolling, USU is a contender to win every game on this schedule. If Keeton stumbles early – or suffers another injury – the staff has to feel good about what sophomore Darell Garretson can achieve when handed the reins; he went 6-1 in Keeton's stead last fall.
The running game welcomes back another key cog from injury: Joe Hill (252 yards) returns from a knee injury, and just in time – Hill will be needed as USU loses Joey DeMartino and Robert Marshall. As with Keeton, however, Hill must show he's back at full strength after missing the final nine games of last season. I could buy some concern about depth, particularly if Hill needs time to round into form. Sophomore Kennedy Williams seems like the Aggies' next-best option, but he lacks experience. Likewise with redshirt freshman Karris Johnson and junior Rashad Hall, the Aggies' third and fourth options. But this is tempered by a simple fact: USU churns out all-league backs with impressive ease.
This offense does lose its top two receiving options from a year ago – Travis Reynolds and Travis Van Leeuwen – but returns enough at the position to mount a solid rotation. There's clearly a top three: Ronald Butler (24 receptions for 346 yards), JoJo Natson (59 for 385) and Brandon Swindall (29 for 285). The latter is a weapon, particularly in the red zone, but it's Butler, who closed with such a banner showing in the conference title game, who seems poised to claim the mantle as the Aggies' go-to option. In terms of a second tier, don't be surprised if JUCO transfers Devonte Robinson and Hunter Sharp make an immediate rush for snaps, joining holdovers Shaan Johnson, Braelon Roberts, Hayden Welchers and Damoun Patterson among USU's leading reserves. I wouldn't even worry too much about tight end despite losing a pair of contributors, seeing that USU will augment sophomore Wyatt Houston – a really promising young talent – with senior Jefferson Court and JUCO transfer Landon Horne.
Defense: Think of this defense as a messy, bib-demanding, meat-heavy sandwich: Utah State has a simply outstanding linebacker corps – the meat of the meal – but question marks up front and in the back – the bread. The number of losses don't exactly paint a picture of a defense poised to remain among the nation's best; the Aggies won't plummet into oblivion, of course, but it's hard to imagine how this reworked group maintains the torrid close to last season. The hope is that the linebacker corps delivers as expected, which is a safe bet, while the front three formulates enough pressure to offset an absolutely predictable decline from the secondary. The defensive backfield will be under the microscope.
There's just a troubling lack of experience. Four starters and two leading reserves are gone from a season ago: USU is headed back to the drawing board, particularly at cornerback, and must land very strong play from senior free safety Brian Suite (77 tackles), the group's lone returning starter. When it comes to the outside, it's very safe to pencil senior Rashard Stewart into a starting role, thanks to his three seasons of experience. But even with sophomore Daniel Gray back in the fold, I can't help but think the Aggies will eventually hand the other side to one of three JUCO transfers – Tyler Floyd, Deshane Hines and Bryant Hayes. Joining Suite along the back end is senior Frankie Sutera (29 tackles), who seems ready for the opportunity. Basically, the top tier – the four starters – and the second tier takes a step back. Perhaps the JUCO transfers help the Aggies remain afloat.
The line looks better in comparison, even if the two groups share one similarity: one returning starter. That'd be senior end B.J. Larsen (31 tackles, 8.0 for loss), a reigning all-league pick with the potential to take a major step forward in his final season. The situation at end looks pretty good, actually, with Larsen joined by junior Jordan Nielsen (35 tackles), an all-conference selection as a redshirt freshman. The top reserves at end are Ricky Ali'ifua, a returning contributor, and incoming JUCO transfers John Taylor and Siua Taufa. My biggest concern is the nose, where the Aggies simply don't have a defender capable of matching the all-conference impact AJ Pataiali'I brought to the table. Perhaps Elvis Kamana-Matagi and Travis Seefeldt can be a good tandem, but they'll need to really work at occupying blocks.
The good news: USU is very strong at linebacker. This despite losing Jake Doughty, a supremely solid producer, and this despite losing two key reserves – meaning depth is a bit of an issue. But one starter, junior Kyler Fackrell (80 tackles, 13.0 for loss), gives this level some significant star power. He's a major star: Fackrell is a menace, a machine and a monster, giving USU not just one of the Mountain West's top defenders – this without question – but one of the most underrated and under-the-radar linebackers in the country. Fackrell will be joined by brothers Nick and Zach Vigil, with the latter a second near-lock at the position for all-league honors. Yeah, we can nitpick depth, but the starting trio is terrific. Fackrell can do it all.
Special teams: Senior kicker Nick Diaz gets some headlines for his steadiness on field goals – well, as many headlines as a kicker can get – but the real star is punter Jaron Bentrude. He's not a boomer, but Bentrude's directional ability essentially negates the opposition's attempts on punt returns; in turn, that aids USU's control of field position. Natson is back on punt returns, while the backup running backs should battle for duties on kickoffs.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH:
Offensive line: The front loses five players who made at least five starts last fall, including three with all-league accolades in Jamie Markosian, Eric Schultz and Tyler Larsen, the latter perhaps the most underrated lineman in college football. There's really only one returning starter, though he's a good one: USU brings back senior Kevin Whimpey, a 26-game starter with the production and experience to lead this group by example. But it's definitely a bit concerning elsewhere, even if the Aggies do bring back a slew of ex-reserves with obvious potential. One, former JUCO transfer Bill Vavau, will almost certainly start at left guard. The same could probably be said of junior Taani Fisilau, the preseason frontrunner at right guard. That leaves two positions still somewhat up for debate; right tackle is leaning in sophomore Jake Simonich's direction, but the battle between senior Joe Summers and sophomore Austin Stephens at center will continue deep into August. Look: Larsen's going to be awfully hard to replace.
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
Boise State: The division comes down to the finale, this time in Boise; it's highly likely that both teams enter the November date either tied or within one game in the standings. The 13-game schedule – courtesy of a road trip to Hawaii – features its tests: Tennessee, Arkansas State, Brigham Young, Colorado State and Boise State are on the road, while Wake Forest, UNLV and San Jose State trip to Romney Stadium.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: The foundation is so solid, so strong and so well-formed, that it's hard to imagine any scenario where Utah State fails to finish first or second in this division. That I'm picking the Aggies to finish second has a bit to do with Boise State – even if USU came out on top last fall – and a bit to do with this team's own issues, the personnel concerns that hamper even a program built to last. And yes, Utah State is built for the long run, not the short term, and Wells has done nothing in his year-plus on the job to alter my faith in the Aggies' ability to remain a Mountain West frontrunner.
But as strong as the Aggies are in some areas, other spots demand Wells' undivided attention. Let's start with the assets: USU is clearly elite at quarterback, where a healthy Keeton makes this team as dangerous as any outside the major-conference landscape; has bodies at receiver, including a solid top three; is very, very good at linebacker, where Fackrell is a star; and will often hold a distinct advantage in the kicking game. But the issues are also clear: Wells can't feel great about his backfield depth, his lack of experience on the offensive line, the hole in the middle of the defensive line and this very questionable secondary.
The strengths outweigh the weaknesses – and do so by a pretty fair margin. What's a little strange, however, is that I comb through Utah State's schedule and see every game as winnable and several that may test the Aggies' ability – basically, there are six or seven clear wins and six or seven toss-ups. I think USU takes a few of the toss-ups but struggles at times against high-quality opposition, particularly in the early going, and enters the finale with a shot at a divisional repeat. This is again a team looking at eight-plus wins.
Dream season: Utah State nabs double-digit wins and claims the divisional crown.
Nightmare season: The Aggies still get back into the postseason, but losses to the prime slice of the schedule yields a seven-win finish.
Who's No. 45? This team's offensive coordinator spent his college days at two different schools, one in the FBS and the other in the FCS, with both housed inside the same state.
RANKING EVERY FBS TEAM FOR 2014