2012 SEASON IN REVIEW: During their final season as members of the Western Athletic Conference, the Utah State Aggies made the most of their opportunities as they rolled to a perfect 6-0 league mark and went 11-2 overall, thanks in part to a resounding 41-15 romp over Toledo in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl in the middle of December.
The team began 2012 with wins over Southern Utah and Utah at home, but then took a step back in a 16-14 defeat at the hands of Wisconsin on the road. The Aggies followed with a couple more wins versus Colorado State and UNLV, but then lost a heartbreaker against BYU on the road, 6-3. From there USU ran the table, beginning with a 49-27 romp over San Jose State in the conference opener in October and continuing with a 45-9 drubbing of Idaho in the regular- season finale. With their unblemished league mark, the Aggies captured their first outright conference title since 1936, just the third in the program's history overall.
However, the hugely successful campaign also meant head coach Gary Andersen was no longer flying under the national radar in Logan and was soon being courted by the bigger programs in the country for their available coaching positions. The WAC Football Coach of the Year and a finalist for the Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year Award, Andersen eventually made the jump to the top position with, ironically enough, the Wisconsin Badgers after he guided the Aggies to school records for wins in a season and home victories (six) in a single campaign. With the departure of Andersen, who was just 26-24 overall through four seasons with the Aggies, USU decided to stay in-house when selecting its next head coach in offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Matt Wells. A graduate of and player for Utah State himself in the 1990s, Wells is getting his first crack at being a head coach at the collegiate level, where he has been a coach in various forms since joining Navy's staff in 1997.
"I'm extremely honored and humbled to be the next head football coach at my alma mater," said Wells when introduced as the new USU head coach. "This is a university that molded me as a student-athlete and I am fully invested and passionate about continuing the vision for this football program that was set before me."
OFFENSE: Wells enters his first season in Logan needing to replace one of the most electrifying performers in the history of Utah State football, Kerwynn Williams. An all-conference standout who also received national recognition for his efforts, Williams averaged close to seven yards per carry and scored 15 touchdowns for the Aggies in 2012, and he also placed second on the team with 45 catches for 697 yards and five scores.
The good news for Wells is that quarterback Chuckie Keeton is back to direct the offense, what's left of it at least. Named to the Heisman Trophy, Maxwell Award, Davey O'Brien National Quarterback Award and Manning Award Watch Lists, Keeton was a First Team All-Western Athletic Conference pick last year after ranking third in the league and 17th in the country in total offense with more than 307 yards per game. However, Williams was firmly tied to much of that success, taking quite a bit of pressure off the quarterback when he carried the ball out of the backfield.
Not only does Keeton now need a new safety blanket at running back, presumably it will be Joe Hill (seven TDs in 2012), he also has to identify a host of new receivers to lean on down the field as well. The top five receivers from last season have taken their 21 touchdowns and left the program, leaving Travis Reynolds as the top returning starter with his 25 catches for 244 yards and just a single score.
A silver lining in all of this is that the offensive line is stocked with experienced performers, most notably center Tyler Larsen who was named to the Outland Trophy Watch List for the second straight season. A preseason All-MWC selection, Larsen is joined by Jamie Markosian, Eric Schultz, Kevin Whimpey, and Kyle Whimpey in the trenches.
"I think there's going to be a lot more protection for Chuckie (Keeton)," Larsen says with the return of so many starters on the line. "We're all on the same page, we know how we work, we know what calls we can make that will give us an edge against all of the defenses that we play against."
DEFENSE: Under Andersen, not only did the offense thrive in 2012, the defense was also one of the best in all of college football. The numbers were staggering for this little-known program as it placed first in the WAC and seventh in the country overall with just 15.4 ppg allowed. Perhaps most impressive was the manner in which the Aggies stymied foes in the first quarter, permitting a grand total of nine points in 13 games.
The unit returns many of the key performers from that group, particularly at the linebacker position where there are three players who earned All-WAC honors. Tops on the list is Jake Doughty who has started 14 of the 38 games in which he has appeared, ranking second in the WAC with 109 tackles in 2012.
The other player with triple-digit stops a year ago, Zach Vigil (105), showed the ability to get up the field and disrupt plays in the backfield as he recorded 9.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks. Despite being only a freshman in 2012, Kyler Fackrell was a huge force for the Aggies as he placed fourth on the team with 87 tackles, eight for loss, while also coming up with three interceptions which makes him the top returner in that category.
Add to the mix defensive end Connor Williams (seven TFL, six sacks) who made the most of his 32 stops, and the Aggies are poised for another impressive campaign on the defensive side of the ball.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Despite serving as the team's placekicker for the final seven games of 2012, Nick Diaz more than showed his value as he knocked through 10- of-13 field goals, his 76.9 percent accuracy rate ranking eighth all-time in USU single season history. Diaz is hoping to get off to a fast start in 2013, as he has been named to the Lou Groza College Placekicker Award Watch List.
A major change will take place at the punting position where Tyler Bennett was one of the top performers at his craft a year ago, landing 33 of his 61 kicks inside the 20-yard line. Taking over for Bennett will be Jaron Bentrude, the only logical option at this point, even after he averaged a mere 29 yards on his two kicks in 2012.
The team is also needing to replace their top kickoff and punt return specialists from a year ago as well.
OUTLOOK: With a brand new coaching staff, albeit with some holdovers on the defensive side, the Aggies might experience some growing pains this year. Changing conferences will also be a bit of a shock to the system for a Utah State squad that was so dominant in the WAC a year ago. Coach Wells will have a tough time finding a replacement for Williams in both the running and passing attack, but eventually the team will find adequate coverage presumably.
Also working against the Aggies is the schedule, at least early on as they travel for four of their first five games, kicking off with in-state foe Utah in Salt Lake City. The team does entertain BYU and Boise State in the middle of the season, but those are back-to-back matchups against two of the tougher teams on the calendar for sure.
The good news is that USU closes with five very winnable, if not potential blowout contests against New Mexico, Hawaii, UNLV, Colorado State and Wyoming.