The 2013 season was one filled with adversity for the Utah State Aggies. They were under a new head coach in a new, more challenging conference and lost running back Joe Hill in game five and star quarterback Chuckie Keeton in game six. Close losses early to followed by more lopsided losses after Keeton’s injury had the Aggies at just 3-4 halfway through the season. But the team rallied behind a freshman quarterback, winning their final five regular season games to win the Mountain West Conference Mountain Division title, ultimately losing close in the conference title game, and go 9-5 on the year with a bowl victory.
This year, the team will get Keeton back under center but lose some key pieces on the offensive line and on defense. Head coach Matt Wells will be tested on how well the program has stockpiled talent heading into the 2014 season. If they can maintain their high level of play they displayed down the stretch in 2013 with a healthy Keeton under center leading the offense, Utah State could be a real force in the MWC this season.
Darrell Garretson stepped up and filled in down the stretch admirably following Keeton’s injury, which bodes well for the position down the line. But for 2014, this is Keeton’s team. Before getting injured, Keeton was having a strong season, completing 69.4 percent of his passes for 1,388 yards with 18 touchdowns to just two interceptions in a little over five games played. He was also averaging 6.2 yards per carry on the ground with a pair of touchdowns as he accumulated 285 yards on just 46 carries. With a healthy knee underneath him, Keeton should once again be one of the nation’s most exciting players.
At running back, the team loses a pair of seniors from the 2013 squad, including leading rusher Joey DeMartino and his 1,221 yards and 13 touchdowns. Getting Hill back from injury will help tremendously as he was putting together a pretty good 2013 campaign before getting hurt. In just five games, Hill ran for 252 yards and a touchdown, averaging 4.8 yards per carry. He will have to show that he’s completely healthy and ready to carry the bulk of the rushing offense as the rest of the Utah State backfield is wildly inexperienced.
Similarly, the receiving corps loses its top two producers from 2013, including the team’s best deep-threat in the passing game Travis Reynolds. His 832 yards, four touchdowns, and 16.31 yards per reception average were all tops on the team and the Aggies will need someone to step up to stretch the field for Keeton in 2014. Ronald Butler had a decent showing in 2013, averaging 14.42 yards per reception as he posted 24 catches for 346 yards and three touchdowns. Also watch out for sophomore tight end Wyatt Houston who caught seven passes in seven games as a freshman for 118 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
One aspect of the offense that could hinder the Aggies, especially early on, could be the offensive line. Four of five starters are gone, including 1st team All-MWC center Tyler Larsen. The line will have a combined 26 starts when the 2014 season kicks off, all of which belong to senior left tackle Kevin Whimpey. The rest of the line will be seeing their first action in 2014 and how quickly they gel could determine this team’s early success this fall.
The Utah State defense was one of the best in the nation, statistically in 2014, thanks to a stifling run defense that ranked No. 8 in the country. They will be challenged to match that production in 2014 in part due to the turnover of the defensive line. Two of three starters are gone and the team will lean on sophomore Ricky Ali’ifua to step up at nose guard. As a rotational player during his freshman year, Ali’ifua flashed excellent disruptive ability, recording 15.5 tackles, four tackles for loss, and 1.5 sacks. The group will be led, however, by returning starter B.J. Larsen at defensive end after he led the group in 2013 with eight tackles for loss and four sacks.
At linebacker, Utah State gets three of four starters back and will count on this group to be a disruptive force once again in 2014. The team’s top two pass rushers, outside linebackers Nick Vigil and Kyler Fackrell, are back after combining for 10.5 sacks and 21.5 tackles for loss a season ago. Senior Zach Vigil will man one of the inside linebacker positions again this year after posting 86.5 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss, 2.0 sacks, an interception, and three forced fumbles a season ago.
In the secondary, the Aggies will be hit hard by turnover and will need some unproven talent to step up in a major way. Three of the four starters from 2014 are gone as well as four of the top six backups. Free safety Brian Suite leads the way in 2014 after recording 57 tackles with a team-high five interceptions and six pass breakups last year. The rest of the group, however, is a major question mark with the rest of the returning players in the secondary combining for just one interception and two pass breakups in 2013.
The Aggies will have a chance to make a major splash in their season opener when they go on the road to play the Tennessee Volunteers on August 31. They then have three very winnable non-conference games against FCS Idaho State, the Wake Forest Demon Deacons, and on the road against the Arkansas State Red Wolves before wrapping their non-conference slate at the BYU Cougars.
In conference play, they have a very winnable slate of games, avoiding West Division heavyweights like the Fresno State Bulldogs, San Diego State Aztecs, and Nevada Wolfpack during the regular season. Their most difficult conference game will be their regular season finale on the road against the Boise State Broncos, which could decide the winner of the Mountain Division and send one of those two teams to the MWC Championship.
If Keeton is able to stay healthy, the offensive line comes together quickly, and the secondary finds capable starters, then the Aggies will be one of the most exciting non-Power Five teams to watch in college football this season. With the depth of their program showing that they can sustain success and with a dynamic playmaker at quarterback, watch for the Aggies to get back to double-digit wins in 2014.