A year ago at this time, Utah State and Utah had what amounted to little more than a big brother-little brother intra-state relationship.
The Utes had taken a role of national prominence, filled with 10-win seasons and highlighted by two BCS bowl victories. The Aggies were mostly an also-ran, making a total of seven bowl games and finishing inside the Associated Press' Top 25 just once.
Just about every year, Utah came around to soundly defeat its little brother, handing its "rival" a check for its troubles along the way.
In 2012, though, the script flipped.
Utah nosedived to its first losing record in over a decade at 5-7. The result, combined with a middling 8-5 year in 2011, at least gives some credence to those who wondered whether the Utes could remain a long-term power in the Pac-12.
Head coach Kyle Whittingham has seen his record dip in each of the last three seasons and faces pressure to right the ship with a returning core which received vital experience a year ago.
Meanwhile, Utah State has taken shape as a new powerhouse. Led by one of the nation's most explosive offenses, the Aggies went 11-2 in 2012 and captured their second bowl win in history. Victors of seven straight heading into the 2013 campaign, they are currently tied for the fourth-longest winning streak in the nation.
But as we learn every season, things change on a dime in college football. Gary Andersen parlayed his success in Logan, Utah, to new digs at Wisconsin, leaving as Utah prepared for a move to the difficult Mountain West.
Whittingham brought in former NFL and Pac-12 head coach Dennis Erickson to revamp the Utes' flailing offense. Utah will also be looking to start its season off with some revenge, having lost to its rival for the first time in more than a decade last year.
While it's unclear which team is actually better at this juncture—we are in Week 1, after all—it's clear the Utah-Utah State rivalry is tighter than ever before. That should make for a great appetizer to the 2013 college football kickoff weekend.
With that in mind, here is a quick look at the game's biggest storyline along with a prediction for the outcome.
When: Thursday, Aug. 29 at 8 p.m. ET
Where: Rice-Eccles Stadium, Salt Lake City
TV: Fox Sports 1
Live Stream: Utah All-Access
Betting Line: Utah -2.5 (Vegas Insider)
No injuries to report for Utah State, according to USA Today.
Can Utah Stay With Utah State?
Andersen may have packed his bags and hit the road for Wisconsin, but one thing is clear: His high-powered offense didn't board the plane to Madison, Wisc., with him.
Taking over for the new Badgers' head man is the architect behind last season's ascendant attack, Matt Wells. The 40-year-old former Aggies quarterback served as the school's offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach last season, presiding over a multi-pronged offense that vexed opponents. Utah State averaged nearly 35 points per game in 2012, finishing inside the top 20-30 in nearly every major offensive category.
Most impressively, they were No. 30 in Football Outsiders' S&P Rankings. If being 30th in the nation sounds ho-hum, that's understandable. But here's the thing—the Aggies were only one of three non-major-conference teams that ranked among the nation's top 30. This offense is lethal, it's efficient and it will likely only ratchet up the speed with the innovative Wells taking over full control of the virtual simulator in 2013.
It also doesn't hurt that star quarterback Chuckie Keeton is back, and seems poised for a monster season. Among the most lethal dual-threats in the nation, the rising junior passed for 3,373 yards and 27 touchdowns with only nine interceptions while adding 619 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground in 2012.
That campaign marked massive growth for Keeton, who came to Utah State with a nearly broken throwing motion, but a ton of raw talent. He spent the summer months between his freshman and sophomore seasons working on improving his footwork and timing, leading to a 67.6 completion percentage. He has continued that work this year, which should lead to an even greater uptick.
Utah State's top rusher, Kerwynn Williams, exhausted his eligibility last season, a fairly big problem on the surface. Williams ran for 1,512 yards and 15 touchdowns on just 218 carries for a 6.9 yards average. He'll be replaced by junior Joe Hill, who needed all of 53 touches rushing and receiving in 2012 to impress enough to become a Doak Walker Award candidate.
The Aggies' offense is damn good and a year's worth of experience for Keeton should make it even stronger than the one Utah faced a year ago.
The question is whether Utah's offense can hang with that of Utah State.
Whittingham drew up a smart-enough game plan to hold the Aggies to 27 points in a 27-20 overtime loss a year ago. BYU held Utah State to three points and Wisconsin held the Aggies to 14 points. Utah State's offense, while high powered, has shown cracks in the past when its pet plays aren't working—almost like an NBA offense without a secondary option.
It's notable that those results came early in the season before Keeton was totally in rhythm. With a year of critical progress and confidence under Keeton's belt, Utah would be more than happy if it can repeat its 27-point defensive outing from 2012 against Utah State and move on.
However, can Utah score 28 points?
A year ago, that answer would have been "no" more times than not. The Utes' offense ranked 93rd in Football Outsiders' S&P Rankings, finishing in the bottom-half of the country in passing yards and rushing yards while struggling to remain consistent. In a conference filled with innovation on offense, Whittingham's bunch felt stagnant and behind the times, only scoring in bunches when they could "out-talent" the opposition.
Erickson, who has decades of head-coaching experience in the pros and college football, was brought in to do one thing—bring the Utah offense into the 21st century. Since taking the job, the 66-year-old former national champion has talked about speeding up the attack. Quarterback Travis Wilson should see a vast increase in responsibilities as a sophomore, having gained critical experience (and bumps and bruises) during his first run under center.
Erickson brings his championship pedigree to the table, but it'll be interesting to see whether he can mold a kid who struggled with inconsistencies a year ago.
If we were sitting three or four weeks into the season and had a solid idea of how well the Utes' new offense will run, perhaps they could get the nod here. They still obviously have more top-to-bottom talent than their in-state rivals. You just don't fall out of recruits' good graces with one disappointing season.
But you know what you're getting with Utah State. Keeton should be one of the nation's most electrifying mid-major talents this season, and the returning starters on this roster left little question about a pecking order coming into camp. Wells had a natural selection of things from the moment he took over for his predecessor while Whittingham's roster still remains somewhat in flux.
It's hard to really parse deep and get a good feel for such evenly matched teams here, but we're going to go with Utah State to pull off the slight upset, simply due to skepticism about Erickson's ability to get his offense firing on all cylinders by Week 1.
Score: Utah State 31, Utah 24
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