<strong>LAS VEGAS—</strong> The Western Athletic Conference football media days were held this past week for possibly the final time. Whatever happens with the WAC, it was the final time Utah State was there as a member.
The Aggies may have saved the best for last. After closing with five straight regular season wins in 2011 and reaching the programs first bowl game since 1997, USU was tabbed to its highest spot in the preseason polls since joining the WAC – No. 2 in both the coaches and the media polls.
“It is a credit to these kids that worked their tails off. It matters because it comes from the peers, especially the coaches poll in my opinion. It makes a difference, and should catapult them into the season,” Aggie head coach Gary Andersen said. “It shows some respect, and a lot of us work to gain respect as teams and as a group of young men it’s important to them.
“It does not put rings on your fingers, it doesn’t give you a championship, and it doesn’t get you to a bowl game or a bowl game championship. What it does do, is shows that people respect you and that’s important.”
Louisiana Tech was the runaway pick in both the coaches and the media polls to win the conference, and they received six of the seven first place votes in the coaches poll, and 25 of the 28 votes in the media poll. San Jose State finished third in both polls.
“It feels great to get that respect … it just shows how hard we worked to get where we are, and where we came from in the past two years,” senior linebacker Bojay Filimoeatu said. “It catapults us into the season, and it’s not going to stop the grind that we’ve been going through.”
Rounding out the preseason polls was New Mexico State and Idaho– the Vandals and NMSU flipped spots from the coaches to the media poll – Texas State, and the University of Texas-San Antonio. For the two Texas schools, this will be their first and only season in the WAC.
Meanwhile, with such high expectations, the Aggies find themselves in unfamiliar position. To meet those expectations though, USU will need to work on finishing games. The Aggies had a fourth-quarter lead in five of the six games they lost in 2011, and played a national-high 10 games decided by one score or less.
“It was a very, very tough first part of the year, it was a very tough five-game win streak. It seemed like (Matt Austin) was catching balls in the last second, or we were knocking down a ball to get a fumble against Nevada to find a way to win the game,” Andersen said. “You’ve got to go through that and you’ve got to learn to win football games and you’ve got to expect to win football games, that’s part of the maturity process. I do know this, if we continually sit on that ledge, you’re going to have a hard time becoming a consistent winner. We’ve got to find a way to win games consistently and play well for four quarters.”
Austin – a senior wide receiver who was granted an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA – agreed with his coach.
“It just goes with finishing, that’s our focus. That’s what our focus is this past summer, just finishing and getting in shape, and stuff like that,” Austin said. “We know we lost it ourselves – a lot of close games and it hurts – but that was the past, and now we’re living in the present. We’re ready, and I feel like now we know what kind of team we can be, and we’re going to finish this year.”
Though USU returns a lot of talent from last year’s team, they also lost some main cogs – namely 2011 NFL draft picks Bobby Wagner, Robert Turbin, and Michael Smith – and have plenty of question marks heading into fall camp, which begins next week.
One of the biggest question marks, is who will be the Aggies starting quarterback on Aug. 30. Senior Adam Kennedy and sophomore Chuckie Keeton both spent time in the starting lineup last season, and both performed well.
“We’ll try to make it as big of circus as possible, so we’ll hold it off as long as we can,” Andersen joked. “I would say this, there’s room for both those young men in our program, without a doubt. They know that, and they understand that. As far as the timing on naming a starter, I feel zero pressure to do that. It’s not high on my agenda right now, nor is it high on Chuckie’s or Adam’s agenda. It’s not an issue, it’s not a controversy, it’s a competition – just like every position.”
Andersen also said depth on the defensive line at the running back position are also question marks and points of emphasis heading into fall camp. Along with depth at those positions, Andersen said the overall youth of the Aggies is a concern, with only 16 seniors on the roster.
“Overall, this team has prepared well. I’ll say this about the conference and the WAC conference this year I think is very evenly matched,” Andersen said. “There’s teams that are No. 1 and there’s teams wherever they fall in the preseason polls, but I think every game will be highly contested. I don’t see anybody walking through this league cleanly in my opinion.”