Exploring the difficulty of Utah State football’s 2019 schedule

Utah State running back Gerold Bright (8) scores a touchdown ahead of North Texas defensive back Jameel Moore (39) during the first half of the New Mexico Bowl NCAA college football game in Albuquerque, N.M., Saturday, Dec. 15, 2018. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)

Suffice it to say that Utah State’s 2019 schedule is one of the most difficult in the program’s history. Two road games versus Power 5 opponents (Wake Forest and LSU). In-conference road matchups versus San Diego State, Fresno State, and Air Force are all extremely dangerous entrapments for the Aggies. Even the home schedule versus Boise State, BYU, Nevada, Wyoming, and Colorado State is filled with pitfalls that could tank USU’s MW title hopes.

This schedule stands in direct contrast to 2018, when the Aggies enjoyed a much lighter schedule. USU capitalized en route to an 11-2 season. The 2019 version of Utah State may be just as talented as 2018, but reaching 11 wins again would be an incredible feat given the schedule’s difficulty. To better gauge the Aggies’ chances of doing so, and to understand why the schedule is vastly more arduous than last year’s, let’s divide USU’s schedule into five separate tiers: Heavily Favorites, Likely to Win, Toss-Up, Likely to Lose, and Major Underdogs.

Heavy Favorites

Games: vs Stony Brook, at New Mexico

That’s basically it for this tier. Stony Brook is USU’s most automatic victory of the year. Even then, the Seawolves can be dangerous, having pushed South Florida to a 17-17 tie into the fourth quarter two years ago. The Aggies have also dominated New Mexico lately, beating them 61-19 last season, and 24-10 in Albuquerque in 2017. The Lobos are still rebuilding after two straight 3-9 seasons, and are USU’s easiest chance for a road victory.

This tier differs greatly from 2018, when the Aggies had approximately four games meeting this criteria against New Mexico State, Tennessee Tech, New Mexico, and San Jose State.

Likely to Win

Games: vs Colorado State, vs Nevada, vs Wyoming

Nevada is a program on the rise, but after losing last year’s starting quarterback, the Aggies should be able to handle things at home. Utah State came perilously close to losing to Colorado State and Wyoming on the road last season (and kinda sorta did against CSU… maybe?). At home, USU should be favored to win, but after last year, no one will feel safe in those games until the clock fully runs out, the stadium lights are shut off, and the parking lots are emptying out.

A case could be made for five of these games in 2018, with USU’s contests against Air Force, UNLV, Wyoming, Hawaii, and Colorado State fitting squarely in this region.

Toss-Up

Games: at Wake Forest, at San Diego State, at Air Force, BYU

Here’s where 2019 gains much of its difficulty while still allowing Aggie fans to maintain hope of another 11-win season. The Aggies have the talent to compete in every game in 2019 but luck and variance will be large determining factors in USU actually doing so. Fans should rightly expect the Aggies to win several of these games. However, in a vacuum, none of these games would be a major surprise were USU to come up short. In other words, anything from 0-4 to 4-0 is on the table for these four games. They’re the major obstacle between Utah State and being in position to challenge for a MW title.

Last year, only one game truly fit into this tier: BYU. While the Cougars fell short of expectations for the season as a whole, both USU and BYU entered the in-state rivalry expecting a victory. The Aggies running away with a 45-20 victory conceals that the game was thought to be very even, evidenced by the Cougars being one-point favorites prior to kickoff.

Likely to Lose

Games: at Fresno State, vs Boise State

Were the Aggies and Bulldogs to play in Logan, this game might become more of a toss-up or even a game USU would be likely to win. In Fresno, however, it will be a tough ask for the Aggies to succeed against what will be one of the best defenses in the MW. Fresno State does face the task of replacing QB Marcus McMaryion, but head coach Jeff Tedford deserves the benefit of the doubt in finding a competent signal-caller. As for the Broncos, USU has still managed only one victory in the series since 1998. A number of offensive playmakers are gone for Boise State, but the Smurf Turfians will field one of the best defenses in the country this season. The Aggies played the Broncos closely on the road last year, eventually falling 33-24, but the endeavor won’t be any easier in 2019. That 2018 matchup versus the Broncos was also the only game within the “Likely to Lose” category.

Major Underdogs

Games: at LSU

LSU typically doesn’t run teams out of the building, with only three victories of more than 25 points over the past two seasons. The Aggies could theoretically keep this game within several scores for the majority of the contest. But the Tigers are Playoff contenders for a good reason. Joe Burrow is one of the best LSU QBs in recent memory, the defense will again be stout, and the Tigers will enjoy a distinct talent advantage at almost every position. For Utah State to even remain competitive, Love will have to play lights out for a full four quarters, and a number of bounces will need to go the Aggies’ way. Death Valley is named such for a reason.

USU’s opening game versus Michigan State was the only game to fit this criteria a year ago. The Spartans struggled to a 7-6 record following the contest, but MSU was placed as 23.5-point favorite entering the game. With the benefit of hindsight, USU’s marquee opponent of the year gave little boost to the Aggies’ schedule strength. But even excluding the knowledge from looking back on the season that was, Utah State’s 2018 schedule lacked the ferocity and difficulty of the 2019 iteration.

If, based on these tiers, results follow expectations and the Aggies manage a split in their four toss-up matchups, USU would end the season with a 7-5 record. That’d be a far cry from last year’s 11-2, despite the fact the team’s talent level is largely the same. USU is talented enough to pull several upsets, meaning that the program’s chances of a first-ever second straight double-digit season are very much warranted. It would be unwise to fully expect the Aggies to pull that feat off against such stiff competition, however. That is why the schedule will be the Aggies’ primary obstacle to a repeat double-digit season.

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1 Comment

  • Warren Pugh September 1, 2019 at 4:28 pm Reply

    Wake gave ND a good battle last year. Misread it?

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