LAS VEGAS – When Utah State junior quarterback Chuckie Keeton was asked about Boise State, he leaned forward in his chair and his eyes sharpened.
“It’s kind of like an under-the-table type of rivalry. It’s not the biggest thing in the world, but at the same time, there’s a lot of pride in it. It’s practically an in-state rivalry, just how close we are,” Keeton said at last week’s Mountain West Media Days.
Rivalry might be too strong of a word, at least for now. But with Utah State — a program on the rise coming off its best season in school history — joining the conference, the oft-overlooked little brother to BYU and Utah in the Beehive State is hoping to change that.
“It will be a rivalry if we can win. I don’t think a series is a rivalry until you start trading wins,” said first-year USU coach Matt Wells. “If we are able to compete with (Boise State) and win one, maybe it can turn into a rivalry. Certainly geographically it would merit one.”
Their campuses are 292 miles — about a four-hour drive — apart, and Magic Valley is smack-dab in the middle. While southern Idaho is clearly a blue-and-orange dominated fan base, the area is also home to a sizable contingent of Utah State alumni.
In some ways, Magic Valley is a BSU-USU battleground.
“We count southern Idaho in our local in-state recruiting area,” Wells said.
But as Wells said, it won’t be a rivalry until the Aggies figure out a way to beat the Broncos. When they were WAC foes, Boise State routinely got the best of Utah State. Their last meeting, in 2010, was a lopsided 50-14 BSU victory. In fact, the Broncos have a 10-game winning streak in the series, with the last Aggie win in 1997.
But these aren’t your grandfather’s Aggies.
Utah State went 11-2 and won the WAC in 2012, claiming its first outright conference title since 1938. The Aggies’ two losses were on the road and by a combined five points (16-14 to Wisconsin and 6-3 to BYU), otherwise USU could have busted the BCS.
“Last year was a special thing for us,” Keeton said. “It was one of those seasons that I’m sure we won’t forget. But there was still so much that we could improve on.”
But the Aggies face new challenges in 2013, moving into the Mountain West and breaking in a young new head coach. Gary Andersen took the head coaching job at Wisconsin, and the university promptly promoted Wells, formerly the offensive coordinator.
“The scheme didn’t really change much. … Literally everything is about the same,” Keeton said.
Most preseason projections have Utah State finishing second to Boise State in the conference’s Mountain Division. But with the Aggies returning 14 starters from the 16th-ranked team in the nation, there’s plenty of reason for USU players and fans to be confident.
“That’s what it is, a preseason ranking. Good for them, I guess,” said USU linebacker Zach Vigil, who leads a unit that was 7th in the NCAA in scoring defense in 2012. “We are here to compete and win our section of the division. You are told never to put anybody on a pedestal, but obviously Boise State has done a really good job of building their program. They are a strong football program that will be good for a lot of years to come. I wouldn’t call them a Goliath, but they are a good team in the conference we will have to be prepared for.”
Keeton wants to prove 2012 wasn’t a fluke, that Utah State isn’t a one-hit wonder and that the Aggies are up to the bigger challenge of the Mountain West.
“If anything, I think the new conference is just going to show the dedication and work ethic of this team,” Keeton said. “I know we have guys this year who are not going to back down from the challenge. We have a team full of fighters; we have a team full of competitors. That’s all you can really ask from a football team, as long as they compete for a full four quarters, you’re always going to be in the game one way or another.”
Keeton is the leader who could make it happen. In 2012 he passed for 3,373 yards and 27 touchdowns, while rushing for an additional 619 yards and eight TDs. Keeton’s entire starting offensive line returns.
If Boise State-Utah State is ever to fill its rivalry potential, this could be the year. The Aggies seem to pose the biggest threat to BSU’s path to the first-ever MW title game. Surely Aggie fans — particularly those who reside in the Magic Valley battleground area — have calendars marked for Oct. 12, when Boise State will travel four hours down the freeway to Logan, Utah.
“We’re going to take it full force and we’re not going to back down from anyone,” Keeton said. “That’s just the way Utah State plays.”