Utah State Aggies (2000: 5-6)
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Coach and programAfter arriving in Logan last season after a successful seven-year stint at the University of Montana, Mick Dennehy exceeded everyoneís expectations when he won his first four Big West games and had the Aggies playing for the championship at Boise State in mid-November.
Alas, the Aggies were thumped by the powerful Broncos, 66-38, and the following week were upset by a substantially less-powerful Idaho State team of the Big Sky in the season finale. That left Dennehy and the Aggies with a 5-6 overall record and a bad taste in their mouths at seasonís end, despite that four-game winning streak earlier in the year.
Winning records have been rare for the Aggies over the last two decades. And without the Big West to beat up any more because of the demise of the football-playing portion of the league, it may get tougher to produce a winning season.
Now the Aggies are faced with an independent schedule for the first time since the late 1970s because of the stubbornness of a university president who is no longer there. Instead of following other Big West teams such as New Mexico State, Arkansas State, Idaho and North Texas to the Sun Belt Conference, Utah State decided to wait for an invitation to the Western Athletic Conference, which expanded to only 10 teams instead of 12.
That left the Aggies without a conference to play in this year, although athletic director Rance Pugmire did an admirable job of filling the schedule, getting home games against Oregon and Wyoming as well as road games at LSU and Fresno State and the usual in-state battles against Utah and BYU. If the Aggies can win two of those games, they ought to be doing cartwheels.
The rest of the schedule is winnable with games against Big Sky teams Weber State and Idaho State, Connecticut, South Florida and Central Florida. Unfortunately those games are all in the second half of the season when the Aggies may be too beat up to care.
OffenseJunior running back Emmett White (5-11, 199) had big shoes to fill last year, replacing Demario Brown, who had completed his career as the best running back in USU history with 4,053 yards in his career and a season-record 1,536 yards.
It didnít take long for White to change the color of the backfield and make everyone forget about Brown as he rushed for 1,322 yards and 13 touchdowns, while leading the nation in all-purpose yards.
Not only did White lead the nation in all-purpose yards with 238.9 yards per game, he shattered the NCAA single-game record with 578 yards against New Mexico State in early November.
After starting for two seasons, senior quarterback Jeff Crosbie (6-5, 198) got off to a slow start in Dennehyís new system and lost his job in the second game to junior Jose Fuentes (6-2, 188), who threw four second-half touchdown passes against Southern Utah after replacing Crosbie.
Heading into the fall, Fuentes is solidly entrenched as the No. 1 quarterback, but the Aggie coaches will feel better than last year, knowing they have a capable backup such as Crosbie ready to step in if needed.
Replacing Aaron Jones, who caught 63 passes for 1,159 yards, wonít be easy for the Aggies. However, they should be deeper this year with more targets for Fuentes in the Aggiesí pass-happy offense.
Sophomore Chris Stallworth (6-3,190), the nephew of former NFL star receiver John Stallworth, should be the go-to guy this year after catching 26 passes for 289 yards and a touchdown in 2000.
Defense and special teamsSenior Nick Onaindia (6-3, 243), began the 2000 season as a starter at defensive end, but went out for the year after just three games with a shoulder injury. He would seem to be an obvious choice to start at one of the defensive end spots this year, but will have to beat out one of two returning starters from last year, sophomore Nate Putnam (6-7, 224) or senior Ryan Duncan (6-3, 245).
On the surface, things look bleak at the linebacker position where three starters have graduated, including All-Big West performers Brent Passey and Blake Eagal, along with Cade Smith. However, while there are some holes to fill, the Aggies wonít be hurting at the linebacker spot this year.
Though he started only two games, junior Jesse Busta (6-2, 232) played starters minutes most of the year and filled in for Smith when he was injured. He finished second on the team in tackles with 110 and came up with two interceptions and a fumble recovery and also earned All-Big West honors.
The Aggies have more experience in the defensive backfield than anywhere else on the team with all four starters returning, along with a player who was a starter before getting injured.
The most experienced player is senior cornerback Tony Walker (5-11, 183), who has started 25 games over the last three seasons.
With 22 kickoff returns for a 24.1-yard average, White ranked 22nd in the nation, while Walker returned 26 kicks for a 17.9-yard average. White handled all but three of the teamís 24 punt returns with an 8.7-yard average.
Bottom lineWith no conference title to play for this year because of the demise of the Big West, the Aggies can only try to play for a bowl berth. But unless your name is Notre Dame, the chances of an independent team making a bowl game arenít good.
Still, although the odds are long, the Aggies could gain some national attention with upsets over LSU or Oregon, two teams that should be highly ranked this year. But they get no rest in the early season with games against Utah, BYU, Fresno State and Wyoming.
Unfortunately the five most winnable games are the final five, including two games against Division I-AA schools. If the schedule was reversed, the Aggies might be able to gain some confidence as well as experience before taking on the big-name schools.