The sample size is small, but the Aggies have regressed in the seasons after their bowl trips in recent history. USU went 3-8 in 1994 and '98. Those downturns may have had more to do with replacing a quarterback (Anthony Calvillo) and coach (John L. Smith) than any kind of complacency, but Aggie coach Gary Andersen is wary.
"Handling success is always something that keeps me on guard, and I don't have a written recipe for it, so I just keep my eyes open," Andersen said this week. "I've talked to a lot of people and I was fortunate to be around some programs that have been consistent. The bottom line is you have your core plan of how you handle the offseason."
Andersen is trying to blend the confidence that comes from winning seven games and receiving a Famous Idaho Potato Bowl bid with the recognition that the Aggies sweated out five victories in the final seconds and absorbed a series of tough losses. That combination leaves some incentive intact.
"Even when you play well enough to win, there's no guarantee," Andersen said. "We learned that the hard way. … You can't live on the edge. You've got to find a way to win some games convincingly."
The Aggies did so exactly twice, against Weber State and Wyoming. They lost fourth-quarter leads against Auburn, Colorado State, BYU, Fresno State, Louisiana Tech and Ohio (in the bowl game). They rallied to beat Hawaii, San Jose State, Idaho, Nevada and New Mexico State. Add it up, and you could make a case for the Aggies' having gone unbeaten but only as strongly as suggesting they could have finished 2-10.
That's what makes 2012 intriguing. If attrition works in USU's favor in pursuing its first WAC title, it's also true that some of the conference's other holdovers (Louisiana Tech, SJSU, Idaho and NMSU) were as tough on the Aggies as the departed schools (Fresno State, Hawaii and Nevada).
So USU wants more. "It's just an awesome feeling, compared to three years ago," said junior center Tyler Larsen, an All-WAC player. "It was really tough back then, but we see what we have the potential for and we're going for it."
Early in spring drills, Andersen sensed that players were looking around for the likes of former team leaders Robert Turbin, Bobby Wagner and Kyle Gallagher. The Aggies are making up for their absence with volume, having voted no fewer than 21 players as captains. The talent drain is another issue, considering that if Turbin and Wagner each is taken by an NFL team in the third round or higher, they'll become the highest-drafted pair of Aggies in 44 years.
Yet with Kerwynn Williams, Joe Hill and Robert Marshall, the Aggies have running backs capable of replacing Turbin. Mix in quarterbacks Chuckie Keeton and Adam Kennedy with some talented receivers, and the Aggies have an offense that could top its school-record success of 2011. The defense will miss Wagner and Gallagher, but other stars may emerge.
Whatever uncertainty exists about the future of the WAC and USU's conference affiliation is balanced by what Andersen and the Aggies are building. Construction soon will begin on a $6.2 million weight room, southeast of Romney Stadium, and the Aggies intend to capitalize on the program's momentum.
"We have a lot more confidence," Larsen said. "We're just rolling right from where we came off this past season."