Las Vegas • Utah State is used to being picked to finish at the bottom of the Western Athletic Conference in football. Being the program that isn't highly thought of has seemingly been an annual thing for the Aggies.
So this must be a new feeling for USU.
Gary Andersen's crew is now a favorite in the severely weakened WAC. For a change, Utah State will be the hunted, instead of the team hoping to pull off an upset or two. In what could very well be the final season of existence for the league as a football conference, the Aggies were picked second behind Louisiana Tech.
USU may have lost Robert Turbin and Bobby Wagner to the NFL, but it returns a deep and talented core on both sides of the football. The Aggies are brimming with optimism. A new turf has just been erected at Romney Stadium. The uniforms are new, and the non-league schedule is challenging. And, of course, Utah State is a year away from moving to the Mountain West.
But, the Aggies still have to finish up with the WAC.
"Being picked second is nice and all, but it doesn't put any rings on your fingers," Andersen said. "It's a credit to these kids that have worked their tails off. Being a favorite makes a difference. It should catapult us into the season. A preseason poll isn't going to win us a championship, but it does show that people have respect for our program."
Thursday's conference media day at the Orleans Hotel proved to be a somber atmosphere for all involved. Utah State and Louisiana Tech, Texas San-Antonio, San Jose State and Texas State are each headed elsewhere next season.
Interim commissioner Jeff Hurd all but confirmed to The Tribune that while a number of schools back East could make a jump to FBS status and join the WAC in time for the 2014 season, the league likely won't have football for next year at the very least.
That leaves New Mexico State and Idaho, both of whom are looking at probable forced independence for at least 2013, as cast-offs with a very bleak future after MWC commissioner Craig Thompson told each school that his league would not be throwing them a lifeline.
Utah State narrowly avoided the fate of NMSU and Idaho, and did so in large part because of its improvement on the field and its upgraded football facilities. The Aggies are eager to start the season, and anxious for the future. Playing for a title means more to them than anything, however.
"We know what lies ahead in the Mountain West Conference," senior wide receiver Matt Austin said. "But we're completely focused and committed with being the best team that we can be this year. We have to focus on what's in front of us and worry about the future when it gets here. We're excited about the season. We have a great schedule, and it's going to be a challenge."
Utah State starts fall camp next Friday. The Aggies are expected to scrimmage for the first time on the following Saturday. Along the way, Andersen said that he will be choosing a starting quarterback, with Chuckie Keeton holding the edge over Adam Kennedy heading into the beginning of practice.
In the past, Andersen has been a staunch supporter of naming a starter and sticking exclusively with that guy. He hinted on Thursday, however, that he is thinking of playing both Kennedy and Keeton.
"Both guys are experienced and tough and very good players," Andersen said. "I won't have to change the offense for either of the two, and that's a good thing. They competed last summer. They competed in the spring, and they will compete again. Once the season starts though, they are great teammates and fully supportive of each other."
USU in the WAC
Utah State is picked to finish second in the WAC in the preseason media and coaches' polls.
The Aggies receive three first-place votes in the media poll.
Louisiana Tech is the favorite to win the WAC.