FACTS & STATS: Site: Rice-Eccles Stadium (45,017) -- Salt Lake City, Utah. Television: Fox Sports 1. Home Record: Utah State 0-0, Utah 0-0. Away Record: Utah State 0-0, Utah 0-0. Neutral Record: Utah State 0-0, Utah 0-0. Conference Record: Utah State 0-0, Utah 0-0. Series Record: Utah leads 77-29-4.
GAME NOTES: The 2013 college football season gets underway on Thursday with the renewal of a Beehive State rivalry, as the Utah State Aggies visit the Utah Utes at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Coming off their best season in school history, the Aggies will look to get the 2013 campaign off on the right foot. The Aggies amassed an 11-2 record a year ago in their final season as a member of the Western Athletic Conference. Utah State is now entering a new league, the Mountain West Conference, with a new head coach in Matt Wells who takes over for Gary Andersen.
Utah did not get in the win column as much as their instate rival. The Utes shuffled through a number of quarterbacks and couldn't find consistency on offense and ended a disappointing 5-7. The record broke a nine-year run in bowl games and was the team's worst record since 2000. Even more disheartening was the fact that Utah had posted an 8-5 record in the previous season, its first as a member of the Pac-12 Conference.
A year ago Utah State came away with a 27-20 win in overtime thanks to a one- yard touchdown run from Kerwynn Williams. The win ended a 12-game losing streak for the Aggies against Utah and was their first win against a team from a BCS conference since 1992. Utah still has a commanding 77-29-4 edge in the all-time series.
In his first season at the helm, Wells, who was the offensive coordinator for the Aggies last season, will benefit from having a familiar player under center. Chuckie Keaton is set for his junior season a year after he threw for 3,373 yards and 27 touchdowns. Keaton is also a major threat on the ground as he proved last year by scampering for 619 yards and eight touchdowns. Keaton will be in his third year as a starter and has been placed on a variety of award watch lists for the 2013 campaign.
Keaton should be kept upright pretty regularly as well with all five offensive lineman who started last year back in the fold. Tyler Larsen is the leader of the group as the senior center is one of the top pivots in the country.
The wealth of returning riches ends there though as the Aggies will be breaking in a number of skill players. Williams was an outstanding running back for the Aggies last season as he rushed for 1,512 yards and 15 touchdowns, while piling up 697 yards and five scores through the air. His replacement will likely be Joe Hill, who rushed for 269 yards and scored seven touchdowns in limited duty as a backup.
The receiving corps is also completely overhauled. Travis Reynolds, who hauled in 25 passes for 244 yards last season, is suddenly the top option. Travis Van Leeuwen is another senior that will be called upon to step up.
This season the Aggies will be hoping to carry over their defensive dominance in the WAC into their new league. In 2012 Utah State ranked at the top of the WAC in both scoring (15.4 ppg) and total defense (322.1 ypg). Both of those totals were among the top 15 in the country as well.
Stepping in as defensive coordinator under Wells is Todd Orlando, who replaces former coordinator Dave Aranda. Aranda left with Andersen for Wisconsin. If the former FIU defensive coordinator hopes to keep the defense strong it begins at linebacker.
Kyler Fackrell, Jake Doughty and Zach Vigil were all named to the all- conference team last season and are back to set the tone for the front seven. Doughty and Vigil each accumulated over 100 tackles, while Fackrell showed his versatility with three interceptions, 87 tackles and three sacks.
Sack leader Connor Williams (six) is back to man one of the end spots in the 3-4 scheme favored by the Aggies. The rest of the rotation up front is made up of players without much starting experience, although B.J. Larsen, A.J. Pataiali'l and Elvis Kamana-Matagi are all upperclassmen.
Senior Maurice Alexander returns from a season-long suspension last year to anchor the secondary at safety. Fellow safety Brian Suite had 73 tackles last season and BNevin Lawson, a 28-game starter, is also back after collecting 63 tackles and 10 passes defended.
There was no consistency for Utah at quarterback last season. The Utes used three different signal callers during the campaign. Travis Wilson started the final seven games and will have the job to himself this season.
Wilson threw for 1,311 yards and seven touchdowns on 62.6 percent passing, but was also intercepted six times and averaged just 6.5 yards per attempt. Still, Wilson was the most successful of the trio of quarterbacks to make starts as he went 3-4, while Jordan Wynn and Jon Hays combined to go 2-3.
Like Utah State, the Utes lost a huge piece in the backfield with their star running back John White gone. White was the first Utah player ever to rush for 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons. Tasked with replacing that kind of production will be Kelvin York. The senior was solid as a backup last year when he picked up 273 yards and three scores on 60 carries.
Dres Anderson (36 receptions, 365 yards, 3 TDs) and Kenneth Scott (32, 360, 3) are the top returning targets for Wilson, while tight end Jake Murphy (33, 349, 4) should yet again be a solid option.
Many players on the offensive line were either sidelined by injuries or filling in as starters for the first time last season. Center Vyncent Jones is a senior that needs to lead the unit this time around, while left tackle Jeremiah Poutasi showed a ton of potential as a freshman.
Defense was an area of strength for Utah last season. The Utes ranked fifth in the Pac-12 and 36th nationally in total yards allowed (363.4 ypg) and also had a +4 turnover differential.
Defensive end Trevor Reilly will lead the way up front. Reilly led the team with 69 tackles, while accumulating 4.5 sacks.
Reilly will be joined in the front seven by Nate Orchard, formerly Nate Fakahafua. Orchard was an All-Conference honorable mention selection last season when he collected 48 tackles, 9.5 for loss and three sacks.
Brian Blechen and Eric Rowe will be the leaders in the secondary but are the only other returning starters on this side of the ball.
With Keaton under center the Aggies have a decided advantage on offense. Whether or not Keaton can keep up his level or production without Williams will be key in this contest. Neither of these rivals will give an inch in this contest, but expect the Utes to find a way to get the win at home.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Utah 24, Utah State 20
Game Date and Time