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Southern Utah Thunderbirds vs. Utah State Aggies Preview and Prediction

Author:
Chuckie Keeton

Chuckie Keeton

One thing remains in Utah State's ascension as a football program. The Aggies want to finish out a season as conference champions. Given the level of talent and experience on both sides of the ball, Utah State should pose a major threat to Boise State's continued domination of the Mountain West Conference during the 2015 season.

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Utah State and head coach Matt Wells get to enjoy a rare season opener at home when it hosts Southern Utah on Thursday. This is the fourth game in the series between the two in-state foes. USU won all three previous meetings including, most recently, a 34-3 victory in 2012 — which, ironically, was also the most recent home season opener for the Aggies.

Southern Utah at Utah State

Kickoff: 9 p.m. ET (Thursday)

TV: None

Spread: N/A

Three Things to Watch

1. Keeton at the reins again

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It seems like ages ago since Chuckie Keeton was tormenting opposing defenses with his electrifying play. The senior quarterback missed parts of the last two seasons because of knee injuries and returned this year after being granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA. When he is fully healthy, Keeton can help the Aggies light up the scoreboard in a hurry. Southern Utah knows it all too well. Keeton completed 22 of 25 passes for 304 yards to help Utah State beat the Thunderbirds in 2012. He is one of just three active FBS quarterbacks who hold their school's passing record. Keeton set the USU record in 2012 when he passed for 3,373 yards.

2. Defensive domination

Utah State posted a 10-win season for just the second time in school history in 2014. Defense played a major role in making it happen. The Aggies had the 12th-best scoring defense in the nation, allowing just 19.7 points per game. USU also led the Mountain West in both sacks (3.57 per game) and rushing defense (130.7 yards per game). The Aggies have forced at least one turnover in 34 of their last 37 games. Odds are good that Utah State can keep the defensive engine humming in 2015. Several key defensive playmakers return — led by linebackers Nick Vigil and Kyler Fackrell.

3. Finding balance

Southern Utah is looking for more offensive balance after featuring a pass-heavy attack last season. Senior quarterback Ammon Olsen is coming off a season where he passed for 3,049 yards and 21 touchdowns while completing 63.3 percent of his passes. The running game was quite dismal in comparison and improving it has been a point of emphasis this offseason. The T-Birds averaged just 104 rushing yards per game in 2014  less than half of what their opponents generated per contest.

Final Analysis

Southern Utah has pulled off upsets over FBS opponents in recent seasons, beating UNLV in 2011 and South Alabama in 2013. Playing a team like Utah State is a whole different animal. The Aggies are poised to be one of the nation's best all-around defensive teams again in 2015. Paired with a healthy Keeton directing the offense, it adds up to what should be an easy home victory for USU to kickoff a new season.

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Prediction: Utah State 38, Southern Utah 10

Written by John Coon,who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.