Even though the Aggies finished with a losing record for the third consecutive season, the 6-7 showing doubled their win total compared to 2016 (3-9). Utah State finished its 2017 campaign with an overtime loss to New Mexico State in the Arizona Bowl and went 4-4 in the Mountain West. With 16 starters returning some pundits are giving Matt Wells' team an outside shot of seizing the Mountain Division title away from Boise State this fall.
For Michigan State, its 2017 turnaround was much more pronounced. After going 3-9 in 2016, doubts started swirling around Mark Dantonio's program. But the Spartans rebounded in a big way, going 10-3 including 7-2 to tie for second in the rugged Big Ten East Division. Michigan State capped its season by dominating Washington State in the Holiday Bowl. The Spartans enter 2018 with serious aspirations to get to and win the Big Ten Championship Game and make a case for the College Football Playoff.
This will be the first meeting between the Aggies and Spartans on the gridiron. Michigan State holds a 3-0 record against current teams in the Mountain West Conference. All of those have occurred in the past six seasons and at home.
Utah State has faced Big Ten teams six times, all on the road. The Aggies have lost five of these contests, with the only winning coming back in 1968 over a Wisconsin team that went 0-10. Utah's most recent matchup against a Big Ten also came against the Badgers, who routed the Aggies 59-10 in Madison to open the 2017 season.
Utah State at Michigan State
Kickoff: Friday, Aug. 31 at 7 p.m. ET
TV: Big Ten Network
Spread: Michigan State -23.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Utah State's defensive concerns
In 2017, Utah State allowed an average of 217.2 yards and 1.5 touchdowns on the ground per game. The Aggies’ two opponents from Power 5 conferences (Wisconsin, Wake Forest) piled up 525 rushing yards and scored seven times on the ground, as Utah State lost both games by a combined score of 105-20. For the season, the Aggies finished 116th in the FBS against the run while giving up a total of 20 rushing touchdowns in 13 games.
Compounding Utah State's defensive concerns is either the loss or absence of several ley pieces. Of the Aggies' top 11 tacklers in 2017, only six will be available on Friday. Only seven of the top 11 with the most tackles for a loss will play against Michigan State as well. The biggest loss could be linebacker Suli Tamaivena. The team's leading tackler in 2017 with 111 stops, the senior will not play against the Spartans due to broken fingers on his left hand.
2. Will the Spartans’ offensive line play up to its potential?
Michigan State has an experienced and respected crew driving its offense. Left tackle Cole Chewins started every game in 2017. Last season, left guard David Beedle played in 11 games, started eight of those and was named third team All-Big Ten by both the media and coaches. Despite being a freshman last year, Kevin Jarvis played in all 13 games, making 10 starts, while Luke Campbell, a redshirt sophomore, saw action in every contest and started all but one. Jarvis and Campbell received honorable mention all-conference recognition from the coaches and media. Reserve tackle Jordan Reid was on the field for every game, totaling 277 snaps, as a freshman in 2017. Reserve guard Tyler Higby, a junior, has 13 career starts and has seen action in 22 games in his career.
Put this all together and it should bode well for senior running back LJ Scott, who averaged 4.5 yards per carry last season, and the other Spartan ball carriers, especially against a Utah State defense that struggled against the run in 2017.
3. Will the Aggies be intimidated by playing on the road against a Power 5 opponent?
Utah State has struggled in its recent contests versus teams from Power 5 conferences. In the past four seasons, the Aggies have played six times on the road against teams from the Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC and ACC. They are 0-6 in those games and they haven't been close – the average margin of defeat being 29.7 points. The closest outcome in this stretch is a 10-point loss at Utah in 2015. Utah State has not won on the road against a current Power 5 team since beating the Utes in Salt Lake City in 1997.
The Spartans have one of the most experienced rosters in the nation with a total of 19 starters returning. Nine of their first-string defenders started games last season. The same goes for the offense. An offensive line with numerous starts together will protect a seasoned quarterback and running back.
The Aggies have the potential to keep this game competitive for the first quarter. Utah State enters this game with little pressure or expectation of pulling off the upset. However, the Aggies' noticeable lack of comparative depth and experience will become apparent as the game progresses. Michigan State will blow this one open in the second half.
Prediction: Michigan State 43, Utah State 9
— Written by John La Fleur, a contributor to AthlonSports.com, who focuses on the New Orleans Saints and Michigan State Spartans. He also frequently comments on other teams in the NFL and in NCAA football. Follow him on Twitter @FBConnoisseur and read his viewpoints at gridironconnoisseur.wordpress.com and at gridiron-connoisseur.blogspot.com.