In a lot of ways, the Akron Zips can see a lot of their potential future selves in the Utah State Aggies program. The Aggies went 13 years without a winning season from 1998-2010, stuck at the bottom of the Sun Belt and WAC. The low point came in 2006 and 2007, where the program bottomed out with 1-11 and 2-10 seasons.
Gary Andersen was brought on to resurrect the program, and that he did. After two consecutive 4-8 seasons, Andersen led the Aggies to the Potato Bowl for their first time since the 1997 season and reached two more bowl games in the following seasons before bolting to be the Head Coach at Wisconsin. Matt Wells was promoted from Offensive Coordinator to Head Coach after the 2012 season and has kept the train running, racking up a 25-15 record and three consecutive bowl appearances (two wins).
The Zips as many know had two straight 1-11 seasons before Terry Bowden took over, and after another 1-11 season and two 5-7 seasons, Akron is finally going to a bowl game. The program has never won a bowl game, and it's only appearance was a 2005 loss in the Motor City Bowl to Memphis.
Utah State Offense
The Aggie offense is pretty balanced with a little bit of a heavier lean towards the pass. The quarterback situation is up in the air, as both Chuckie Keeton and Kent Myers will take snaps but neither has been officially named the starter. Keeton is the most decorated quarterback in program history but missed a bulk of the season due to injury. Myers stepped up in his absence, throwing for 1,500 yards and 14 touchdowns.
No matter who starts at quarterback, they are going to have one main target: Hunter Sharp. Sharp led the team in basically every receiving category - 60 catches, 746 yards and 8 touchdowns - and had 55 more targets than any other Utah State player. The Zips defense, and specifically DeAndre Scott who should be matched up with Sharp, will have their hands full trying to minimize Sharp's impact on the game.
The Aggie rushing attack is led by Devante Mays, who racked up 850 yards and 9 touchdowns on the season. When Keeton plays he's also a threat to run. The mobile senior quarterback amassed 223 yards and a touchdown before getting injured and has close to 1,500 rushing yards in his illustrious career.
Utah State Defense
While the Aggies' overall points allowed per game (27) isn't all that impressive, this defensive group is far from a mediocre collection of players. Against the pass Utah State is spectacular, giving up just 180 yards per game which ranks 14th in the country. Opponents have had a little more success running the ball, racking up 156 yards per game. That bodes well for an Akron offense featuring a strong running back in Conor Hundley and a mobile quarterback in Tommy Woodson.
Utah State's two biggest stars on defense are two linebackers - Nick Vigil and Kyler Fackrell. Vigil led the team with 105 tackles (12.5 for loss) and also had three sacks. Fackrell was just as disruptive, nabbing 13.5 tackles for loss and 4 sacks. Torrey Green, another linebacker, and nose guard David Moala also collected 4 sacks on the season and both had over 10 tackles for loss.
This game will probably be a battle of the defenses, as both Akron's and Utah State's are talented. Whichever offense is able to move the ball and limit turnovers will have the advantage. The Zips are riding a four-game winning streak into the contest while Utah State is just 1-3 in their last four games. But, Utah State has been here before and the team knows what it's like to go to a bowl game and how to prepare. More specifically, they have played in Boise's stadium before and went to the Potato Bowl in 2011 and 2012.
Getting to a bowl game is a check mark on Akron's list of goals, but winning a game would mean so much more. It would seem the Zips aren't just happy to be there; the team is hungry for a win. Winning this game would provide so much momentum going into next season and would be another stepping stone to building a winning program. Although a loss would mark the end of a very successful season, a win would taste so much sweeter (even if it tastes like a Potato).