LOGAN -- As Matt Wells sat around a group of reporters in the Cal and Ann Watts defensive staff conference room, the Utah State University football coach was asked about a Mountain Dew can sitting to his right.
Throwing down highly caffeinated beverages before fall camp has even begun?
Surely he was nervous.
"Oh, this is only diet right now," Wells said with wide eyes. "Wait until Game Fuel."
That would be the citrus cherry flavor variant used in the past as a promotional extract for the video games Halo, World of Warcraft and Call of Duty.
Wells considers his own stewardship as anything but virtual - helpful given the immense task he is facing.
Last year's version of the Aggies marched to a school-record 11 wins and recorded its second bowl win and third outright conference championship in school history. (Other two of the latter came 67 and 82 years ago.) After a blowout bowl win, USU ended last season ranked No. 16 in the Associated Press Poll and No. 17 in the final ESPN/USA Today Coaches' Poll.
Now, the new Mountain West Conference member is receiving votes in the USA Today coaches' poll - 23 tallies to rank 35th to start the season, which kicks off Aug. 29 at Utah in Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Also, quarterback Chuckie Keeton is on the watch list for the Heisman trophy, given to college football's best player.
At least Wells gets help living up to expectations as he welcomes back 18 starters, including eight on offense, seven on defense and star kicker Nick Diaz, the one responsible for excellently relieving the maligned Josh Thompson, who missed two late-game field goals to withhold his team from an undefeated regular season.
But the schedule counters: road games against Utah, Air Force, USC and San Jose State (11-2 last year) in the first month of the season. Then, home games against BYU and Boise State -- all in the first seven weeks of the season.
Drink up, Mr. Wells. (But not that it's all up to him, he says.)
"It's important to play for those who have come before you and for those who will come after you," he said, suggesting the "educational process" of his players when they saw dozens of player alumni gathered on Romney Stadium's north goal line at April's Blue-White Game. "I've said this before: we could win every single game and lose every single game."
Taking over a team that has seen three offensive and defensive coordinators in each of the past three seasons, Wells finds great parody in the Mountain West Conference, where five of the 12 schools garnered divisional first place votes and all but one (Wyoming) had between four and 10 players named to preseason all-conference teams.
Despite being a Heisman trophy candidate - USU athletic media relations is already owning it with a special "Chuckie Keeton Heisman Trophy Candidate" card - Keeton was a third-team all-conference selection. But a challenging schedule in the season's first half avails opportunity for Keeton to personally appeal himself against good opponents.
Not that he did that when asked about that reality.
"It's not about me; it's about the guys around me," he said before listing specific players at every position. He did admit that he wasn't ignoring it: "We'll do what we can with those guys and sees what happens at the end of the season."
"It's surreal because as a kid, I was always playing NCAA football and playing with (Heisman winners). Now it's become a reality because it's happening very, very fast, but guys around me are helping me. I think the guys around me are thinking about it more than I do - a group of brothers that beat me down when I need it and also build me up."
Partially for that reason, Wells can take only a partial credit for any of the built expectations. There's also Gary Andersen. The Salt Lake City native's now-famous departure from Cache Valley to the even greener pastures (literally) to Madison, Wis., and the Wisconsin Badgers heavyweight program have left Wells to pick up the many pieces still lying around. Given that more players than ever in the recent history of the USU program reportedly stayed in Logan in June and July to practice together - some, Keeton says, voluntarily worked out twice per week in May - much of the picking is already done.
But many fans have confessed their belief in a ceiling for the program post-Andersen. Wells couldn't agree - though in that case, he did more than refrain from putting the pressure only on himself.
"Since you mentioned it, everyone but our locker room might feel that way," he said, repeating the line "players make plays and players win games." It's become a familiar refrain used by USU players and coaches alike since their first bowl trip since the turn of the century, in 2011.
"I don't think 50,000 people (USU's Romney Stadium has 25,513 seats) come up to our game to watch nine coaches on the sidelines," Wells added.
Those non-skippers are doing their best to look forward. A glistening new strength and conditioning center, decorated with banners of former All-Americans now stands adjacent to the newish Jim and Carol Laub Athletics-Academics Complex. It's supposed to have tools on par with what first-year strength and conditioning coach Dave Scholz used with the San Francisco 49ers each of the past two seasons. As a bonus, the Mountain West Conference logo was painted on Merlin Olsen Field in time for fall camp.
But despite their appeals near the end of last season and during spring ball, some players haven't necessarily been completely horizon-focused. Linebacker Kyler Fackrell, a freshman All-American last season, was asked if perhaps Andersen's political science major earned 27 years ago from the University of Utah influenced the politicking Andersen has been accused of in leaving USU.
"To be a head coach, you have to play that game," Fackrell said. "He was always sincere with me."
"Coach A is a family man. He cares about them first," Keeton said. "He is still Coach A to many of us, rather than just Wisconsin Coach Gary Andersen. So Coach A is not just a politician. He's a man of many different personalities."
With a face approaching the redness of Game Fuel, and eyes watering, Fackrell hardly wanted more of Andersen talk after being asked if he agrees with Keeton.
"All I can really say is that he was a great head coach," he said. "I don't know if anything else matters at this point."