LOGAN -- It's why Brandon Swindall stayed.
Swindall is the Utah State wideout who last week had arguably the best half of any USU receiver in two years. Against Utah at Rice-Eccles Stadium, the sophomore became the first Aggie with multiple touchdown receptions in the same game since Matt Austin had a couple at New Mexico State in December 2011.
It might not have happened had USU not moved to the Mountain West Conference.
Swindall was one of those recruits of Gary Andersen, the former USU coach, who wasn't quite sure where to turn after Andersen pulled an about-face and left Logan for Wisconsin. But the excitement of entering the Mountain West Conference, made official on July 1, 2013, proved to be influential.
"That's what drove me to stay here," Swindall said, his eyes narrowing towards the 20-yard line on the practice fields where the Aggie offense had just simulated the unique triple-option attack of Air Force, USU's opponent this weekend.
"I saw this program was on the building stage, and I wanted to be a part of it," he added. "I like being the underdog. I want to be part of one of the greatest teams at Utah State."
He meant going forward -- not just necessarily last season, when Andersen's team set a single-season record for wins. Despite their slim loss at Utah last week, Swindall and others like Maurice Alexander are confident that they can reach that goal starting with a win over the Falcons (1-0) Saturday at 1:30 p.m. in Colorado Springs, Colo. It's the first meeting between the teams since 1969.
In missing the 2012 record-setting campaign after pleading guilty to a reduced charge of aggravated assault, Alexander recognizes that he did not gain "the experience of a champion," when the Aggies took first in the Western Athletic Conference. But the senior safety also recognizes how that blue-ribbon persona can influence play in the Mountain West, considered a superior league to the WAC, where the Aggies played since 2005.
"I come out here every day and expect us to practice like champions," Alexander said. "That's why we expect to contend for another championship."
Head coach Matt Wells insisted that this year's team is "totally different" from last year's. But linebacker Tavaris McMillian thinks differently. With eight returning starters on offense and seven on defense, "we basically have the same team," he said. He suggested that's why the Aggies can be expected to compete in a league that saw four of its teams at least get votes in the preseason USA TODAY Sports Coaches Poll.
"We're missing a couple pieces," the junior said. "But... we have so much confidence as a team, as a unit."
The Aggies continuing their 11-game conference winning streak - a school record - may be difficult enough. In Air Force, USU faces an original member of the conference that has gone to six straight bowl games. The Falcons were picked to finish just one spot behind the Aggies (third) in the MW's Mountain Division. It's that triple-option attack the academy loves to run - the scheme that teams know is coming but difficult to stop (even though USU's defensive linemen are 50 pounds heavier on average than AFA's offensive linemen). It's the one where the blockers for running backs Jon Lee and Broam Hart - each who went over the century mark last week against Colgate - will go for Aggie defenders' legs. That may be harder for USU without senior defensive end Connor Williams, out due to a foot injury. It may also nullify a USU linebacker corps that has been touted as the best in the league.
The Aggies at least will not face starting quarterback Kale Pearson, who left the Falcons' game late against the Raiders due to a knee injury. But Wells says that backup Jaleel Awini is a better passer than Pearson, so seventh-year AFA coach Troy Calhoun may throw against a defensive backfield that includes first-year cornerback Tay Glover-Wright, though Wells praised his performance last week against Utah. But that would be a departure from the Falcons' usual scheme: AFA didn't even attempt a pass in a two-touchdown win last November over Hawaii.
Chuckie Keeton and company probably won't follow that same pattern. Keeton joined Swindall in a record-setting week for the passing offense, breaking his own school record for single-game completions. Senior wideout Travis Van Leeuwen became the first receiver to break the century mark in receiving yards since Austin had 124 in their own November victory over Texas State. Wells expressed his pleasant surprise in a unit looking to replace its top three receivers and facing a Falcon defensive secondary that is supposed to be among the conference's best.
"Our group now is more capable of doing as much if not more this year," Swindall said, making clear that last year's receivers are not irreplaceable. "We took it to heart to get better from last year."
In their new league, they might just need it -- as Swindall needed the Mountain West.