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Under Matt Wells, Utah State football has overachieved and underachieved at the same time

The Aggies have somehow lost eight straight one-possession games, and it’s casting a pall over a strong program.

NCAA Football: Boise State at Utah State Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

What should we expect from a program like Utah State? It’s a question that I wrestle with from time to time, either via social media interaction or on Podcast Ain’t Played Nobody. In fact, it came up on this week’s PAPN in discussing what I perceive to be a lack of fan energy among most MWC programs.

No matter how the conversation comes about, the conclusion ends up mostly the same: Wells is doing fine at USU. Not amazing, not terrible. Utah State has, after all, avoided a complete restart after achieving the “program peak + coaching change” combination that tends to debilitate you. Compare:

  • In 2012, San Jose State went 11-2 under Mike MacIntyre, finishing 21st in the AP poll (the program’s first ever postseason ranking) and winning the Military Bowl. MacIntyre left for Colorado, and the Spartans have won 21 games in the last five years, with one bowl bid and no above-.500 seasons.
  • In 2012, Utah State went 11-2 under Gary Andersen, finishing 16th in the AP poll (the program’s first postseason ranking in 51 years) and winning the Potato Bowl. Andersen left for Wisconsin, and the Aggies have won 34 games in the last five years, with four bowl bids and two bowl wins.

Wells has maintained an above-.500 record (34-32) despite a brief 2016 collapse. Yes, that was powered by a 19-9 start in Andersen’s aftermath, but the last time a USU coach was above .500 over a five-year span under any circumstances was when Bruce Snyder pulled it off from 1978-82 (30-23-2).

It’s easy to see why USU fans might not be all that satisfied, though. After all, you get used to winning big. It feels awesome, and when you go 30-11 over a three-year span (as the Aggies did from 2012-14), suddenly 6-7 seasons and bowl losses aren’t ideal. Historically, a .500 record and bowl bid will always be an accomplishment at USU, but once you’ve tasted more, you never want to go back.

He hasn’t made things easy on himself either. He has continued to put the Aggies in position to win games, but he hasn’t taken won as many as he should have once in that position.

Each year, I post updated coaching overachiever and underachiever figures at Football Study Hall. It compares what I call coaches’ second-order win totals — which are based on post-game win expectancies — to their actual win totals and notes the difference.

[Post-game win expectancy] is intended to say “Given your success rates, big plays, field position components, turnovers, etc., you could have expected to win this game X% of the time.” It has nothing to do with pre-game projections or opponent adjustments.

The idea is simple: if you won more games than Win Expectancy thought you would one year, you’re probably going to regress toward the mean the next. Same goes for if you won too few games.

That doesn’t work for every coach, though. ... The annual underachievers and overachievers list is based on comparing coaches’ average second-order win totals to their actual win totals. Navy’s Ken Niumatalolo and Kansas State’s Bill Snyder inevitably lead the list each year. Since 2005 (when my play-by-play sample begins), both have coached nine seasons, and both have averaged more than one win per year over what the stats would have expected. They are so consistent that there’s something to it.

Niumatalolo and Snyder tend to overachieve compared to what game stats think they should each year. Coaches like Wells have underachieved. Post-game win expectancy suggested USU should have won 20.1 games in 2013-14, not 19. The Aggies should have won seven in 2015, five in 2016, and seven in 2017. Instead: six, three, and six, respectively. When this year’s underachievers list comes out, Wells will be near the bottom.

Of course, Wells is still putting USU in position to win! That’s the most important part of the job, and he’ll probably be doing so again in 2018. USU returns most of its passing game, all of its offensive line, and darn near all of its defense. If he’s been saving up a few years’ worth of good breaks and great calls, now would be the time to unleash them.

Offense

2017 Utah State offensive radar

The Utah State that won 30 games in three years did so with a pretty run-heavy attack. The Aggies’ leading rusher had at least 1,200 yards each year from 2011-13, while Aggie quarterbacks like Chuckie Keeton and Kent Myers proved awfully nimble themselves.

They also got hit and hurt a lot, of course. Over time, Myers lost his effectiveness. In 16 games during his freshman and sophomore seasons, Myers produced a 145.9 passer rating. During his junior and senior seasons, however, that fell to 120.5. Because of some combination of his own precision and health, a rotating supporting case, and a new offensive coordinator, both his passing and rushing stats regressed.

By the middle of 2017, Jordan Love was ready to take over. After splitting time with Myers in the early going, the three-star redshirt freshman became the primary passer, and while the results were mixed, he made far fewer negative plays than Myers (a 2.6 percent INT rate to Myers’ 3.6, a 2.9 percent sack rate to Myers’ 9.2) while adding to USU’s big-play capability (12.6 yards per completion to Myers’ 10.3).

The succession plan went into place a little earlier than expected, and it paid off. Utah State was just 3-4 when Love took over full-time but rallied to win three of four games to become bowl eligible. Now he’s the incumbent.

NCAA Football: Arizona Bowl-New Mexico State vs Utah State
Jordan Love
Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

OC David Yost struck an interesting balance in 2017. USU threw the ball just a hair more than the national average but combined heavy tempo (18th in Adj. Pace) with a physicality we don’t always see from spread teams (106th in percent of solo tackles forced).

Part of that stemmed from a reliance on big receivers — Ron’quavion Tarver (6’3, 215) and tight end Dax Raymond (6’5, 245) were by far the two most frequent pass targets — but part from a couple of small backs doing decent work between the tackles. LaJuan Hunt (5’8, 195) and Eltoro Allen (5’9, 180) combined for 18 carries per game, and while neither was extremely efficient, they avoided negative plays and kept their young quarterback in decent downs and distances.

Hunt was easily the more explosive of the two rushers, and he’s gone, as is Myers, the more explosive runner of the two QBs. Combined with the loss of wideout Braelon Roberts, whose per-catch average (13.6) was easily the highest of the top five targets, Yost has big plays to replace. Big-play candidates:

  • Gerold Bright. The 5’9 junior moved from slot to running back late in the season after an injury to Allen and ignited, rushing 17 times for 195 yards in the final two games of the regular season.
  • Jordan Nathan. The sophomore slot caught 25 passes last year, and his role shifted from short efficiency option (16 catches for 133 yards in the first four games) to more vertical threat (nine catches for 191 yards over the last six).
  • Savon Scarver. The former mid-three-star recruit backed up Roberts last year as a freshman and caught 11 passes. Among them: receptions of 35, 36, 40, and 70 yards.

Utah State’s offense has been strangely consistent, ranking between 76th and 85th in Off. S&P+ in each of the past five years. Between Tarver, Raymond, slot man Aaren Vaughns, and mid-three-star sophomore tight end Carson Terrell, there should be plenty of efficiency options. And if they can produce vertically, the offense might actually break through its glass ceiling.

NCAA Football: Utah State at UNLV
Jordan Nathan
Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

2017 Utah State defensive radar

Utah State has had one of the most consistently awesome mid-major defenses. The Aggies surged to 12th in Def. S&P+ in 2012, then jumped to fifth the next year, but while inevitable regression has set in, they have still been in the top 50 every year since. Considering the turnover on the coaching staff and depth chart — the Utah and California JUCOs have been a steady producer of talent for Andersen and Wells — that’s a heck of a feat.

After co-coordinator Kendrick Shaver’s departure for Washington State, Wells brought in an old friend: former Tulsa, Pitt, Arkansas State, West Virginia, and Arizona State coordinator Keith Patterson. Wells and Patterson coached together at Tulsa, and Patterson became available following Todd Graham’s ASU firing.

USU was tremendous against the pass last year. The Aggies allowed just a 56 percent completion rate (35th in FBS) and 35 percent passing success rate (16th) while shutting down most big-play opportunities (2.5 passes of 20-plus yards per game, 15th). They return six of last year’s top eight DBs, but the two losses could be costly: safety Dallin Leavitt and corner Jalen Davis combined for 5.5 tackles for loss, nine picks, 20 pass breakups, and a whopping 25 percent of USU’s havoc plays.

The secondary should still be solid, though. Corners Ja’Marcus Ingram and Cameron Haney combined for 12 passes defensed as a freshman and sophomore, respectively, and safeties Gaje Ferguson and Baron Gajkowski were key contributors. The 210-pound Ferguson was excellent near the line of scrimmage, taking part in nine run stuffs and basically serving as a fifth linebacker in Utah State’s 3-4.

NCAA Football: Arizona Bowl-New Mexico State vs Utah State
Gaje Ferguson
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Aggies ranked just 84th in Rushing S&P+ and struggled to knock opponents off-schedule, but they could at least blame youth: six of the top nine linemen and four of the top six linebackers were freshmen or sophomores, and only one (backup end Ian Togiai) was a senior.

Everybody but Togiai returns, and experience is through the roof. Plus, Wells added a pair of Big 12 transfers in former Oklahoma State tackle Fua Leilua and TCU linebacker Tipa Galea’i, who had 5.5 tackles for loss in 2016.

Patterson and co-coordinator Frank Maile can generate a lot of competition up front. Best of all, there might still only be about three senior starters in the front seven, so progress up front will continue in 2019.

Oklahoma v TCU
Tipa Galea’i
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Special Teams

USU’s special teams unit was almost perfectly average in 2017, ranking between 42nd and 58th in four of five efficiency categories (the best: 42nd in punt efficiency) and 56th in overall Special Teams S&P+.

Everybody’s back, including punter Aaron Dalton and a pair of return men with massive potential: Jordan Nathan on punts and all-or-nothing Savon Scarver on kickoffs. The overall ranking might not go up a lot, but it probably won’t go down.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
31-Aug at Michigan State 11 -21.6 11%
8-Sep New Mexico State 100 9.1 70%
13-Sep Tennessee Tech NR 40.8 99%
22-Sep Air Force 112 11.6 75%
5-Oct at BYU 76 -2.5 44%
13-Oct UNLV 105 9.8 71%
20-Oct at Wyoming 72 -2.9 43%
27-Oct New Mexico 111 11.6 75%
3-Nov at Hawaii 122 10.6 73%
10-Nov San Jose State 129 20.5 88%
17-Nov at Colorado State 95 2.4 56%
24-Nov at Boise State 26 -13.6 22%
Projected S&P+ Rk 77
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 90 / 57
Projected wins 7.3
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 3.7 (52)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 115 / 112
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 5 / 1.4
2017 TO Luck/Game +1.4
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 67% (69%, 65%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 7.3 (-1.3)

A top-60 S&P+ ranking should earn you more than a 6-7 record, as it did for USU last year, but an 0-3 record in one-possession games held the Aggies back. They have lost eight straight one-possession games overall and 10 of the last 11, something I didn’t realize was possible.

It’s almost a good thing, then, that the Aggies play a stratified schedule this year, with two games against teams projected in the S&P+ top 30, seven against teams projected 100th or worse, and only three in between. That’s seven pretty likely wins, two likely losses — at Michigan State in the first game and at Boise State in the last — and three games projected within three points.

If this is the year the bounces go the Aggies’ way, then look out. USU could threaten 10 wins and head to Boise with the MWC Mountain title on the line.

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