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I don’t love Utah State’s re-hire of Gary Andersen, but it could work

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By hiring Andersen, the Aggies declared their yearning for the past instead of embracing an exciting present.

NCAA Football: Utah at Oregon State
Gary Andersen
Cole Elsasser-USA TODAY Sports

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

For your perusal, here’s a list of FBS coaches that left a given school for whatever reason (retirement, bigger and better things) and then returned for a second tenure later on. I’m including their (FBS-only) records in both stints.

FBS coaches with two stints at the same school

School Coach Years (FBS only) Win pct. in first stint Win pct. in second stint
School Coach Years (FBS only) Win pct. in first stint Win pct. in second stint
UConn Randy Edsall 2000-10, 2017-18 0.526 0.167
Fresno State Jim Sweeney 1976-77, 1980-96 0.636 0.658
Kansas Don Fambrough 1971-74, 1979-82 0.433 0.422
Kansas State Bill Snyder 1989-2005, 2009-18 0.666 0.617
Louisville Bobby Petrino 2003-06, 2014-18 0.820 0.581
Nevada Chris Ault 1992, 1994-95, 2004-12* 0.714 0.603
Oregon State Mike Riley 1997-98, 2003-14 0.364 0.563
Pitt Johnny Majors 1973-76, 1993-96 0.713 0.273
Stanford Bill Walsh 1977-78, 1992-94 0.708 0.500
USC John Robinson 1976-82, 1993-97 0.819 0.633

* Ault did three stints at Nevada, the first one actually beginning in 1976, when the Wolf Pack were still in Division II. For my purposes here, I will simply mash together the three FBS years of his first two stints.

While acknowledging that the context of each moves differs, we can generalize a couple of points:

  1. For the most part, these guys were successful their first time. Don Fambrough had one good year at Kansas in each stint, but being that it was Kansas, that was good enough. And even Mike Riley improved Oregon State to 5-6 before he left the first time — it had been 27 years since they won as many as five games
  2. These guys were, on average, less successful the second time around. Their average win percentage was 0.640 in Stint 1, 0.502 in Stint 2, a difference of about 1.7 wins per 12-game season. Riley is the main exception, and Fresno State’s Jim Sweeney benefited from a small Stint 1 sample. Take those two out, and the other eight sink from 0.675 in Stint 1 to 0.475 in Stint 2, a drop of two-tenths, or about 2.4 wins.

There are examples of success at other levels — Dartmouth’s Buddy Teevens is thriving in his second stint there — but on average, things don’t seem to work out as we hope.

The reason I bring this up in a Utah State preview should be pretty obvious: Andersen’s back.

You could make the case that Andersen built the modern Utah State. A longtime Utah assistant, Andersen came to Logan in 2009 and inherited a destitute program. Since John L. Smith had left in 1997, the Aggies had averaged just 3.2 wins per year; they averaged 2.3 wins and a 115.3 average S&P+ ranking in four years under Brent Guy.

We didn’t yet know that conference realignment was on the horizon, but with their trajectory, they had very little case for moving up from the WAC to the Mountain West. They were hopeless.

Four years later, they were 11-2.

After two good-for-USU seasons (the Aggies went 4-8 in his first two years), Utah State transitioned to simply good, going 7-6 and losing the Potato Bowl in 2011, then going 11-2 and winning it in 2012. They boasted an increasingly dominant defense, and their offense showed signs of life for the first time in ages.

Based on this alone, you could see why USU might want him back, yeah?

The idea gets a little dicier, however, when you look at what he’s done since.

  • He went to Wisconsin, won 20 games, and placed the Badgers twice in the S&P+ top 15. Not bad, for sure. But he clashed with athletic director Barry Alvarez and left for Oregon State (what most would assume is a far lesser job) following a 59-0 loss to Ohio State in the 2014 Big Ten title game.
  • He failed to build any traction at Oregon State. He inherited a program that had ranked worse than 62nd in S&P+ just once in 10 years, and he averaged a ranking of 99.7. He went 7-23 and, recognizing a lost cause, quit halfway through his third year.

Andersen hasn’t been a part of a happy, stable situation since he left Utah State. The good news is, he doesn’t appear to be one for wasting anyone’s time. If it becomes clear that returning wasn’t a good idea, he’ll skip town.

The bad news is, there are decent odds that this doesn’t work out.

Applying the 2.4-loss penalty to Andersen’s 6.5-wins-per-year average at USU gives you four-win seasons. Even applying it to his last two years puts you at 6.6 wins per year. No one’s going to be happy with that.

Matt Wells left Andersen quite a few exciting pieces, though. He’ll have a chance to start quickly.

After years of Wells’ Aggies struggling to live up to potential — they ranked in the top half of S&P+ each year from 2015-17 but went 2-10 in one-possession games and 15-23 overall — they exploded in 2018, winning 11 games, leaping to 21st in S&P+, and losing only at Michigan State and Boise State.

Quarterback Jordan Love threw for 3,500 yards (he’s back), running backs Darwin Thompson and Gerold Bright combined for 1,932 yards (Bright’s back), and the defense improved from 67th to 35th in Def. S&P+ (half the two-deep returns). There are holes in the receiving corps and linebacking corps and on the offensive line, but there’s still lots of potential.

Offense

Andersen brought in another former head coach to run his offense. Mike Sanford was long regarded as a rising star following stints as a coordinator at Boise State and Notre Dame, but he struggled in two years as WKU’s head coach, starting his first year 5-2 and finishing his second 2-0 but going just 2-14 in between. At 36 years old, he’s got time to become a young up-and-comer again.

Sanford has been a part of lots of styles and sets of personnel strengths, but he seems like a guy who strives for balance when it’s an option.

Whether that’s an option could depend on the receiving corps. Love indeed returns after a sophomore season. He completed 64 percent of his passes with a 32-to-6 TD-to-INT ratio, and USU ranked a healthy 20th in Passing S&P+.

NCAA Football: Utah State at Boise State
Jordan Love
Brian Losness-USA TODAY Sports

Unfortunately, his top four targets are all gone; Ron’quavion Tarver, Jalen Greene, Aaron Vaughns, and tight end Dax Raymond combined for 170 catches, 2,324 yards, and 21 touchdowns. Junior slot man Jordan Nathan (28 catches, 297 yards) is the only returning WR who caught more than 10 passes.

Junior Savon Scarver could be the key to success. Over two years, he’s caught only 20 passes, but they’ve gone for a combined 396 yards and three scores. He caught a touchdown pass from Love in the spring game, as did redshirt freshman Sam Lockett.

Andersen signed JUCO tight end Mosese Manu and a pair of three-star receivers, but the most noteworthy addition is Utah transfer Siaosi Mariner, who caught 52 passes in three seasons with the Utes but got lost in the shuffle after some injuries (and was sadly involved in the Pac-12 Championship’s most memorable play).

NCAA Football: Utah State at Brigham Young
Gerold Bright
Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

Balance also requires a run game that can run, I guess. USU will have the backs — amazing one-year wonder Darwin Thompson is now a Kansas City Chief, but Gerold Bright (6.3 yards per carry, plus an 88 percent catch rate out of the backfield) returns for his senior year, and BYU transfer Riley Burt and JUCO All-American Jaylen Warren add bigger options as well.

You need a line, though, and the Aggies’ front will be brand new. Six players with a combined 119 starts are gone (including all-conference performers in center Quin Ficklin and guard Roman Andrus), leaving sophomore left tackle Alfred Edwards (11 starts), center Demytrick Ali’ifua, and ... I’m not sure what else. There could be a lot of redshirt freshmen on the two-deep, and that’s scary even if a few of them got playing time and looked pretty good last year.

Huge offensive line turnover doesn’t have quite the effect you might think on one’s Off. S&P+ rating, but it’s still not a good thing.

Defense

With a great QB and a shaky everything else, the offense could go either way; the defense, however, should be fantastic.

Justin Ena, former Utah linebackers coach and special teams co-coordinator, is the new coordinator. The former BYU linebacker has DC experience at both Southern Utah and Weber State, and he should figure out what to do with this personnel.

NCAA Football: Utah State at Wyoming
Tipa Galeai (10)
Troy Babbitt-USA TODAY Sports

USU was good on standard downs (40th in SD S&P+) and merciless on passing downs (ninth in PD S&P+), and most of the key pieces from both of those efforts return.

  • Linebacker David Woodward was named a Pro Football Focus All-American last season. He was both a tackling machine and a play-maker, logging 12.5 tackles for loss, five sacks, and five passes defensed. Only end Tipa Galeai had more havoc plays.
  • Galeai’s also back. The 230-pounder is small for an end in a 3-4 structure, but he used that to his advantage, making 14 TFLs and 10.5 sacks. Opposite him are much bigger ends in Fua Leilua and Devon Anderson, and his primary road-grading partner at nose tackle, Christopher Unga, returns as well.
  • DJ Williams, Cameron Haney, and Ja’Marcus Ingram make one of the best CB corps in the league. They combined for 5.5 TFLs, four interceptions, and 24 pass breakups, and they were each stout enough to stand up in run defense, too.
NCAA Football: Utah State at Air Force
David Woodward (9)
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

That’s a damn good starting point, and it should be enough to overcome some question marks elsewhere. Woodward is the only returning linebacker who made more than eight tackles last year. Junior Kevin Meitzenheimer has a load of potential, and a new set of OLBs will benefit from the disruptiveness of the ends in front of them, but there could still be some glitches.

Those could be magnified by the loss of safeties Gaje Ferguson and Aaron Wade. Ferguson was one of the best in the conference, and while there are some semi-experienced pieces in juniors Shaq Bond, Baron Gajkowski, and Chase Nelson, opponents could find it a bit easier to make big plays, even if the Aggie defense is still super efficient.

Special Teams

USU was distinctly average, good at place-kicking and kickoffs, iffy at punting, and explosive (and inefficient) in returns. With kicker Dominik Eberle back, the strengths should remain the strengths. He was 9-for-12 on field goals longer than 40 yards, and that could come in handy if the run game isn’t quite as reliable and a few more drives stall out before the end zone. And on the rare occasions when opponents score, Savon Scarver is a terrifying return man — he averaged nearly 34 yards.

2019 outlook

2019 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
31-Aug at Wake Forest 62 1.9 54%
7-Sep Stony Brook NR 29.7 96%
21-Sep at San Diego State 54 0.2 50%
28-Sep Colorado State 109 22.8 91%
5-Oct at LSU 4 -20.8 12%
19-Oct Nevada 83 12.0 76%
26-Oct at Air Force 90 8.6 69%
2-Nov BYU 50 4.4 60%
9-Nov at Fresno State 51 -0.4 49%
16-Nov Wyoming 92 14.7 80%
23-Nov Boise State 24 -2.5 44%
30-Nov at New Mexico 115 20.4 88%
Projected S&P+ Rk 42
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 47 / 44
Projected wins 7.7
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 2.5 (63)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 97
2018 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 14 / 5.9
2018 TO Luck/Game +3.1
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 54% (46%, 63%)
2018 Second-order wins (difference) 10.0 (1.0)

The Andersen hire left a bad taste in my mouth, primarily because it hints at a longing for the past when the present tense was awfully exciting. If he is up for it, though, he could absolutely find more success.

Andersen knows how to recruit to USU — at the Aggies’ best, they have always struck a perfect balance between JUCOs, transfers, and five-year guys to maintain class balance — and he made logical assistant hires. He also inherits possibly the best offensive (Love) and defensive (Woodward) players in the league. That doesn’t hurt.

The S&P+ projections, which don’t take coaching changes into account, are pretty optimistic. Despite turnover in the trenches and in the receiving corps, USU is still projected 42nd overall and top-50 on both offense and defense.

The Aggies should be able to land some shots against what is, frankly, a brutal schedule. They host two top-50 opponents (Boise State and BYU) and face road trips to LSU, Fresno State, SDSU, and Wake Forest. A good team might go 3-3 at best in those games and 8-4 overall. A team struggling with a leadership change, however, could easily find itself 5-7. So even with a solid roster, Andersen’s got to prove himself right off the bat.

Team preview stats

All 2019 preview data to date.