Inside the numbers: Utah State

MADISON, Wis. - The Wisconsin Badgers had to push back their introductory press conference for Gary Andersen thanks to a massive snow storm, but there's still a lot for Badgers fans to learn about their new head coach.
For one thing, it's very hard to compare statistics across conferences in college football. Eight or nine wins in the SEC are not equal to, say, eight wins in the Big East, and individual statistics are hard to compare as well. So to give us a deeper look at Utah State and why they were successful in 2012, brought in a statistics maven. Bill Connelly is a college football contributor to SB Nation, Football Study Hall, and Football Outsiders, and specializes in working with advanced football statistics. If you want a more in-depth explanation of some of the work Bill does, make sure to visit those websites!
It's a method that I'm particularly fond of, and I'm very grateful to Bill for taking the time to break down Andersen and Utah State for us today.
Just to help some people out who aren't familiar with Football Outsiders and Football Study Hall: What's the basic premise behind your rankings, and what do you hope people take away from them?
Bill Connelly: The premise behind basically all of Football Outsiders' stats (and almost all advanced stats, really) is output versus expected output. Strengths of schedule in college football are so varied that looking at raw statistics is almost useless. We look at pace- and opponent-adjusted numbers to give us a truer view of quality.
You've said before that you're high on Wisconsin's newest hire, Utah State's Gary Andersen. What is it that you like about him, and just how good was his team this year?
BC: Here's what I said about Andersen and Utah State in my Potato Bowl recap:
It is amazing how quickly Gary Andersen has altered reality. Everything about Utah State feels like a winning football program now. The Aggies of 2012 had a deep backfield, strangely impressive line depth, and the best mid-major defense in the country (and one of the best, period, mid-major or not). There is talent, depth and passion in this program -- watching the Aggies celebrate after big plays reminded you of watching a high school team: not a lot of showboating, just raised arms, jumping and hugging -- and it is very, very difficult to remember that, just two years ago, Utah State was mired in a long stretch of mediocrity (or worse). The Aggies had gone just 8-16 in Andersen's first two years and had won just 15 games in the six years before he took over. They had finished with a winning record just twice since 1980, and perhaps as important, they had lost 12 straight to Utah.
Well, in 2012, they beat the Utes, won the WAC (despite having to play on the road against both Louisiana Tech and San Jose State), and capped an 11-win season with a 26-point bowl win (and a 28-point fourth quarter). After 15 wins in six years, they have won 18 in two. Well done, Coach Andersen.
Andersen built a truly powerful 3-4 defense in a short amount of time, and his offense had a strong rushing identity that should suit Wisconsin fans perfectly fine. According to the FO numbers, Utah was, at worst, a Top 25 team this year. At best, they were close to the Top 10. They were deep, athletic and fiery, and again, that he built this so quickly at a school that had lacked good football for most of four decades is incredible. Sometimes mid-major coaches find success because of a small handful of good players, an easy schedule and turnovers luck. Their teams don't necessarily grade out well on paper. (See: Gill, Turner.) Andersen, however, built a true power. No coach is a guaranteed success at his next job, and for all we know Andersen will struggle to find pieces for his system in a different recruiting area (unlikely, but always possible). But again, on paper this is an incredible hire.
On the surface, it looks like the Aggies were really propelled by a strong defense this season. The Badgers saw that first hand when they squeaked by them 16-14 in Camp Randall this season. Just how good was their defense, compared to the rest of the country, and what is it that you think they did so well?
BC: The Aggies really did play like a mid-major Alabama this year. Their 3-4 defense wasn't amazingly aggressive; instead, it was just fast and sound. The front three occupied blockers, the linebackers swarmed and made a ton of plays within 3-4 yards of the line of scrimmage, and the corners were experienced and, at times, pretty aggressive. It might take him a couple of years to get all the right pieces for his system in Madison, but if he does, the Badgers will see a lot of defenses at least as good as this year's was (and this year's Wisconsin defense was the best in a while).
On the flip side, it doesn't look like Utah State's offense was a lightweight. How effective were the Aggies on offense, and what was it that they did well?
BC: Utah State's attack was very much based on both the run and the THREAT of the run. The Aggies weren't incredibly deep in the receiving corps, but they had a nice dual-threat quarterback in Chuckie Keeton and a stud running back in Kerwynn Williams. (The backup RBs were strong, too.) The Aggies utilized Keeton in ways similar to what Nebraska does with Taylor Martinez: Knowing that opponents have to account for the running game, Utah State passed pretty frequently on what I call standard downs (first downs, second-and-6 or fewer, third-and-4 or fewer -- downs in which you can realistically choose to run or pass, and the defense has to account for either). They would attempt to steal free yards with easy passes, stretch the defense out, then pound away with the run game. If they fell into passing downs, they stayed pretty conservative, knowing that punting and handing the game over to the defense wasn't too bad an option. It all worked pretty well. The defense was the star in Logan -- Utah State ranked 10th in Def. F/+ (our overall defensive measure) and the offense ranked 58th in Off. F/+ -- but the offense was good enough to set the table.
Finally, do you think Andersen will make an effective transition to the Big Ten?
BC: There are so many unpredictable factors in coaching changes that one can never make an incredibly accurate prediction. I thought Rich Rodriguez was perfect for Michigan, for instance. But in theory, Andersen is perfectly suited to take this Wisconsin job. The offensive personnel already fits what he wants to do, and while the defense might take a temporary step backwards while he gets the right pieces into the right spots, one can certainly recruit solid linebackers in the Midwest, right? I've been wrong plenty of times, but I really, really like this hire.
Thanks again to Bill for sharing his insight. If you're on Twitter, you can follow him at @SBN_BillC.
For more Wisconsin Badgers news, notes and discussion, follow John on Twitter.