- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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In the six years before Gary Andersen took over as head coach at Utah State, the Aggies went 15-54. Their last winning season was in 1996.
Andersen went 4-8 each of his first two years in Logan, Utah, but then guided the team to a 7-6 mark that included the program's first bowl appearance in 14 years and a near upset at Auburn. This past season, Utah State went 11-2 and will finish in the Top 25 for the first time since 1972.
So we know this: Andersen can build a winner from scratch. We also know this: He won't have to do that at Wisconsin.
When the Badgers tapped Andersen to succeed Bret Bielema, it was a mutually beneficial decision. Wisconsin gets a coach who was skilled enough to turn a historically dormant program that's the No. 3 school in a sparsely populated state into a winner. Andersen gets the reins to a program that's already set up to win at a high level.
It's rare for a coach not currently on the staff to inherit a Big Ten power that needs no rebuilding or re-branding. Brady Hoke had to undo the failed Rich Rodriguez experiment. Ohio State had plenty of talent when Urban Meyer came on board but had just gone 6-7 and was on probation. You know the deal that awaited Bill O'Brien at Penn State.
Bielema was already on the Badgers' staff when Barry Alvarez handed him the keys after the 2005 season, and Bielema promptly went 12-1 his first year as head coach. Andersen is walking into a similarly advantageous situation, grabbing the wheel of a team that has won three straight Big Ten championships and is on its way to Pasadena, Calif., for a third straight happy new year.
Remember, Bielema said in the spring that he thought 2013 would be the best team he ever had. Though Wisconsin will lose stars like running back Montee Ball, linebacker Mike Taylor and left tackle Ricky Wagner, this year's team had only a handful of seniors. The quarterback position will be, for once, loaded with depth if Curt Phillips receives a sixth year from the NCAA. James White will be a senior, and Melvin Gordon showed off his superstar ability in a dazzling Big Ten title-game performance.
So Andersen shouldn't have too much trouble maintaining the Badgers' recent success, even though he'll have to battle the emerging monster that is Meyer's Ohio State. The question Wisconsin fans want to know is if Andersen can take things to an even higher level.
For all his success, Bielema had trouble winning the big game, most notably falling a play short in each of the past two Rose Bowls. Last year's Badgers team set all kinds of offensive records and had no real business losing three times. I wrote after the Rose Bowl loss to Oregon that a lack of an elite defense was holding Wisconsin back. This year's defense has performed exceptionally well, though it hasn't faced too many elite offensive clubs.
No wonder, then, that Alvarez said he wanted to find a defensive-minded coach, and that's exactly what he got in Andersen. Utah State ranks No. 15 nationally in total defense this season and held the Badgers to just one offensive touchdown in the Aggies' 16-14 loss in Madison, Wis., in September. Andersen was also the defensive coordinator on the 2008 Utah team that went undefeated and smoked Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. He knows what it takes to field a championship-caliber defense.
And no matter what you think about the Big Ten, this is still a defense-first league. You don't win league titles without controlling the trenches and stopping the running game. Ask Nebraska.
Some concerns remain about this hire, including if Andersen will continue the Wisconsin tradition of basing its offense around the power running game. Utah State was more of a spread team this year, though running back Kerwynn Williams rushed for more than 1,500 yards. Andersen would be foolish not to take advantage of the Badgers' built-in recruiting advantage: dairy-fed Midwestern road graders on the offensive line. Paul Chryst and Russell Wilson proved that the Wisconsin offense can add some other razzle-dazzle once that running game is established.
Andersen also has no Midwest ties. But if he could find and convince players to come to Logan, he can certainly bring them to Madison. He has a reputation as a topflight recruiter and could potentially get Wisconsin involved with more blue-chip prospects.
The Big Ten is a step up from the WAC and even the Mountain West Conference, so Andersen still will have to prove himself at this level. But the Badgers are getting a guy who has already shown he can do great things with limited resources. They can't wait to find out what happens when he starts from a position of strength.