Big changes mean big question marks in Wisconsin coaching

This is the 11th in a series of 11 previews leading up to the Wisconsin football team’s Aug. 5 start of practice.

TODAY’S POSITION: COACHES

Rating (1-to-10 scale): 8

Head coach: Gary Andersen (first season with Badgers), 26-24 at Utah State

Coordinators: Andy Ludwig, offensive coordinator (first season with Badgers), Dave Aranda, defensive coordinator (first season with Badgers)

Position coaches: Chris Beatty, wide receivers; Bill Busch, safeties; Jeff Genyk, tight ends/special teams coordinator; Thomas Hammock, running backs; Chad Kauha’aha’a, defensive line; Ben Strickland, cornerbacks; T.J. Woods, offensive line; Andy Ludwig, quarterbacks

From the top down: Given Gary Andersen’s relative anonymity at Utah State before the hire, there was some skepticism among fans about athletic director Barry Alvarez’s choice. But Andersen has said all the right things since he was hired in December to replace Bret Bielema as head coach, and now fans are eager to see what he can do with a program that is stronger than most in the Big Ten.

Andersen’s success at Utah State is well documented, but it’s worth repeating. He turned around an Aggies program that ranked among the worst in Division I during a stretch of the 2000s. From 2000-08, Utah State’s record was 28-75 (.271 winning percentage). In 2006, the Aggies went more than 216 consecutive minutes without scoring a point — a span of nearly four games.

By 2009, when Andersen took over the team after serving a stint as Utah’s defensive coordinator, signs of progress emerged. He spent four seasons with the Aggies and led the team to a 26-24 record. In 2012, Utah State finished 11-2, won its first bowl game since 1993 and was ranked in the final top 25 poll for the first time since 1961.

Seven of the nine coaches on Andersen’s staff are new to Wisconsin. The only holdovers are running backs coach Thomas Hammock and cornerbacks coach Ben Strickland. Both men have proven to be effective recruiters, and Strickland was instrumental in keeping many in-state recruits committed to Wisconsin during a tumultuous offseason.

Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig has had success at several stops along the way. He enters his 19th season as an offensive coordinator in college football and has served stints at San Diego State (2011-12), California (2009-10), Utah (2005-08), Oregon (2002-04), Fresno State (1998-01), Cal Poly (1997) and Augustana (1993-94).

Andersen has said Wisconsin will maintain its power running game, but it will be interesting to see what new wrinkles Ludwig throws into the fold. Much of the talk has centered on how the Badgers’ quarterback will be used. Expect to see more plays that move the quarterback out of the pocket and get him on the run.

Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda will bring a style that creates more pressure on quarterbacks, which is something Wisconsin desperately needs. Last season, Wisconsin tied for 105th in the country with just 15 turnovers forced. Aranda’s 3-4 defensive scheme has worked in his most recent stops at Utah State and Hawaii, and he is confident it will continue to work in the Big Ten.

Last season, Utah State ranked 14th nationally in total defense, allowing 322 yards per game. Michigan was 13th and Wisconsin 15th on that list. The Aggies also ranked seventh in scoring defense, 13th in rushing defense and tied for sixth in sacks per game. While defensive coordinator at Hawaii in 2010, Aranda’s defense led the country in turnovers forced (38) and set a school record by scoring five defensive touchdowns.

Best of the Big Ten: 1. Ohio State; 2. Nebraska; 3. Penn State

Yes, Wisconsin is the three-time defending Big Ten champion and has won the first two conference title games. But Ohio State is clearly the team to beat in 2013 under second-year coach Urban Meyer. If not for a one-year postseason ban in 2012, the Buckeyes would have challenged for a national championship based off their undefeated season — which included an overtime victory against Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium. Meyer has all the pieces in place, including a Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback (Braxton Miller), to take the Big Ten by storm in his second season.

Nebraska coach Bo Pelini enters his sixth season in charge of the Cornhuskers, and it’s important to note he has never won fewer than nine games in any season. Last year, Nebraska won 10 games and reached its first Big Ten championship game. Pelini is 49-20 at Nebraska, and he has a team fully capable of returning to the conference title game.  The Cornhuskers haven’t won a conference championship game since 1999, but Pelini is a coach who can help make it happen.

Like Meyer, Penn State’s Bill O’Brien enters his second season as a Big Ten head coach. The job O’Brien did at Penn State last season was nothing short of remarkable. Despite all the off-field turmoil, a four-year postseason ban and the memory of legendary coach Joe Paterno still fresh in people’s minds, he helped guide the Nittany Lions to an 8-4 season, including a 6-2 mark in the Big Ten. If O’Brien remains at Penn State for an extended period of time — and that remains a big question given his NFL background — he could help the program reach great heights and become a college football power once more.

Gary Andersen on the challenges of moving from Utah State to Wisconsin: “To me, a coach is an educator and a father figure. That doesn’t matter what level you’re coaching at. When I say that, that the job of coaching is that, regardless of the level, this is a very big stage. For me and all of our coaches to have the opportunity to compete in the Big Ten and coach at the highest level, it’s important for me.  . . . Coaching is coaching in my opinion regardless if it’s eight years old in Little League or it’s the biggest stage, which we sit on here today.”

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