Whether Gary Andersen’s first season as head coach of Wisconsin football could be considered successful really depends on your definition of success.
For one, Wisconsin, one of the nation’s most consistently good programs over the past decade, failed to record a bowl win for the fourth straight season. The Badgers’ 9-3 regular season record was arguably inflated. Wisconsin played a rather easy schedule that included road losses to its two best opponents, Arizona State and Ohio State. The Badgers also inexplicably lost to Penn State in the season finale.
While the armchair quarterback would say this is evidence of an unprepared team, there was improvement from the previous season. Though the 2012 Badgers made a Rose Bowl, they did so only because Ohio State and Penn State were ineligible for postseason play. Nobody ever considered that team to be any good.
In 2013, the record improved from 8-6 to 9-4. Wisconsin was also a legitimate BCS at-large contender until that loss to Penn State, an eventually meaningless outcome after Michigan State clinched a Rose Bowl berth.
Unless a coach’s first season is a total mess, it’s hard to be very critical of him. He needs time to adjust to his new environment and to a roster full of players that he never recruited. Figuring out how to use new assistants to work with these inherited players is perhaps the biggest challenge for a new head coach.
That’s where Andersen excelled. Coming over from Utah State, he guided the team through a coaching staff overhaul that included offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig, defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, and several other position coaches.
Offensively, the Badgers heavily relied on the rushing attack of James White and Melvin Gordon. The two were the most prolific rushing duo in FBS history, combining for 3,053 yards on the ground. Andersen maintained the successful jet sweep package, confusing defenses by getting both backs on the field at the same time.
The ground game flourished despite mediocre quarterback play all year. The offensive line also kept its cohesiveness even though it lost two 2012 starters, Travis Frederick and Ricky Wagner, to the NFL.
On defense, Wisconsin had an excellent season. Andersen took a roster full of players accustomed to a 4-3 system and switched to a 3-4 defense. Despite the switch, the Badgers allowed fewer points per game, a lower opponent completion percentage, and a lower yards per carry average than last season.
While Wisconsin forced 11 fewer turnovers than last year’s team and lacked a dynamic pass rush, Andersen and Aranda were working with players recruited for a 4-3. The Badgers still managed to allow the fifth-fewest points per game and sixth-fewest total yards per game in the nation, a rather remarkable feat.
When a team experiences success, fans inevitably increase their demands. After three straight Rose Bowls, many fans expected Andersen to continue the streak and achieve victory. By not doing so, and by not winning the Capital One Bowl, either, some would consider this to be a failed season.
But Andersen guided the team admirably through changes on both sides of the ball and on the coaching staff. Andersen has plenty of challenges for next season and needs to have better results in big games, but he is off to a solid start in his Wisconsin career.