The new Oregon State head coach looks to build a champion in the deep Pac-12.
"It was, if not the best, one of the best conferences in the country [in 2014]," he said. "It’s an elite league from a standpoint of athleticism, dynamic offenses and physical play within the front sevens."
That combination of dynamic offense and physicality left the Beavers struggling to a 5-7 season, which ended with the surprising departure of longtime head coach Mike Riley for Nebraska. Riley was far and away the most-tenured coach in the conference, with 12 consecutive seasons spent at Oregon State from 2003 through 2014, and two years there prior in the late 1990s.
Perhaps equally as surprising as Riley's exit was Oregon State brass wooing Andersen away from Wisconsin. Wisconsin is a perennial Top 25 program with six Rose Bowl appearances in the last 21 years — Oregon State's last came at the conclusion of the 1964 season.
Riley resurrected the program, which had long been a conference doormat, but the Beavers could never quite break through the gate USC patrolled in the early 2000s and the one rival Oregon has manned the last five years. Now, Andersen's mission is finding a way to get Oregon State to that next level of success at a time when the league is deeper than it's ever been.
It's the same challenge that Andersen's former coaching counterparts in the now football-defunct Western Athletic Conference, Sonny Dykes and Mike MacIntyre, face at Cal and Colorado.
Andersen, Dykes and MacIntyre coached Utah State, Louisiana Tech and San Jose State, respectively, in the 2012 season. All reached the Top 25 at some point in that campaign, but success has largely eluded Dykes and MacIntyre since taking over downtrodden Pac-12 programs.
Andersen, on the other hand, stepped into a favorable situation at Wisconsin. He went 19-7 in his two years there, and last season won the Big Ten West behind a typically stout Badgers defense and the play of Heisman Trophy runner-up running back Melvin Gordon.
Oregon State presents a different challenge, one that will test Andersen and his staff immediately.
"I felt like this in the Big Ten: If you have a deficiency [in the Pac-12], you're going to have some problems. People are going to catch up to it," he said. "You better find a way to hide or cover up your deficiencies."
Andersen and Co. effectively covered up for sometimes inadequate quarterback play at Wisconsin, relying on an offensive line rife with NFL-caliber talent to pave holes for Gordon. He obliged with an individual campaign that, statistically, was the best since Barry Sanders' legendary 1988 run.
With the counter-punch of Corey Clement supplementing Gordon's otherworldly output, Wisconsin had no shortage of ways to attack via the rush. Oregon State, on the other hand, has ranked at or near the bottom of rushing offenses in the Pac-12 for the last four seasons.
Compounding the challenge Andersen faces is that Oregon State heads into 2015 making a quarterback change for the first time in four years, when Sean Mannion took over as the starter in his freshman season. Mannion rewrote the Pac-12 record books in his four seasons with the Beavers, setting a high bar for his successor.
"The quarterback always has to be a leader," Andersen said. "Whoever [the quarterback] is, [he is] going to be very young. It's just a fact."
Indeed, true freshman Seth Collins' primary competitor for the vacancy is redshirt freshman Nick Mitchell. Whomever takes over, the Oregon State offense faces a much different dynamic than a year ago with the proven Mannion behind center.
But for Andersen, commanding the offense comes down to a simple formula.
"When we walk out on the field, that the offense has the confidence that the quarterback is going to make good decisions, he's going to manage the game and he's going to be smart: That's what we need from the quarterback position at this point."
Neither quarterback can rely on fifth-year wide receiver Richard Mullaney: Once tabbed as a possible breakout star in the vein of past Beaver standouts Markus Wheaton and Brandin Cooks, Mullaney is transferring.
If the offense is going to have any success transitioning in its first year from Riley's pro-style to Andersen's spread, the onus falls on a line that returns all five starters. The defense — overseen by one of the Pac-12's best, former Utah coordinator Kalani Sitake — is almost entirely rebuilding, with just two starters returning.
Andersen-coached teams at both Wisconsin and Utah State featured offensive stars, but both programs made their bones with some of the best defenses in the nation. With very little experience for a side that allowed 31.6 points per game a year ago, Oregon State reaching the top-20 levels of Andersen's Aggies and Badgers is a steep climb.
However, Andersen sees the smash-mouth philosophy he hopes to instill being a seamless fit for a conference long celebrated for offensive innovation.
"People talk about the Pac-12 as far as the skill set and the wide-open offenses, but…now that I’ve been here for a little bit and had an opportunity to study the league from afar, I have a lot of respect for the physicality," he said, listing off various qualities that jumped out to him. "The front sevens, the great pass rushers, the ability of some very, very talented young offensive linemen… It’s the best of the best."
If Andersen can find ways to put Oregon State consistently in the hunt in the Pac-12 with his intended approach, he'll have established himself among the best of the best in the coaching ranks.