Ever since Don Williams reported that Matt Wells was the lead candidate for the Texas Tech head coaching job this past Wednesday, Red Raider fans have been furious online. Whether it be via Twitter, football boards, Facebook, or even the always entertaining Instagram comment section, one thing is clear: Tech fans despise the idea that Matt Wells could be the head coach at a school like Texas Tech. Quite frankly, I believe these fans are completely disrespecting what Matt Wells has done at Utah State, and I believe hiring him is yet another good decision from Kirby Hocutt.
In the six years Wells has been head coach, Utah State has a record of 44-34. Many fans have called this record “mediocre”, yet they fail to understand the depth behind that record. They see Wells’ three losing seasons in four years (two of which were bowl appearances) and think his coaching has hindered Utah State. At the surface level these arguments may be true, however digging deeper they definitely do not tell the whole story.
Utah State was a terrible program before Wells arrived
People see the 11-2 record Gary Anderson put up right before Matt Wells became head coach as a reason to dismiss Wells’ early success at Utah State. What they don’t understand is that Wells was an instrumental part in that 11-2 record in 2012. Before Wells arrived in 2011 as QB coach, Utah State had not had more than four wins since 2000, and had no bowl appearances since 1997. Anderson was coming off back to back 4-8 seasons as head coach, and his tenure was starting to look like a mirror of Mick Dennehy (Utah State’s head coach from 200-04’.) In Wells’ first season as a coach at Utah State, the Aggies went 7-6 and lost in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. Wells would be promoted to offensive coordinator for 2012, and what followed was an 11-2 record and the 12th best S&P+ ranking.
Many people on Twitter have attributed that to Gary Anderson and Dave Aranda, however ultimately Utah State was 27th in S&P+ offensively, which was the highest Utah State had been in the modern era of S&P+ (I looked all the way back until the start of S&P+ in 05’). Since taking over the head coaching job, Wells has not had an S&P+ ranking below 70. Before 2010, Utah State had never been above 78th in the S&P+ rankings. Wells even has a higher S&P+ ranking at 22nd than Neil Brown or Seth Littrell have ever had in their tenures as coaches.
As far as more basic stats such as wins and losses go, Wells has the highest winning percentage among any Utah State head coach in their 126 year history. Wells has one season in conference with a winning percentage under .500. Everyone claims that’s to be expected because it’s the Mountain West, yet from 2001-2010 Utah State had either a losing record (as an independent) or a losing record in conference every season, despite being in the Sun Belt and WAC. Utah State has made a bowl game five times since Wells has become head coach, and seven times since wells came to Logan. Before 2011, Utah State had made a bowl game six times total in 119 years, and had made two bowl games since 1961. Wells owns two of the three 10 win seasons in Utah State history, and the third ten win season belongs to Gary Anderson, when Wells was OC. Considering the school, Matt Wells is a proven winner.
The three-win season was a fluke
One of the main things Red Raider fans use when arguing against Matt Wells is the three losing seasons in a row argument. The worst of which was a 3-9 season in 2016. That team had a whopping one senior starter on offense. The offense was young and made mistakes, and ultimately the lack of experience was a detriment, as the team lost four games by one possession. They only lost three games by 20+, and all three were great teams: a Mountain West winning San Diego State, a Wyoming team with Josh Allen leading the charge, and a USC team that won the Rose Bowl. The team was 70th in S&P+, only four spots off our beloved Red Raiders and seven off the ten win Troy team led by Neil Brown. A good comparison would be the 2013 TCU team, which had an offense mainly comprised of underclassmen. As they gelled, the team would become a contender in the Big 12 over the next two years. Obviously Utah State was never going to be a national title contender, however the lessons learned in that season, along with the arrival of new offensive coordinator David Yost, has allowed Utah State to become a contender in the Mountain division of the Mountain West.
The two seasons surrounding the 2016 horror show were the 2015 season and the 2017 season. In 2015 the Aggies struggled with injuries, as former star quarterback Chuckie Keeton went down with an injury after three games. Up until that point, Utah State had played both Washington and Utah close. The backup Kent Myers was inconsistent, and while winning a game over a ranked Boise State team provided hope, ultimately the backup Myers would go down as well in a win over Nevada, forcing a banged up Keeton to play hurt, and Keeton was not the same, as the Aggies lost their last two games in route to a 6-7 finish.
In 2017 Myers was the starting quarterback and led yet another young offense. He played decent, however an injury in the Wake Forest loss would start a downward trend for Myers, who would ultimately play sparingly due to injury and thus poor performance (think McLane Carter) over the final month and a half of the season. Freshman Jordan Love would start the final six games, and he played inconsistent, as most freshman do. Utah State would ultimately lose their last two games by a total of nine points with Love at the helm, however Love was able to put up 250 passing yards in each of the last two games, a feat he had done only once before. Overall, Utah State’s “losing seasons” were each attributed to young players and injury, which for a program with as little resources as Utah State can be devastating.
The 10-win “breakout season”
This season Utah State enjoyed their second best regular season of all time, going 10-2 and reaching the top 25 in the College Football Playoff rankings. Their schedule was admittedly easy, however they absolutely destroyed programs that on paper have more recruiting advantages. They were third in the country in scoring offense, and managed to blow out decent teams such as BYU and Hawaii by 20+ points on the road. Their losses came at the beginning of the season at Michigan State, and in the final week of the season in a close division game at perennial powerhouse Boise State. They lost both games by less than ten points, and only had three games within ten points during their ten game winning streak.
Advanced analytics really favor this Utah State team in comparison to the teams of fellow coaching candidates Neil Brown and Seth Littrell. ESPN FPI rankings have the Aggies as the 28th team in the country, which is over 40 spots ahead of North Texas and their coach Seth Littrell. Neil Brown’s Troy team is 83rd in FPI. S&P+ is kinder to these two teams, however ultimately Utah State is still way higher than either team at 2nd. This despite having the second lowest athletic budget in the Mountain West.
Wells has turned in five bowl seasons in six years despite significant disadvantages compared to his direct competition in the Mountain West in terms of recruiting and budget. With a staff that could have ties to Texas, Wells will be able to mitigate the disadvantage of not having any Texas connections by creating a strong support network, which he has done well with in his tenure in Logan, recently exemplified by the hire of promising OC David Yost.
Yost has turned sophomore quarterback Jordan Love into a superstar, as Love has over 3,000 passing yards and 28 passing touchdowns against only five interceptions. If both Yost and Wells were to come back, I am almost certain Love would easily be the heavy favorite for Mountain West Player of The Year next year, and he might be in the conversation for best group of five player with McKenzie Milton and Ed Oliver unlikely to play college football again.
In the event that Alan Bowman does transfer, it is reasonable to think that Jordan Love could come to Tech. Regardless, Yost and Wells have each developed a star quarterback at Utah State, with Wells being responsible for Chuckie Keeton and Yost developing Jordan Love this season. With David Gibbs likely bolting, co-defensive coordinator for Utah State Keith Patterson could come in. Patterson is a proven name in Texas, having coached at Allen for the better part of a decade.
Wells has done better than more established programs
Over the past six seasons Wells has gone 44-34 at Utah State. The only team to do better than that record in the Mountain division is Boise State, which has twice the athletic budget and a well-known national brand. Utah State has the lowest athletic budget out of all schools in their division (2nd lowest in the Mountain West), yet Wells has finished either first or second in the division in four out of his six years as coach. Wells has beaten BYU twice in Provo, a feat no other coach of the Aggies has accomplished.
Utah State has finished in the top 35 of S&P+ three times under Wells as either offensive coordinator or head coach. For reference, Texas Tech did not finish in the top 40 in the S&P+ ratings a single time under Kingsbury. S&P+ is adjusted for competition level, so Matt Wells has legitimately built a team that has been analytically better than Texas Tech over the past six seasons.
Wells is recruiting in a state that has eight players nationally ranked in the 247 composite, and is forced to do so as the third best division one program in the state. To put it mildly, it is a great sign that Wells has done so well given the disadvantages he has. It shows that his player evaluation and development has been outstanding, which has been instrumental in the success of coaches such as Mike Leach. Wells will need to do that out in West Texas given the tough nature of recruiting in Texas, the sheer amount of southwest schools and elite programs competing for talent, and the relatively poor history Texas Tech has of drawing in the best recruits in Texas.
Wells has never finished better than 92nd in the 247 recruiting rankings, however that is mostly due to the lack of talent in Utah. Neither of the two flagship programs within the state of Utah have recruited well over the last decade. His ability to develop and evaluate talent has been extremely apparent, as neither of the two star quarterbacks during Wells’ tenure has been a top tier recruit, yet both started as a freshman and starred as a sophomore. This brings flashbacks to the Mike Leach days, where Leach would take unknown Texas high school players with almost no offers and make them top players in the nation.
Matt Wells is a good hire, regardless of what this fan base will say. I am not going to guarantee Wells will be the next Nick Saban, but I guarantee you Kirby Hocutt had valid reasons to make this hire. Wells is a young coach that knows how to turn disadvantages into advantages, make his players want to play for him, and challenge programs that have double the budget of his school. Matt Wells is the right head coach for Texas Tech.