Willie Taggart has engineered incredible improvement at Western Kentucky in his two years as head coach. With an offensive identity change and gaping holes in the secondary, can the Hilltoppers reach bowl eligibility for the second straight year? And if so, can they avoid another bowl snub? Related: Western Kentucky's complete 2012 statistical profile, including projected starters, year-to-year trends, and rankings galore. Follow @SBNationCFB
Generally speaking, people lean toward one of two viewpoints when it comes to bowl games: there are too damn many of them, or the more, the merrier. (I firmly belong to the latter camp, simply because I enjoy that there is college football on every single day from mid-December to the second week of January.)
The best and worst aspects of the bowl culture were highlighted during Western Kentucky's 2011 season -- the Hilltoppers would have been incredibly grateful for and excited about even a minor bowl bid following a 7-5 season (best), but they were ridiculously snubbed in favor of, among other teams, a 6-7 UCLA team without a head coach (worst).
The Hilltoppers are saying and doing all the right things following the snub, of course, using it as proper motivation for bigger things in 2012.
"That’s our job. After last year, we’re not gonna make any excuses. We’re not gonna blame anyone, we’re just gonna go do something. That’s on us. We can’t blame anyone else. The way we do that is the way we come out here and work every single day."
"Our guys, the way they come to work, you don’t hear anybody complaining, moaning. They just come out here ready to go," he said. "Sometimes they come to me and say, ‘Coach, you don’t look like you’re ready,’ and that’s a first."
As good as such a snub is for general team motivation, a bowl would have been a nice opportunity to highlight the incredible job head coach Willie Taggart has done in Bowling Green in just two years on the job.
Only in his mid-30s, Taggart was the Hilltoppers' star quarterback in the mid-1990s. His number has been retired, but he has made almost as much of an impact on the sideline. He was the defensive coordinator for Western Kentucky's 2002 FCS national championship team, and after a couple of years coaching under Jim Harbaugh at Stanford, he came back to WKU build an FBS program from near-scratch. The Hilltoppers had gone just 2-22 in David Elson's final two seasons (2008-09), but Taggart has engineered strong improvement in each of his first two seasons. He is one of many up-and-comers leading Sun Belt squads into action this fall; there have been quite a few nice hires in the conference recently, but one has to think Taggart's might have been the strongest of all.
The positive spin: the Hilltoppers have maybe lost 33 of 35 against the FBS ... but both wins came in 2010!
More positive spin: they've only been a game behind North Texas in each of the last two years ... and the Mean Green have been at the FBS level much longer than they have!
Let's see ... what else ... their mascot is an awesome blob ... their campus is rather underrated and scenic ... they've usually got a good basketball team. Plenty going for them. But will their football team turn anything resembling a corner sometime soon? If so, it probably starts in 2011. As with a lot of bad teams, WKU returns quite a bit from last year's squad, and the young guys seem more talented than the older ones. […]
When you start your FBS tenure this poorly, it might take a long time to move toward respectability. But Taggart's first season in charge represented a clear step forward even if the win column barely changed. Another step forward this year, and the Hilltoppers could at least move toward "Sun Belt league average" territory in 2011.
Not only did WKU break toward "league average" last fall, they exceeded it. After an 0-3 start that featured a four-touchdown loss to Indiana State (no, not Indiana … Indiana State), the Hilltoppers began to surge as the calendar flipped to October. They narrowly lost to eventual conference champion Arkansas State, then won seven of their final eight games. After averaging just 19.5 Adj. Points Per Game in September, they averaged 28.8 in October and November.
They had one of the best mid-major defensive lines in the country, and their multi-year workhorse back, Bobby Rainey, further bolstered his ridiculous resume with 1,695 rushing yards and 361 receiving yards. Rainey is now gone -- with 4,542 career rushing yards, one has to figure the odds are decent he will one day join Taggart on the Retired Numbers list -- but three years of strong recruiting (perhaps the strongest in the Sun Belt) should help WKU absorb his loss. Taggart is building an exciting program at his alma mater; now he just has to hope his team can snag an automatic bowl bid this fall.
It is quite easy to describe Western Kentucky's 2011 offense: hand to Bobby Rainey, then hand to Bobby Rainey, then potentially pass to Bobby Rainey, and occasionally go deep. Rainey carried the ball 30.8 times per game and was targeted by 3.9 passes per game. That is an absurd workload for someone south of 200 pounds, but it worked pretty well for WKU, especially over the last two months of the season.
Because the reliance on Rainey was so heavy, it is difficult to know what to expect, philosophically, from the 2012 WKU offense. The Hilltoppers ran nine percent more than average on standard downs last year, 13 percent more on passing downs. Will that continue in an offense in which the three leading returning rushers (Keshaun Simpson, Antonio Andrews and fullback Kadeem Jones) carried the ball just 78 times all season (and averaged just 3.4 yards per carry)? The race to replace Rainey has taken on a relatively predictable tone thus far. Simspon and Andrews, both juniors, are battling with slight sophomore John Evans for first-team carries; all three bring a different combination of speed and strength to the table, and from an advanced stats perspective, Simpson actually outpaced Rainey in terms of Adj. POE. There is potential quality here, but we will now find out just how much of the 2011 offense's approach was due to the coaching staff -- Taggart and run game coordinator Walt Wells, in particular -- and how much was due simply to the presence of Rainey.
If there is a shift toward more passing, more questions emerge. Will Kawaun Jakes be asked to mix more short passes in with the deeper routes? And if so, who emerges as his most prevalent targets? Last year, Jakes was either going to Rainey and solid tight end Jack Doyle closer to the line of scrimmage or going deep to a wideout. Only one actual wide receiver averaged a better than 52 percent catch rate -- sophomore Boe Brand, a former three-star recruit who caught 61 percent, but at only 10.0 yards per reception. Targets like Rico Brown (46 percent catch rate, 14.2 yards per catch), Marcus Vasquez (52 percent, 12.2 per catch) and Dexter Haynes (35 percent, 17.0 per catch) were very much all-or-nothing receivers sent long on standard downs to catch defenders off-guard. (2010's primary deep threat, Willie McNeal, who caught 42 percent of passes at 13.8 per catch, returns after missing last season to a knee injury as well; of course, his return might just offset the loss of Vasquez, who is recovering from knee issues of his own.) Will Rainey's absence lead to more of a controlled passing attack? The WKU receiving corps clearly has some speed, which will get bolstered with the arrival of three-star signee Austin Aikens, but they will need more actual receiving skill to help out Jakes.
One thing is certain: whether opening holes for a new running back or protecting Jakes, the WKU offensive line will once again be a strength. it returns six players with starting experience -- 88 career starts -- including second-team all-conference guard Adam Smith. The lone loss in the starting lineup, all-conference tackle four-year starter Wes Jeffries, was a big one, but this should still be one of the better lines in the Sun Belt.
The WKU defense was one of the odder units in the country last year. The Hilltoppers had a fantastic defensive line; they ranked 27th in Adj. Line Yards, 31st in Adj. Sack Rate and 19th in Rushing Success Rate+ (they held opponents to under 100 total rushing yards seven times in 2011). They must replace starting end Jared Clendenin and tackle Bo Adebayo, but they return two difference makers on the line, end Quanterus Smith and tackle Jamarcus Allen (combined: 18 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks), and middle linebacker Andrew Jackson, who was outstanding in run support (17 tackles for loss despite only 3.5 sacks). Add junior college end Calvin Washington and freshman Tyrone Pearson, both three-star signees, to the mix, and you likely have another solid run defense near the line of scrimmage.
Unfortunately, if you got past the line of scrimmage against WKU, you were likely running a long, long way. Despite a Top 20 success rate against the run, they also ranked 112th in Rushing PPP+, which means they gave up a ridiculous number of big plays. Or, to put it another way, the big plays they allowed were REALLY big plays. Combined with poor pass defense numbers, you quickly come to indict the WKU secondary. Two of four starters in the secondary return, as do seven of last year's top nine players, but it is unclear whether that is actually a good thing. Improvement in the secondary might be as dependent on some new blood as any sort of experience. Junior college transfer Brett Harrington might have a role to play, and all eyes are on Florida transfer, and former four-star recruit, Jonathan Dowling as he attempts to work his way up the depth chart this spring. For what it is worth, cornerback Jamal Forrest appears to be having a strong spring, but WKU needs more athleticism overall -- they were able to hold their own against lesser offenses, but better, more athletic offenses simply torched them. (So did Indiana State.)
The difference of 93 spots between WKU's rushing success rate and PPP+ is both staggering and baffling. It is easily the largest difference since 2005. It is difficult to know what to make of this type of discrepancy, but it probably isn't good. Of the four most recent teams with a discrepancy in this regard of 72 spots or higher, three teams (2008 Nevada, 2010 Miami-Ohio, 2008 Michigan) all saw significant overall defensive regression the next season. Even if the front seven is still solid, opponents made clear last year that they will pass all game long if WKU cannot stop it.
Once again, WKU will have an opportunity to pile up wins after a difficult month of September. They will likely start around 1-4 or 2-3 with road trips to Alabama, Kentucky and Arkansas State, plus a visit from Southern Miss, on the early docket; but after September, they play face just one team projected higher than 93rd overall. The goal, then, should be simple: reach bowl eligibility again, and hope you don't get snubbed this time around. When you make such serious strides in a short amount of time, regression is a threat; sustain last season's gains, and maybe play after December 1, and you've got a major success on your hands.
Both recruiting and on-field product have improved in Willie Taggart's short time back in Bowling Green. The Hilltoppers' ceiling has risen quickly, and the program as a whole is very much on the right path. But with such major question marks -- what does the offense look like, or even TRY to look like without Bobby Rainey? Can the secondary improve just a little bit? And for that matter, do they actually have a place-kicker this year after making just five of 20 field goal attempts last year? -- it is difficult to know whether improvement is possible again this fall, or whether 2012 will see a bit of either stagnation or regression. Program improvement is rarely entirely linear (a little better one year, a little better the next, and the next, and the next), and in an improving Sun Belt, WKU may find it difficult to match last year's win total.
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