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Western Kentucky might've been the country's best non-power team in 2015

Houston's in the Peach Bowl, but Houston didn't have to play LSU.

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

A 252.6 passer rating

Western Kentucky's first five possessions in the Miami Beach Bowl netted 114 yards in 34 plays (3.4 per play), three punts, a turnover on downs and an interception. Brandon Doughty, the Hilltoppers' star quarterback, completed only one pass for more than 9 yards in this span, misfired badly on quite a few passes and threw a hesitant pick as WKU was driving. He started 10-of-19 passing for just 65 yards. Passer rating: 70.8.

With WKU down 14-0, Doughty connected with Taywan Taylor for 53 yards, setting up a diving touchdown by Anthony Wales on the next play. Game on.

Over the game's first 1.5 quarters, WKU was listless. Over the game's final 2.5, the Hilltoppers gained 498 yards and scored 45 points in 45 snaps (11.1 yards per play). Doughty completed 22 of 25 passes for 396 yards. Passer rating: 252.7. His long passes began to find their targets. And in the process, Wales found his rhythm. WKU spotted a pretty good USF a two-touchdown lead, then outscored the Bulls, 45-21.

We had to wait a while, but this was the version of WKU's offense that many opponents had to deal with. Once it got rolling, it was a stunning sight.

The same goes for WKU in general. Average percentile performance over the first three games: 49.7 percent. Average since: 83.4 percent.

35 points is usually enough

With a USF defense that headed into the bowl ranked a healthy 39th in Def. S&P+, 35 points is more often than not going to be enough for USF to come away with a win. Only against perhaps the best mid-major team in the country did this come up short.

USF was left to rue missed opportunities. The Bulls advanced inside WKU's 40 on nine occasions but came away empty on four, missing two field goals, turning the ball over on downs at the WKU 39 and ending the game at the WKU 11. Thanks in part to the head start the Hilltoppers gave them, the Bulls finished only 15 yards behind WKU, at 597. But you have to finish every chance if you want to keep up with WKU.

This will still go down as a season of redefinition for Willie Taggart's Bulls. Following a run of six consecutive bowl berths under Jim Leavitt and Skip Holtz, USF suffered through a four-year drought. Despite strong recruiting, Taggart's tenure began with 21 losses in 28 games. After a 1-3 start in 2015, it looked like Taggart wouldn't last a full three seasons. But USF finished the regular season with seven wins in eight tries and may have been the strongest AAC team in November.

From "almost certainly about to be fired" a couple of months earlier, Taggart saw his contract get extended before the bowl. He interviewed for the South Carolina job a couple of weeks ago. This says a little about the short-sighted nature of college football, but USF's improvement was explosive.

And it showed on Monday, at least on offense. Sophomore Marlon Mack rushed 17 times for 108 yards. Junior receiver Rodney Adams rushed five times for 45 and caught six passes for 130. Sophomore quarterback Quinton Flowers missed on a few passes but still completed 14 for 273 yards and rushed 16 times for 108.

USF's offense, grounded for years, took flight over the last half of 2015 and did so mostly with underclassmen. The Bulls' defense (which ranked 39th in Def. S&P+ heading into the contest) struggled, but most defenses struggle against Western Kentucky. The future for USF, so cloudy a couple of months ago, suddenly looks bright.

12 wins

A winning tradition doesn't develop overnight. Apparently, according to Western Kentucky, it takes five years.

The Hilltoppers moved up to FBS in 2007 and began with 36 losses in 39 games against FBS competition. Former star quarterback Taggart, who played for Jack Harbaugh at WKU and coached under Jim Harbaugh at Stanford, took over. And after a 2-10 campaign in 2010, WKU found its FBS legs.

The Hilltoppers went 7-5 in 2011, then 7-6 with their first bowl appearance in 2012. Taggart left for USF, a BCS conference program at the time, and WKU took the ultimate risk: it hired Bobby Petrino.

As one could have expected, Petrino stayed one year (he went 8-4 in 2013), but his lasting contribution was his offensive coordinator -- he imported long-time assistant Jeff Brohm from a stint at UAB. When Petrino jumped to Louisville, Brohm took over. WKU went 8-5 in 2014 with the program's first bowl win (a 49-48 epic over Central Michigan), then took a leap forward.

The Hilltoppers were briefly ranked in the AP poll in 2015 and headed into bowl season 14th in the F/+ rankings. The résumé was marred by offensive troubles against Vanderbilt and a tight loss to Indiana, but no mid-major team was as dominant as WKU against other mid-majors. In 11 games against fellow Group of 5 teams, WKU went 11-0 and won by an average of 50-24. The defense lacked at times, but as proven in Miami, the offense needed only a little bit of time to go from parked to 80 miles per hour.

WKU didn't win its 12th game against FBS competition until its sixth season. The Hilltoppers won 12 games in 2015 alone.

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