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The big 2015 WKU football guide: Hilltoppers could have historic season

The 128-team countdown hits a program that shows the value in persevering and could win its conference.

Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Confused? Check out the advanced-stats glossary here.

1. Commitment and good decisions

Like UAB, WKU plays in C-USA; also like UAB, the school once faced a question of whether sports were draining its coffers. The bookkeeping said Western Kentucky supposedly was losing $1.5 million per year in the early 1990s. Only the school gave its economics professors access to its books. When the trio finished its analysis, it found the school was making a modest profit on sports.

Armed with this, Western Kentucky chose to emphasize football, eventually reaching C-USA. Given the school's success, I suspect administrators are glad they didn't cancel football— just as I suspect UAB may wonder in a few years why their savings never materialized and where their expected new students went.

-- Vice's Andy Schwarz

In this year's Rice preview, I said "the mind pretty quickly adapts to a new reality." Never is that more true than with Western Kentucky football.

When Vice published its devastating series about all the ways in which UAB mismanaged the facts as it attempted to justify killing its football program, he used Western Kentucky as an example of a turnaround program. Four years earlier, here's what I was saying about WKU:

The positive spin: the Hilltoppers have maybe lost 33 of 35 against the FBS ... but both wins came in 2010!

Let's see ... what else ... their mascot is an awesome blob ... their campus is underrated and scenic ... they've usually got a good basketball team. But will their football team turn anything resembling a corner sometime soon?

To that point, their stay in FBS couldn't have gone worse. From 2007-09, they went 1-26 against FBS competition.

But former Jim Harbaugh assistant and WKU quarterback Willie Taggart got the ship righted. In 2011, his second season, the Hilltoppers went 7-5. They went 7-5 in 2012 and reached the Little Caesars Bowl. They lost Taggart to USF, then went 8-4 in 2013 in their lone year as part of the Bobby Petrino Rolling Thunder Redemption Revue.

When Petrino went back to Louisville, WKU replaced him with Petrino's offensive coordinator (and Kentucky lifer) Jeff Brohm. They won another eight games.

Arkansas State has proved that if you commit and make good hires, you can get somewhere despite turnover. With three head coaches in three years, WKU has won 23 games. After winning four in three seasons, the program is riding a four-year streak of winning seasons. And after bottoming out in 2008-09, WKU has either improved or held steady for five straight years.

In 2015, WKU welcomes back Brohm, quarterback Brandon Doughty, last year's top three running backs, three of its top four receivers, four offensive linemen with starting experience, its top six defensive linemen, five of its top seven linebackers, and six of its top eight defensive backs. The Hilltoppers even welcome a couple of former UAB defenders.

The unforeseen happens, but it would take drastic surprises or a major run of injuries to prevent WKU from challenging Marshall for supremacy in the Conference USA East. Pretty sure their decision not to cancel football was a good one.

2014 Schedule & Results

Record: 8-5 | Adj. Record: 10-3 | Final F/+ Rk: 50
Date Opponent Opp. F/+ Rk Score W-L Percentile
Performance
Adj. Scoring
Margin
Win
Expectancy
29-Aug Bowling Green 98 59-31 W 79% 19.2 97%
6-Sep at Illinois 78 34-42 L 17% -22.3 8%
13-Sep at Middle Tennessee 87 47-50 L 56% 3.3 62%
27-Sep at Navy 44 36-27 W 62% 7.3 58%
4-Oct UAB 79 39-42 L 62% 7.2 67%
18-Oct at Florida Atlantic 100 38-45 L 23% -16.9 22%
25-Oct Old Dominion 108 66-51 W 56% 3.7 70%
1-Nov at Louisiana Tech 35 10-59 L 7% -34.7 0%
8-Nov UTEP 90 35-27 W 62% 7.2 73%
15-Nov Army 121 52-24 W 84% 23.7 100%
22-Nov UTSA 109 45-7 W 97% 42.4 100%
28-Nov at Marshall 17 67-66 W 79% 18.8 52%
25-Dec vs. Central Michigan 85 49-48 W 59% 5.6 55%

Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
S&P+ 40.1 9 36.3 113
Points Per Game 44.4 6 39.9 124

2. Peaking late

According to Off. S&P+, WKU had the nation's best mid-major offense, and only a couple of teams came close.

WKU ranked ninth in Off. S&P+, even with Michigan State and ahead of Mississippi State, Florida State, and TCU. The Hilltoppers' adjusted scoring average of 40.1 points per game was 0.5 points better than Marshall (12th at 39.6), 0.8 better than Boise State (13th at 39.3), and at least 4.5 points better than every other mid-major.

They passed first and passed second, operated at one of the nation's faster tempos, and couldn't have felt more comfortable in shootouts. They went 3-2 in games in which they allowed 48 points.

Let me repeat that: they allowed 48 points in five of 13 games and won three. That might be my favorite tidbit of the preview series thus far.

Still, it might seem strange for me to so heavily talk up a team that went 4-4 in Conference USA and finished behind not only Marshall but Middle Tennessee. Why do it? Because three of those losses came in the first half of the season.

  • Average percentile performance (first 8 games): 45% (record: 3-5)
  • Average percentile performance (last 5 games): 76% (record: 5-0)

Following a pasting at the hands of Louisiana Tech, WKU's defense began to help out. After allowing at least six yards per play in each of the season's first eight games, the Hilltoppers controlled UTEP, Army, and UTSA to the tune of 4.97 yards per play and 19.3 points per game. Marshall lit them up, and as we remember, CMU's offense did whatever it wanted in the fourth quarter of the Bahamas Bowl, but the Hilltoppers still won those games because of absurd offensive efficiency, and because for three quarters, CMU's offense could do almost nothing.

This was a really good team after November 1. And when you sustain that level of growth over a few weeks and then return almost every difference-maker, that tends to say exciting things.

Offense

FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 0.98 10 IsoPPP+ 137.1 8
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 50.0% 5 Succ. Rt. + 112.5 28
FIELD POSITION Def. Avg. FP 32.2 109 Def. FP+ 98.0 92
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 5.3 3 Redzone S&P+ 105.5 53
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 21.7 ACTUAL 18 -3.7
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 4 12 20 8
RUSHING 69 40 51 41
PASSING 2 9 6 12
Standard Downs 9 21 6
Passing Downs 23 20 26
Q1 Rk 8 1st Down Rk 20
Q2 Rk 8 2nd Down Rk 11
Q3 Rk 33 3rd Down Rk 22
Q4 Rk 101

3. Incredible for three quarters

The offense Bobby Petrino left behind in Bowling Green, Ky., was better than the one he took over in Louisville last year. Brohm's unit had a strong identity and passed almost as efficiently as anybody in the country.

Brandon Doughty, a "senior" in 2014 who was granted an extra year of eligibility after playing in four games his first two seasons, was magnificent in games that weren't against Louisiana Tech. His season passer rating was 167.1, third in the country (behind Oregon's Marcus Mariota and Ohio State's J.T. Barrett); he topped 195 on five occasions, and like Barrett, his awesome senior averages were dinged by a single awful performance (14-for-35 for 134 yards, one score, and four interceptions against Louisiana Tech). Without that, he completed 70 percent with a 48-to-6 TD-to-INT ratio.

Perhaps the best news: there's still room for improvement. As incredible as WKU's offense was, the Hilltoppers were dreadful in the fourth quarter. Part of that is the natural effect of blowouts -- per-quarter S&P+ stats above are not filtered for garbage time, and five of WKU's 13 games were decided by at least 15 points (four by at least 28). But this was not an offense designed to strangle clock with a lead, and that, combined with poor execution, backfired.

WKU took a 27-21 lead into the fourth quarter against Illinois and lost by eight, then took a 10-point lead into the fourth against FAU and lost by seven. The 'Toppers scored on four of their first five possessions against UAB but just one of their final six and lost another fourth-quarter lead. They held a 10-point lead over Marshall with six minutes left and had to win in overtime. Oh yeah, and in the Bahamas Bowl, they nearly became the first team in FBS history to lead by 35 with 12 minutes left and lose.

Considering how young this team was outside of Doughty, there's reason to believe that growth might take place.

Quarterback

Note: players in bold below are 2015 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.

Player Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Comp Att Yards TD INT Comp
Rate
Sacks Sack Rate Yards/
Att.
Brandon Doughty 6'3, 210 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8208 375 552 4830 49 10 67.9% 19 3.3% 8.2
Troy Jones
2 4 11 0 0 50.0% 0 0.0% 2.8
Nelson Fishback 6'2, 215 Jr. NR NR








Running Back

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Rushes Yards TD Yards/
Carry
Hlt Yds/
Opp.
Opp.
Rate
Fumbles Fum.
Lost
Leon Allen RB 6'0, 235 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7500 272 1542 13 5.7 5.6 40.4% 3 0
Anthony Wales RB 5'10, 190 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8631 82 518 5 6.3 7.3 41.5% 2 2
Brandon Doughty QB
20 75 2 3.8 3.9 25.0% 3 2
Darmontre Warr RB 5'9, 190 Jr. NR 0.8117 10 26 0 2.6 3.7 10.0% 0 0
Kylen Towner WR 5'9, 180 So. 2 stars (5.2) 0.7000 7 31 0 4.4 4.4 42.9% 4 1
Troy Jones QB
6 35 0 5.8 4.3 50.0% 0 0
D'Andre Ferby RB 6'1, 240 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8206







Receiving Corps

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Targets Catches Yards Catch Rate Target
Rate
%SD Yds/
Target
NEY Real Yds/
Target
RYPR
Jared Dangerfield WR 6'3, 200 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8247 95 69 825 72.6% 17.6% 65.3% 8.7 9 8.5 126.6
Willie McNeal WR
83 56 666 67.5% 15.4% 56.6% 8.0 -5 8.0 102.2
Antwane Grant WR 6'1, 195 Sr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7519 61 41 509 67.2% 11.3% 68.9% 8.3 17 8.6 78.1
Leon Allen RB 6'0, 235 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7500 59 51 476 86.4% 10.9% 59.3% 8.1 -110 8.1 73.1
Taywan Taylor WR 6'1, 190 Jr. 2 stars (5.2) 0.7000 57 45 767 78.9% 10.6% 63.2% 13.5 242 13.1 117.8
Mitchell Henry TE
50 32 489 64.0% 9.3% 66.0% 9.8 102 9.4 75.1
Joel German WR
43 27 358 62.8% 8.0% 51.2% 8.3 30 8.7 55.0
Nicholas Norris WR 5'10, 175 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7859 37 22 371 59.5% 6.9% 64.9% 10.0 101 10.1 57.0
Tyler Higbee TE 6'5, 233 Sr. 2 stars (5.2) 0.7000 23 15 230 65.2% 4.3% 65.2% 10.0 49 10.1 35.3
Anthony Wales RB 5'10, 190 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8631 18 15 127 83.3% 3.3% 72.2% 7.1 -46 7.7 19.5
Tim Gorski TE 6'7, 253 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7000 7 2 43 28.6% 1.3% 71.4% 6.1 13 5.0 6.6
Nacarius Fant WR 5'9, 170 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8274 1 1 3 100.0% 0.2% 100.0% 3.0 -8.3 N/A 0.5
DeAndre Farris WR 5'10, 180 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.7726
Will Bush WR 5'11, 190 RSFr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7519
Nick True TE 6'5, 250 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7594
Quin Jernighan WR 6'3, 200 Fr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8305









4. You get a touch, and you get a touch, and...

Here's the fun thing about tempo: assuming you're good enough to move the chains and score points, you have the chance to give everybody on the depth chart chances to succeed.

Despite incredibly pass-heavy ratios, big running back Leon Allen averaged more than 20 carries per game, and his backup got more than six. And while Jared Dangerfield and Willie McNeal combined for nearly 14 targets per game, six other players averaged at least two.

WKU has a glut of skill talent, but there's a chance that Brohm, Doughty, and offensive coordinator Tyson Helton figure out how to make everybody happy. Not only do Allen and backup Anthony Wales return, they're joined by three-star redshirt freshman D'Andre Ferby. And while Jared Dangerfield, Antwane Grant, Taywan Taylor, and Nicholas Norris (combined: 250 targets, 177 catches, 2,742 yards) return, there's a chance that a three-star youngster like Nacarius Fant, DeAndre Farris, or Quin Jernighan could earn early touches.

Offensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs

LY/carry
Pass.
Downs

LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Team 104.2 3.28 2.91 39.2% 73.3% 20.0% 158.4 2.4% 5.6%
Rank 56 26 98 66 25 75 15 15 36
Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Career Starts Honors/Notes
Cameron Clemmons RT 44 2014 2nd All-CUSA
Forrest Lamp LT 6'4, 296 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7000 25
Brandon Ray LG 6'3, 285 So. 2 stars (5.2) 0.7000 13
Derrick Stark C
13
Darrell Williams RG 6'6, 310 Jr. 2 stars (5.2) 0.7000 13
Max Halpin C 6'3, 295 Jr. NR NR 10
Joe Manley RG 6'6, 320 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8250 0
Matt Nord RT 6'6, 309 Jr. NR NR 0
Kyle Jones OL 6'4, 300 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7813 0
Jimmie Sims LT 6'5, 285 So. 2 stars (5.2) 0.7000 0
Dennis Edwards C 6'1, 310 RSFr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.8118
Parker Howell OL 6'5, 275 Fr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7993
Cullen Reynolds LG 6'5, 310 Fr. 2 stars (5.2) 0.7928
R.J. Scaife RT 6'5, 270 Fr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7333
Hunter Holland OL 6'3, 265 Fr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7726

5. The closest thing to a question mark

WKU's line stats did not quite match the rest of the offense's. The Hilltoppers let defenders into the backfield quite a bit on run plays, and while the sack rates were fine, they weren't as good as the overall passing stats.

And while four players with starting experience return (including two-year starting left tackle Forrest Lamp), two are gone, including all-conference tackle Cameron Clemmons. There potentially won't be a single senior on the line's two-deep, and it would only take a couple of injuries to force green players into action.

So if the offense disappoints (and it really might not), the line is the most likely reason why.

Defense

FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 0.97 118 IsoPPP+ 82.3 113
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 48.3% 121 Succ. Rt. + 90.9 104
FIELD POSITION Off. Avg. FP 30.7 50 Off. FP+ 101.0 51
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 4.7 96 Redzone S&P+ 95.3 83
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 20.6 ACTUAL 23.0 +2.4
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 123 114 106 114
RUSHING 113 81 74 89
PASSING 124 126 125 121
Standard Downs 108 90 114
Passing Downs 114 121 111
Q1 Rk 91 1st Down Rk 122
Q2 Rk 97 2nd Down Rk 107
Q3 Rk 120 3rd Down Rk 117
Q4 Rk 124

6. The right weakness

According to Passing S&P+, only two teams had a worse pass defense than WKU in 2014: Tulsa and SMU. The Hilltoppers almost turned each opposing passer into Doughty, allowing a 158.5 passer rating for the season and allowing five opponents to top the 172.0 mark.

Marshall's Rakeem Cato and CMU's Cooper Rush combined to go 57-for-91 for 910 yards, 14 touchdowns, and five picks in the final two games, and while the defense took quite a few risks and did produce 10 picks over the final seven games, there was not nearly enough reward.

That's the bad news. The good news is that, until they fell behind late, opponents weren't all that interested in passing, preferring to run first and milk the clock to keep WKU's high-octane offense off the field. While the run defense wasn't great, it wasn't nearly as bad. WKU was great in short-yardage situations and returns virtually everybody from last year's two-deep up front.

Defensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs

LY/carry
Pass.
Downs

LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Team 97.5 3.19 3.53 42.4% 60.0% 19.8% 78.1 5.4% 4.0%
Rank 75 101 83 102 25 59 100 47 118
Name Pos Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Gavin Rocker DE 6'2, 245 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7000 13 36.0 4.4% 7.5 5.5 0 0 1 0
Bryan Shorter DT 6'2, 285 Sr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7000 13 35.0 4.3% 7.5 5.5 0 0 0 0
Derik Overstreet DE 6'2, 250 So. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7619 9 26.0 3.2% 3.5 2.0 0 1 0 0
Devante Terrell DT 6'0, 295 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.7600 13 23.0 2.8% 1.5 1.0 0 1 0 0
Ge'Monee Brown DT 6'2, 305 Sr. 2 stars (5.2) 0.7444 13 20.5 2.5% 8.0 0.0 0 0 1 0
Tanner Reeves DE 6'4, 230 So. 2 stars (5.2) 0.8100 10 17.5 2.1% 5.0 4.0 0 1 1 0
T.J. Smith DE
13 15.5 1.9% 4.0 1.0 0 0 1 0
Jontavious Morris (UAB) DT 6'2, 295 Sr. NR 0.7200 12 15.0 2.3% 2.0 0.0 0 0 0 1
Derrell Young DE 6'1, 205 Jr. 2 stars (5.2) NR 10 8.5 1.0% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Kalvin Robinson DE 6'5, 240 Jr. 2 stars (5.2) 0.7000 8 8.0 1.0% 1.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
D'Von Isaac DT
10 6.5 0.8% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
DeMarcus Glover DT 6'4, 270 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7826 7 4.0 0.5% 0.0 0.0 0 1 0 0
Trae Jones DT 6'1, 290 So. NR NR 5 2.0 0.2% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Sidney Hammond DE 6'2, 255 Jr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7900
Omarius Bryant DT 6'3, 300 Jr. 2 stars (5.2) 0.7733
Ty'Ron Horton DE 6'3, 255 Fr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7693
Heath Wiggins DE 6'2, 260 Fr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7915







7. Make a play or give one up

At first glance, the individual line stats don't look too bad. Ends Gavin Rocker and Tanner Reeves combined for 9.5 sacks, and active tackle Bryan Shorter pitched in with 5.5. Ge'Monee Brown was a lovely play-maker against the run, with 8.0 non-sack tackles for loss. These are good things, right?

Sure, but the pass rush didn't exist beyond Rocker, Reeves, and Shorter, and for every play WKU made, the Hilltoppers allowed two. The pass rush didn't exist on passing downs, and despite a decent presence in the backfield against the run, WKU opponents still managed to gain at least five yards on 42 percent of their carries. And like the offense, the defense tended to get progressively worse with each passing quarter.

The addition of UAB transplant Jontavious Morris and JUCO transfers Sidney Hammond and Omarius Bryant, along with all those returnees, should assure WKU's depth and first-string talent are as good or better than last year's. But down-to-down consistency is a must.

Linebackers

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Nick Holt LB 6'1, 230 Sr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.8007 13 86.5 10.6% 7.0 1.5 0 2 0 0
Dejon Brown LB 6'3, 225 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8412 13 65.5 8.0% 8.0 2.0 0 1 1 0
Terran Williams LB
11 41.5 5.1% 2.0 0.0 0 2 1 0
Daqual Randall LB
8 27.5 3.4% 0.5 0.0 0 0 1 0
Daeshawn Bertram LB 6'0, 220 So. NR NR 11 16.5 2.0% 2.0 1.0 1 0 1 0
Drew Davis LB 6'1, 215 Jr. 2 stars (5.2) NR 13 16.5 2.0% 1.0 1.0 0 0 1 0
Shaquille Johnson LB 6'4, 230 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7793 12 13.5 1.7% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
T.J. McCollum (UAB) LB 6'3, 205 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.7967 6 6.5 1.0% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Devante Duclos LB 6'1, 240 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7876 6 4.0 0.5% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Nick Newton LB 6'3, 230 Sr. NR NR
Isaac Tanner LB 6'0, 220 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7904
Joel Iyiegbuniwe LB 6'2, 210 RSFr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7785
Masai Whyte LB 6'0, 210 RSFr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7619
DeVon Quincy LB 6'1, 225 Fr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8119








Secondary

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Branden Leston S 6'3, 215 Jr. NR NR 13 52.0 6.4% 3 1 4 1 0 0
Marcus Ward S 6'3, 204 Jr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7752 13 52.0 6.4% 2 0 0 1 0 0
Ricardo Singh S
13 41.0 5.0% 0 0 2 2 0 0
Cam Thomas CB
11 41.0 5.0% 1 0 2 5 0 1
Wonderful Terry CB 5'10, 180 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7993 12 35.5 4.4% 3 0 2 6 1 1
Prince Charles Iworah CB 5'11, 193 Sr. NR NR 13 31.5 3.9% 2.5 0 1 5 1 0
Rico Brown NB
13 26.0 3.2% 0.5 0.5 0 2 0 0
Leverick Johnson S 6'1, 190 So. 2 stars (5.2) 0.7400 11 17.5 2.1% 1 0 0 1 0 0
Forrest Coleman CB 6'2, 185 Sr. 2 stars (5.2) 0.7711 10 9.0 1.1% 0 0 0 1 0 0
Juwan Gardner S 6'1, 200 So. 2 stars (5.2) 0.7644 8 3.5 0.4% 0 0 1 1 0 0
Dalton Patterson DB
10 2.0 0.2% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Joe Brown CB 5'10, 180 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7333
De'Andre Simmons CB 5'11, 180 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7000
Martavius Mims S 6'1, 180 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7956
Aldwin Jackson DB 5'11, 170 Fr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8016
Jason Johnson DB 6'0, 195 Fr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7826








8. It won't get worse (probably)

WKU had to replace three of four starters in the secondary last year, and it didn't go well. A unit that was already a weakness (98th in Passing S&P+ in 2013) got worse, and while there were moments of successful aggressiveness (four DBs had at least two tackles for loss, five defensed at least five passes, and DBs actually scored five touchdowns off of interceptions and fumble returns), opponents were able to pass when they needed to.

That WKU returns safety Brandon Leston and corner Wonderful Terry (who scored three of WKU's five DB touchdowns) is a good thing, but youngsters like sophomores Leverick Johnson and Juwan Gardner and, potentially, freshmen Matravius Mims, Aldwin Jackson, and Jason Johnson will be asked to make early contributions. Luckily, the bar's not high.

Special Teams

Punter Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Punts Avg TB FC I20 FC/I20
Ratio
Joseph Occhipinti 6'3, 190 Jr. 49 37.1 4 15 11 53.1%
Kicker Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Kickoffs Avg TB OOB TB%
Mike Mugler 88 56.3 10 3 11.4%
Garrett Schwettman 5'11, 160 Sr. 9 47.9 1 0 11.1%
Place-Kicker Ht, Wt 2015
Year
PAT FG
(0-39)
Pct FG
(40+)
Pct
Garrett Schwettman 5'11, 160 Sr. 70-71 14-18 77.8% 2-3 66.7%
Returner Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Returns Avg. TD
Kylen Towner KR 5'9, 180 So. 28 22.7 1
Willie McNeal KR 14 21.6 0
Kylen Towner PR 5'9, 180 So. 6 9.8 0
Willie McNeal PR 4 5.3 0
Category Rk
Special Teams F/+ 111
Field Goal Efficiency 78
Punt Return Efficiency 41
Kick Return Efficiency 55
Punt Efficiency 115
Kickoff Efficiency 116
Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency 19

9. Find some legs

Kylen Towner didn't find his footing as a redshirt freshman wide receiver, but he immediately provided an impact in the return game.

That's the full list of WKU's special teams strengths. Garrett Schwettman did make a couple of lengthy field goals, but he missed four under 40 yards, and only one of his nine kickoffs resulted in a touchback. Joseph Occhipinti's punts were high and frequently fair-caught, but any that wasn't was probably returned a long way. Legs let WKU down, both metaphorically (the fourth quarter was easily WKU's worst) and, in special teams, literally.

2015 Schedule & Projection Factors

2015 Schedule
Date Opponent 2014 F/+ Rk
5-Sep at Vanderbilt 115
12-Sep Louisiana Tech 35
19-Sep at Indiana 88
26-Sep Miami (Ohio) 103
3-Oct at Rice 86
10-Oct Middle Tennessee 87
17-Oct at North Texas 125
24-Oct at LSU 22
31-Oct at Old Dominion 108
7-Nov Florida Atlantic 100
21-Nov at Florida International 96
28-Nov Marshall 17
Five-Year F/+ Rk -11.5% (79)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 93 / 90
2014 TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin* 5 / -1.0
2014 TO Luck/Game +2.3
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 16 (7, 9)
2014 Second-order wins (difference) 7.6 (0.4)

10. A hell of a road slate

I really like WKU. Despite obvious defensive deficiencies, the Hilltoppers were so good over the last five games of the year that they finished in the F/+ top 50, and they return most of the reasons. Marshall is still going to be a beast, but WKU was as good as or better than the Thundering Herd in November, and if they keep that up, they are a legitimate Conference USA contender.

That said, WKU's road slate provides challenge and opportunity. The non-conference slate includes trips to Vanderbilt, Indiana, and LSU (the Hilltoppers ranked higher than two of those), and to win the East, WKU will need to go at least 1-1 in trips to Rice and ODU. That MTSU and Marshall visit Bowling Green is a good thing, but if WKU is a better road team, this could be the year they push through the eight-win barrier and come up with their best FBS results yet.

WKU is proof that good decisions and a commitment to football can result in success in a short amount of time. Both the floor and ceiling are awfully high.