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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.
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
|13-Sep||at Middle Tennessee||87||47-50||L||56%||3.3||62%|
|18-Oct||at Florida Atlantic||100||38-45||L||23%||-16.9||22%|
|1-Nov||at Louisiana Tech||35||10-59||L||7%||-34.7||0%|
|25-Dec||vs. Central Michigan||85||49-48||W||59%||5.6||55%|
|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.
|FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|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|
|Q1 Rk||8||1st Down Rk||20|
|Q2 Rk||8||2nd Down Rk||11|
|Q3 Rk||33||3rd Down Rk||22|
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.
Note: players in bold below are 2015 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Brandon Doughty||6'3, 210||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8208||375||552||4830||49||10||67.9%||19||3.3%||8.2|
|Nelson Fishback||6'2, 215||Jr.||NR||NR|
|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|
|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|
|D'Andre Ferby||RB||6'1, 240||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8206|
|Rivals||247 Comp.||Targets||Catches||Yards||Catch Rate||Target
|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|
|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|
|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.
|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|
|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.
|FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|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|
|Q1 Rk||91||1st Down Rk||122|
|Q2 Rk||97||2nd Down Rk||107|
|Q3 Rk||120||3rd Down Rk||117|
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.
|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|
|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|
|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.
|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|
|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|
|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|
|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|
|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|
|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.
|Joseph Occhipinti||6'3, 190||Jr.||49||37.1||4||15||11||53.1%|
|Garrett Schwettman||5'11, 160||Sr.||9||47.9||1||0||11.1%|
|Garrett Schwettman||5'11, 160||Sr.||70-71||14-18||77.8%||2-3||66.7%|
|Kylen Towner||KR||5'9, 180||So.||28||22.7||1|
|Kylen Towner||PR||5'9, 180||So.||6||9.8||0|
|Special Teams F/+||111|
|Field Goal Efficiency||78|
|Punt Return Efficiency||41|
|Kick Return Efficiency||55|
|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
|Date||Opponent||2014 F/+ Rk|
|17-Oct||at North Texas||125|
|31-Oct||at Old Dominion||108|
|21-Nov||at Florida International||96|
|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.