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Western Kentucky lost its star QB, but Jeff Brohm's Hilltoppers have earned the benefit of the doubt

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In four years, WKU went from Sun Belt also-ran to Conference USA stalwart. Jeff Brohm's Hilltoppers are loaded with play-makers, but without Brandon Doughty, quality of QB play will determine whether they're a slight or significant C-USA favorite.

Joshua Lindsey-USA TODAY Sports

Confused? Check out the advanced-stats glossary here.

1. This is how you build a program

When you're picturing how your program might be able to build from nothing into something, you're basically picturing this chart:

Grow, then sustain your gains. Grow, then sustain your gains. Granted, having four head coaches in seven seasons isn't the epitome of stability, but like Arkansas State and others, WKU seems to have found stability through infrastructure, support, and good hires.

Since dropping David Elson following a 2-22 stretch in 2008-09, WKU has pulled off something few manage: three consecutive good hires. The Hilltoppers brought in alum Willie Taggart, who won 14 games in 2011-12 after a predictably tough first season. When he left for USF, they hired Bobby Petrino for a rehab stint. And most importantly, they appeared to have Petrino's replacement in mind from the get-go. When he left after one 8-4 season, as he is wont to do, they hired his offensive coordinator/assistant head coach. And while Petrino struggled to get his Louisville offense off the ground over the last two years, Brohm's Hilltoppers achieved liftoff.

After winning eight games again in 2014 but peaking late and knocking off undefeated Marshall, WKU laid waste to the mid-major universe in 2015. Quarterback Brandon Doughty threw for 5,000 yards and almost 50 touchdowns, and despite losing star running back Leon Allen early in the season, the Hilltoppers ranked fourth in Off. S&P+, averaged 44 points per game, won the Conference USA title going away (only one conference foe was able to stay within 14 points), and finished 24th in the AP poll. I predicted they would be the best team in the conference, but I didn't see this coming.

WKU went 11-0 against G5 competition and finished the season in the Miami Beach Bowl against a USF team that had maybe been the AAC's best in November. The Hilltoppers started slowly, misfiring on offense and spotting Taggart's Bulls 14 points. But they scored 28 third-quarter points, gained 612 yards, and pulled away for a 10-point win.

Odds are decent that major programs will come for Brohm soon enough if he is able to replicate this level of success without Doughty in the coming years. But if we've learned anything about WKU in recent years, it's that the Hilltoppers probably have a succession plan in place. When you make three straight good hires, and when you either stay in place or improve for seven straight years, you get the benefit of the doubt.

In 2016, Brohm and the Hilltoppers will take the field without not only Doughty, but also three of their top five receivers, four of seven defensive linemen, three of four linebackers, and their top two cornerbacks. Regression is absolutely conceivable. But when you finish the year leaps and bounds ahead of your conference brethren, regression only makes it a fair fight again.

2015 Schedule & Results

Record: 12-2 | Adj. Record: 12-2 | Final F/+ Rk: 15 | Final S&P+ Rk: 11
Date Opponent Opp. F/+ Rk Score W-L Percentile
Performance
Win
Expectancy
vs. S&P+ Performance
vs. Vegas
3-Sep at Vanderbilt 83 14-12 W 37% 39% -0.6 -1.0
10-Sep Louisiana Tech 57 41-38 W 68% 63% -0.5 +4.0
19-Sep at Indiana 61 35-38 L 51% 56% -6.0 -1.5
26-Sep Miami-OH 113 56-14 W 97% 100% +20.1 +21.5
3-Oct at Rice 123 49-10 W 94% 100% +15.5 +31.5
10-Oct Middle Tennessee 82 58-28 W 95% 100% +15.4 +22.0
15-Oct at North Texas 126 55-28 W 79% 100% -20.4 -6.0
24-Oct at LSU 10 20-48 L 25% 5% -19.9 -11.0
31-Oct at Old Dominion 117 55-30 W 87% 100% +4.5 +1.0
7-Nov Florida Atlantic 96 35-19 W 88% 100% -2.5 -8.0
21-Nov at Florida International 112 63-7 W 99% 100% +38.3 +39.5
27-Nov Marshall 58 49-28 W 95% 100% +10.0 +10.5
5-Dec Southern Miss 56 45-28 W 78% 82% +2.2 +9.5
21-Dec vs. South Florida 44 45-35 W 76% 82% -0.5 +7.5

Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
S&P+ 43.5 4 26.0 53
Points Per Game 44.3 3 25.9 53

2. The welterweight champion of FBS

Sometimes a team doesn't have a weight class. For instance, 2015 Houston beat three power-conference teams (Louisville, Vanderbilt, Florida State) by an average of 17 points but got outgained on a per-play basis by three AAC opponents and lost to UConn. The Cougars' quality of opponent didn't have a specific, direct impact on their quality of output.

On the other hand, WKU was what it was. If the Hilltoppers could match or exceed you from an athleticism standpoint, you were toast. But their three games against power-conference opponents resulted in their three worst performances of the year.

  • Average Percentile Performance (vs. Power 5 opponents): 38% (Average score: Opp 33, WKU 23)
  • Average Percentile Performance (vs. everyone else): 87% (Average score: WKU 50, Opp 24)

The 'Toppers survived against a good Vanderbilt defense and very nearly survived a track meet against a good Indiana offense. But their receiver depth was no match for LSU's pass defense, and while they sold out to stop Leonard Fournette, they got torched by play-action.

From a reputation standpoint, playing your best against the best teams puts you a step ahead of the game. Games against bigger opponents are the ones fans are more likely to see, and since this is college football, there's always a "how big a man are ya?" aspect to this. Houston earned its perceived manhood by picking off Florida State four times.

WKU, meanwhile, earned the love of my Excel sheets by handling its business against everybody else. Dominating mid-major competition tends to predict a certain level of success for a team against power teams, too. It didn't happen with WKU for whatever reason. Perhaps it was indeed an athleticism and matchups issue. Maybe it had more to do with a slow start to the season (the only close C-USA result, after all, came between the Vandy and IU games) and a simple poor performance against LSU. Regardless, WKU finished the season as the highest-ranked mid-major in S&P+ but missed an opportunity to make a statement against bigger competition.

You figure WKU fans only lost so much sleep about that. This was an incredible run even with a slow start.

Offense

FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.41 9 IsoPPP+ 138.8 1
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 52.3% 1 Succ. Rt. + 125.6 5
FIELD POSITION Def. Avg. FP 28.9 46 Def. FP+ 29.8 70
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Scoring Opportunity 5.3 6 Redzone S&P+ 126.4 5
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 18.5 ACTUAL 17 -1.5
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 9 3 5 1
RUSHING 90 30 15 57
PASSING 4 4 4 5
Standard Downs 1 1 2
Passing Downs 9 11 7
Q1 Rk 22 1st Down Rk 7
Q2 Rk 2 2nd Down Rk 4
Q3 Rk 10 3rd Down Rk 19
Q4 Rk 11

Quarterback

Note: players in bold below are 2016 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.

Player Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Comp Att Yards TD INT Comp
Rate
Sacks Sack Rate Yards/
Att.
Brandon Doughty 388 540 5055 48 9 71.9% 15 2.7% 8.9
Nelson Fishback 6'2, 215 Sr. NR NR 7 8 70 0 0 87.5% 0 0.0% 8.8
Mike White
(USF)
6'4, 210 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8261 122 242 1639 8 7 50.4% 16 6.2% 5.9
Tyler Ferguson
(Louisville)
6'4, 217 Sr. NR NR
Drew Eckels 6'4, 210 So. 2 stars (5.2) 0.7801
Reese Ryan 6'2, 180 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8535
Steven Duncan 6'5, 230 Fr. 2 stars (5.2) 0.7933

3. Ode to Brandon Doughty

Like WKU itself, Brandon Doughty made improvement seem easy and linear.

Year(s) Passes Comp. Rate Yards/Comp TD Rate INT Rate
2011-12 25 56% 8.1 0% 4%
2013 374 66% 11.6 4% 4%
2014 552 68% 12.9 9% 2%
2015 540 72% 13.0 9% 2%

A three-year starter, Doughty finished his career with 12,855 passing yards, 111 touchdowns, and 34 interceptions. Both his completion rate and average yards per completion improved every single season, and his touchdown and interception rates either improved or stayed the same. There was no regression to be found.

It's not supposed to work that way. In fact, I end up saying "Improvement is not linear" frequently when talking about players and teams. But for WKU and Doughty, it was.

And now Doughty's gone. College players always leave. And the spring battle for his replacement could be fascinating. Nelson Fishback has been awesome in scrub time; he has completed 18 of 26 passes so far in his career, and he is probably more mobile than Doughty as well. But he'll have his work cut out for him to win the job.

USF transfer Mike White, who started for Taggart as a freshman, will be eligible and ready for a challenge. So will former Penn State and Louisville reserve Tyler Ferguson. Redshirt freshman Reese Ryan was the most well-regarded quarterback of the bunch in terms of the 247Sports Composite ratings. And sophomore Drew Eckels has requisite size and is entering his third year in the program.

Because Fishback has shown promise, one figures the bar is pretty high. If, for instance, White overtakes him, that might mean he has grown past some of the sacks-and-picks issues he struggled with on a couple of bad USF offenses. (Having a better receiving corps won't hurt.)

Whoever wins the QB job in 2016 will have a fan in Doughty and should be competent and solid, even if he represents a step back from Doughty's 2015 form.

Running Back

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Rushes Yards TD Yards/
Carry
Hlt Yds/
Opp.
Opp.
Rate
Fumbles Fum.
Lost
Leon Allen
(2014)
RB 6'0, 235 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7500 272 1542 13 5.7 5.6 40.4% 3 0
D'Andre Ferby RB 6'1, 240 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8206 164 650 11 4.0 3.1 33.5% 0 0
Anthony Wales RB 5'10, 195 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8631 155 1091 9 7.0 5.1 55.5% 1 0
Darmontre Warr RB 5'9, 195 Sr. NR 0.8117 35 124 2 3.5 2.0 40.0% 0 0
Anthony Davis RB 25 102 1 4.1 3.7 36.0% 3 1
Brandon Doughty QB 12 2 1 0.2 4.7 16.7% 5 1
Taywan Taylor WR 6'1, 195 Sr. 2 stars (5.2) 0.7000 7 -9 0 -1.3 5.1 28.6% 1 0
Nicholas Norris WR 5'9, 175 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7859 6 63 1 10.5 5.3 83.3% 0 0
Quinton Baker RB 5'10, 180 Fr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8435







Receiving Corps

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Targets Catches Yards Catch Rate Target
Rate
Yds/
Target
%SD Success
Rate
IsoPPP
Taywan Taylor WR 6'1, 195 Sr. 2 stars (5.2) 0.7000 115 86 1467 74.8% 21.3% 12.8 73.0% 59.1% 2.11
Jared Dangerfield WR 111 82 844 73.9% 20.5% 7.6 64.0% 55.9% 1.29
Nicholas Norris WR 5'9, 175 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7859 89 63 971 70.8% 16.5% 10.9 53.9% 50.6% 2.05
Antwane Grant WR 85 55 701 64.7% 15.7% 8.2 65.9% 51.8% 1.49
Tyler Higbee TE 49 38 563 77.6% 9.1% 11.5 59.2% 69.4% 1.64
Anthony Wales RB 5'10, 195 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8631 30 27 225 90.0% 5.5% 7.5 43.3% 53.3% 1.37
Nacarius Fant WR 5'9, 185 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8274 17 13 159 76.5% 3.1% 9.4 52.9% 52.9% 1.65
Tim Gorski TE 13 10 119 76.9% 2.4% 9.2 76.9% 69.2% 1.33
D'Andre Ferby RB 6'1, 240 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8206 12 9 33 75.0% 2.2% 2.8 91.7% 25.0% 0.94
Leon Allen RB 6'0, 235 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7500 7 5 72 71.4% 1.3% 10.3 57.1% 28.6% 3.34
Darmontre Warr RB 5'9, 195 Sr. NR 0.8117 2 2 16 100.0% 0.4% 8.0 100.0% 100.0% 0.73
Will Bush WR 5'11, 195 So. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7519 2 1 8 50.0% 0.4% 4.0 100.0% 50.0% 0.89
Kylen Towner WR 5'8, 175 Jr. 2 stars (5.2) 0.7000
Nick True TE 6'5, 265 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7594
Quin Jernighan WR 6'3, 210 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8305
Xavier Lane WR 6'4, 200 Fr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8422
Chris Cotto WR 5'11, 190 Fr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8191
Jahcour Pearson WR 5'9, 180 Fr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8076

4. If you've got the QB, you've got the skill position guys

Until we know that the quarterback position is in good hands, it's a question mark. But with competence at QB, the other pieces should fall into place.

Leon Allen was a spectacular force as a junior in 2014, a 235-pounder with open-field explosiveness. He began his senior season with far more efficiency, too (his opportunity rate was 48 percent), but in Game 2 against Louisiana Tech, he was lost for the season to a gruesome leg injury. He has since suffered some setbacks in his rehabilitation, and his status is unclear. In theory, he might be eligible for a medical redshirt if he wants one, but at present both the likeliness that he would either pursue or receive one is unclear.

The good news is that Allen's replacements proved up to the task in 2015. Granted, well-regarded freshman D'Andre Ferby definitely looked like an inconsistent freshman, but Anthony Wales was outstanding. After barely playing for the first five weeks of the year, he set a torrid pace in the final nine games, rushing for over 1,000 yards and averaging at least 5.5 yards per carry seven of nine times. He was consistent, efficient, and reasonably explosive.

Meanwhile at receiver, a lot is gone and a lot returns. Gone: Jared Dangerfield, Antwane Grant, and tight end Tyler Higbee, who combined for 175 catches and 2,108 yards (8.6 per target). Returning: Taywan Taylor and Nicholas Norris, who combined for 149 catches and 2,438 yards (12.0 per target). Taylor was particularly ridiculous. He caught at least five passes in 11 of 14 games, and he had at least 94 receiving yards in 10.

In Taylor and Wales, WKU has two known stars. In Ferby and junior Nacarius Fant, the 'Toppers have two former star recruits who might be ready to take a step forward. And in receivers Quin Jernighan, Xavier Lane, Chris Cotto and Jahcour Pearson and running back Quinton Baker, they have a new crop of three-stars signed over the last 13 months or so. Allen or no Allen, WKU is loaded. And that's before we point out that the entire starting line is back.

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 109.2 3.19 3.06 43.9% 69.8% 17.1% 254.6 1.0% 5.2%
Rank 30 23 82 14 38 27 6 4 21
Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. 2015 Starts Career Starts Honors/Notes
Forrest Lamp LT 6'4, 300 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7000 14 39 2015 1st All-CUSA
Brandon Ray LG 6'2, 285 Jr. 2 stars (5.2) 0.7000 14 28
Darrell Williams, Jr. RT 6'6, 310 Sr. 2 stars (5.2) 0.7000 14 27
Max Halpin C 6'3, 295 Sr. NR NR 14 24
Dennis Edwards RG 6'1, 305 So. 2 stars (5.3) 0.8118 12 12
Joe Manley RG 6'6, 315 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8250 2 2
Parker Howell LT 6'4, 275 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7993 0 0
Maurice Bennett LG 0 0
Jimmie Sims RT 6'5, 290 Jr. 2 stars (5.2) 0.7000 0 0
Matt Nord RT 6'6, 310 Sr. NR NR 0 0
Cullen Reynolds OL 6'5, 310 RSFr. 2 stars (5.2) 0.7928

R.J. Scaife OL 6'5, 275 RSFr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7333

Hunter Holland OL 6'2, 275 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7726

Tyler Witt OL 6'3, 295 Fr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8093

5. One key departure up front

Having Doughty certainly helped, but WKU's line did everything it was supposed to in 2015. Maybe the more mobile Fishback creates some blocking confusion by scrambling more, or maybe complacency sets in. But in general, when you return all five starters (and 10 total seasons of starting experience) from a good line, that's a good thing.

The one obstacle: a new offensive line coach. Experience up front doesn't appear to matter as much as we probably think, and coaching quality might be of vital importance on the OL. So when Neil Callaway became one of many assistants to get plucked away this offseason (he said yes to the same OL role at USC), it had to be cause for concern.

Brohm made an interesting hire in replacing Callaway. Dale Williams was Howard Schnellenberger's OL coach at FAU from 2005-11 and worked with Brohm in that span, but he has spent the last four years as a high school coach. Odd hires often work out beautifully, but Williams will have a very high bar to clear here.

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Defense

FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.31 92 IsoPPP+ 99.8 67
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 40.5% 61 Succ. Rt. + 101.0 64
FIELD POSITION Off. Avg. FP 31.8 31 Off. FP+ 30.6 51
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Scoring Opportunity 4.1 37 Redzone S&P+ 95.0 86
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 26.5 ACTUAL 31.0 +4.5
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 71 62 64 67
RUSHING 59 55 73 50
PASSING 86 73 56 79
Standard Downs 52 61 49
Passing Downs 88 79 89
Q1 Rk 20 1st Down Rk 54
Q2 Rk 69 2nd Down Rk 18
Q3 Rk 58 3rd Down Rk 82
Q4 Rk 118

6. Strong out of the gates, at least

WKU's defense was awful at almost nothing and really good in the first quarter. With an offense like what the Hilltoppers had, that's more than enough. The defense had just enough success for WKU to build a lead, and then a track meet ensued. (It bears mentioning that while WKU's fourth-quarter defensive numbers were dreadful, part of that is because garbage time is not filtered out of the per-quarter averages.) And on the rare occasion when the offense wasn't posting 40-plus points, the defense seemed capable of making a few extra stops, as evidenced in the 14-12 win over Vanderbilt and the 35-19 win over FAU.

In theory, WKU's offense will still be good in 2015, but not quite top-five good. That might put pressure on the defense to improve, and the two-deep has been thinned out a decent amount.

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 99.5 2.78 3.35 39.4% 61.8% 21.2% 65.7 2.5% 5.2%
Rank 65 45 79 79 37 49 117 119 102
Name Pos Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Derik Overstreet DE 6'2, 250 Jr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7619 14 39.5 5.0% 9.0 2.0 0 1 1 0
Gavin Rocker DE 13 29.5 3.7% 6.0 2.5 0 1 0 0
Jontavius Morris DT 11 25.0 3.1% 5.0 2.0 0 3 0 0
Omarius Bryant DT 6'3, 310 Sr. 2 stars (5.2) 0.7733 11 23.5 2.9% 3.5 1.5 0 0 0 0
Ge'Monee Brown DT 12 15.0 1.9% 2.5 0.5 0 0 0 0
Tanner Reeves DE 6'4, 240 Jr. 2 stars (5.2) 0.8100 11 13.5 1.7% 4.5 1.5 0 0 1 0
Bryan Shorter DT 9 12.0 1.5% 2.0 1.0 0 1 0 0
Kalvin Robinson DE 6'5, 250 Sr. 2 stars (5.2) 0.7000 6 4.5 0.6% 1.5 1.0 0 0 0 0
Devante Duclos DE 6'1, 240 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7876 3 3.5 0.4% 1.0 0.0 0 1 0 0
Nick Dawson-Brents
(Louisville)
DE 6'3, 260 Sr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9149 2 3.0 0.4% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Devante Terrell DT 6'0, 290 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.7600 2 2.0 0.3% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Sidney Hammond DE 6'2, 250 Jr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7900
Heath Wiggins DL 6'2, 260 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7915
Ty'Ron Horton DL 6'3, 260 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7693
Chris Johnson DT 6'3, 290 Jr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7852
Jeremy Darvin DT 6'2, 285 Fr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8432
Jalen Madden DT 6'2, 325 Fr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8015








Linebackers

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
TJ McCollum LB 6'3, 230 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.7967 14 87.5 11.0% 11.5 3.0 1 3 1 0
Nick Holt LB 14 72.5 9.1% 7.5 4.0 3 4 2 0
Dejon Brown LB 13 52.5 6.6% 7.0 2.0 0 2 2 1
Keith Brown
(Louisville)
LB 6'1, 235 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9280 8 24.5 3.5% 2.0 0.0 0 2 0 0
Nick Newton LB 9 18.5 2.3% 2.5 1.0 1 1 1 0
Masai Whyte LB 6'0, 218 So. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7619 8 17.0 2.1% 1.0 0.0 0 1 0 0
Joel Iyiegbuniwe LB 6'2, 220 So. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7785 9 16.5 2.1% 1.0 1.0 0 0 0 0
Drew Davis LB 6'1, 225 Sr. 2 stars (5.2) NR 10 15.0 1.9% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Daeshawn Bertram LB 5'11, 220 Jr. NR NR 10 11.5 1.4% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Isaac Tanner LB 6'0, 225 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7904
Demetrius Cain LB 6'1, 210 Fr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8156
Drew O'Bryan LB 6'3, 230 Fr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7893








7. A little bit of a pass rush would go a long way

I said WKU's defense was awful at "almost nothing" in 2015. Well ... the pass rush was pretty awful. And when you're leading and your opponent has to pass a lot, that's not an optimal weakness. WKU ranked 117th in Adj. Sack Rate and 88th on passing downs (which ARE measured without garbage-time data). They let opponents extend drives and keep the WKU offense off the field; again, it didn't matter because the WKU offense was other-worldly. But it could matter with only a top-25 offense.

Hilltopper linebackers were reasonably effective at blitzing, but without pressure from the ends, WKU had to blitz to generate any pressure. And of the six players who recorded even only two sacks, only three return.

A couple of former Petrino players could be key here. Seniors Keith Brown and Nick Dawson-Brents are both graduate transfers from Louisville and former four-star recruits. They will have every opportunity to climb the depth chart quickly. And even a marginal impact -- say, three to six sacks each -- could provide a significant boost.

Secondary

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Branden Leston S 6'3, 205 Sr. NR NR 14 83.0 10.4% 3 0 1 3 0 1
Marcus Ward S 6'3, 210 Sr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7752 14 47.0 5.9% 7.5 2 1 8 2 0
Prince Charles Iworah CB 13 38.5 4.8% 1 0 4 11 0 0
Wonderful Terry CB 12 32.0 4.0% 1 0 2 5 1 0
Joe Brown CB 5'10, 190 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7333 11 30.5 3.8% 1.5 0 1 9 0 0
De'Andre Simmons CB 5'11, 185 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7000 10 14.5 1.8% 1 0 1 1 0 0
Leverick Johnson S 6'1, 185 Jr. 2 stars (5.2) 0.7400 10 14.0 1.8% 1 1 1 0 0 0
DeAndre Farris DB 5'10, 190 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.7726 7 11.0 1.4% 1 0 1 0 0 0
Drell Greene DB 6'1, 190 So. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7685 7 10.5 1.3% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Martavius Mims S 6'1, 200 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7956 7 9.5 1.2% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Nathan Roush DB 6'2, 180 So. NR NR 10 4.5 0.6% 0.5 0 0 0 0 0
Forrest Coleman DB 3 3.0 0.4% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Juwan Gardner DB 6'1, 205 Jr. 2 stars (5.2) 0.7644
AJ Jackson DB 5'11, 170 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8016
Jason Johnson DB 6'0, 195 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7826








8. Down a couple of great names in the back

Despite the lack of a pass rush, the secondary still found the opportunity to make some plays. The Hilltoppers should be just fine at safety in 2016 -- seniors Branden Leston and Marcus Ward return after recording 10.5 tackles for loss, 13 passes defensed, and 16 percent of WKU's tackles -- but cornerback is a question mark.

Prince Charles Iworah and Wonderful Terry were both all-name team members and solid cornerbacks. They combined to intercept six passes and break up 16 more, and their absence puts pressure on juniors Joe Brown and De'Andre Simmons. Boring name aside, Brown was quite active in his own right and should be just fine, but between Simmons, sophomore DeAndre Farris, and perhaps a redshirt freshman like AJ Jackson, a second starter-quality guy must emerge.

In theory, the pass rush won't be quite as bad and the cornerback position won't be quite as hard, but this is a question mark until proven otherwise.

Special Teams

Punter Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Punts Avg TB FC I20 FC/I20
Ratio
Jake Collins 6'0, 190 So. 37 41.7 1 5 12 45.9%
Joseph Occhipinti 6'3, 190 Sr. 15 37.9 1 2 3 33.3%
Kicker Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Kickoffs Avg TB OOB TB%
Ryan Nuss 5'10, 190 So. 64 57.0 8 1 12.5%
Jake Collins 6'0, 190 So. 44 56.8 2 1 4.5%
Place-Kicker Ht, Wt 2016
Year
PAT FG
(0-39)
Pct FG
(40+)
Pct
Garrett Schwettman 79-80 13-14 92.9% 2-2 100.0%
Returner Pos. Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Returns Avg. TD
Kylen Towner KR 5'8, 175 Jr. 32 23.7 1
Anthony Davis KR 4 12.0 0
Kylen Towner PR 5'8, 175 Jr. 14 7.1 0
Nacarius Fant PR 5'9, 185 Jr. 4 9.3 0
Category Rk
Special Teams S&P+ 13
Field Goal Efficiency 1
Punt Return Success Rate 42
Kick Return Success Rate 39
Punt Success Rate 35
Kickoff Success Rate 121

9. Schwettman was a weapon

Despite an aggressive ofensive mindset, WKU attempted only 21 fourth-down conversions in 2015. This was partially because the Hilltoppers didn't typically need four downs to gain 10 yards. It was also because Brohm knew he had three sure points if WKU was inside the 30 or so.

Garrett Schwettman was supremely efficient and will be missed. He was the primary reason for WKU's No. 13 ranking in Special Teams S&P+ -- kick coverage was awful, and returns were good but not great -- and he's gone. And if the offense is any less consistent, that could make place-kicking even more valuable.

But if WKU is at least competent in the place-kicking department, this should still at least be a top-40 unit. Kylen Towner is back to return kicks, and Jake Collins was solid as a freshman punter. Like the offense, special teams might not be as much of a strength, but it probably won't be a weakness.

2016 Schedule & Projection Factors

2016 Schedule
Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
3-Sep Rice 119 22.6 90%
10-Sep at Alabama 1 -24.7 8%
17-Sep at Miami (Ohio) 107 12.9 77%
24-Sep Vanderbilt 69 7.3 66%
1-Oct Houston Baptist NR 52.4 100%
8-Oct at Louisiana Tech 84 4.6 61%
15-Oct at Middle Tennessee 90 6.4 64%
22-Oct Old Dominion 111 20.8 88%
29-Oct at Florida Atlantic 100 9.8 71%
5-Nov Florida International 113 21.7 90%
12-Nov North Texas 128 27.0 94%
26-Nov at Marshall 75 1.7 54%
Projected wins: 8.6
Five-Year F/+ Rk 1.9% (56)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 92 / 89
2015 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 14 / 8.1
2015 TO Luck/Game +2.3
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 47% (34%, 59%)
2015 Second-order wins (difference) 11.3 (0.7)

10. Favored in 11, favored heavily in only four

WKU was far and away the class of Conference USA in 2015, and even if the Hilltoppers regress (and they probably will), they're starting the year on top. The magnitude of regression, however, could make a huge difference in the number of wins available.

WKU has a better than 50 percent chance of winning in 11 of 12 scheduled games this year, but you'll notice that the win probability is between 54 and 77 for six of those games. You may also notice that of the six projected top-100 teams on the schedule, five play host to the Hilltoppers.

As the defending champion, WKU is going to face a lot of home run swings. And projected at 45th in S&P+, the Hilltoppers are expected to win about nine games. Stay in the top 30 or 35, however, and 11-1 is a distinct possibility. Fall to closer to 60th (like Marshall did in 2015), and that might open the door to 7-5.

Jeff Brohm's third year in Bowling Green is a big one. For the first time since he and Petrino arrived in 2013, Brandon Doughty won't be around to lead the offense. If he finds his man at QB and his interesting choice for OL coach is a decent one, WKU will average 38-plus points per game again and will be the C-USA favorite. But he's got questions to answer, and his program's depth will be tested. WKU's No. 1, but has a lot to prove.