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WKU football has absolutely towered over its peers. Will 2017’s changes close the gap?

A new head coach and some roster turnover mean the rest of Conference USA has a shot.

Western Kentucky v Alabama Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Generally speaking, advanced stats mean comparing actual production to expectations. If you perform better against Team A than an average team would, you are better than average.

Western Kentucky has been far better than average the last two years. Using simple yards per play, behold:

WKU offense vs. opponent averages

Opponent Avg. Yds/Play Allowed WKU's Yds. Per Play Diff
Opponent Avg. Yds/Play Allowed WKU's Yds. Per Play Diff
Rice 7.4 10.0 +2.6
Alabama 4.0 4.0 +0.0
Miami-OH 5.2 6.1 +0.9
Vanderbilt 5.9 6.8 +0.9
Houston Bap. 6.2 10.3 +4.1
La. Tech 5.8 5.9 +0.1
MTSU 5.5 6.8 +1.3
ODU 5.4 9.2 +3.8
FAU 6.9 9.4 +2.5
FIU 6.3 7.4 +1.1
North Texas 6.1 7.3 +1.2
Marshall 6.4 7.6 +1.2
La. Tech 5.8 9.1 +3.3
Memphis 5.8 7.7 +1.9
~Average 5.9 7.7 +1.8

Much more goes into ratings like my S&P+ system than yards per play, but that’s a clear starting point. WKU met or topped its opponents’ average yards per play allowed in every game and exceeded it by at least 0.9 yards in 12 of 14 contests. It exceeded the standard set by most opponents’ opponents on defense, as well.

I've spent the last couple of years defending Jeff Brohm’s Hilltoppers, which managed to rank 12th in S&P+ in 2015 and 16th in 2016. But even if you don’t believe they were a true top-20 team, they were close — the Massey Composite, which combines basically every ranking system into one, slotted them in at 24th last year and 27th in 2015.

Regardless of whether they were excellent or merely quite good, the Hilltoppers were by far the class of Conference USA each year. They were 30 spots ahead of any conference mate in the 2015 Massey Composite and 32 spots ahead of No. 2 in 2016. They went 17-1 against conference foes in these two years, and of the 17 wins, 12 were by at least 21 points. And the game they lost — a 55-52 shootout at Louisiana Tech last October — they avenged in the C-USA title game.

That is a level of sustained dominance you rarely see. And it’s incredible to step back and realize how quickly the Hilltoppers came to this point. Including their provisional year of 2007, WKU has only been in FBS for a decade. And the first half didn’t go so well.

WKU’s S&P+ progression

WKU began FBS life 3-39 against fellow FBS opponents. A month into 2011, the Hilltoppers’ fifth season, they were 0-4 and coming off a 44-16 loss to non-FBS Indiana State. Willie Taggart had come home to rescue his alma mater's program, and his tenure had begun with 14 losses in 16 games.

But then the switch flipped on and stayed on. The Hilltoppers finished 2011 with seven wins in eight games and reached their first bowl — a near upset of Central Michigan — in 2012. With a fresh foundation, they lost Taggart to USF and brought in Bobby Petrino for a year, and he won eight games. When he inevitably left after one year, there was a plan. They promoted Brohm, enjoyed their first bowl win in 2014, and unleashed scorched-earth conference title runs.

WKU has improved to some degree for six of the last eight years. The lightbulb isn't supposed to come on like that, but it did. It's been incredible to watch.

There's a crossroads in 2017, however. Brohm is now at Purdue, replaced by former Notre Dame offensive coordinator Mike Sanford.

Sanford has coaching in his blood. His father, Mike Sr., served as offensive coordinator everywhere from Long Beach State to Louisville, and he spent eight years as head coach at UNLV and Indiana State. (Mike Sr. is now Mike Jr.'s running backs and special teams coach.)

Sanford also has one hell of a résumé. At 25, he became Jim Harbaugh's first quarterbacks coach at Stanford in 2007. He became Boise State's coordinator in 2014 at 32 and improved the Bronco attack from 29th in Off. S&P+ to 14th. He took over the Notre Dame offense in 2015 and, despite an early quarterback injury, improved the Irish from 21st to 11th. Things got a little weird in South Bend in 2016, but Sanford has proved almost as much as a 35-year-old possibly can.

Sanford inherits a proven quarterback and an experienced defense. It’s really hard to ace three consecutive coaching hires, but WKU did, and on paper, this hire makes a hell of a lot of sense. But four in a row is harder than three, and there’s almost no way to go but down in Bowling Green.


2016 in review

2016 WKU statistical profile.

WKU served a little notice in the second week of the season, when the Hilltoppers went to Tuscaloosa and traded blows for a bit with the defending national champions. Down 3-0 six minutes into the game, Mike White completed a 59-yard bomb to Taywan Taylor to set up a game-tying field goal.

It was only 10-3 Bama midway through the second quarter when an Eddie Jackson pick-six gave the Tide a cushion. WKU held Alabama's Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough to 64 yards on 16 carries, but a couple of first-half picks assured Bama of the early lead, and WKU fell, 38-10.

That was better than a lot of good teams do against the Tide, but it was a sign that WKU was still a work in progress. The Toppers struggled to put away Miami (Ohio) a week later, then gave away a 31-30 decision to Vanderbilt despite outgaining the Commodores by 107 yards.

WKU labored for another couple of weeks, falling to Louisiana Tech and barely outlasting a peaking MTSU. But when the Hilltoppers found fifth gear in mid-October, they remained there.

  • First seven games (4-3) — Avg. score: WKU 38, Opp 30 | Avg. yards per play: WKU 7.0, Opp 5.5 | Avg. percentile performance: 55% (~top 55)
  • Last seven games (7-0) — Avg. score: WKU 53, Opp 19 | Avg. yards per play: WKU 8.2, Opp 4.8 | Avg. percentile performance: 89% (~top 15)

The competition lightened, which helped, but against an ODU that was nearly Vandy's equal (per S&P+), the Hilltoppers won by 35. They won a rematch against Louisiana Tech by two touchdowns and manhandled a solid Memphis by 20 in the Boca Raton Bowl.

WKU was a wrecking ball late in 2016. And now we hit the reset button.


Offense

WKU offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

Mike White was evidently the player to be named later in the deal that sent Taggart from WKU to USF. The senior from Fort Lauderdale won the starting quarterback job on an awful USF team in 2013 and struggled. He completed just 53 percent of his passes with three touchdowns, nine interceptions, and a passer rating barely in triple digits (100.5).

Over his last four starts, that rating was 89.2. He improved a bit on a 4-8 squad in 2014, Taggart's second year, but with USF about to move to a more high-octane, run-heavy system, White ducked out of town.

Smart move. White took over for the tremendous Brandon Doughty last fall, and while he didn't meet Doughty's ridiculous standards (5,055 yards, 48 touchdowns), he came damn close. Four games in, he had just six touchdowns, three picks, and a 149.8 rating. His last 10 games: 31 touchdowns, four interceptions, and a 194.8 rating.

In two postseason games, White completed 41 of 61 for 757 yards, six touchdowns, and two picks. And now he's got one more year. Brohm left Sanford one hell of a parting gift.

White is a great starting point, but Sanford and coordinator Junior Adams (Boise State's receivers coach for the last three seasons) have some work to do. The Hilltoppers have to replace 1,600-yard rusher Anthony Wales and two incredible receivers (Taylor, Nicholas Norris) who combined for 175 catches, 3,063 yards, and 31 touchdowns last year. Oh yeah, and three all-conference linemen are gone.

The line is uncertain, but the coffers still appear stocked at the skill positions. For one thing, Leon Allen might finally get his final year. Allen rushed for 1,542 as a junior in 2014 but suffered a serious knee injury in the second game of 2015 and was granted a fifth year of eligibility. He proceeded to miss all of 2016 as well, but it appears a sixth year of eligibility is in the cards. He is currently listed on the WKU roster, anyway.

NCAA Football: Louisiana Tech at Western Kentucky
Leon Allen
Joshua Lindsey-USA TODAY Sports

Meanwhile, after rushing for 650 yards as a backup in 2015, D'Andre Ferby got one carry in 2016 before succumbing to a shoulder injury. He should be back as well. Throw in sophomore backs Quinton Baker and Marquez Trigg, who combined for 840 yards in 2016, and it seems you've got a good stable, at least as long as the line can block.

With the loss of not only Taylor and Norris but also Wales and tight ends Stevie Donatell and Shaquille Johnson, WKU is tasked with replacing five of last year's top seven targets.

Continuity is especially significant for a passing game, and the Hilltoppers don't have a lot of it; only two returning wideouts caught more than five balls last year. But, well, at least those two are exciting.

Senior Nacarius Fant has caught 42 passes over the last two years and averaged 9.5 yards per target in 2016; sophomore Lucky Jackson debuted by catching 26 passes and averaging 9.4 per target. If three-star sophomore Quin Jernighan and at least one of a trio of three-star redshirt freshmen (Xavier Lane, Chris Cotto, Jahcour Pearson) is ready to produce, the top of this receiving corps appears strong.

Depth could be an issue, and if mid-three-star JUCO transfer Mik'Quan Deane doesn't seize the tight end job, I don't know who will. But there's still upside.

NCAA Football: Western Kentucky at Florida Atlantic
Lucky Jackson
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

WKU defensive radar

On Oct. 8, 2016, NC State's secondary, led in part by safety Josh Jones, held Notre Dame's DeShone Kizer to 9-for-26 passing with 54 yards and an interception. The Wolfpack also sacked Kizer five times and held Irish backs to 3.2 yards per carry. Sanford had no play-calling answers, and Notre Dame lost, 10-3.

Granted, I omitted the part where a damn monsoon was playing quite the role of 12th defender. Still, there was at least a little connectivity to this game when Sanford chose NC State safeties coach Clayton White as his defensive coordinator.

State's defense was awesome in 2016. The Pack shut down the run and then swarmed the pass. Granted, stopping the pass comes FIRST in Conference USA, but State was good at that in 2016, and White played a role.

Sanford and White didn't first connect in a monsoon, of course. White was Stanford's defensive backs coach from 2007-09 before joining Taggart as DBs coach at WKU in 2010. He took a detour to UConn for a couple of years, then landed at his alma mater in Raleigh.

White should find plenty of pieces to his liking. WKU ranked an incredible second in Rushing S&P+ last year, and while that number might seem high, realize that it held Bama backs to 4 yards per carry and Vandy's Ralph Webb to 3.5.

NCAA Football: Western Kentucky at Florida Atlantic
Chris Johnson
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The front seven has been thinned out by graduation but still boasts about half of last year's playmakers. End Nick Dawson-Brents, tackle Omarius Bryant, and linebackers Keith Brown and T.J. McCollum are all gone, which hurts — they combined for 37.5 tackles for loss 16 sacks, two interceptions, and 19 breakups last year. Still, the Toppers return tackle Chris Johnson (12.5 TFLs), end Derik Overstreet (8.5 TFLs, four sacks), and junior linebacker/war machine Joel Iyiegbuniwe (10 TFLs).

Depth was a strength for WKU, and there's no indication that the team will have it in 2017. But the projected front seven will still be impressive, and we've seen enough from 2016 backups like end Tanner Reeves, tackle Julien Lewis, and linebacker Masai Whyte to think they have high upside.

If the front holds up, the back will be fine. Losing safety Branden Leston (10 passes defensed) hurts, but: a) that's all WKU must replace, and b) senior Marcus Ward, a starter in 2015, returns after missing most of 2016 with a knee injury.

Senior corners Joe Brown, Leverick Johnson, and De'Andre Simmons might be the best in C-USA. Granted, a ridiculous run defense helped to render opponents predictable, but this trio still picked off four passes and broke up 26.

Johnson, Overstreet, Reeves, and every DB I just mentioned are seniors. White might have some work to do in 2018. But there are enough pieces left over in 2017 to make me think the Hilltoppers can maintain a high level even if both the offense and run defense fade at least a bit.

Western Kentucky v Alabama
Leverick Johnson & Joel Iyiegbuniwe
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Special Teams

WKU's special teams were mostly awesome. Kylen Towner was maybe the most terrifying kick returner in the country, averaging 40.3 — yes, 40.3 — yards per return, and Fant scored twice on punt returns. Coverage units were solid, and punter Jake Collins did a pretty good job while punting fewer than three times per game.

There were some glitches in the place-kicking department. You typically want to hit 85 percent of your under-40 field goals, and Skyler Simcox and Ryan Nuss made only 18 of 26 (69 percent).

Still, Simcox and Nuss were sophomores, and everybody's back, including Towner and Fant. WKU's special teams will be dangerous as hell once more.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep Eastern Kentucky NR 46.1 100%
9-Sep at Illinois 85 7.6 67%
16-Sep Louisiana Tech 82 12.0 76%
23-Sep Ball State 90 13.7 79%
7-Oct at UTEP 126 18.4 86%
14-Oct Charlotte 127 26.6 94%
21-Oct at Old Dominion 93 9.3 70%
28-Oct Florida Atlantic 99 15.7 82%
4-Nov at Vanderbilt 63 -0.8 48%
11-Nov at Marshall 101 11.0 74%
18-Nov Middle Tennessee 89 13.5 78%
25-Nov at Florida International 104 12.1 76%
Projected S&P+ Rk 51
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 39 / 66
Projected wins 9.3
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 12.8 (16)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 91 / 91
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 2 / 3.2
2016 TO Luck/Game -0.4
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 54% (46%, 62%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 11.1 (-0.1)

WKU will almost certainly not play at a top-30 level in 2017. Defensive depth has taken a hit, and while the Hilltoppers still boast a hell of a quarterback and fun options in the skill positions, the offensive line is starting over to a degree, and offensive upside will be decided in part by a couple of guys returning from injury.

When you achieve a level far beyond what your recruiting rankings suggest you should, and then you have to replace your head coach, things usually regress. Accordingly, WKU will likely fall back toward the C-USA field. But the Hilltoppers have a long way to fall before they become anything other than the conference's best team.

Even though S&P+ projects the Toppers to fall to 51st overall, that's enough for more than nine projected wins and 50-50-at-worst shots at Illinois and Vanderbilt.

I can talk myself into Louisiana Tech having a solid shot at WKU's crown. With a couple of breaks, maybe MTSU or UTSA or Old Dominion can. But the burden of proof lies with the field. WKU is the class of the conference until proved otherwise.


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