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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 118: Western Kentucky

Big Red

Western Kentucky's mascot, Big Red, is excited to see his team not ranked No. 120.

Western Kentucky’s transition to the F.B.S., a multiple-year process that began in earnest prior to the 2008 season, has fallen short of expectations. Yes, we all knew W.K.U. was going to take its lumps – hence the preseason ranking of No. 120 each of the last two seasons. Yet this program has been unable to build even slightly upon a solid 7-5 season in 2007, which saw the Hilltoppers beat a future Sun Belt opponent in Middle Tennessee State and lose by narrow margins to Troy and North Texas. This lack of development cost David Elson his job after six seasons and a solid level of success with the program, albeit all of that success on the F.C.S. level. His replacement, the former W.K.U. assistant Willie Taggart, can take solace in the fact that he can only move this program forward; the Hilltoppers have found rock bottom.

Conference
Sun Belt

Location
Bowling Green, Ky.

Nickname
Hilltoppers

Returning starters
18 (9 offense, 9 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 120

2009 record
(0-12, 0-8)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 120

2010 schedule

  • Sept. 4
    at Nebraska
  • Sept. 11
    at Kentucky
  • Sept. 18
    Indiana
  • Sept. 25
    at South Florida
  • Oct. 9
    at F.I.U.
  • Oct. 16
    La.-Monroe
  • Oct. 23
    at La.-Lafayette
  • Oct. 30
    North Texas
  • Nov. 6
    Florida Atlantic
  • Nov. 13
    at Arkansas St.
  • Nov. 20
    Middle Tennessee
  • Nov. 27
    at Troy

Last year’s prediction

There is no reason to think this Hilltopper team will be much better than a season ago, though the schedule does ease up a bit: Gone are Alabama, Kentucky, Virginia Tech and Ball State (a combined 41 victories in 2008), replaced by Tennessee, South Florida, Central Arkansas and Navy. The onus is on Elson to find lesser-known players that fit his system. It’s an exciting time to be a Hilltopper fan … but I can’t see this team doing much better than the 2-10 record of 2008.

2009 recap

In a nutshell Taggert’s first order of business will be to improve upon one of the nation’s worst defenses, one that ranked 119th in scoring (39.6 points per game), 118th in rushing (244.8 yards per game) and 120th in sacks (.8 per game). But coach, don’t forget about your offense: that unit was 104th in scoring. In its defense, Western Kentucky, like Eastern Michigan, is young. In truth, at least part of the explanation behind W.K.U.’s horrific early foray into major college football can be traced back to this youth. The underclassmen reeled in during the 2008-9 recruiting cycles were forced into early action because the roster was populated mostly with players suited — in terms of talent — for the F.C.S., not this level. Better days are certainly ahead, and I have no doubt that the Hilltoppers will eventually compete in the Sun Belt, but it may take another year of lumps before this program gets to that point.

High point The Hilltoppers played surprisingly tough against the Bayou State, losing to Louisiana-Monroe and Lafayette by a combined 11 points. W.K.U. might also have exhibited signs of future competitiveness over the final three weeks of the season, losing by less than a touchdown to Monroe, Florida Atlantic and Arkansas State – the first two games on the road. (Quick aside: I had the great pleasure of listening to the live W.K.U. radio call of the Arkansas State game, one where the Hilltoppers allowed 14 unanswered points in the final seven minutes, while en route to Oxford, Miss. in early December; you haven’t heard disappointment until you catch a broadcast team bringing you the final five minutes of an 0-12 season.)

Low point When you finish without a single victory, the four-month glory that is college football season is one long, sad note. If the 2009 Western Kentucky season were put to music, it would feature Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven.” Quick musical aside: “And I know/’Toppers belong/at 120.”

Tidbit Taggart becomes only Western Kentucky’s seventh coach since 1948, illustrating the program’s laudable tendency to allow its coaches time to implement and develop a system. That total is fewer than the number of coaches over the same span at Nebraska (nine), Notre Dame (11), Southern California (10) and Tennessee (10), programs known for the longer leash typically afforded its coaching hires.

Tidbit (fun with numbers edition) I touched briefly upon Western Kentucky’s ineptitude on defense and its struggle to score points. In addition to the above categories, the Hilltoppers also ranked in the bottom 20 nationally in pass offense (110th in the country), total offense (101st), total defense (118th), pass efficiency (107th), pass efficiency defense (120th), sacks allowed (114th), third down defense (118th) and turnover margin (115th).

Former players in the N.F.L.

2 FB Jeremi Johnson (Cincinnati), C Greg Ryan (Baltimore).

Arbitrary top five list

Top five all-time residents of Bowling Green, Ky.
1. Jefferson Davis. President of the C.S.A.
2. John Carpenter. Director of “The Thing,” among other films.
3. Rex Chapman. Sharp-shooter for the Suns, among other teams.
4. Hillbilly Jim. Wrestling star of my childhood.
5. Lisa Sparxxx. World record holder for a specific adult activity.

Coaching

Willie Taggart (Western Kentucky ’98), entering his first season. Taggart returns to W.K.U. as a former player – a program great, in fact – and a former assistant. This type of familiarity with a program, its fan base and its yearly expectations places Taggart well ahead of the curve of the typical first-year coach on the F.B.S. level. He set 11 school records as a quarterback at Western Kentucky from 1995-98, playing under the W.K.U. coaching legend Jack Harbaugh. He joined the elder Harbaugh’s staff immediately after exhausting his eligibility, spending the 1999 season as the wide receivers coach. Over the next seven seasons Taggart coached the quarterbacks (2000-6) and served as both the co-offensive coordinator (2001-2) and assistant head coach (2003-6). The Hilltoppers did not suffer a losing season during Taggart’s time as an assistant, winning at least eight games every year from 2000-4 and the F.C.S. national championship in 2002. He was hired away from W.K.U. by Stanford and Jim Harbaugh – Jack’s son – in 2007 as the new Cardinal running backs coach. Taggart was instrumental in orchestrating two of the most prolific rushing attacks in program history from 2008-9, and helped Stanford’s Toby Gerhart finish second in the Heisman Trophy voting a year ago. His experience – and level of success – on the B.C.S. conference level only increased his appeal to the university, which was able to hit upon not only a young, energetic coach with an impressive resume, but one with a built-in comfort level in his new position. Look for Taggart to field an immediately improved team in 2010, thanks to solid recruiting by Elson and his staff over the last two cycles; also watch his efforts in reeling in talented recruits from the fertile Florida high school system, where he has had success in the past.

Tidbit (coaching edition) Though Taggart did bring in a number of new coaches to fill his staff, he did opt to retain two of Elson’s former assistants. The first, and most important, is interior offensive line coach Walt Wells, who served as offensive coordinator last fall in addition to his offensive line duties. Though Taggart will now handle all play-calling, it will only help his transition to use Wells as a sounding board in the early going. Taggart also retained defensive line coach Eric Mathies, who will be Western Kentucky’s recruiting coordinator. Of the new names, two catch my eye: the first is defensive coordinator Clint Bowen, the former Kansas coordinator; the second is defensive ends coach Raymond Woodie, who was hired away from Palmetto (Fla.) High School. Bowen has plenty of name recognition (for me, at least), while Woodie will only aid Taggart’s efforts to make recruiting inroads in Florida.

Key losses

Offense Two starters must be replaced on offense, led by receiver Jake Gaebler. Western Kentucky’s top receiving target over the last two seasons, Gaebler matched a career high with four touchdowns in his senior season. This total came despite his missing all or part of three games, and only posting two receptions in the month of September. Shortly after he returned from injury, however, Gaebler had the most productive month-long stretch of his career: from Oct. 24 through Nov. 14, he posted 27 receptions for 321 yards and a touchdown. Even with that dismal opening month, Gaebler led the Hilltoppers in receptions (43), receiving yards (494) and touchdowns. After starting at left guard as a sophomore and junior, Cody Hughes moved inside to center in his final season. He made nine starts in the middle, missing three mid-season games, and lent some experience to an otherwise youthful offensive front.

Defense As on offense, only two starters must be replaced on the defensive side of the ball. The first is Taurean Smith, one of two middle linebackers in Western Kentucky’s 3-4 system. Smith finished third on the team in tackles as a senior (88), while leading the team in tackles for loss (5.5) and adding an interception. With all due respect to the former JUCO transfer, the Hilltoppers won’t be crippled by Smith’s departure, as I’ll point out shortly. The second senior starter on the 2009 W.K.U. defense was cornerback Jihad Morris, who declared war on opposing wide receivers to the tune of 54 tackles and a team-best seven pass breakups.

Players to watch

Western Kentucky will transition from the spread offense it ran so poorly from 2008-9 to a pro-style offense, the kind of attack that caused the Pac-10 headaches when Taggart was coaching the running backs at Stanford. In a perfect world, such an offense would have a back who could carry the load 20-25 times per game — or more, if your name is Toby Gerhart. W.K.U. hopes Bobby Rainey, a solidly-built junior, can be that guy. As a sophomore, Rainey rushed for a team-best 939 yards and 6 scores; he also averaged 6.5 yards per carry, matching his freshman output. Can Rainey handle an increased workload? He only carried the ball 144 times last fall, though he did add 13 receptions and 23.9 yards per his 44 kick returns. He is a multifaceted, but Rainey might need some help if Taggart is going to duplicate at W.K.U. the kind of offensive system he had at Stanford, at least right away.

Kawaun Jakes is out, Matt Pelesasa is in. Jakes, a sophomore, started eight game for the Hilltoppers in 2009. He was spotty, as one would expect a freshman to be, though he did complete 60.7 percent of his passes while adding another 366 yards — second on the team — on the ground. Jakes entered the spring looking like the 2010 starter, but an ankle injury he suffered early in the spring while playing basketball allowed Pelesasa an opportunity to showcase his talent while playing on the first team; as we enter the summer, Pelesasa holds the top spot on the depth chart at quarterback. The former JUCO transfer may hold the position now, but expect Jakes to make another run at keeping his starting job when the Hilltoppers return to practice in August.

Pelesasa, if he remains the starter, will love sophomore tight end Jack Doyle, who finished second on the team in receptions (37) and receiving yards (365) in his debut season. Doyle looks like a future all-Sun Belt pick — perhaps as soon as in 2010, especially if W.K.U. can find a bit more consistency from the quarterback position. Four more starters return on the offensive line. Two are seniors — left tackle Wes Jeffries and right tackle Preston King — while a third likely starter, center Derrick Elder, is also entering his final season of eligibility. Adam Smith, a sophomore, returns at right guard after making 11 starts in 2009.

More changes come on defense, as Western Kentucky moves from a 3-4 base set to a 4-3. The biggest issue with this move — though this change might pay off in the long run — is that it reveals a weakness of Western Kentucky’s: size on the defensive line. The likely starters on the interior of the line, for example, weigh 269 pounds (James Hervey) and 267 pounds (Cole Tischer), respectively. Not exactly the type of beef you’d like to have in the middle of your defensive front. The onus will thus be on the W.K.U. linebackers to step up against the run; it’s a good thing, therefore, that the Hilltoppers return a pair of starters from 2009.

Thomas Majors, who will remain the middle, led W.K.U. a year ago with 101 tackles (3 for loss). The senior will be the leader of this defense. Majors will be flanked by Chris Bullard, another senior, and either Mike Gothard or Orlando Misaalefua. Gothard made eight starts in 2009, yet it is Misaalefu, a starter at strong safety in 2009, who finds himself atop the depth chart heading into the summer. Obviously, this is not a bad thing. While the defensive line will be stretched thin due to the move to a 4-3 base, the move makes linebacker the deepest position on the defense, even with the loss of Taurean Smith.

While three seniors will start at linebacker, the Hilltoppers will not have one senior starter either on the line or in the secondary. Still, there is a solid amount of experience for W.K.U. to rely upon in the defensive backfield. This group is led by Mark Santoro, who after starting 16 games at free safety as a freshman and sophomore will move to the strong safety spot in 2010. Santoro is the rare play maker on the Western Kentucky defense: as a freshman, Santoro accounted for a pair of interceptions and two forced fumbles, and as a sophomore he finished second on the team with 91 tackles. He is very much a contender for all-Sun Belt accolades. He’ll be joined at safety by Ryan Beard, while Jamal Forrest, a sophomore, will join Avery Hibbitt as the starting cornerbacks.

Position battles to watch

Wide receiver Doyle is an all-conference performer at tight end, and potentially the most dangerous weapon W.K.U. has on offense, but the Hilltoppers return only one additional performer with at least 20 receptions in 2009. Senior Quinterrance Cooper had exactly 20 grabs, good for third on the team behind Gaebler and Doyle, but managed only 7.6 yards per reception. His long was only for 21 yards, which either reflects poorly on the quarterback or on the receiver’s ability to get separation. Regardless, Cooper will hold down one of the two starting receiver spots in Western Kentucky’s new pro-style offense, with redshirt freshman Willie McNeal, in somewhat of a surprise, as the second starter heading into the summer. McNeal illustrated during spring ball that he can be elusive, but at 5’10, 160 pounds, McNeal is not the type of player one would expect to make a sizable impact as a freshman. The Hilltoppers need to get some kind of production — any meaningful production — from their outside receivers, obviously. I’m intrigued by the potential of sophomore Marcus Vasquez, who entered last season as the likely backup at quarterback but ended his rookie season with 19 receptions for 176 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Vasquez also pulled in a 50-yard score from Pelesasa during the spring game, perhaps giving this offense a dimension of big-play ability it has sorely lacked.

Game(s) to watch

A brutal September will leave the Hilltoppers scrambling for victories in Sun Belt play. W.K.U. is bound to have a greater home field advantage than in year’s past, so look for an improved effort in the four conference home games on the schedule. The most important? Until one team distances itself away from the other – and out of the conference cellar – keep an eye on the game against North Texas.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell The schedule is again beastly, so dismiss any ideas you might have of W.K.U. making a rapid turnaround — in the win column — in Taggart’s first season. Wins many come eventually, but they are certainly not coming in 2010. That schedule, as noted, won’t help. The Hilltoppers are sure to open up 0-4 due to its tough month of non-conference action. Things do get easier from there, as W.K.U. faces a four-game stretch of Florida International, Louisiana-Monroe and Louisiana-Lafayette and North Texas, the latter at home. If Taggart can keep his team’s morale and confidence high during a rough September, I think W.K.U. can go 2-2 over that stretch. Would I be surprised if the Hilltoppers did split their games in October? Maybe a bit. But remember, this program has recruited very well over the last three recruiting cycles, and the freshmen and sophomore who took their lumps (and then some) in 2008 and 2009 may finally have the requisite experience to match up to the standard of play in the Sun Belt. Is a six- or five-win season a pipe dream? Undoubtedly. But this is the best W.K.U. team since it began transitioning to the F.B.S.

Dream season Taggart is an immediate success, leading Western Kentucky to six wins, five in conference play.

Nightmare season Perhaps progress was made in other areas, but the Hilltoppers repeat last season’s 0-12 mark.

In case you were wondering

Where do Western Kentucky fans congregate? The undisputed king of Western Kentucky online chatter is Hilltopper Haven. You can also check out the W.K.U. sports blog from the Bowling Green Daily News, though I’m still waiting for a fan-run Western Kentucky blog.

Up Next

Who is No. 117? Our next school’s mascot — not the actual mascot, but the animal it represents — can be found on the back of an Albanian coin.

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Comments

  1. blade says:

    Is big red a hot tamale?

  2. [...] Texas came in at No. 120, down from No. 116 heading into last season. Western Kentucky, the bottom team heading into each of the last two seasons, moved up No. 118. In all, there have [...]

  3. SFla Irish says:

    No. 117 = Tulane. Is the Green Wave on one of these coins[http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Albania_2006_circulating_coins.jpg]? Or did you mix your clues? Seriously, I’m very confused!

    Paul: First off, good to hear from you. Thanks for coming over to P.S.R. But no, the hint is correct. The Tulane mascot — not its nickname, Green Wave — is a pelican named Riptide. A pelican does appear on the back side of a small Albanian coin, I believe the 1 lek.

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