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The Countdown

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

Need to Know

‘Toppers Can Win, Even in (Lopsided) Defeat

I love what Willie Taggart has achieved over two-plus years at Western Kentucky, but I don’t love it that much – you know, enough to pick Taggart and the Hilltoppers to give Alabama much of a challenge on Saturday afternoon. But could it happen? Could Western Kentucky come up and bite the Crimson Tide in the same way it roughhoused with Kentucky for 60 minutes last September, eventually losing, 14-3, but raising the question of whether or not the Wildcats were actually part of the SEC? There’s a chance, seeing that the Hilltoppers did hang with L.S.U. for a half last November.

W.K.U. isn’t going to beat Alabama, of course. Nor are the Hilltoppers going to make things overly difficult; their best hope is to keep pace with Alabama for 30 minutes, perhaps putting a small scare in the defending national champs before collapsing under an onslaught of speed, strength and coaching over the second half.

There’s nothing wrong with that – right? If you actually think that W.K.U. can beat Alabama, well, the line starts right behind where you’re standing. Not even Taggart, who exudes confidence and a faith in the process, dreams of doing more than grabbing the Tide and holding fast, like an overmatched boxer in the early rounds.

Grab, hold, clasp and keep things ugly. That’s Western Kentucky’s path to a moral victory; while W.K.U. has eyes on a bigger prize over the course of this season, a moral victory is all that Taggart, his staff and this program can ask for when taking on the best team in college football – on the road, no less.

But… there’s an opportunity here for the Hilltoppers. It starts with Taggart; while those who track the game’s nut and bolts are familiar with the work he’s done at W.K.U., he still needs one big win to make his name known on a national level.

Imagine what a close game could do for Taggart – imagine if he leads his team into Tuscaloosa and loses by a touchdown. Better yet, what if he leads W.K.U. to a win? There’s no better way to kick in the front door than topping the nation’s best in their own house.

I’d imagine that Kentucky would be paying attention. That program, now in its third year under Joker Phillips, has been trending downwards over the last 24 months. Looking ahead, the Wildcats might want to trade in Phillips for a younger coach with program-building credentials. Who better than Taggart?

And you know that there are players on this team who hunger at the thought of taking on an SEC program – hence linebacker Andrew Jackson’s query towards U.K. last fall (“They supposed to be SEC?”) and fellow linebacker T.J. Smith’s pregame guarantee heading into Saturday:

“We’re gonna freaking win this game. Truly, we got a great defense, great linebackers — so watch this game, we’re gonna win,” said Smith. Let’s tone down the excitement a touch, but still: you love the confidence.

Where the braggadocio comes from is the idea that many players on Western Kentucky’s roster feel they should be playing in the SEC; for many, the feeling is justified. Jackson absolutely could – even for Alabama, in my estimation. Former running back Bobby Rainey’s hard-charging, never-quit, bell-cow running style would have fit the SEC like a glove.

Another player on the Hilltoppers’ roster, safety Jonathan Dowling, actually played in the SEC; Dowling began his career at Florida before transferring into the Sun Belt. So there’s not just talent here – there’s talent looking for a moment against an SEC team, and a team like Alabama to boot.

So there are three levels of moral victory here for W.K.U. to consider, even if that phrase will never pass Taggart’s lips. One, there’s a chance for the program to mount a challenge to a team that, over its last two games, has dismantled L.S.U. and Michigan, both times on a neutral field.

Two, there’s a chance for Taggart to move himself from little-known – to a degree; it’s likely that more are familiar with Taggart than I realize – to nationally known. Any coach that can bring a Sun Belt team into Tuscaloosa and hang with Nick Saban’s gang deserves nothing but praise; he’d also deserve an extension, if not a larger opportunity elsewhere.

Finally, there are the players themselves. A big game moves Jackson up the draft chart. (While Jackson’s a junior, it’s never too early to think big.) Dowling cost himself a shot at the Tide while in Gainesville – and like Jackson, he’s an N.F.L. prospect. For these players, as with their head coach and this program, a date with Alabama provides a chance to shine – even in defeat.

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  1. Burnt Orange says:

    The Hilltoppers will get their win over an SEC team – next week when they play Kentucky.

  2. UL Warhawks says:

    The Sun Belt got their win over the SEC, courtesy of the UL Warhawks.

    The REAL University of Louisiana. GO UL WARHAWKS!

    Suck it, Lafayette Cajuns.

  3. Dan says:

    The Toppers played a whale of a game if you discount the turnovers. That is an experienced team with some good talent on it. They made Alabama look rather silly at times with their quick attacking D front. Those kind of teams have given Bama problems in the past (Sugar Bowl, Utah). Glad to get the win and will be watching WKU to see how they do the rest of the year.

    I agree with Burnt Orange, they should beat the Wildcats if they cut out the mistakes.

  4. DMK says:

    Yep, WKU looked really good to me. I can’t remember a team looking any better in a 35-0 loss. I’m not being snarky.

    They’ll win some games this season, for sure.

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