The Western Kentucky Hilltoppers check in at No. 71 in our Rant Sports 100 in 100 College Football Previews, and it will be a season of change in Bowling Green.
Most notably, Bobby Petrino, the former head coach of the Arkansas Razorbacks and the Louisville Cardinals is now the man in charge of the WKU program. Petrino brings his proven offensive system to the Sun Belt Conference, and he’s hoping for big things in his first year at WKU.
Petrino is known for his high-powered passing game, but his best offensive player this season will be running back Antonio Andrews. Last season, as a junior, Andrews quietly had one of the best seasons in college football history with 3,161 all-purpose yards. That marked the second-highest total in NCAA Football history, behind only NFL Hall of Famer Barry Sanders, who set the record with the Oklahoma State Cowboys. Sanders and Andrews are the only two players to ever eclipse 3,000 yards in a single season.
The Hilltoppers must find a replacement for departed quarterback Kewan Jakes. In the WKU spring game, Brandon Doughty had a big game, passing for 314 yards, and he appears to be the favorite to be the starter this fall. James Mauro is also in the mix for the job. Both saw action last season, but Doughty appears to fit Petrino’s system better at this point.
The receiving corps is deep and experienced, which will bode well in Petrino’s scheme. Junior Willie McNeal led the team with six touchdown receptions last season. Austin Aikens, Rico Brown and Boe Brand also return for WKU. Aikens averaged 27.1 yards per reception last season. Brown accounted for the biggest play of the 2012 season for WKU, a 70-yard reception in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl. Brand has two years of experience at the slot receiver position.
The Hilltoppers return six starters on defense, led by linebacker Andrew Jackson. The senior has had back-to-back seasons with at least 100 tackles. Playing next to Jackson is outside linebacker Xavius Boyd, who had 79 tackles last season.
The secondary should also be a strong unit for the Hilltoppers in 2013. Seniors Tyree Robinson, Arius Wright and Kiante Young have been long-time starters for WKU. Young was second on the team in tackles last season with 83. Robinson has started 33 games during his career. Also in the defensive backfield is junior Jonathan Dowling, who had six interceptions last season.
The key to the defense could be the defensive line, where all four starters will be new. Defensive ends Gavin Rocker and Calvin Washington will anchor the line for the ‘Toppers.
It will be a tough start for Petrino and the ‘Toppers, as they face back-to-back Southeastern Conference opponents to start. WKU opens against the Kentucky Wildcats in Nashville, followed by a trip to Neyland Stadium to face the Tennessee Volunteers.
The key stretch of the season comes in the middle of the schedule, when Western faces three-straight tough Sun Belt games. WKU is at Louisiana-Monroe on Oct. 3, hosts Louisiana-Lafayette on Oct. 15 and hosts Troy on Oct. 26. The season finale at home against Arkansas State could be the battle for the league title.
Western Kentucky is the favorite to win the Sun Belt title again this season, and with Petrino now at the helm, big things are expected in Bowling Green. A 10-2 season is not out of the question for the Hilltoppers this season, which would be the best season since WKU joined the FBS.