Last season, the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers enjoyed the leadership of now-former head coach Bobby Petrino and finished the season at 8-4 and 4-3 in conference play. Despite their record, however, they were not invited to a bowl game as the Sun Belt sent just two teams to the postseason. They had a balanced attack that made them dangerous but wasn’t enough to secure them a bowl bid.
This year, WKU will make the transition to Conference USA with a new head coach and a rebuilt defense. The program undoubtedly enjoyed a surge under Petrino but now have to take the next step in a new setting without him in 2014. Will the Hilltoppers prove up to the challenge?
Brandon Doughty returns to Western Kentucky for his senior season following an up and down campaign in 2013. Doughty was incredibly pick-prone early on, throwing five interceptions against the Tennessee Volunteers alone. He finished the year completing 65.8 percent of his throws, accumulating 2,857 yards with 14 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. He will have to cut down on the turnovers in 2014 if the Hilltoppers hope to find success this fall.
WKU’s biggest loss from the 2013 season is undoubtedly going to be felt in the backfield. Gone is the dynamic Antonio Andrews, who racked up 1,730 yards rushing and 478 yards receiving last season while scoring 16 total touchdowns. Leon Allen will get the first crack at replacing Andrews in the backfield and build off his sophomore season when he finished second on the team in rushing with 357 yards and five touchdowns.
The receiving corps figures to be much more experienced in 2014 as the team’s top four wideouts come back this season. Senior Willie McNeal leads the way after catching 46 passes for 599 yards and five touchdowns. Right behind him is sophomore Nicholas Norris who burst on the scene as a freshman in 2013 catching 33 passes for 431 yards and four touchdowns. Having an experienced and deep receiving corps should help smooth the coaching transition for WKU in 2014.
The defense was a major hindrance to the Hilltoppers in 2013 and figures to be a work in progress for much of 2014. On the defensive line, the team loses their top pass-rusher on the defensive line in end Bar’ee Boyd who tallied 6.5 sacks last season. The pressure will be on fellow end Gavin Rocker, who managed just two sacks in 2013. The line will get a boost from size up the middle, particularly 6-foot, 318-pound defensive tackle Devante Terrell.
At linebacker, the Hilltoppers face their biggest defensive challenge for 2014. The team’s top three linebackers have moved on from the program leaving a wealth of inexperience in their wake. The most productive member of the linebacker corps returning for 2014 is junior Daqual Randall, who tallied just 10 tackles last season. Only three other linebackers on the 2014 roster recorded a tackle in 2013 so new faces must step up into the starting lineup.
The secondary will also face a great deal of turnover with three of four starters moving on. Luckily for them, however, their one returning starter is a good one. Cornerback Cam Thomas could be one of the best mid-major cover-corners in college football next season after recording five interceptions and 10 pass breakups in 2013. He has the size and athleticism to shut down opposing receivers and will be difficult to throw on this fall.
Helping the Hilltoppers’ make the coaching transition and defensive rebuild this fall is a very winnable schedule. Western Kentucky matches up well with their new C-USA conference opponents from an athleticism standpoint and their non-conference slate is hardly daunting. The season-opener against the could end up being their most difficult challenge, if only for the incredible amount of turnover the Hilltoppers will be dealing with.
If the new coaching staff can get the Hilltoppers on a roll quickly and find contributors to step up into the many voids in the running game and on defense, Western Kentucky could make a strong push for the postseason in 2014. Look for WKU to win six to eight games and benefit from the stronger bowl tie-ins of their new conference to go bowling this postseason.