USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.
As expected, Bobby Petrino's stint at Western Kentucky lasted only as long as it took for a more high-profile program – say, one familiar with Petrino's style and approach – to roll out the red carpet during college football's hiring season. Twelve games after arriving with much fanfare, Petrino's back at Louisville.
But he won, again as expected, even if the Hilltoppers are quickly hitting the reset button. Well, that's not entirely correct: WKU isn't hitting reset as much as reload, particularly with longtime Petrino assistant Jeff Brohm stepping into the Hilltoppers' opening. Brohm isn't a Petrino by birth, like Bobby's brother Paul, now at Idaho; when it comes to offense, however, Brohm is a Petrino in spirit.
SPRING FOOTBALL: Conference USA
Twenty-six years after he was named the best senior quarterback in the state of Kentucky – not to date the new guy – Brohm inherits a program with rapidly increasing goals and expectations. In the big picture: WKU has claimed multiple winning seasons and multiple wins against in-name-only rival Kentucky in storming from the Football Championship Subdivision to Conference USA in a flash. More of the same is expected in the near future.
But in the meantime – before WKU asserts itself in a new league – the Hilltoppers have to survive this debut. It's Brohm's first year, for one, and it'll take a learning curve even for the ex-assistant. It's year one in Conference USA. Add these factors to the changes on defense, the shift in the running game and the loss of last year's central leaders and you wonder whether Brohm's first season can replicate Petrino's success.
One other change: Brohm isn't leaving after a single season. That's pretty important.
LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:
While it's very tight, I'm picking Petrino and the Hilltoppers to finish fourth in the Sun Belt race. There's a blindingly bright future at WKU, even if it's hard to predict just how long Petrino remains with the program before a win-hungry power comes calling. To get to the next level, however, Petrino needs to develop personnel on offense to fit his foolproof system. Defensively, the back seven needs to weather the storm as the front four learns on the job. While the Petrino hire made waves, it might pay to be patient until all the pieces fall into place.
In a nutshell: Another winning season for Western Kentucky. Yeah, those painful transitional days to the Football Bowl Subdivision are a thing of the past. Among the eight victories were several of the impressive variety: Kentucky, again, and let's call this a rivalry only because the two programs share the Bluegrass State; Navy, which was historically inept against the Hilltoppers' defense; Louisiana-Monroe, which went on to reach bowl eligibility; and Arkansas State, which again finished atop the Sun Belt Conference. All that prevented WKU from winning the SBC was a 37-20 loss to Louisiana-Lafayette, though that loss – along with a narrow defeat to Troy – seemed to propel the Hilltoppers to a blistering run through November. That the Hilltoppers were again shut out of the postseason – joining the 2011 season – marked a disappointing close to an otherwise banner season.
COUNTDOWN: Complete list (so far)
High point: Kentucky, followed by Arkansas State. Two notable wins to bookend the regular season.
Low point: Louisiana-Lafayette. A victory against the Ragin' Cajuns would have given the Hilltoppers the head-to-head tiebreakers needed to claim the conference title.
Tidbit: Counting interim coaches, Brohm is WKU's fifth coach in six years: David Elson in 2009, Willie Taggart from 2010 through the end of the 2012 regular season, Lance Guidry for the 2012 Little Caesars Pizza Bowl, Petrino in 2013 and Brohm in 2014 and beyond, hopefully. Among fellow Conference USA programs, all but four have changed coaches at least once since 2009. The exceptions: Middle Tennessee State with Rick Stockstill, Old Dominion with Bobby Wilder, Rice with David Bailiff and UTSA with Larry Coker. ODU and UTSA come with an asterisk, because the former only rechristened its dormant program in 2009 and UTSA didn't begin play until 2011.
Tidbit (Mr. Football edition): Brohm was named as Kentucky's Mr. Football in 1988 after setting every passing record imaginable as a senior at Louisville's Trinity High School. Seventeen years later, Brohm's feat was matched by his brother, Brian. Ten winners of Kentucky's Mr. Football award have reached the NFL: Jeff and Brian, Kurt Barber (1987), Shaun Alexander (1994), Tim Couch (1995), Derek Homer (1996), Dennis Johnson (1997), Jared Lorenzen (1998), Michael Bush (2002) and Micah Johnson (2005).
Tidbit (coaching edition): Brohm's debut crop of assistants includes six full-time holdovers from the previous staff, not counting Brohm himself: defensive coordinator Nick Holt, cornerbacks coach and special teams coordinator Ricky Brumfield, offensive line coach Neil Callaway, secondary coach Mike Cassity and defensive tackles coach Don Dunn. Another assistant, wide receivers coach JaMarcus Shephard, moves up from a quality-control position. Now, the newcomers: Ken Delgado will lead the defensive line after doing the same at Eastern Michigan, former Kentucky and Louisville assistant Greg Nord will coach the running backs and Tyson Helton comes over from Cincinnati to serve as offensive coordinator, though Brohm will remain heavily involved.
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:
Mr. Football USA winners, 1980-89
1. Emmitt Smith, 1986
2. Rod Woodson, 1982
3. Chris Spielman, 1983
4. Robert Smith, 1989
5. Jeff George, 1985
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Offense: Somehow, the Hilltoppers hired Bobby Petrino – despite any other flaws, an offensive technician – and grew less productive in the passing game. In one area, at least: WKU tossed more interceptions than touchdowns, more than offsetting slight to substantial gains in peripheral categories – completion percentage, yards per game and explosive plays downfield, to name a few. As we look toward 2014, an offense rebuilding in the backfield and a defense littered with question marks desperately needs a more careful and consistent attack through the air. It's simple: WKU needs to effectively throw to either offset a decline in the running game, which is coming; in turn, the Hilltoppers need to score enough points to survive while the defense rounds into form. The pressure is on.
And the pressure is felt strongest on senior quarterback Brandon Doughty (2,857 yards, 14 touchdowns). Consistency is lacking: Doughty has his moments, as in a relief role against Troy, but his moments of near-perfection are tempered by extended periods of recklessness – interceptions, yeah, but also should-have-been-interceptions, and neither are palatable to Brohm and the staff. At the same time, he will complete passes at a high clip, will stand tall and attempt to stretch the field and will not lose confidence, as evidenced by his bounce-back stretch after losing his grasp on the starting job in September. Even with the careless decisions, Doughty's positives outweigh the negatives. But one thing is clear: Doughty will not remain the starter – likely ceding way to sophomore Nelson Fishback – if he doesn't corral his turnovers. Protecting the football is the Hilltoppers' top offensive goal.
Protecting the quarterback might be a close second. The Hilltoppers' offensive front rebuilds without three starters: left guard Luis Polanco, center Sean Conway – the biggest loss of the bunch – and right tackle Ed Hazelett. Wisely, WKU will move its two returning starters – and its two best linemen – to the edges: Forrest Lamp will anchor the blind side while senior Cam Clemmons moves from right guard to right tackle. Elsewhere, sophomore Max Haplin will stick at center, where he spelled Conway for much of 2013; sophomore Darrell Williams, who moved inside and out last fall, should take over at right guard; and either Brandon Ray or Derrick Stark will take place of Polanco at left guard. With more than a dozen linemen on the roster, WKU won't lack for options. It'll be key to develop a second tier.
The Hilltoppers' up-and-down receiver corps – drops have been an issue – will benefit from the arrival of two big-bodied JUCO transfers, Jared Dangerfield and Antwane Grant, who should immediately grab matching roles in the rotation. Size was certainly needed: Willie McNeal (46 receptions for 599 yards), Joel German (26 for 339), Nicholas Norris (33 for 431) and Taywan Taylor (24 for 270) can scoot, but adding some lankiness to this group will help WKU in the red zone, in the downfield game and on third down. At its most basic level, putting Dangerfield and Grant into the mix simply gives the Hilltoppers another pair of potential focal points in this spread-the-field, spread-the-wealth system. Throw tight ends Mitchell Henry (25 for 305), Tyler Higbee and Tim Gorski into the mix and Doughty will have the weapons he needs to ratchet up his production.
Defense: Experience is lacking. Athleticism, on the other hand, is not – and rarely is, especially during the program's recent surge. But talent or no, it's with a bit of trepidation that this defense prepares for its second season in Holt's system: WKU returns only a pair of full-time starters, even if several projected starters either earned shuffled in and out of the lineup last fall – and in 2012 – or held meaningful reserve roles. Where to begin? Up front, of course, where Holt and Dunn will surround end Gavin Rocker (37 tackles, 5.5 for loss) with three new starters. Eventually, Rocker should bookend the line with senior T.J. Smith, one of last year's backups, while JUCO transfer Ge'monee Brown, 330-pound senior Jamichael Payne and sophomores D'Von Isaac and DeMarcus Glover round out the interior. This group is totally unproven. At the same time, Dunn should – if all clicks in August – have enough bodies to go two deep at each position; if so, WKU could attack a lack of proven commodities with waves of fresh defenders. For now, that seems like the defensive plan.
But I'm not sure if that approach will work at linebacker, where the Hilltoppers are starting from scratch. Gone: Andrew Jackson, Xavius Boyd and Chuck Franks – Jackson a menace, Boyd an unstoppable machine as a senior, Franks a dependable third option, if one typically replaced by a fifth defensive back. Who's new: Terran Williams, Daqual Randall, Devante Duclos and seven incoming recruits, two from the JUCO ranks. Those immediate-impact recruits, Nick Holt and Dejon Brown, had already carved out roles in the two-deep by the start of the summer; Holt's in some hot water due to an off-field misstep, but he'll be in the mix in fall camp. The decline in experience, talent and production is striking. It's also a major concern.
The secondary remains a similar work in progress. At least there's this: WKU returns senior Cam Thomas (41 tackles, 5 interceptions), a reigning first-team all-league pick and, in my mind, the most disruptive defensive back in the Sun Belt. At the same time, the Hilltoppers do lose cornerback Tyree Robinson and safeties Arius Wright and Jonathan Dowling, the latter a year ahead of schedule. It's time to reload. Opposite of Thomas, WKU could roll with Rico Brown, who has starting experience, or hand the job to junior Prince Charles Iworah, senior DeVante Thomas or one of JUCO transfers Wonderful Terry and Forrest Coleman. Brown and the JUCO additions could also try things at safety, joining Ricardo Singh and Marcus Ward in battling for starting roles – though Ward seems like a lock to start and a potential linchpin once he gains experience. Obviously, no level of this defense seems secure.
Special teams: The Hilltoppers shouldn't have a hard time replacing punter Hendrix Brakefield, who brought little to the table as a senior. Joseph Occhipinti will take over at punter and likely handle kickoffs, though the Hilltoppers could also turn the kickoff task to junior kicker Garrett Schwettman, who has been reliable. The return game is unsettled but should be fine: WKU has the athleticism and depth at the offensive skill positions to cobble together some burst.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH:
Running back: The Hilltoppers move forward without Antonio Andrews, perhaps the nation's most unheralded back during his starting career, and do so with a slight degree of trepidation due to the dearth of experience waiting in reserve. As such, it's totally unsurprising to see junior Leon Allen (357 yards) enter summer conditioning as the Hilltoppers' clear go-to starter; Allen backed up Andrews a year ago, giving WKU an early boost when the starter had some ball-control issues, and has the size and vision to give this offense its fifth 1,000-yard back in as many years. Now, can Allen be the Hilltoppers' next 1,500-yard back? That's up for some debate, if only due to his limited turn as an offensive centerpiece.
Of greater concern is the team's depth at the position: WKU needs to locate at least one and perhaps two spare parts to help bail out a passing game still working out the kinks – and still questionable when it comes to protecting the football. Anthony Wales is around, as is Marquis Sumler, Darmonte Warr and Travis Lock, but addressing this rotation should be high on the Hilltoppers' list of priorities during fall camp. One item to consider: WKU might want to get more explosiveness on third down, since Allen is a bruiser, not a burner, but the projected starter doubles as the Hilltoppers' best receiving option out of the backfield. In that case, perhaps WKU will look for a backup like Wales or Sumler to help more on early downs than in crucial conversion situations.
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
Middle Tennessee State: An opening tilt against Bowling Green is followed by road dates against Illinois, Middle Tennessee State and Navy. The Hilltoppers could afford to lose each game but MTSU; the non-conference slate isn't as vital as those key conference games against East Division competition. With Marshall the unquestioned top dog in the division and the conference, an early loss to the Blue Raiders would essentially end the Hilltoppers' chances of taking the Conference USA title. Not that WKU couldn't still have a successful season despite finishing in third place in the East.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: This will be a process, and it'll work – eventually. Brohm is a good hire: Western Kentucky needed an offensive mind, a trusted recruiting presence, a dose of energy and a long-term vision; he'll supply each asset in spades. In the long run, the Hilltoppers have produced with enough consistency to become an extremely viable contender in Conference USA, competing with teams like Marshall, Rice, UTSA and others for eight-plus wins during the regular season and regular trips to the postseason, especially with the new league's wealth of bowl tie-ins – and yeah, those days of winning eight games and staying home in December are over. I really like the Hilltoppers' future. I just don't like this specific team.
There are several weaknesses. Offensively, the Hilltoppers are going to be heavily reliant on a quarterback and passing game that must prove itself on a weekly basis before being taken seriously. Doughty, for example, has the talent to challenge for all-conference accolades; unfortunately, he's yet to put the entire package together. The offensive front is new, though the staff remains hopeful that the two bookend tackles can hold down the fort on passing downs. The receiver corps has been unreliable. The backfield will miss Andrews, though I imagine Allen and the group can keep things rolling at a solid clip.
The bigger issue is this defense. No group is secure: WKU is rebuilding all along the front seven, particularly at linebacker; the secondary has a star in Thomas, a terrific stopper on the edges, but will struggle defending along the back end and limiting the big play, barring an immediate leap forward from Ward. In essence, Brohm's first team is struggling in the details – the ability to limit turnovers, create turnovers, convert on third down, rush the quarterback, defend the intermediate game and convert on special teams, to name a few concerns. I just don't see this working from the start. But the team will be better in November than September, which would be a welcome sight, and shouldn't remain out of Conference USA's bowl picture for more than single season. I think four or five wins are in the cards.
Dream season: WKU booms through Conference USA and finishes second to Marshall in the East, adding one win to last year's total to finish the regular season at 9-3.
Nightmare season: The losses are too much to overcome: WKU falls to 3-9.
Who's No. 89? With a similar result to last season in 2014, this team's coach would become the sixth in program history to post back-to-back losing seasons.