Western Kentucky Hilltoppers
Head Coach: Jeff Brohm
2014 record: 8-5 overall, 4-4 Conference USA East
2014 Postseason results: Beat Central Michigan 49-48 in the Bahamas Bowl
2015 returning starters: 7 offense, 7 defense
Odds to win 2016 College Football Championship game: 2500/1
Odds to win 2015 Conference USA Championship Game: +305
Regular season wins: over 7 -175 /under 7 +155
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Last season, Western Kentucky started off the season 2-4, but would go 6-1 in the last seven games. The Hilltoppers won five straight games to end the season. The last two games in that stretch were two of the wildest games in college football history.
In the regular season finale, Western Kentucky upset previously unbeaten Marshall 67-66 in overtime. WKU coach Jeff Brohm went for two in overtime instead of kicking the extra point and the Hilltoppers pulled off the upset. Both teams combined for 133 points and over 1,400 yards of offense.
You wouldn’t think a bowl game played in the Bahamas on Christmas Eve sponsored by a fast food chicken joint between two mid-major schools would create a memorable bowl. However, that is exactly what happened as the Hilltoppers took a 49-14 lead into the fourth against Central Michigan. The Chippewas would stage a furious rally, including a three lateral 75 yard touchdown on the last play of the game to pull within one point. This time Central Michigan would attempt to win the game on a two point conversion but they missed and WKU held on for the 49-48 win. Both teams had over 600 yards of offense.
The last two games were a microcosm of the whole season. If you liked wild arena football like shootouts with little or no defense, then Western Kentucky was your team. There were at least 52 points scored in every WKU game and they combined for 70 point or more in 9 of the 13 games.
Fourteen starters are back for Western Kentucky in 2015. The Hilltoppers are the third choice to win the Conference USA Championship game behind Marshall and Louisiana Tech, but the margin is razor thin.
Western Kentucky was #4 nationally in offense at 535 yards per game, including 374 passing yards and 160 rushing yards. The Hilltoppers were #2 nationally in passing. WKU was #6 nationally in scoring at 44.4 points per game. Seven starters are back for coordinator Tyson Helton.
The NCAA granted quarterback Brandon Doughty a sixth year of eligibility. Last year, Doughty threw for 4,830 yards with 49 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He led the nation in passing yards and touchdown passes. Last year’s back-up Troy Jones has transferred to Akron. Nelson Fishback is the back-up this season, but Doughty took all but five snaps last season.
Senior running back Leon Allen is also back after rushing for 1,542 yards on 272 carries with 13 touchdowns, along with 51 catches for 476 yards and 3 touchdowns. However, two arrests during the off-season for public intoxication could lead to disciplinary action. Anthony Wales had 82 carries for 518 yards and 5 touchdowns, along with 15 catches for 127 yards. No other running back had more than 10 carries last year, and that shouldn’t change in 2015.
Most of Doughty’s top receiving targets are back including the running backs. Jared Dangerfield had 69 catches for 825 yards and 11 touchdowns. Taywan Taylor had 45 catches for 767 yards and 7 touchdowns. Willie McNeal has graduated after making 56 catches for 666 yards and 8 touchdowns. Antwane Grant had 41 catches for 509 yards and 6 touchdowns. Mitchell Henry, Joel German and tight end Tyler Higbee each had 4 touchdown catches last year and all three are back.
Three starters are back on the offensive line including guards Brandon Ray and Darrell Williams, and left tackle Forrest Lamp. Ray was arrested for DUI in early August, and could face disciplinary action. The line allowed only 19 sacks last season, amazing when you consider the Hilltoppers threw the ball at least 40 times a game.
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How did the WKU defense do last season? Well, um, hey how about that offense? In all seriousness, the defense was beyond awful last year. The Hilltoppers allowed 510 yards per game including 289 passing and 221 rushing yards. WKU was #111 or worse in all three categories out of 128 teams. The Hilltoppers were #121 in points allowed at 40 points per game. Despite this defensive coordinator, Nick Holt, Sr. kept his job. He gets seven starters back in 2015.
Three starters are back on the offensive line including ends Gavin Rocker and Derik Overstreet, and tackle Bryan Shorter. Rocker and Shorter each had 5.5 sacks last year. WKU only had 26 sacks as a team last year.
Linebacker Nick Holt, Jr., son of DC Nick, Sr. is back after making 111 tackles last season. Outside linebacker Dejon Brown is also back after making 78 tackles last season.
Safeties Branden Lesten and Marcus Ward each had 63 tackles last season. Lesten had 4 interceptions to lead the team. Corner Wonderful Terry had two pick sixes last year.
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Kicker Garrett Schwettman made 16 of 21 field goals last year, and 70 of 71 extra points. Punter Joseph Occhipinti wasn’t used much with the explosive offense, but averaged 37 yards per kick. Sophomore Kylen Towner will return both kicks and punts again. He had a kick return for a touchdown last year.
Western Kentucky has road games in September at Vanderbilt and Indiana, plus home games against Louisiana Tech and Miami-(OH). In October, the Hilltoppers have four road games at Rice, North Texas LSU, and Old Dominion, and a home game against Middle Tennessee. In November, WKU hosts Florida Atlantic and Marshall, and travels to Florida International. The regular season finale against Marshall could decide the C-USA East title.
The schedule is very difficult. Fourteen starters are back though. The offense should be just as explosive. However, if this team wants to truly compete for the Conference USA Championship, then the defense must become a lot better. I see some improvement, but I can’t see more than 8 wins.
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