Western Kentucky/National Preview

08/26/2011 09:26 AM

The start of college football is now less than a week away. Here’s the final installment of my college football preview, which takes a look at both Western Kentucky and the national scene.

WESTERN KENTUCKY UNIVERSITY
Head coach: Willie Taggart, 2-10 at WKU and overall
Assistant coaches: Zach Azzanni, offensive coordinator/wide receivers; Lance Guidry, defensive coordinator; Alonzo Hampton, defensive backs; Stu Holt, tackles/tight ends; Karl Maslowski, linebackers; Eric Mathies, defensive tackles; Terry Obee, running backs; Walt Wells, offensive center/guards; Raymond Woodie, defensive ends.
Starters returning: 20 (seven offense, 10 defense, three special teams)
Lettermen returning: 43 (17 offense, 23 defense, three special teams)
Players to watch: RB Bobby Rainey, QB Kawaun Jakes, TE Jack Doyle, WR Marcus Vazquez, LT Wes Jeffries, DE Quanterus Smith, CB Tyree Robinson, DE Jared Clendenin
Strengths: With a top-flight back in Bobby Rainey and offensive line that has a combined 71 career starts, the Toppers’ should be able to run the ball on just about anybody. Defensively, the secondary is fine shape led by Robinson, who was a standout in nine starts as a true freshman.
Weaknesses: The offense needs to be more productive in the passing game to take some pressure off Rainey. That cause wasn’t helped by top receiver Willie McNeal’s season-ending knee injury in the spring. WKU also lost all three linebacker starters from a year ago.

GAME-BY-GAME PREDICTIONS
Kentucky 35, Western 17-This is the second game of a four-game series between the Cats and Toppers. I don’t think Western’s quite ready to compete with the Cats for four quarters, but it’ll be interesting to see how much they can close the gap in the next couple of years.

Navy 30, Western 28-This could be a huge statement game for Taggart and Co., but I think the Midshipmen and their disciplined, triple-option attack will prevail in a tight one.

Western 38, Indiana State 17-Toppers get on the winning track in a big way against the FCS Sycamores.

Western 28, Arkansas State 21-If WKU wants to climb up a few spots in the Sun Belt standings, this is one they have to get at home.

Western 34, Middle Tennessee 33-MTSU beat the Toppers in a one-point heartbreaker in Bowling Green last season. Taggart and Co. return the favor on Middle’s home field this year.

Florida Atlantic 21, Western 20-Something just tells me that Howard Schnellenberger will find a way to win in his last game coaching on Kentucky soil.

Western 49, Louisiana 13-WKU pounded Louisiana 54-21 last year. The Toppers should be much-improved, while the Ragin’ Cajuns are breaking in a new coach.

ULM 42, Western 31-ULM finished just 5-7 last year but returns 17 starters, the most of any Sun Belt Conference.

FIU 40, Western 23-Florida International was last year’s co-Sun Belt champs and will be even better in 2011. All-purpose man TY Hilton scored 12 times last year, five on catches, four on runs and two on punt-returns.

LSU 49, Western 7-Western’s agenda for this trip should be as follows: Enjoy playing under the lights at Baton Rouge, keep the score from getting too out of hand, collect the check and hope you don’t get too beat up for the last two conference games.

Western 19, North Texas 17-Another example where playing all those gut-check games last season paying off in 2011. Toppers steal another one on the road.

Troy 52, Western 45-Troy QB Corey Robinson, who will challenge Rainey and Hilton for SBC Player of the Year honors, played his prep ball in Paducah. Taggart has to be wondering how he got out of the state of Kentucky. With bowl eligibility on the line, L.T. Smith Stadium will be hopping, but the Toppers will come up just short.

Final summary: The Hilltoppers were much better than their 2-10 record indicated in Willie Taggart’s first year. They lost four games by a touchdown or less, including two one-pointers. Taggart has generated good vibes with his positive energy, and some of those tough losses should turn into wins in 2011. The Toppers will just miss out on bowl eligiblity, but look out in 2012.

Best offensive player: Chris Rainey
Best defensive player: Tyree Robinson

NATIONAL PREVIEW
1-Alabama-Hard to go against the Tide this year. You know they’ve got the talent and the coach. Plus, look at the schedule and point out a game that you really think that they’re going to lose.
2-Florida State-The Seminoles are back, baby. Yes, I think they’ll beat Oklahoma at home on Sept. 17. And no, I don’t think there’s anybody in the ACC that can deal with them.
3-Wisconsin-You know the Badgers will run the ball and play D, but they’ve never really had a dynamic QB. Enter Russell Wilson, who I think could be this year’s Cam Newton. I think Wisky will be good enough to win at Ohio State and Michigan State, and they get Nebraska at home.
4-Oklahoma-In terms of pure talent, the Sooners are probably right behind ‘Bama. What concerns me is tough road trips to Florida State and Oklahoma State. I think they’re going down in Tallahassee. The OSU game will determine if they remain in the top five.
5-Nebraska-I really, really like the Huskers. I think they’ll lose at Wisconsin in the regular season, but they’ll probably get a rematch in the inaugural Big Ten championship season.
6-Virginia Tech-The Hokies’ schedule is cake. If they knock off Florida State in the ACC Championship game, they’ll be facing ‘Bama for the national title.
7-South Carolina-Steve Spurrier’s finally got a team in Columbia that can measure up to some of his old Florida teams, especially if QB Stephen Garcia finally puts his knucklehead ways behind him.
8-Oregon-Since I now believe the Oregon will beat LSU in the opener, the Ducks should probably be higher.
9-Boise State-The Broncos will post another gaudy won-loss record, but I just can’t see them going through the season unscathed. Their national title hopes could go up in flames in the opener against Georgia.
10-Texas A & M-They were ready to run Mike Sherman out of College Station a couple of years ago. Now he has the Aggies in national title contention.
11-LSU-It looks like the Tigers may be without Jordan Jefferson, and that might not be a bad thing. But LSU’s schedule is too brutal (Oregon, at West Virginia, at ‘Bama) and you figure the Mad Hatter’s luck has got to run out sooner or later.
12-Oklahoma State-The Cowboys will have the nation’s best pass-catch combo in Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon. I’m still not sold on the defense, but no reason why they can’t go 10-2.
13-Arkansas-The loss of RB Knile Davis definitely hurts, but you give Bobby Petrino a decent QB (Kyle Wilson) and some top-flight receivers (Greg Childs, Joe Adams, Jarius Wright) and he’ll make something happen.
14-Notre Dame-I’m not sold on all the ‘Notre Dame is back’ talk. But they will should be at least a legitimate Top 15, especially when you look at their schedule. I can still see them dropping a couple of games on the road.
15-Ohio State-For all the personnel losses and off-the-field drama, the Buckeyes should still do no worse than 9-3.
16-Georgia-The Bulldogs could be favored in all 12 games. But I’m not gonna lie. I’ve lost a little faith in Mark Richt.
17-Stanford-Andrew Luck will keep the Cardinal relevant, but the loss of Jim Harbaugh drops them down a peg or two on the food chain.
18-Pittsburgh-The Panthers are my pick to win the Big East, which will be better at the top than a lot of people think.
19-Texas-I could see Texas getting back to 8-4 or 9-3, which would be a welcome sight after last season’s 5-7 debacle.
20-Michigan State-I don’t know if the Spartans will match last year’s 11-2 record, but they’ll probably have just as good of a team.
21-West Virginia-If Dana Holgorsen can shield himself from off-the-field distractions, the Mountaineers will start looking more like they did under Rich Rodriguez.
22-Mississippi State-MSU is good enough to finish second in the East, but unfortunately for them they’re fourth in the West pecking order behind ‘Bama, LSU and Arkansas.
23-TCU-The Horned Frogs aren’t going to fall off the map, but I don’t see them cracking the BCS this year.
24-Penn State-I’d love to see JoePa make one more national title run, but this isn’t the team to do it.
25-South Florida-Skip Holtz is a quality coach, and once he combines his system with all the athletes in the Sunshine State, the Big East could be his.

UPSET ALERTS
Most of these potential upsets probably won’t happen, but here’s a few September games that could produce a couple of BCS busters.

Alabama at Penn State, Sept. 10-‘Bama is clearly the better team, but it will be interesting to see if JoePa can work his old magic in this prime-timer.

LSU at Mississippi State, Sept. 15-The Tigers have controversy swirling around them, and Dan Mullen’s crew is good enough to pull this off.

LSU at West Virginia, Sept. 24-And if LSU is lucky enough to get out of Starkville with a ‘W’, they might not be so fortunate the next week in Morgantown.

Troy at Arkansas, Sept. 17-This is somewhat of a longshot, but Troy has enough weapons on offense to keep up in a shootout.

Washington at Nebraska, Sept. 17-Nebraska crushed the Huskies in Washington during the regular season, but U-Dub turned around and pummeled the Huskers in the Holiday Bowl.

Western Michigan at Michigan, Sept. 3-With a new coach and new system, this is the perfect time for a program like WMU to catch the Wolverines slippin.’

Oklahoma State at Arizona, Sept. 8-The Cowboys are thinking BCS bowl. Iowa was thinking the same thing last season when they went to Tucson and got beat. In fact, the Wildcats have won its past three games against Top 10 teams at home.

TCU at Baylor, Sept. 2-The Horned Frogs lost a lot, and going to Waco isn’t the cakewalk it used to be.

HEISMAN WATCH
1. Trent Richardson, Alabama-The best offensive player on the nation’s best team almost has to be in the driver’s seat.

2. Andrew Luck, Stanford-Luck turned down a chance to be the No. 1 pick. He needs to either rack up the Heisman or lead the Cardinal to a Pac-10 title to justify passing on the money.

3. Landry Jones, Oklahoma-If it comes down to numbers, Jones might emerge as the favorite. His stats were ridiculous last season (4,718 passing yards, 38 touchdowns) and with his top two receivers back, they could be even better in 2012.

4. Russell Wilson, Wisconsin-I’m not saying Wilson is the NFL prospect Cam Newton was. But he could mean just as much to a Badger offense that needs a big playmaker.

5. Marcus Lattimore, South Carolina-If Richardson slips, Lattimore will be right there to pick up votes. His only concern is how much his receiver teammate Alshon Jeffery will cut into his turf.

6. LaMichael James, Oregon-James is just as good as Richardson and Lattimore. But he doesn’t get the exposure in the Pac-10 that those guys get in the SEC.

7. Kellen Moore, Boise State-Moore should get some sort of lifetime achievement award for being so good for so long. But the Broncos need to be in BCS title contention for him to really have a shot, and I don’t see that happening.

8. Ryan Tannehill, Texas A & M-My darkhorse pick. I think A & M will be in the Top 10 all year long, and Tannehill, a former standout receiver, is a great story.

9. Geno Smith, West Virginia-Has got to be licking his chops at the numbers he’ll put up in Dana Holgorsen’s offense.

10. Alshon Jeffery, South Carolina, Justin Blackmon, Oklahoma State and Michael Floyd, Notre Dame-The nation’s top three receivers have to be considered, but wideouts don’t always get the love the QBs and WRs do.

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