In cooperation with the other Sun Belt Conference sites on Rivals.com, we take a look at five questions facing each team as preseason practice approaches.
The series today features a report on the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers from InsideHilltopperSports.com's Jordan Wells.
1. Why will WKU be better or worse than the preview magazines predict?
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Most national magazines are predicting WKU to finish anywhere from third to fifth in the conference. The best overall record of a fifth place team in Sun Belt Conference history is 6-6, and I think a 6-6 record would only happen in the worst case scenario for WKU this year. Therefore, I think WKU likely finishes fourth or higher this year, with fifth place highly unlikely.
These national magazines ask the question, "How will WKU replace Bobby Rainey at runningback?" when they've made their predictions on this team, but then haven't put out much effort to research an actual answer. Rainey had a tremendous season, and it was no secret that he carried the WKU offense. But his success was the product of being a volume rusher, he only averaged 4.6 yards a carry, which is replaceable for WKU (even if they have to do so by committee). Antonio Andrews looked great in spring ball, and is the favorite right now to start at RB. Look for Keshawn Simpson and John Evans to also challenge for carries.
2. Which player(s) will WKU miss the most from last season?
Clearly, WKU will miss the presence of Rainey in the huddle, so I'll give fans a few other names that will be missed. Wes Jeffries, a 2011 first-team All Sun Belt offensive lineman, is gone via graduation. Two senior defensive lineman, Bo Adebayo and Jared Clendenin also graduated, along with another defensive member, second-team All Sun Belt defensive back Derrius Brooks.
WKU does return all four of its other offensive linemen outside of Jeffries, easing his departure will be pre-season all Sun Belt members Sean Conway and Adam Smith. The two defensive ends will be a bit harder to replace, but look for pre-season first-team all Sun Belt defensive end Quanterus Smith to step in just fine for one. Florida transfer and former four-star safety Jonathan Dowling will help bolster the secondary with Brooks' departure.
3. Which newcomers will make the biggest impact this season?
WKU returns a large portion of its starters on both sides of the ball, so there shouldn't be a big need to rely on newcomers. The biggest impact though will likely come from the aforementioned Dowling. He's been itching to get on the field for over a year now, and it showed during the spring game when he had two interceptions (one returned for a TD), winning him game MVP honors. His ball skills are NFL caliber, to go along with some incredible speed. He'll make plays not only ball-hawking in the secondary, but getting into the opponent's backfield via blitz.
A newcomer to watch for development on the offense for WKU is true freshman wide receiver Austin Aikens. Wide receiver is one of WKU's weakest positions, and they picked up Aikens, a three-star who chose WKU over offers from Missouri, Vanderbilt, Boston College, Cincinnati, and more. Especially if there are any injuries at the top of the depth chart, look for Aikens to see the field early.
4. What is the biggest question mark heading into preseason practice?
Most people want to talk about who will replace Rainey, but again, I think whether it's a single starter (Andrews) or a committee, the rushing game will be just as effective as years past when it was anchored by Rainey. The biggest question mark to me is the quarterback play of fifth year senior Kawaun Jakes. Jakes performance during WKU's out of conference schedule in 2011 was sporadic, to say the least. But the QB turned it around at the start of Sun Belt play, leading the team to a 7-1 conference record in 2011.
Which Kawaun will WKU get in 2012? If it's the Jakes' from WKU's out of conference play last year, this team won't finish any higher than 6-6. But if Jakes can continue where he left off last season, don't be surprised to see WKU finish 8-4 (or better). I expect he will continue the success he found late last year, behind a veteran offensive line, and an improved wide receiver core. Wide receivers Willie Mcneal and Marcus Vasquez, both starters lost to injury last year, are returning, along with the new addition Aikens.
5. How does the schedule set up for WKU?
The schedule is one of the most interesting factors for fans to consider about this year's team. Out of conference, WKU has an almost guaranteed win (Austin Peay), with a likely loss (Alabama). At Kentucky and Southern Miss (home) are both winnable match-ups. Worst case scenario, WKU emerges from OOC with a 1-3 record, with the most likely result 2-2 (W-Austin Peay, L-Alabama, split w/ Kentucky and Southern Miss). Best case, 3-1.
As far as Sun Belt play goes, last year WKU played Arkansas State (8-0), Louisiana-Lafayette (6-2), FIU (5-3), and traditional power Troy all at home, amassing wins over each except for Arkansas State. This year, WKU has all of those games on the road. The most important stretch for this team on the entire schedule is from Sept 29 (at Arkansas State) to Oct 27 (at FIU). Between those dates, WKU also plays at Troy, and hosts ULM. If WKU loses three games in that stretch (at Ark. St, at FIU, split w/ Troy and ULM), they will likely need to win out their remaining schedule in November (MTSU, FAU, at ULL, UNT) just to finish above .500.
But keeping that in mind, the Ark. St/FIU/ULL matchups are all spread apart, which gives WKU more than adequate time to prepare for each of the anticipated matchups. Due to having all the hardest games on the road, WKU may not go 7-1 in conference like it did last year. But fans should understand that doesn't necessarily mean the team regressed, it's just how the cards fall sometimes with scheduling.
Bonus question. What is the best-case scenario (and/or worse-case scenario) for WKU this season?
Worst-case: WKU wins its season opener over Austin Peay, only to lose the next three (at Alabama, at Kentucky, Southern Miss at home). Feeling down after three straight losses, they now have to go on the road to conference favorite Arkansas State, resulting in a fourth straight loss. Knowing they won seven straight in the conference the season before, WKU finds its stride and does go 5-2 over its last seven games, but leaves them with a season-ending record of 6-6.
Best case: WKU blows through Austin Peay in its opener, and has a confidence boosting close game with Alabama. Wins at Kentucky and over Southern Miss at home leave them sitting 3-1 entering conference play. WKU only loses one out of three at Ark. St/at ULL/at FIU, loses one conference game at home, wins at Troy. They finish with a regular season overall record of 9-3, earning the school its first FBS bowl bid (which they go on to win). Andrew Jackson (video below) wins Sun Belt defensive Player of the Year.