Heading into the 2011 season, the WKU football team was looking to make a big statement about who they were. After making big steps forward in head coach Willie Taggart's first season on the hill, the Tops have not been able to find the magic this season and sit winless through the first three weeks.
After losing badly to Indiana State on Sept. 17th, many fans are searching for answers about what the team will do heading forward into Sun Belt Conference play. Despite the multitude of questions from fans, players and coaches seemed focused and confident.
"We are heading in the right direction," said Taggart. "We just need to do things better than what we have been doing. We don't need to panic or anything. Everybody is getting ticked off and uptight. We understand that. Pouting is not going to make it better. Running away from it is not going to make it better. We just have to keep grinding and stick together, and we are going to do that as a football program."
One thing that WKU is looking forward to as the "second season" starts on the first of October is conference play. Last season the team captured it first wins as a full member of the Sun Belt Conference with road wins over Louisiana-Lafayette and Arkansas State. In addition to those wins, the Tops had potential to finish conference play above .500 but ultimately fell just short dropping nail-biting contests to Middle Tennessee, Louisiana-Monroe, Florida Atlantic, Florida International, and Troy.
Even with the poor start, many of WKU's top players still have faith that they can achieve the team's ultimate goals for the season.
"Our goals are still attainable," said senior running back Bobby Rainey. "It is conference play. It is time to get it. Everybody knows what is on the line. There are no more excuses. Everybody has to be accountable of their actions." If there has been any bright spot for the WKU offense, it has been the play of Rainey. Through the first three weeks of the season, Rainey leads the Sun Belt in rushing yards and average rushing yards per game while sitting in fourth place in all purpose yards.
Rainey is not the only player on the Tops' squad who feels confident about what the team can accomplish during their conference schedule.
"The goals are there," said senior lineman Jared Clendenin. "The Sun Belt is looking crazy right now. It is wide open for us. I feel like we can accomplish what we want to accomplish - win the Sun Belt and get to that bowl game."
While the players are optimistic about the team's chances, Taggart and the rest of his coaching staff have been realistic about their chances once WKU opens conference play.
"We can't do anything about what happened so we can't keep dreading on that," stated Taggart. "We've got to get ready for Arkansas State. Arkansas State is not going to take any pity on Western Kentucky University. This is a really, really good Arkansas State football team so we've got to lock into them and try to get better as a football team and try to eliminate those mistakes we made the week before so we can have a chance to win these ball games. So that is where we are at."
The Tops have momentum as they open Sun Belt play against the Arkansas State Red Wolves on the first of October. Last season, WKU won an exhilarating come from behind, overtime contest on a successful two point conversion on the game's final play.
"All I think about is that reverse and just winning and running onto that field," said Clendenin. "We want to feel that again as a team, so we have to get it done this week."
Even with the momentum from the last season, the team knows that they have a tough task ahead of them.
"Those guys that were juniors are all seniors, they are pretty much all back from last year," said Taggart. "They did what they did last year really well and they are doing it better now. You see a bunch of guys that played a lot of football and are really confident in what they are doing. They are playing fast, but they have guys who have been playing together and have been around for a while."
After the home contest against Arkansas State, the Tops have a short turn around as they travel to Murfreesboro to take on rival Middle Tennessee State on a nationally televised game. The following week the team travels to Boca Raton to take on Florida Atlantic before returning to Bowling Green for their homecoming contest against the Ragin' Cajuns of Louisiana-Lafayette.
The team then travels to play Louisana-Monroe followed by a home bout with Florida International at the beginning of November. After they face the Golden Panthers, the Tops travel to LSU and North Texas before ending their season with a home showdown with Sun Belt powerhouse Troy. Despite the winless start, the team still has a chance of winning the school's first Sun Belt Conference football championship.