NCAA Football Preview - Western Kentucky Hilltoppers

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Updated: 8/19 11:06 am

WKU opened up the season with an upset win over Kentucky, 35-26, before losing two straight to Tennessee and South Alabama. The Hilltoppers then went on a three-game winning streak before dropping another two in a row, this time to conference opponents Louisiana and Troy. But WKU made up for it by finishing 2013 strong with four consecutive wins.

The eight-win total bettered the team's 2012 mark of 7-6. But after the season, the Hilltoppers made yet another coaching switch - the program's third coach in the past three years. Jeff Brohm will take the reins for Western Kentucky in the team's first year as a member of C-USA, and will try to improve on the program's three consecutive years with a winning record.

2014 ANALYSIS:

OFFENSE: The jump from the Sun Belt Conference to Conference USA is a step up in competition for Western Kentucky. The program itself loses some crucial members of its offense, but retains some others at pretty important positions.

At quarterback, Brandon Doughty returns for his senior season. Doughty wasn't exactly a statistical wonder in 2013 - throwing for 2,857 yards, 14 touchdowns and 14 interceptions - but the experience in game action is always a plus. He gets some top weapons back in terms of his receivers.

Top pass catcher Willie McNeal returns for his senior season as well. McNeal caught 46 balls for 599 yards and five touchdowns in 2013, while other receivers Nicholas Norris, Joel German and Taywan Taylor are all coming back for another go around. Four starting offensive linemen return, with others looking to win over playing time.

But Western Kentucky lost easily its best offensive weapon in the offseason in running back Antonio Andrews. The former senior racked up 1,764 yards on 267 carried, and added 16 rushing touchdowns in 2013. He also caught 41 passes for 476 yards out of the backfield. Andrews led the nation in all-purpose yardage over the last two seasons, and helped WKU average 458.5 offensive yards per game in 2013. Leon Allen expects to get the bulk of the work at running back in 2014.

DEFENSE: Western Kentucky will be prepared to start a very young defense in 2014, returning only four starters from a year ago. The Hilltoppers will have to replace all of their linebackers and three of the team's four starters in the defensive backfield.

Gone are the team's top five tacklers from 2013, who accumulated 362 tackles between them. Western Kentucky's top defender last season, Xavier Boyd, registered 103 tackles, 8.5 sacks and two pass breakups. Boyd was named the Sun Belt Conference's Defensive Player of the Year, while fellow linebacker Andrew Jackson was NFL bound after a standout season in which he recorded 95 tackles.

Defensive end Jonathan Dowling led the FBS in forced fumbles with six in 2013, adding seven pass breakups and three interceptions to his resume. These are three players the Hilltoppers will have an extremely difficult time replacing. The defense, which allowed just 339.2 offensive yards per game to opponents, will likely start seven underclassmen in 2014.

"Even though we will have some youth on the defensive side of the ball, I think our guys will be up to the challenge," Brohm said. "They work extremely hard. I think they will do a really good job. Right now, our guys are completely focused on getting better at schematically what we do on both sides of the ball."

Cornerback Cam Thomas is the top returning tackler after recording 41 combined stops last season. He led Western Kentucky with 10 pass breakups and five interceptions as a junior.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Fifty percent of WKU's special teams unit will be coming back for the 2014 season. Place kicker Garrett Schwettman, a junior, is returning from a near-perfect season in terms of field goal attempts. Schwettman hit 13- of-16 tries last year, which included a long of 44 yards. The Hilltoppers will be replacing punter Hendrix Brakefield, likely with sophomore Joseph Occhipinti.

OUTLOOK: The Hilltoppers took some hits in the offseason with key members of the program graduating, especially on the defensive side and at the running back slot. With Andrews gone, Doughty will have to step up his game and become more consistent while eliminating turnovers.

The young defense for WKU may have a hard time containing these different look offenses in C-USA. There's plenty of offensive talent in the league, so Brohm will be hoping his new starters can learn quickly on the job.

Western Kentucky will take on both Army and Navy as part of the team's non- conference schedule, and will also face the MAC's Bowling Green and the Big Ten's Illinois. The Hilltoppers must clash with Middle Tennessee, FAU, Old Dominion, UTSA and Marshall in conference play - a daunting slate.

"We feel like the first game coming up is the only game on our mind on the schedule," Brohm said. "It is going to be a very tough game. As you know, we open against the reigning (Mid-American Conference) champions. They went to a bowl game, they have their quarterback back, who is a very good player, and they were picked to finish first in their conference."

With a relatively inexperienced defense and no more Andrews on offense, it's likely the WKU streak of three seasons in a row with a winning record will come to an end. But the transition may not be all that bad considering almost the entire conference is recovering from key losses.

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