Western Kentucky hit a slide in mid-October, however, dropping four of five before winning the regular season finale at home versus North Texas (25-24). Despite the up-and-down season, the team finished 7-5 (4-4 in the Sun Belt) and qualified for its first bowl game since 1963 and its first as a member of the FBS. It went on to lose the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl to Central Michigan, 24-21.
Willie Taggart, who made huge strides with the program in just three seasons, departed his post at the end of the year to accept the head coaching position at South Florida. WKU opted for a high-profile option to replace Taggart, with Bobby Petrino coming on board. Although Petrino is attempting to revive his tainted image, his coaching resume' in eight years with Louisville and Arkansas is fantastic (75-26, 4-3 in bowl games).
OFFENSE: Western Kentucky ranked in the middle of the pack in the Sun Belt last season both in terms of scoring (28.8 ppg) and yardage (391.8 ypg), but Petrino brings with him his proven style of high-octane offense that is sure to result in even loftier numbers, especially considering the team's star running back is back in the fold.
Antonio Andrews is one of the top playmakers in all of college football. As a rusher in 2012, he was a workhorse, carrying the ball 304 times for 1,728 yards and 11 touchdowns, but when adding his receiving and return totals, he put up one of the best seasons in NCAA history. His 3,161 all-purpose yards being the second-most all-time behind only Barry Sanders (1988).
While things are set at running back, the situation is much less clear under center. With the departure of Kawaun Jakes (2,488 yards, 22 TDs, 11 interceptions), Petrino is holding an open competition to find his replacement. Brandon Doughty appears to be the frontrunner, but don't rule out junior college transfer Nelson Fishback and freshman Todd Porter.
"I like the competition we have," Petrino said. "It'll be fun to see how it plays out."
Whoever wins the quarterback job, he will be fortunate enough to line up behind an offensive line that returns three starters. He'll also have Willie McNeal at his disposal, who caught 43 balls for 556 yards and six touchdowns a year ago.
DEFENSE: One of the Hilltoppers' biggest strengths in 2012 was the play of the defense, as the unit ranked in the top-two in the conference in both points per game (25.6) and yards per game allowed (345.3 ypg), and several key components are back in place.
Andrew Jackson is one of the top linebackers in the country and he put together an outstanding 2012 season (122 tackles, 17.5 TFL, four FF). He has a lot to live up to this fall, as he was recently named the Preseason SBC Defensive Player of the Year.
Jonathan Dowling is another veteran member of the defense. In addition to racking up 68 tackles from his safety position, Dowling was integral in the turnover battle with six interceptions and two forced fumbles.
WKU recorded 32 sacks last season, but all four starters on the front line have moved on, including standout Quanterus Smith (18.5 TFL, 12.5 sacks).
SPECIAL TEAMS: Garrett Schwettman was solid on field goal attempts as a freshman (10-of-13), but he was just 2-of-5 from beyond 30 yards. Hendrix Brakefield (42.1 avg) returns as the team's punter.
Andrews was dynamic both as a kickoff (767 yards) and punt returner (234 yards), and while he is expected to be a special teams factor once again, there's always the possibility that Petrino views him as too big a part of the offense to keep trotting him out for returns.
OUTLOOK: Petrino's on-the-field success is unquestionable, and that combined with a solid core that helped the Hilltoppers go to a bowl game last season could mean big things in Bowling Green, but there appears to be some trepidation as WKU was picked fourth in the Sun Belt preseason rankings. Petrino understands that preseason polls shouldn't be taken too seriously, however.
"We never worry too much about preseason rankings," Petrino said. "We have a long season to play and our focus right now is really getting better every day and that we practice and prepare for the opener."
"Our goal is to win the conference," the head coach continued. "We feel like as we build this program we want to go to a bowl game every year and win the bowl game and then be conference champions. We have a great challenge ahead of us. It'll be really exciting to see how it all plays out."
With Petrino and Andrews, it should surprise no one if WKU makes a splash in 2013 and wins the league, but with impressive teams like ULM and Louisiana to compete with, that goal may have to wait a year.