The Orlando Sentinel has ranked all 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in the country. We’ll take a closer look at a new team daily, counting backward from No. 120 to our projected No. 1 team. We will not be including the four teams the NCAA lists as still reclassifying to the Football Bowl Subdivision level.
Today at No. 72: Western Kentucky
Coach: Willie Taggart (9-15, entering third season)
2011 record: 7-5 (7-1 in Sun Belt, second place in Sun Belt)
Look back: Western Kentucky posted an 0-12 record in 2009 and a 2-10 record in 2010, struggling to make the transition to the Football Bowl Subdivision level. When the Hilltoppers opened the 2011 season 0-4, it seemed like the program was headed for another losing season. However, Western Kentucky pulled off one of the biggest turnarounds in college football by winning seven of its final eight games. The sole loss was against then-No. 1 LSU.
The Hilltoppers started the year with a 14-3 loss to Kentucky, a 40-14 loss to Navy, a 44-16 loss Football Championship Subdivision Indiana State and a 26-22 loss to Arkansas State.
The team turned things around with a 36-33 double overtime win at Middle Tennessee. Quarterback Kawaun Jakes completed a seven-yard touchdown pass to star running back Bobby Rainey to slip past Middle Tennessee in double overtime. Western Kentucky followed the win with a 20-0 victory at FAU, a 42-23 victory against Louisiana-Lafayette, a 31-28 overtime victory at Louisiana-Monroe and a 10-9 win over FIU.
The Hilltoppers leaned heavily on Rainey, who helped the team rank No. 35 nationally in rushing offense with 181.58 yards per game. He ranked second in rushing nationally with 141.25 yards per game. Rainey was a 2011 All-America selection by the Walter Camp Football Foundation second team), SI.com second team), Associated Press (third team) and Yahoo! Sports (third team). Rainey was named Sun Belt offensive player of the year at the end of the 2010 and 2011 seasons.
Offensive starters lost/returning: 3/9
Defensive starters lost/returning: 5/6
Key losses: RB Bobby Rainey, OL Wes Jeffries, DB Derrius Brooks, DL Jared Clendenin, DL Bo Adebayo.
Top returnees: QB Kawaun Jakes, TE Jack Doyle, OL Sean Conway, OL Adam Smith, DL Jamarcus Allen, DL Quanterus Smith, LB Andrew Jackson, RB/KR John Evans, OL Cameron Clemmons, DB Kareem Peterson, DB Jonathan Dowling, LB Xavius Boyd, P Hendrix Brakefield.
Strengths: Western Kentucky returns nine offensive starters, including starting quarterback Kawaun Jakes and stout offensive linemen Sean Conway and Adam Smith. The team also returns six defensive starters, including strong playmakers in linebacker Andrew Jackson and defensive back Kareem Peter son. Jackson tied for 13th nationally in tackles for a loss with 1.42 per game and tied for 39th in total tackles with 9.08 per game. Peter tied for 23rd nationally with three total interceptions.
The returning starters gained invaluable confidence and experience from their surge during the second half of the 2011 season. The momentum from the impressive rally should help the program in 2012.
Weaknesses: The team didn’t lose many players from last season, but it did lose a key leader and playmaker in Rainey. He was the all-time leading rusher in school history, racking up 4,542 yards during his career. He set a WKU single season rushing record in 2011, finishing with 1,695 yards. Rainey accounted for 49.1 percent of WKU’s total offense in 2011, gaining 2,056 all purpose yards during the regular season. It was the highest total offensive percentage of any player in the nation.
Outlook: Western Kentucky once again has some tough nonconference games that give the program little room for error once it starts Sun Belt play. If the team can find a way to replace Rainey’s tremendous offensive production and leadership, the Hilltoppers have the potential to post another successful season.
Sept. 1 Austin Peay
Sept. 8 At Alabama
Sept. 15 At Kentucky
Sept. 22 Southern Miss
Sept. 29 At Arkansas State
Oct. 11 At Troy
Oct. 20 Louisiana-Monroe
Oct. 27 At FIU
Nov. 1 Middle Tennessee
Nov. 10 FAU
Nov. 17 At Louisiana-Lafayette
Nov. 24 North Texas
Rest of the countdown: