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        ***** NCAA Football Preview - Western Kentucky Hilltoppers *****
 
 By Nicholas DeLorenzo, Associate College Football Editor
 
 Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
 
 2012 SEASON IN REVIEW: The 2012 campaign got off to about as great as start as
 the Hilltoppers could have hoped for, with their only loss in the first six
 weeks of the season coming against eventual-national champion Alabama (35-0).
 
 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).
 
 2013 ANALYSIS:
 
 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.
 
 
 
 08/23 14:16:52 ET

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