No. 66 Western Kentucky
A decade ago, Western Kentucky was an FCS program with little — if any — national relevance. Now the Hilltoppers are a premier Group of Five program with a 23-5 mark and two conference titles the last two seasons.
Armed with a new head coach, elite quarterback and playmakers on both sides of the ball, Western Kentucky should keep rolling in 2017.
2016 Record: 11-3 (7-1, Conference USA)
Western Kentucky rode a powerful offense to 11 victories last year, including a 58-44 win over Louisiana Tech in the Conference USA Championship and 51-31 win over Memphis in the Boca Raton Bowl. The win over the Bulldogs was payback for a three-point loss in October.
Head Coach: Mike Sanford Jr. (1st year)
For the third time in four years, Western Kentucky was forced to replace a coach who left for a Power Five job. Jeff Brohm followed Willie Taggart and Bobby Petrino in departing for a more high-profile job, taking over a Purdue program has won the same number of games in the last six years that Brohm won his final two years with the Hilltoppers (23).
Mike Sanford arrived from his offensive coordinator post at Notre Dame. The 35-year-old was quarterbacks coach under Taggart in 2010 before rising the coaching ranks at Stanford (2011-13), Boise State (2013) and Notre Dame (2014-15).
“Back-to-back conference championships and consecutive 10-win seasons for the first time in the program’s 97-year history have raised the bar to an all-time high level,” WKU athletic director Todd Stewart said while introducing Sanford in December. “Our next head coach must aspire for greatness and be ready to take on the exciting challenges and opportunities that come with success. Mike Sanford is that person.”
Key Returning Offensive Players
QB Mike White, RB De'Andre Ferby, RB Quinton Baker, WR Nacarius Fant, WR Lucky Jackson, OT Jimmie Simms, G Dennis Edwards, G Brandon Ray
It was supposed to take a year for Mike White to perform anywhere near the level of his predecessor Brandon Doughty. White preferred to get started immediately.
The former South Florida transfer had a near-flawless first season under center, completing 67 percent of his passes for 4,363 yards, 37 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He ranked in the top five nationally in passing yards, passing efficiency and yards per attempt, among many other categories.
“He already has a good résumé,” Mike Sanford said in May. “He’s got to further that résumé this year and he’s got to play his best football. He’s got the ability to be an NFL quarterback."
White lost record-setting receivers Taywan Taylor and Nicholas Norris — who combined for 323 catches for 5,486 yards and 54 touchdowns the last two years — and 1,600-yard rusher Anthony Wales, but does get back De'Andre Ferby from injury, along with senior receiver Nacarius Fant and rising sophomore receiver Lucky Jackson. Jackson had at least two catches in his final seven games.
The offensive line lost Forrest Lamp to the NFL, yet it remains the best and deepest unit in the Conference USA, led by senior guards Dennis Edwards and Brandon Ray.
Key Returning Defensive Players
DE Derik Overstreet, DE Chris Johnson, LB Joel Iyiegbuniwe, CB Joe Brown, CB De'Andre Simmons, CB Leverick Johnson, S Marcus Ward
Western Kentucky lost their top three tacklers from a defense that ranked second nationally in rushing (97.2 yards per game) and yielded 37 points over a midseason four-game stretch The onus falls on junior linebacker Joel Iyiegbuniwe and two senior defensive ends Derik Overstreet and Chris Johnson to keep the unit among the best in Conference USA. Johnson and Overstreet combined for 19.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks.
Nickel back Leverick Johnson is back in the secondary after a breakout season with seven passes defended and two interceptions, including one of the best of the season against Florida International.
Senior safety Marcus Ward was granted a fifth year of eligibility after missing all but two games in 2016. He had 7.5 tackles for loss and seven passes defended in 2015.
Notable Player Losses
RB Anthony Wales, OT Forrest Lamp, WR Nicholas Norris, WR Taywan Taylor, LB T.J. McCollum, LB Keith Brown, S Brandon Leston
Forrest Lamp and Taywan Taylor continued Western Kentucky's NFL train in April, with both playing going in the first three rounds. The Hilltoppers now have eight draft picks since 2013, including five in the last two years.
Lamp was a four-year starter who helped fuel one of the nation's best offenses, blocking for 1,600-yard rusher Anthony Wales and giving time for Doughty to hit Taywan Taylor. Wales averaged a staggering 6.8 yards per carry in his career. He had 1,621 yards on just 237 carries last year. Taylor, meanwhile, left with 4,234 receiving yards and 41 touchdowns. He averaged at least 17 yards per catch each of the last three years. Their other 1,000-yard receiver, Nicholas Norris is also gone.
Defensively, linebackers T.J. McCollum (transfer to Purdue) and Keith Brown (graduated) have departed, as has defensive end Nick Dawson-Brents. The latter, a former Louisville transfer, was outstanding in his lone season at WKU, registering 11 tackles for loss and seven sacks. Sure-tackling hybride defensive back-linebacker Branden Leston is also gone.
Notable Player Additions
WR Xavier Lane, WR Jahcour Pearson, TE Mik'Quan Deane
JUCO transfer Mik'Quan Deane was a huge recruiting win in January. The Oklahoma native should start immediately after picking the Hilltoppers over Louisville, Oregon and others.
Redshirt freshmen receiver Xavier Lane and Jahcou Pearson, both three-star recruits in the 2016 class, are also new targets for Mike White. At 6-foot-4, 200-pounds, Lane is huge body that will eventually develop into a legit red zone threat.
Western Kentucky's 2017 schedule is highlighted by two winnable Power Five games against Illinois (away) and Vanderbilt (home), four home games during a six-game stretch from Sept. 16 to Oct. 28 and a Friday night showdown against Middle Tennessee in the second-to-last game of the regular season.
|Saturday, Sept. 2
|vs. Eastern Kentucky
|Saturday, Sept. 9
|Saturday, Sept. 16
|vs. Louisiana Tech
|Saturday, Sept. 23
|vs. Ball State
|Saturday, Oct. 7
|Saturday, Oct. 14
|Friday, Oct. 20
|at Old Dominion
|Saturday, Oct. 28
|vs. Florida Atlantic
|Saturday, Nov. 4
|Saturday, Nov. 11
|Friday, Nov. 17
|vs. Middle Tennessee
|Friday, Nov. 24
|at Florida International