Today at No. 43: Western Kentucky Hilltoppers
Coach: Mike Sanford Jr. (0-0, entering first season; 0-0 overall)
2016 record: 11-3, 7-1 in Conference USA, won East Division and C-USA title
Look back: After a bumpy 3-3 start that included losses to Alabama, Vanderbilt and Louisiana Tech, Western Kentucky gutted out a 44-43 double overtime win at Middle Tennessee to change the tone of the season. It started a nine-game win streak. The run included a 58-44 victory over Louisiana Tech in the Conference USA title game and a 51-31 win over Memphis in the Boca Raton Bowl. The Hilltoppers won back-to-back Conference USA titles. In December, WKU head coach Jeff Brohm accepted the same job at Purdue. The school hired Mike Sanford Jr., a former Western Kentucky quarterback coach who most recently served as offensive coordinator at Notre Dame.
Offensive starters returning: 7
Offensive starters lost: 4
Defensive starters returning: 4
Defensive starters lost: 7
Key losses: WR Taywan Taylor, WR Nicholas Norris, C Max Halpin, LT Forrest Lamp, RT Darrell Williams Jr., TE Shaquille Johnson, LB Keith Brown, LB T.J. McCollum, DT Omarius Bryant, DB Branden Leston, DE Nick Dawson-Brents
Top returnees: QB Mike White, LG Brandon Ray, RG Dennis Edwards, WR Nacarius Fant, DE Derik Overstreet, DT Chris Johnson, LB Joel Iyiegbuniwe, DB Marcus Ward, DB DeAndre Simmons, DB Joe Brown
Strengths: Senior QB Mike White returns for his second season at WKU after earning Conference USA Newcomer of the Year honors last season. He completed 67 percent of his passes for 4,363 yards, 37 touchdowns and seven interceptions. White registered eight 300-plus yard passing performances, surging in seven of the Hilltoppers’ last nine games of the season. After leading the nation’s top scoring offense and securing WKU’s second consecutive C-USA title, White is the No. 2 returning passer behind Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield.
While the defense has gone through some changes, the Hilltoppers still return pieces of a defense that ranked No. 2 last year in rushing defense, limiting opponents to 97.2 yards per game.
Weaknesses: The team lost seven starters on defense, with most of the secondary back. The group needs to improve after ranking No. 119 nationally in passing defense, giving up 279.4 yards per game.
Sanford, the talented son of former UNLV and Indiana State coach Mike Sanford, has an edge on most first-year coaches thanks to his extensive family experience playing the game. However, his player still need time to get acclimated to his system and his staff.
Outlook: White leads a powerful offense that has a chance to fly past the competition in Conference USA. If the team can avoid injuries and Sanford can get the defense to produce despite lineup changes, Western Kentucky should be in the mix to become the first C-USA program to win three consecutive league titles.