1. Can Western handle big expectations?
WKU (8-5) closed 2014 by winning six of its final seven games, including an epic 67-66 victory over Marshall in the regular-season finale to deny the Thundering Herd an undefeated season. With star quarterback Brandon Doughty, standout running back Leon Allen and 14 other starters back, it was not a surprise when the Hilltoppers were picked to win the East Division title at Conference USA media day. How does WKU handle that pressure? “I think this is exactly where we want to be,” Western Coach Jeff Brohm said. “We want some pressure to be put on us to succeed and win at a high level.”
2. What does Brandon Doughty do for an encore?
In 2014, the Davie, Fla., product threw for 4,830 yards and 49 touchdowns and finished the regular season as the national leader in both categories. Granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA (Doughty had missed essentially two seasons due to knee injuries), the 6-foot-3, 220-pound gunslinger is showing up on national award watch lists this pre-season. Yet seeking more run/pass balance, Brohm says it is a mistake to expect Doughty to replicate last season’s numbers. “If we’re winning football games in the right manner, he probably won’t put up those numbers,” the WKU coach said.
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3. Will the Hilltoppers’ defense improve enough to allow for a special season?
To put it charitably, WKU struggled in 2014 to get stops. As prolific as Western’s offense (44.4 points and 535 yards a game) was, its defense (39.9 and 510 allowed) was almost equally porous. “Obviously,” Brohm said, “there’s lots of questions about our defense.” For good or bad, WKU has nine defensive starters back. Defensive coordinator Nick Holt is counting on two UAB transfers, Jontavious Morris, a 6-2, 305-pound senior tackle, and TJ McCollum, a 6-3, 230-pound sophomore linebacker, to provide immediate help.
4. Will WKU stop blowing big leads?
In 2014, Western led at Illinois 17-7 only to lose 42-34. WKU was up on Middle Tennessee State 24-14 but lost 50-47 in triple overtime. The Hilltoppers led UAB 27-14 at halftime, but lost 42-39. They led Florida Atlantic 31-14 at halftime yet lost 45-38. WKU led 42-21 at Marshall, but escaped with a one-point win in overtime. In the Bahamas Bowl, Western led Central Michigan 49-14 entering the fourth quarter — only to emerge with a harrowing 49-48 win. In addition to better defense, Brohm says greater ability to run the football in short-yardage situations would help WKU close out games.5. Can basketball standout turned football tight end George Fant be more than a novelty?
A burly but undersized power forward at 6-6, Fant ended his WKU hoops career last spring as Western’s 13th all-time scorer (1,621 points) and eighth all-time rebounder (894). The former Warren Central hoops star played on two NCAA Tournament teams, too. This fall, Fant is using his fifth year of eligibility to try football for the first time since the eighth grade. Now listed as a 270-pound tight end, Fant has a chance to make a mark at a position Brohm says lacks depth behind starter Tyler Higbee.