2006 Season Preview (Game One): Western Kentucky

It is time to begin previewing the Bulldogs' 2006 opposition.

In so doing, I am likely to draw upon the examples already provided by Nico for Alabama and by Peter for Texas, but, for the most part, this forecast will be a poor imitation of the impressive work done by Maize n Brew Dave, who provided an absolutely insane degree of detail regarding Central Michigan.

We begin at the beginning, with Western Kentucky University, which considers this . . .

. . . an acceptable mascot option. To each his own, I suppose.

If what follows proves insufficient and you don't mind waiting for Adobe to get up and running, W.K.U.'s football prospectus is available in .pdf format.

The Game

Georgia v. Western Kentucky
Sanford Stadium
Saturday, September 2

The Opponent

The Hilltoppers of Western Kentucky University will be paying their first visit to the Classic City to square off with the Red and Black on the gridiron. W.K.U. competes at the Division I-AA level and the rest of the Hilltoppers' 2006 slate consists of the likes of Eastern Kentucky, Western Illinois, Indiana State, and Austin Peay.

While I believe Georgia should never schedule games against Division I-AA teams, we probably owed them this one by virtue of the Hoop Dogs' having snared Western Kentucky's former coach.

A Brief History of Western Kentucky University

W.K.U. was established as Western Kentucky State Normal School in 1906 and the state-sponsored college for training teachers took over the sites of such former institutions as the Southern Normal School (in 1907) and the Pleasant J. Potter College (in 1911). The latter site sat 125 feet above Bowling Green proper, eventually giving the school its "Hilltopper" mascot.

Western Kentucky began granting four-year degrees in 1924 and bestowed its first master's degree in the early 1930s. After laboring under the cumbersome nomenclature "Western Kentucky State Normal School and Teachers College," the institution merged with Ogden College and the Bowling Green College of Commerce before attaining university status in 1966.

A Brief History of Hilltopper Football

Western Kentucky traces its gridiron heritage back to 1913, when the school fielded its first football team. W.K.U., which competes in the Gateway Conference in football, has made a dozen trips to the playoffs over the years. The Hilltoppers are 14-9 in postseason play, having been eliminated in the first round in 2004 after winning the Division I-AA national championship in 2002.

The squad heads into 2006 as a preseason top 20 team. Last year, Western Kentucky went 6-5 overall and posted a 4-3 record in league play, finishing in a two-way tie for fourth place. Despite missing out on postseason play last year, the Hilltoppers have recorded 10 consecutive winning seasons and have been to the playoffs six times during the last decade.

In 2005, Western Kentucky jumped out to a 6-1 start before fading down the stretch and ending the campaign on a four-game losing streak. In road games against Division I-A competition, W.K.U. dropped a 38-35 decision at Florida International and fell to the Plainsmen at Auburn by a 37-14 final margin.

The Hilltoppers are four wins shy of recording the 500th victory in school history and W.K.U.'s athletic department is positively batty for logos.

Returning Starters

Eight starters return on offense, including senior quarterback Justin Haddix, senior running back Lerron Moore, junior fullback Ross Cassity, sophomore wide receiver Jamison Link, and offensive linemen Andrew Campbell, Chris McConnell, and Greg Ryan.

Five starters are back on the defensive side of the ball. Senior cornerback Dennis Mitchell and junior free safety Marion Rumph are back in the secondary and, while linebackers Andre Lewis, Jenkins Reese, and Sam Sexton also return, only Sexton was listed at the top of the depth chart following the conclusion of spring drills.

Coaching

W.K.U.'s head coach, 1994 Butler alumnus David Elson, joined the Hilltopper staff as the defensive backs coach in 1996. Since taking over the program three years ago, Coach Elson has put together a 24-12 won-lost ledger. This earned him a contract extension through 2012.

Seven of Coach Elson's 10 assistants received their baccalaureate degrees after I did and two of them graduated from S.E.C. schools: offensive coordinator T.J. Weist (Alabama '88) and outside linebackers coach Mike Chism (Kentucky '90).

Offense

Moore, a first-team all-conference tailback, piled up 1,037 rushing yards in 10 games last season, averaging 6.0 yards per carry and scoring 10 touchdowns. The Ohio native is sixth on the league's all-time rushing yardage list and he is one of only three Hilltopper running backs to have gone over 1,000 rushing yards in multiple seasons. Moore has scored 34 touchdowns in 33 career appearances and he is back for his fourth straight season as a starter.

Perhaps due to the W.K.U. tailback's heroics, the Hilltoppers had the least productive passing attack in the Gateway Conference last season, when Western Kentucky averaged just 177.2 yards per game through the air and boasted the league's fewest touchdown passes.

Nevertheless, Haddix earned honorable mention on the all-Gateway Conference list after a junior campaign in which he connected on 131 of 230 pass attempts for 1,892 yards and a 15-10 touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio. Although the Hilltopper signal-caller only averaged 2.9 yards per carry on the ground last season, Haddix rushed for eight T.D.s in 2005 and amassed a career high 82 yards on the ground at Auburn.

Last year's Hilltoppers had a propensity for shooting themselves in the foot in the red zone. W.K.U.'s trips inside the opposition's 20 yard line were marred by a fumble, two interceptions, and three failures to convert on fourth down. Although Western Kentucky had the Gateway Conference's best third-down conversion rate (51.7%), the Hilltoppers ranked sixth in their success rate on fourth down tries (33.3%).

The projected starters on the W.K.U. offensive line---Campbell, Joe Dolchan, McConnell, Ryan, and Zach Thuney---average 291 pounds per man. (By contrast, the projected starters on the Georgia offensive line average a hearty breakfast shy of 313 pounds per man.)

In a related item, here is a picture of Quentin Moses:

Defense

The Hilltoppers' projected starter at left end is Osprey, Fla., native Dusty Bear. I don't know the first thing about him, but I think "Dusty Bear" is a great name for a defensive lineman. The projected backups at the respective end positions are freshman Jon Marshall and senior Josh Johnson . . . each of whom is listed at 235 pounds.

W.K.U. runs a 3-4 and the Hilltoppers led the Gateway Conference in rushing defense last year, giving up just 113.1 yards per game on the ground. However, the preseason depth chart suggests that Western Kentucky will be rebuilding defensively, as the team expects to break in new starters at as many as six positions among the front seven.

Freshman Jimmy Caldwell is listed ahead of returning starter Reese at one inside linebacker spot and senior Jon Hedges appears to have displaced Lewis at the other I.L.B. position. Prior to last season, Hedges contributed primarily on special teams. Mark Richt may dust off Vince Dooley's playbook as the Bulldogs test the middle of the Western Kentucky D early and often by lining up in the I formation and running it between the tackles.

Despite the fact that most of W.K.U.'s returning defensive experience is in the secondary, however, the Red and Black may throw the ball a bit, as well. The 2005 Hilltoppers surrendered 26.5 points per game and much of the damage done to them was achieved through the air: Western Kentucky last year allowed 2,545 yards, 112 first downs, and 15 touchdowns by way of the forward pass.

When Georgia throws the ball, though, the Bulldogs need to be on the lookout for Rumph, the Hilltoppers' leading tackler from a year ago (41 solo, 52 assists). The two-year starter at free safety made first-team all-conference last season and he is the sort of player who is listed as an "athlete" on signing day. As a high school student in Bradenton, Fla., Rumph earned 11 varsity letters . . . four in football, four in basketball, and three in track.

Special Teams

Junior placekicker Chris James was named a first-team preseason all-American in Division I-AA following a 2005 campaign in which he was perfect on 42 extra point tries and connected on 15 of 17 field goal attempts. James, who hit game-winning three-pointers against Eastern Kentucky and Illinois State last season, hails from Fayetteville, Ga.

Punter Tanner Siewert averaged 37.4 yards per punt last season and had one of his best games at Auburn, where he booted four punts for a 40.5-yard average. Nevertheless, Siewert recorded four tackles and the Hilltoppers gave up two touchdowns on punt returns in 2005. I'm just saying.

What Worries Me Most

I am concerned that, when the Western Kentucky football players arrive in Athens, their team bus will pass by Toppers International Showbar on North Jackson Street and the squad, thinking the establishment was named in their honor, will insist upon stopping by . . . and they will never leave.

Seriously, my only worry about this game is that someone will be injured in the course of this glorified scrimmage. The Bulldogs will run a plain vanilla offense and use their superior size and speed to wear down the outmanned visiting team. Expect to see at least three Georgia quarterbacks in action in this laugher.

What Will Happen on Saturday

Exactly what you think will happen. This one will be over before the echo of the Lone Bugler's trumpet solo fades.

Go 'Dawgs!

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