by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

There’s some good barbecue in and around Bowling Green, Kentucky, home of the WKU Hilltoppers. A trip to the Smokey Pig, shown at left, or perhaps Jimmy D’s Bar-B-Que Self Storage (yes, you read it right, self-storage and ‘cue all in one place!) would be worth the visit if motoring north to Louisville, or perhaps south to Nashville, on I-65 through town.

For ‘cue aficionados, however, the one regional dish in these parts to which you must become accustomed is burgoo. It’s soup-like, sort of, and can often be eaten with a fork, a West Kentucky specialty originally brought from Wales (via Virginia, where its modern progeny is known as Brunswick stew), and is a veritable hunter’s potluck containing the varmint du jour. Which, in most cases, is mutton, smoky shreds of which lace each bowl, along with vegetables and an explosive dose of spice.

Speaking of mutton, it is probably the foremost meat in these parts of the country. Dark, full-flavored, with a tang that is different from pork or beef, mutton makes a fine BBQ base. “Off the pit” (sauceless) or regular mutton sopped with a natural gravy unique to these parts, or of course mutton ribs, make for a full meal.

On the barbecue trail west of Louisville, you’ll also find a unique open-pit culture, with its own vernacular. In some western parts of the state, “dip” means sauce, which comes hot or mild. And the wet stuff in these parts is often rich and red, with a definite citrus zest. Pork, of course, is another meat preferred in various parts of the state, which is also renown for several different types of pies, from the Derby pie (chocolate, walnuts, pecans) in the Louisville area, to the French coconut pies in the northwest part of the state, to the lemon icebox pies near and around Bowling Green.

We mention all of these regional foodstuffs because we are not sure how much longer they will be the featured attraction in this part of the Bluegrass State. That’s because the Western Kentucky football program, and dynamic HC Willie Taggart (left), are on the move.

The first indicators came a year ago, when the Hilltoppers, just a few years into their experience as a member of the Sun Belt and as an FBS entry, proved one of the surprise packages of the nation when closing the season with a rush, winning 7 of their last 8 games, unfortunate not to get a bowl invitation.

Meanwhile, Taggart is suddenly a hot coaching commodity, with good reason. Reportedly in the mix for openings at Kansas and Illinois after last season, Taggart is going to prove hard to keep in Bowling Green if the Tops continue to impress as they did a year ago.

(Speaking of impressing last season, ask many sports book patrons in Las Vegas who was their favorite team a year ago, and the shrewd among would likely vote for WKU, which covered the number in its last nine games of the 2011 campaign!)

Gridiron success, however, is nothing new to the Hilltoppers, who were often times a powerhouse at the lower-division levels, many of those as a member of the Ohio Valley Conference. The Tops crested in 2002 with an FCS national championship under coach Jack Harbaugh (father of NFL coaches John and Jim). On that staff in 2002 was current coach Taggart, who had been a decorated QB at WKU in the late ‘90s. The Harbaugh family connection subsequently landed Taggart a position on Jim Harbaugh’s Stanford staff, where Willie served as RB coach for three years, helping develop Toby Gerhart into the Doak Walker Award Winner and runner-up in the Heisman balloting in 2009.

Then, when WKU couldn’t carry any momentum into its ascension to the FBS ranks and the Sun Belt under HC David Elson, Taggart was called upon to rescue his alma mater’s program in 2010. Success didn’t come overnight, as the Tops won just two games in Taggart’s first campaign, but last fall’s breakthrough has put the region on notice.

And prospects are looking pretty good for 2012, with fifteen starters back in the fold, as WKU seeks its first-ever postseason bowl game as a member of the FBS. The Tops did play in two long-ago bowls, the last in 1963 when qualifying for the Tangerine Bowl, which in those days would invite lower-division sides. WKU’s opponent that year was none other than the Coast Guard Academy, which fell to the Tops by a 27-0 count.

(By the way, how many other programs can boast of having played Coast Guard in a past bowl game?)

Despite all of the returning starters, the concerns at WKU revolve around filling the shoes of graduated, do-everything RB Bobby Rainey (left), who emerged as one of the nation’s most-dangerous backfield threats a year ago and is spending this summer in the camp of the NFL Baltimore Ravens. Replacing an individual component worth 1695 yards rushing, another 361 yards receiving, and 17 TDs would be tough enough at an SEC football factory, much less one in the Sun Belt.

Taggart spent the month of March auditioning various candidates for the featured RB role and exited spring drills thinking it might take a three-headed monster at RB to replace the ultra-productive Rainey. Punishing 240-lb. jr. Keshawn Simpson, along with a fleet jr., ex-WR Antonio Andrews, and a waterbug, 171-lb. soph John Evans (right; who also ranked second nationally in kickoff returns last year at 32.2 yards per), each had limited carries a year ago and could end up sharing the role, although Taggart has hinted that he would like one back to emerge from the pack. A longshot to watch could be true frosh Anthony Wales, a three-star recruit who de-committed from Louisville on signing day and might be able to make it a four-man race to succeed Rainey.

Auditions figure to continue into fall camp, which will be monitored closely by Sun Belt insiders who know that the infantry component (which ranked 35th in national rush stats a year ago, mostly due to Rainey but still a very good number for a Belt team) is an essential one for Taggart’s verison of the West Coast, which correspondingly makes liberal use of play-action on pass plays.

The surrounding cast around the RBs looks pretty familiar, however, with eight starters back in the fold. Which includes 6'3 jr. QB Kawaun Jakes (left), still not quite beyond his skittery form as a frosh starter two years ago but who began to grow into his pilot role for the Tops’ West Coast schemes last fall. The question this fall to be answered by Jakes (whose numbers were not overwhelming a year ago, including 55% completions and only 10 TD passes vs. 11 picks) is how he deals with the absence of the threat Rainey provided.

Still, since the offensive show now apparently features Jakes, it's a bit unsettling to some WKU backers who note their team ranked just 102nd in national pass stats a year ago (167 ypg), and that was with the diversion that Rainey provided. Moreover, there is no experienced depth behind Jakes, on whose shoulders the progress of the 2012 strike force seems to rest.

At least Jakes will have a veteran forward wall providing protection, as four starters return along an experienced offensive line. Jakes also has a John Mackey Award candidate at tight end in 6'6, 251-lb. sr. Jack Doyle, who caught a team-best 52 passes last year. The other receiving targets are also familiar, but it’s worth noting that TE Doyle and Rainey led all WKU receivers last fall; no one else caught more than 14 passes. The wideouts are also pretty wispy; projected soph starters Willie McNeal and Boe Brand tip the scales at 164 and 158 pounds, respectively.

Senior WR Marcus Vasquez (right, in 2010 action vs. Kentucky), who caught 30 passes in 2010, missed most of 2011 with a torn ACL and then reinjured the same knee, requiring more surgery, in the offseason. After missing spring, he’s hopeful (but not guaranteed) to be ready for the fall.

What Taggart could also use is more consistency from his place-kickers; soph Jesse Roy hit only 2 of six FG tries and 17 of 20 PATs in 2011. There’s a possibility Taggart might ask jr. P Hendrix Brakefield, who has a NFL-like leg, to do double-duty at PK.

Taggart will also be assuming the duties of offensive coordinator this fall, as the only staff defection was o.c. Zach Azzanni, who moved to Wisconsin as the QB coach.

Fewer questions seem to exist with a defensive platoon that, along with Rainey, helped key the turnaround a year ago. After getting mostly trampled in preceding seasons and ranking 99th in scoring “D” (33.2 ppg) in 2010, the Tops’ stop unit numbers improved across the board last fall. When the dust settled, WKU ranked in the upper half nationally of scoring (24.8 ppg/55th) and total (373 ypg/53rd) defense last season, superb numbers for a Sun Belt rep.

Overall, the Tops return two starting defensive linemen, two starting linebackers, and three starting DBs, plus a host of others who made contributions to the platoon last fall.

WKU responded positively to first-year d.c. Lance Guidry’s new and more aggressive schemes a year ago. And though the Tops might miss the aggressive push that graduated DEs Jared Clendenin and Bo Adebayo provided last season, Belt sources report that lanky 6'5, 251-lb sr. Quanterus Smith (left), who recorded 7 sacks in a backup role LY, might be a better pass-rusher than either. Guidry has also moved soph LB T.J. Smith to a DE spot, looking to generate more pressure from the edge, and touted frosh DE Calvin Washington brings much athleticism to the mix.

The strength of the stop unit might lie with the LBs, in particular vicious hitting 6-1, 262-lb. MLB Andrew "Stonewall" Jackson (right), a Butkus award hopeful whose intensity is Mike Singletary-like and who led the Tops with 109 tackles last fall. The linebacking corps, which also features returning starter Xavius Boyd on the weak side, is big and physical, with all projected starters over 230 pounds.

As mentioned, three starters return in the secondary which loses only CB Derrius Brooks (a FA signee with the Cincinnati Bengals) from a year ago. There’s plenty of experienced within the DB corps which will be augmented this fall by Florida transfer Jonathan Dowling, who saw a bit of playing time for the Gators as a frosh and should emerge as a factor at safety before the season is finished.

Taggart will get his chance at some big boys in pre-Belt play, with Alabama, Kentucky, and Southern Miss on the schedule in back-to-back-to-back weeks after the opener vs. Austin Peay. If the Tops (who especially can’t wait for another shot at UK after hanging close into the 4th Q in last year’s 14-3 loss in the opener, played at Nashville) aren’t too beaten up afterward, they’ll be well-prepared for Sun Belt play. One possible negative is that games vs. the consensus three other top contenders in the Belt (Arkansas State, Florida International, and Louisiana) all come on the road.

Summary...WKU is a program on the upswing, and there is talk in the region that Conference USA might be targeting the Tops and Middle Tennessee as its next possible recruits. And, speaking of targeting, we expect some high-profile suitors to be very interested in HC Willie Taggart if WKU can overachieve once again this fall. Which might not be as easy for the Tops now that star RB Bobby Rainey has graduated, and the team unlikely to sneak up on anybody as it might have done a year ago. Not to mention that rugged non-conference gauntlet to be run in September that could leave WKU battered and bruised. Still, most Belt sources believe the defense will be stout, so the key will likely be the ability of QB Kawaun Jakes to take a more-featured role in the offense without RB Bobby Rainey as a potent diversion. If Jakes succeeds, the Tops could go “bowling” for the first time as an FBS member; if he doesn’t, WKU probably falls short.


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