Welcome to game week.
There were a few questions facing the Western Kentucky football team during the off season and a handful of others have popped up since the team began fall camp a month ago. In a few days and in front of a national audience, many of the answers to those questions will be answered.
Here's a look at some of the top storylines as the Hilltoppers prepare for their season-opener at Vanderbilt on Thursday night.
1. How much will the defense improve?
It can't get any worse right? While there were signs of improvement as the season progressed, the 2014 Hilltoppers finished as one of the nation's worst at keeping opposing offenses off the field. WKU finished 120th in total defense, allowing 509 yards per outing. Teams scored an average of 40 points, placing WKU at No. 121 in scoring defense. Rush defense and pass defense both ranked near the bottom. There were a number of contributors for the poor defensive showing last fall, with lack of appropriate size and depth among them. The WKU staff and players made increasing the overall size and depth during the off season and it should play significant dividends for defensive coordinator Nick Holt in 2015.
Should the Toppers defense improve enough to cut last seasons ratings in half – which is quite possible – it could result in another special season on The Hill.
2. What impact will the injuries along the offensive line have?
With injuries to both Matt Nord (broken foot) and Joe Manley, WKU offensive line coach Neil Callaway is being forced to make some unwanted adjustments as the team enters game week preparations. Darrell Williams was already on the move due to Nord's injury, so the reserves are going to be counted on for much more than originally anticipated. How the line responds, from timing to protection, will be answered on Thursday night in Nashville.
3. Who will emerge as the second running back?
Head coach Jeff Brohm and offensive coordinator Tyson Helton have both stressed the need to develop more of a threat with a second running back this season. Senior Leon Allen rushed for over 1,500 yards last season and is poised for another big year on The Hill, but a second threat will provide greater depth and even more big-play opportunities.
Anthony Wales appeared in 11 games last season, rushing for 518 yards and five touchdowns is the leading candidate, but he enters game week a bit banged up. Redshirt freshman D'Andre Ferby, a Nashville native, is likely to become a frequent contributor this season
4. How will the team perform in the role of a favorite?
WKU has a history of being a favorite on the football field. The Hilltoppers were frequent guests in the national polls throughout the program's time as an FCS member, but they've never entered a season in that position since moving up to the FBS level.
As a new member of Conference USA last season, WKU was a relative unknown to nearly all in the league. Following an exciting initial year in the league, highlighted by the regular season ending win at Marshall and the Bahama's Bowl victory, the Hilltoppers were selected as the favorite to win the C-USA East Division. Playing as a favorite in an FBS league is a new role for this program, but with a significant percentage of the 2014 roster returning, the focus should remain properly in check.
5. What will the win/loss record be following a challenging first three games to open the season?
Should I trust my Magic 8 Ball? If so, no worries. Each time I shake it and ask, will WKU win against any of the season's first three opponents, I get the response, “outlook is good.” So, sounds as if the Hilltoppers will remain perfect following the challenging slate of a visit at Vanderbilt to open the season, a home-opener against C-USA West Division favorite Louisiana Tech, followed by a road trip to face the high-scoring offense at Indiana. If that's the case, look for WKU to be knocking on the door of the Top 25 as it prepares to host Miami of Ohio on Sept. 26.