FACTS & STATS: Site: LP Field (69,143) -- Nashville, Tennessee. Television: ESPN News. Home Record: UK 0-0, WKU 0-0. Away Record: UK 0-0, WKU 0-0. Neutral Record: UK 0-0, WKU 0-0. Conference Record: UK 0-0, WKU 0-0. Series Record: Kentucky leads, 3-1.
GAME NOTES: Bluegrass State rivals travel to Nashville, Tennessee for a neutral-site opener to the 2013 season, as the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers and the Kentucky Wildcats square off at LP Field.
In an SEC that is generally strong from top to bottom, Kentucky was one of the few pushovers in 2012, finishing a mere 2-10 overall while going winless in eight league contests.
After UK qualified for the Compass Bowl in 2010, the team had declined under Joke Phillips, who was fired at the end of last season. Supplanting Phillips in 2013 will be first-time head coach Mark Stoops, who has been an assistant in recent years at programs such as Florida State, Arizona and Miami-Florida.
Western Kentucky's 2012 campaign got of to an outstanding start, with its only loss in the first six weeks coming against eventual-national champion Alabama (35-0), but it went on to drop four of its next five before winning the regular-season finale at home versus North Texas (25-24). Despite the up-and- down season, the team finished 7-5 overall (4-4 in the Sun Belt) and qualified for its first bowl game since 1963, and its first as a member of the FBS. It went on to lose the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl to Central Michigan, 24-21.
Willie Taggart, who made huge strides with the program in just three seasons, departed his post to accept the head coaching position at South Florida. WKU opted for a high-profile option to replace Taggart, with Bobby Petrino coming on board. Although Petrino is attempting to repair his tainted image, his coaching resume' in eight years with Louisville and Arkansas is fantastic (75-26, 4-3 in bowl games).
UK won the first three matchups in the all-time series with WKU in 2008, 2010 and 2011 before the Hilltoppers took down the Wildcats in Lexington on Sept. 15 last season, 32-31, in overtime, winning the game in the extra session following a successful two-point conversion.
Kentucky's offense put up the fewest points in the SEC a season ago, scoring just 17.9 ppg on 315.0 ypg. Stoops brought in former Texas Tech offensive coordinator Neal Brown to run the unit with the hopes of implementing a similar run-and-gun style that the Red Raiders employ.
The new regime is still assessing the situation under center, with Jalen Whitlow and Maxwell Smith, both sophomores, expected to split time to start the year. Smith (.687 completion percentage, 975 yards, eight TDs, four INTs) was slightly more impressive than Whitlow (.540, 801 yards, three TDs, two INTs) in 2012.
No returning receiver had more than 300 yards a season ago. Demarco Robinson will act as the No. 1 wideout and an increased number of targets should allow him to improve upon a lackluster 2012 campaign (28 rec, 297 yards).
Raymond Sanders made the most of his 125 carries a year ago, rushing for 669 yards and five touchdowns. Jonathan George (504 yards, four TDs) will also see plenty of action in the backfield this fall.
Not surprisingly, the Wildcats' defense was also one of the worst in the SEC in 2012, allowing foes to score 31.0 ppg and gain 391.0 ypg while forcing just 13 turnovers in 12 games, but the return of seven starters should help the unit this time around.
The three top tacklers from last season -- Avery Williamson (135 tackles), Alvin Dupree (91) and Miles Simpson (70) -- return to the front seven. Dupree is a quality playmaker behind the line of scrimmage as well, adding 12.5 TFL and 6.5 sacks, both team-highs.
Donte Rumph (six TFL, four sacks) provides a solid interior presence, and Ashely Lowery (43 tackles, one pick) will start at safety once again.
Western Kentucky ranked in the middle of the pack in the Sun Belt last season both in terms of scoring (28.8 ppg) and yardage (391.8 ypg), but Petrino brings with him his proven high-octane offense that is sure to result in even loftier numbers, especially considering the team's star running back returns.
Antonio Andrews is one of the top playmakers in all of college football. As a rusher in 2012, he was a workhorse, carrying the ball 304 times for 1,728 yards and 11 touchdowns, but when adding his receiving and return totals, he put up one of the best seasons in NCAA history. His 3,161 all-purpose yards being the second-most all-time behind only Barry Sanders (1988).
While things are set at running back, the situation is much less clear under center. With the departure of Kawaun Jakes (2,488 yards, 22 TDs, 11 INTs), Brandon Doughty will take over as the starter. The junior was just 14-of-25 with zero TDs and a pick during his first two seasons.
Doughty is fortunate to have wideout Willie McNeal at his disposal, who caught 43 balls for 556 yards and six touchdowns a year ago.
One of the Hilltoppers' biggest strengths in 2012 was the play of the defense, as the unit ranked in the top-two in the Sun Belt in both points per game (25.6) and yards per game allowed (345.3 ypg), and several key components are back in place.
Andrew Jackson is one of the top linebackers in the country, and he put together an outstanding 2012 season (122 tackles, 17.5 TFL, four FF). He has a lot to live up to this fall, as he was recently named the Preseason SBC Defensive Player of the Year.
Jonathan Dowling is another veteran member of the defense. In addition to racking up 68 tackles from his safety position, Dowling was integral in the turnover battle with six interceptions and two forced fumbles.
WKU recorded 32 sacks last season, but all four starters on the front line have moved on, including standout Quanterus Smith (18.5 TFL, 12.5 sacks).
The Wildcats have turned over a new leaf in terms of leadership, and in time, Stoops should be able to bring the program back to respectability, but for now, they're simply not talented enough to take that step. After defeating UK on the road last season, the Hilltoppers will have the confidence to capture this neutral-field clash behind a big performance from Andrews.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Western Kentucky 34, Kentucky 27
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