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An Extremely Early Look at Western Kentucky

The 2007 football season was originally drawn up with the UCF Golden Knights, a team that the Gators trounced 42-0 last season, as the first opponent to travel to Gainesville.  The Knights, however, made different plans to begin their season, scheduling a home and home with NC State and backing out of the September 1st contest in the The Swamp.  This left the University of Florida scurrying to find an opening game opponent, a spot normally reserved for a team that is an easy one to beat (hey, no denying it).

Enter the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers, a team that the Gators have never faced before on the football field (You may remember WKU from when the Gators hoopsters wiped the floor with them, 101-68 in Las Vegas).  While it seemed relatively quick and without any glaring difficulties, we as fans still were left scratching our heads on the addition of the Hilltoppers to the '07 slate. Why?  Well because they are a member of the Gateway Football Conference, which happens to be a member of the Division 1 Football Championship Subdivision (FCS); Otherwise known as Division 1-AA.  While the Hilltoppers are set to begin play in Division 1 starting in 2009, they will still have the distinction of being a lower-tier team on the Gators' schedule in 2007.

You may also remember seeing this strange looking red blob-like thing.

Last season the Gators took on the Western Carolina Catamounts, defeating them 62-0 in a game that created several forms of ridicule directed towards Florida's scheduling of a Division 1-AA opponent.  And it wasn't only the fact that the Catamounts were a D1-AA squad; They were a bad one, which created even more justification for ribbing on a top-tier school that decided to play them in a regular season affair.  While the Hilltoppers have had some good fortunes at the D-1AA level (they won the national championship in 2002), I still fear that we will hear a few snide remarks once again in 2007.

No relation to the Twins' homer-hankies.

The 2006 Season

Western Kentucky is coming off of a season in which they went 6-5, including a 4-3 mark in-conference.  The season didn't include a playoff appearance for the Hilltoppers, their second straight season without a postseason game after participating in at least one every year from 2000 to 2004.

One of the Hilltoppers' losses last year came at the hands of the Georgia Bulldogs, 48-12 in Athens. The loss to begin the 2006 season pushed their record to a combined 0-8 against SEC teams, including three losses to Vanderbilt and two losses to both Auburn and Ole Miss in their history. Against teams from the state of Florida the Hilltoppers come in at 13-7, including a bruising record against the University of Tampa (4-0) and, curiously, the University of Miami (2-0, with the two meetings coming in the back-to-back seasons of 1930 and 1931).  Both wins over "The U" came in shutouts, with the Hilltoppers outscoring the 'Canes by a combined 39-0 in the two contests.

The 2006 season saw the Hilltoppers offense come in sixth out of eight Gateway Conference teams in scoring offense at 23.5 points per game.  They also came in sixth in the conference in terms of yards per game at 364.7, with a majority of those yards coming by way of the air attack; They threw for 204 yards a game while completing 62 percent of their passes on the season.  Their rusing attack placed six in the conference at just over 160 yards per game on the ground.

On defense the Hilltoppers placed best in-conference in terms of yards allowed per game at 324, thanks to a stubborn pass defense that only allowed just over 153 yards per game.  The rush defense placed fifth in the conference at 171 yards per game.

Overall the 2006 Hilltoppers ranked 26th nationally in total offense, while coming in at 48th in terms of total defense on the season.

Players to Watch

The Hilltoppers lost their starting quarterback, Justin Haddix, to graduation this season.  Haddix threw for 2,186 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2006, starting all 11 games.  The only returning quarterback with game experience from last season is Brandon Smith, who only threw five passes; The good news is he completed four of them, one for a touchdown.

Though the quarterback position may look a bit bare from the standpoint of game experience, the Hilltoppers do have a few other options for head signal-caller next season; First off, a transfer from Notre Dame by the name of David Wolke, a Junior who saw limited action in South Bend over his first two seasons in college, went 10-18 for 71 yards in the Red and White game. Coming in as one more option to start at quarterback in 2007 will be KJ Black, another quarterback who made a pretty good contribution this spring for WKU.  The above mentioned Smith has not had the same amount of discussion surrounding him as a possible starter.

The main playmaker returning to the Hilltoppers in 2007 will be wide receiver Curtis Hamilton, who caught 52 balls last season for 841 yards -- the most on the team in both categories, by a lot.  He also caught ten touchdowns last season, the best on the team by eight.  With the Gators trotting out an unexperienced, unproven secondary in the first week of the season, Hamilton could be looking to have a huge game in front of the capacity crowd in Gainesville.

That Hamilton guy is no joke. (WKU Sports)

The Hilltoppers return three of their top five tacklers from 2006:  Andre Lewis, Dusty Bear and LJ Harbison.  The three combined for 153 tackles six sacks last season.

Way Too Early to Predict, But I'll Do It Anyways

The Gators usually come into these games with lofty expectations, and due to those sometimes unreachable predictions we are left disappointed.  This season the defense will be sending out roughly nine new starters, including three in the secondary, against a team that is returning its top three receivers from 2006.  Western Kentucky may make a few big plays here and there, leading to a collective pulling of the hair by our fans.

Following the 1996 championship the Gators opened up against Southern Miss in a game that I'll proudly proclaim I attended.  In that game we got our first look at Doug Johnson as the Gators starting QB, following in the shadow of Danny Wuerffel.  While Tim Tebow is in a similar situation to Johnson, replacing a quarterback who won a national championship a year prior, I think we will be a little more content with Tebow's production in the season opener.  If I recall correctly, I heard a few boos coming from the Orange and Blue faithful in the Swamp that day.

No worries, though.  Tebow and the explosive offense should be able to run circles around the Hilltoppers' defensive unit on the way to a pretty big blowout.  This should be a 30-40 point win, with us getting a sneak preview of what's to come from some of our new impact players and incoming freshmen.

Stay tuned for more extremely early looks at our 2007 opponents...

Go Gators!