Western Kentucky, which has made a point of playing two SEC teams per season, finally got over the hump by beating in-state rival Kentucky in 2012.
The Hilltoppers walked into Lexington and left with an overtime victory, something that would have been easier to regard as a fluke had another Sun Belt team—Louisiana-Monroe—not beaten No. 8 Arkansas a week earlier.
Maybe there's something to this.
In the time since the upset, Western Kentucky lost a good head coach in Willie Taggart, who accepted the same job at South Florida, but it perhaps brought in an even better one, adding disgraced football genius Bobby Petrino to the top of its coaching staff.
This year, Petrino and the Hilltoppers get Kentucky and Tennessee from the Southeastern Conference, two teams that are supposed to finish near the bottom of the league.
And even with a new quarterback under center, those two opportunities should be enough for WKU to pull out another win.
Petrino's Track Record Against SEC Teams
In his last three years at Arkansas, Petrino finished with a combined record of 29-10. He won 10-plus games in each of his final two seasons, playing in the Sugar and Cotton Bowls respectively.
During those final two years, Arkansas lost only four games against SEC teams. Here's who they were and how they finished that respective season:
|2010 Alabama||10-3||Capital One|
|2010 Auburn||14-0||BCS Championship|
|2011 Alabama||12-1||BCS Championship|
|2011 LSU||13-1||BCS Championship|
Other than those four teams, which combined to go 49-5 and make three trips to the BCS National Championship, Petrino skated through the Southeastern Conference. He owned every other challenge thrown his way those last two years, beating them not just with skill but with scheme.
That last part is doubly important.
Western Kentucky is, obviously, not Arkansas. He won't have the same personnel advantage (or at least lack-of-disadvantage) he enjoyed during his time in Fayetteville.
But that wasn't the only way Petrino beat the SEC.
For all his off-field failings—the judgement of which should remain subjective—it's impossible to deny Petrino's skill as a coach. He gets the most out of his players and composes meticulous game-plans for each opponent. He knows exactly how to beat SEC teams and owns a proven track record of doing so.
In college athletics, where coaching advantages are far more pronounced than in the pros, the importance of that cannot be overstated.
Football isn't basketball, where one or two players can compensate for their wanting teammates. It's a consummate team game where every cog in the machine plays a role.
But it never hurts to have the best players on the field, and despite going up against two SEC foes, Western Kentucky might well be able to boast that claim—on both sides of the ball.
Offensively, it has do-it-all running back Antonio Andrews, one of the most explosive players in all of college football. Last season he rushed for 1,728 yards and caught 432 more, finishing with 2,160 yards from scrimmage. That was good enough for third-most in the country and second-most among returning players, trailing just Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey.
Andrews also returned kicks and punts for the Hilltoppers, averaging 27 and 12 yards respectively, and adding another 1,001 yards to his season total. Special teams included, he gained over 3,100 yards for Western Kentucky last year.
On the other side of the ball, WKU has a linebacker who could play and start for (almost) any school in the country. Andrew Jackson—college football's own Old Hickory—finished 2012 with 122 tackles, his second consecutive year in triple digits.
He's added 33.5 tackles in his two years playing with the Hilltoppers and is considered a bona fide NFL prospect. ESPN draft analyst Kevin Weidl praised his instincts after watching last year's tape:
Started WKY LB Andrew Jackson. Instinctive vs run and packs a heavy punch. Played well on Bama tape. pic.twitter.com/X0kF6WBzbG— Kevin Weidl (@KevinW_ESPN) June 24, 2013
Two great players do not an upset make, but Andrews and Jackson can certainly come close. Especially against teams like Kentucky and Tennessee, which are notably devoid of their own superstars.
Speaking of which...
It's Playing Kentucky and Tennessee
Western Kentucky has played the SEC four times in the past two seasons, resulting in two 30-point losses, one close loss and one victory. The blowouts came against 2012 Alabama and 2011 LSU, two teams that made the BCS National Championship.
The win and the close loss both came against Kentucky.
The Hilltoppers success against their in-state rival came before even adding Petrino, one of the sport's best minds. They didn't even need his innovation to put Kentucky in its place last year.
Before this year's season opener, that track record has given them a new bit of confidence. Emboldened by last year's upset in Lexington, Jackson said the following of Kentucky:
Andrew Jackson on UK: "I don't care anything about them. We're going to handle them on Saturday"— WKU Herald Sports (@wkuheraldsports) August 28, 2013
Jackson on UK: "We just gonna hit 'em in the mouth and get it over with."— WKU Herald Sports (@wkuheraldsports) August 28, 2013
Most Sun Belt teams stand no chance against an SEC foe, but this isn't most Sun Belt teams. It's been through the fire and, last year, emerged without a burn. It knows exactly what to expect from the Wildcats and exactly how to handle it.
Tennessee, for what it's worth, might not be much better. At least not in 2013. Butch Jones has done a terrific job on the recruiting trail since taking the job in Knoxville, but this year's roster is barren in important places.
Will Western Kentucky Beat an SEC Team This Season?
The offensive line is elite, but the skill positions leave a lot to be desired.
Even Justin Worley isn't excited about the choice of Justin Worley at quarterback. That's how banal the offense looked under his brief command in 2012—and that was back when NFL receivers Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson were lining up on the outside.
This year it has true freshman Marquez North and little to speak of after him.
The Hilltoppers' best chance of beating an SEC team still remains Kentucky. But if they should blow their game against the Wildcats, it's not like Tennessee is beyond reproach.
It's not like they're playing Alabama again.