BOWLING GREEN, Ky. – Bobby Petrino has had success as a coach and expects to win in his first season at Western Kentucky.
Coming off their first bowl game, Hilltoppers players are just as eager to get to the next level with a coach very familiar with the postseason.
Petrino, 75-26 in eight seasons with a 4-3 bowl record, is back on the sideline after a one-year absence following his dismissal by Arkansas for misleading officials about an off-field incident. He believes he has found the perfect place to restart at WKU, which went 7-6 and played in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.
The Hilltoppers view Petrino as the right coach to move forward with after he took Louisville and Arkansas to BCS bowl games.
"The bowl game was a big step for the program, but with the team we had, we shouldn't have lost" 24-21 to Central Michigan, junior defensive back Jonathan Dowling said.
"There's unfinished business because we didn't win the conference and were only like, third or fourth. We're not a third- or fourth-place team, so we've got a lot of work to do. We've got the right coach."
From his December introduction as Willie Taggart's successor to summer appearances around the state, Petrino, 52, has made it known that his objective is winning conference championships and bowl games. He won two league titles and the Orange Bowl with Louisville, going on to add a Cotton Bowl victory in his final season with the Razorbacks two years ago.
Petrino's Arkansas tenure ended in April for a "pattern of misleading behavior" following a motorcycle accident that injured him and eventually revealed that his mistress was a passenger.
As the offensive-minded Petrino starts over and carefully tries to make an imprint at WKU, he also believes the Hilltoppers are capable of competing for the Sun Belt Conference title in their final season as a member before heading to Conference USA. They're picked to finish fourth in the preseason poll.
WKU's offense returns NCAA all-purpose yardage leader Antonio Andrews, while Dowling, fellow DB Kiante Young and linebacker Andrew Jackson (122 tackles) lead a veteran defense.
The Hilltoppers' first two contests are against are Southeastern Conference members Kentucky and Tennessee, challenges that Petrino hopes will prepare his squad for Sun Belt opponents. Right now, he's focusing on getting through what he calls a work in progress.
"You just focus what we have to do right now to get our program where we want it," Petrino said. "We haven't faced a lot of adversity yet, but as the season goes on you face a lot of different adversity and we just have to build the attitudes and the commitment from our players to be able to handle it."
Here are five things to watch in the Hilltoppers' first season under Petrino:
1. BOBBY BEHAVIOR: Petrino is grateful to WKU for giving him a second chance less than eight months after the embarrassing incident at Arkansas, and he has been contrite talking with the media and the public. With the spotlight firmly on him and his hiring still being scrutinized, expect the coach to generate all of his headlines on the field.
2. THE SIGNAL-CALLER: Junior Brandon Doughty impressed coaches this spring with his quick grasp of the spread offense and seems to be the favorite for the job he held before tearing his ACL early in 2011. Doughty's being pushed by redshirt freshman Damarcus Smith, a highly recruited Louisville native who transferred from Central Florida.
3. TOUCHES FOR ANTONIO: Only 1988 Heisman Trophy winner Barry Sanders had more all-purpose yards in a season than senior running back Antonio Andrews' school-record 3,161 last year, including 1,728 rushing. His versatility adds another passing option but he's obviously most effective running the ball. Petrino promises to get Andrews as many carries as possible, and after touching the ball 378 times last season, he's definitely able to handle the workload.
4. PUTTING ON A GOOD FRONT: The Hilltoppers return seven starters from the Sun Belt's best defense (346.6 yards per game) with most of their experience at linebacker and in the secondary. But they must develop a new front four and hope they remain the league's stingiest against the run (136.8).
5. OPENING STATEMENT: Petrino's impressive record includes an 8-0 mark in season openers. That number will be tested on Aug. 31 when the Hilltoppers begin with a neutral-site game in Nashville against Kentucky — a team Petrino beat four times with Louisville, including his first career game as a head coach.
Predicted finish in the Sun Belt: Fourth.
AP college football site: http://collegefootball.ap.org/