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By Alex Forkner | Football Columnist
Coaching: New face vs. different place
UK has a new face on the sideline and will matchup with a familiar one on the opposite side, albeit wearing a different brand of red than the Cats have seen before.
Mark Stoops is a first-time head coach with a highly regarded pedigree as an assistant. He’s assembled a well-respected, young staff that is bringing new energy to UK football.
Bobby Petrino has a track record of success at every stop (well, in college anyway). He’s been relegated to a mid-major job like Western Kentucky University only because of personal folly and poor motorcycle driving.
As head coach against UK, Petrino is 4-1. The four wins came while Petrino coached the University of Louisville, and included some fierce beatdowns: 28-0 in 2004 and 59-28 in 2006. The lone loss came in Petrino’s first year at Arkansas, when some freshman named Randall Cobb caught two late touchdown passes to give the Cats a 21-20 win in Lexington.
Both men will have a lot on the line Saturday night. Stoops will be aiming to make a good first impression, and Petrino to take advantage of his second chance.
Petrino reportedly expressed interest in filling UK’s coaching vacancy before Stoops got the job, so he might be extra motivated to claim a victory, just to show the folks in the athletic department what they’re missing.
But I think Stoops has more to lose in this one, and is thus more motivated. Beating Petrino and the Hilltoppers will go a long way in sustaining the momentum the program has gained this offseason. I doubt many expect WKU to take off right away under Petrino. Plus, losing to Western didn’t work so well for the last guy to coach the Cats.
Stoops knows the importance of this game and will rally his troops accordingly.
Roster: UK’s youth vs. WKU’s experience
The Hilltoppers return a load of experience. Thirty-three upperclassmen appear on WKU’s two-deep depth chart. UK, conversely, lists 23 underclassmen in the top two at each position.
A good portion of this Hilltopper team knows success, winning 14 games in the last two years. One of those wins came over UK last season, so it’s safe to say Western has no fear of stepping on the field with an SEC team — though WKU middle linebacker Andrew Jackson might question the Cats’ right to boast that claim.
And don’t count on a huge talent disparity favoring UK. Western fields a number of three-star talents and even a few four-star players, according to Rivals’ rankings.
UK’s win total the last two seasons? Seven. The Hilltoppers know what it takes to win games, a lesson the Cats are trying to relearn. Even though some young UK players, especially on defense, saw a lot of action last season, they’re not near as battle-tested as the boys from Bowling Green.
Overall Edge: Expect a pretty even battle in Music City, with UK prevailing by a scant margin. Both offenses will probably need to work out some kinks in their new systems, so points will probably be at a premium. The Cats score just enough to leave LP Field victorious, avenging last year’s overtime loss and starting the Mark Stoops era off on a positive note.
Prediction: UK 21, WKU 20