Aulbach: Expectations for WKU were too high from the get-go

Western Kentucky University coach Bobby Petrino reacts after losing a challenge to maintain possession with less than two minutes left in the game. Western would go on to lose 32-26 at home on Saturday, October 26, 2013. 

Lucas Aulbach

There’s a reason Sun Belt Conference coaches predicted WKU would finish No. 4 in the conference while people around Bowling Green spent the summer talking about an undefeated season.

One hire wasn’t going to take a 7-5 Topper team from 2012 to a BCS bowl in 2013. Despite the big name leading the program, this is a team that still has some serious issues.

Like last year, the Toppers have struggled in close games and like last year, WKU has been prone to giving the game away in the second half. While the new practice routines and preparation techniques brought by coach Bobby Petrino have proven effective with his teams in the past, history shows his guys have often struggled in their first year under the new coach.

After replacing departed coach John L. Smith at Louisville in 2003, Petrino led the Cardinals to a 9-4 record in his first year at the school that ended in a loss to Ben Roethlisberger and Miami of Ohio in the GMAC Bowl. That was a solid year for the Conference USA team, but nowhere close to the heights Petrino and Jeff Brohm, Louisville’s quarterbacks coach at the time and current WKU offensive coordinator, would achieve in their later years with the Cardinals.

On the flip-side, his first season at Arkansas made a GMAC Bowl berth look like a great year. The Razorbacks went 5-7 that season, with losses to Kentucky and Mississippi.

The best times under Petrino have traditionally come later in his tenure — remember, he brought an entirely new coaching staff and playbook with him just 10 months ago — so to assume the notion that a new coach would come into WKU and change a program around in one year is proving to be a mistake.

The coach admitted that the “newness” of the system has affected his team through eight games.

“There is always an adjustment to the schemes and the newness,” Petrino said on Monday. “We are not experienced in what we are doing. When you look at the last two teams we played (Louisiana-Lafayette and Troy), they were very experienced in what they were doing. They had quarterbacks experienced in how they ran their offense and how they execute it.”

Four losses hasn’t totally killed this teams’ bowl hopes. The Toppers are entering what should be one of the easiest stretches on their schedule, with a bout with Georgia State, possibly the worst team in the FBS, up next followed by winnable games against Army and Texas State before Senior Day against a solid Arkansas State team.

WKU has things bowl committees look for — a big-name coach and entertaining players like Antonio Andrews and Xavius Boyd. It would probably take winning all three Sun Belt games, but the Toppers could still end up competing in December if they play their cards right.

If they do find their team in the postseason, though, hopefully Topper fans can temper their expectations enough to enjoy the game. This is a program that is set to have a bright future, but a national contender isn’t born overnight.