Saturday start of a new season for WKU

Junior Antonio Andrews carries the ball down the sideline during the first half of Saturday’s game against Southern Miss at Smith Stadium. The Toppers led 21-3 at the end of the half.

Lucas Aulbach

The Toppers have jumped out to a 3-1 start to the season for the first time since 2007.

But as the Toppers prepare for their first Sun Belt Conference competition this weekend, coach Willie Taggart likened WKU’s first four non-conference games to a preseason.

WKU’s first Sun Belt stop is this Saturday in Jonesboro, Ark., where they’ll face defending conference champion Arkansas State (6 p.m., ESPN3).

“It’s a new season,” Taggart said. “We want a Sun Belt Championship and we’ve got to play our best. They’re the defending champs and in order to be the champs, you’ve got to beat the champs.”

On Saturday, WKU looked like a team that could challenge Arkansas State for the league title.

The Toppers rushed for 369 yards in a 42-17 demolition of Southern Mississippi on Saturday. The game was seen by a Smith Stadium-record 23,252 fans.

But with the non-conference slate over, WKU will now face the last team not ranked No. 1 in the nation to beat WKU. Other than then-No. 1 LSU last year and current No. 1 Alabama on Sept. 8, Arkansas State is the last team to beat the Toppers.

Senior defensive tackle Rammell Lewis said players aren’t looking at Saturday’s game “as a revenge game.”

“We know what we need to do as a team and we know what we need to get to where we want to get, and that’s a Sun Belt championship and a bowl game,” Lewis said on Monday. “We’re not going to run around here talking about, ‘we’ve got to get payback for last year,’ because last year is over with. It’s all about this year.”

Arkansas State features senior quarterback Ryan Aplin, the Preseason Sun Belt Player of the Year.

He holds Arkansas State records for career completions and ranks in the top five at the school in passing yards, passing touchdowns and rushing touchdowns.

“He’s an athlete, he’s a quarterback, he’s a leader,” Lewis said of Aplin. “He knows how to play that system really well and he’s going to put his team in the best position to try and beat us.”

The Red Wolves also field a formidable defense. They have nine upperclassmen starting, including all of their linemen and linebackers.

Junior center Sean Conway said the Topper offensive line, which helped WKU rush for 369 yards against Southern Mississippi, will have their hands full this weekend.

“They’re a veteran defense,” he said. “Their front seven, they run the ball well, they’re strong and they’ve played a lot of football games together.”

Arkansas State is a solid football team from top to bottom, Taggart said.

“They’re a really challenging football team with a  fantastic quarterback and some really good, skilled guys and it’s going to be a challenge,” he said.