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September 7, 2012

Hilltoppers' coach knows about upsets

You don't have to tell Willie Taggart about upsets. He was part of one of the biggest upsets in college football five years ago, when 41-point underdog Stanford upended Southern Cal in Los Angeles to break the Trojans' 35-game winning streak.

Taggart was running backs coach for Stanford at the time. Now, as head coach at Western Kentucky, he will try to engineer another upset Saturday when the Hilltoppers visit No. 1 Alabama. Oddsmakers have installed UA as a 40-point favorite.

Stanford, which had won just one game the season before, stunned Southern Cal, 24-23, in 2007. Taggart learned from the experience, and has tried to pass that wisdom on to his team this week.

"I think more than anything, you can't buy into all the things you hear on TV and you hear everybody talk about, because a lot of the folks that talk about it really haven't watched a lot of film or are just going off on what other folks are saying," he said. "The game is played on the field, not on paper, and I think a lot of the time teams lose before they even go into the game because they buy into all that.

"We talk about it, we talk about it every year. I don't think I have to talk about it as much now because our guys are not intimidated anymore."

Western Kentucky marched into LSU last season when the Tigers were ranked No. 1 in the nation, a week after LSU had defeated Alabama in Tuscaloosa. The 'Toppers were tied 7-all with LSU after one period and trailed 14-7 at the half before losing 42-9.

"I think the way our guys competed in the first half against LSU kind of gave them some confidence that they can play with the big boys," Taggart said, "and ever since I've been here we play these schools each year and we've been getting better."

In truth, Taggert would rather not have played that LSU game or this weekend's game at Alabama. When he took over as head coach three seasons ago, he had the school explore the possibility of getting out of those contracts to give him more time to build the program before taking on such juggernauts.

"We tried to work them and didn't get them worked out," the coach said.

Taggart has studied the film. He believes Alabama is on a tier above college football.

"They look like an NFL team just playing college competition," he said. "That's what they are. They're huge up front on both sides of the ball, they run really well, and more importantly they're coached really well, guys always where they're supposed to be. You look at them on defense and they do a great job of communicating to make sure everybody does what they're supposed to do, and on offense they play physical, big-boy football and get after you.

"Everybody jokes about, 'Coach says they're the next expansion team,' well, they're really close to being another NFL team. These guys are really, really good, really, really big and really, really strong. … Alabama had five or six guys go to the NFL last year on defense, and it doesn't even look like it when you see the film from (last) Saturday. It looks like those same guys are there just with different numbers."

Alabama coach Nick Saban has also taken a close look at Western Kentucky, and is impressed. The Hilltoppers have won eight of their last nine games, dating back to last season after an 0-4 start, with the LSU game being their only defeat in that span.

"Willie Taggart has done a really good job there in the three seasons that he's been there," Saban said. "This is a very challenging game for us. We are certainly looking forward to the challenges we have. .. We certainly have a lot of respect for our opponent."

The 36-year-old Taggart was a standout player at Western Kentucky - his jersey is retired there - so maybe he saw something in the program that others didn't see when he was offered the job. The 'Toppers were in the midst of a 26-game losing streak at the time he took over, and he won just two of his first 14 games before last season's turnaround after the 0-4 start. He believes there are better things yet ahead, especially with recent facility upgrades.

"We're in a nice area where we can recruit Tennessee, we can recruit Ohio, we can recruit Georgia, we can recruit Alabama, we can recruit Florida - and it's been working for us," he said. "We've just got to get out and work. I think that's the bottom line."



Reach Tommy Deas at tommy@tidesports.com or at 205-722-0224.


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