What a difference a couple of weeks can make - and the season hasn't even started. Just two weeks before the season kicks off, West Texas A&M fired Don Carthel, the winningest coach in school history, both in number of wins and winning percentage. We're not going into the details of the dismissal, but you can read about it here, here, and here if you haven't been following it closely. The big question is what effect it will have on a team that lost seven All-LSC performers, including 4 first team selections.
Our guess is that the return of 18 All-LSC honorees (5 first teamers) and the naming of Mike Nesbitt to the interim head coach position will not result in a catastrophic drop-off.
2012 Recap - The deep run in the playoffs almost didn't happen. Just 10 minutes into the first round game at Chadron State found WT down 14-0 after allowing two long scoring drives. It had the appearance of another strong regular season and a quick playoff exit. But the Buffs didn't fold, coming back to win not only that game, but crafting another come from behind win at #4 Ashland the following week, and repaying #1 Colorado State-Pueblo for an opening game loss. The magic ran out in the national semifinals at Winston-Salem, as the Rams handled WT handily 41-18. With the run to the semi's, WT became the first LSC to advance that far since Texas A&M-Kingsville did it in back to back years in 2002 and 2003.
Along the way, WT led the LSC in offensive yards (462.5) and were second in scoring (38.6). They rushed for a surprising 142.9 yards per game and threw for an expected 332. The defense did its job, allowing ust 22.1 points and 350 yards per game, both good for second in the LSC. Individually, Khiry Robinson set a team record with 1,621 yards rushing, while Dustin Vaughan threw for 4,712 (3rd all time) and 45 TDs (2nd), and Torrence Allen had 1,430 receiving yards (3rd). Not to be outdone by the offense, Ethan Westbrooks set a new mark for sacks (19.5) as did Taylor McCuller for tackles (164).
Who's Back - Let's start with QB Dustin Vaughan. With 1,675 yards and 22 TDs, he will become WT's career leader in both categories (1,876 yards will get him to 10,000 for his career). If you want to shoot even bigger, he needs 3,985 yards and 44 TDs to remove ACU's Mitchell Gale and Billy Malone from the top of those lists. Torrence Allen, Nathan Slaughter, Jarrian Rhone and Trevor Hammargren combined to catch 247 passes for 3,201 yards and 29 TDs. Up front, just two starters (Craig Watts and Patrick Ward) are back. Defensively, All-American Ethan Westbrooks is back up front and is rejoined by Shane Pennix, David Christmas and Jacob Laguna. At linebacker, Taylor McCuller and Kyle Voss combined for 283 tackles, 32 for losses and 7.5 sacks. Bryan Johnson and LaBrandon Mosley saw plenty of time as well. In the secondary, Curtis Slater, Torian Oakley, John McSheffery, Chris Ceazer and Dwight Morrison had a combined 248 tackles and 7 interceptions. Kevin VanVoris (40.7 per punt, 64 touchbacks on kickoffs) and Sergio Castillo (20-23 on FGs, 129 points) cannot be overlooked on special teams either.
Who's New - While not the wholesale influx of transfers of recent years, there are still several new faces ready to contribute. As if they needed more WRs, Anthony Johnson joins the team from Northern Illinois. RB Jamison Sterns looks to try and fill some of the rushing load. Up front Marcus Clements, Terry Banks and Arthur among new faces adding depth to the line. The defensive line got an injection of new talent as well. Heading into the opening game, Alex Tucci is listed as a starter, while John Sheehy and Meili Valele are currently #2 on the depth chart. Kedrick Dial, who originally signed with Baylor is also on the roster. Alabama transfer Jonathan Atchison is listed as the backup to Voss.
2013 Outlook - The Buffs return so much from last year, that is hard to see them not having another stellar season. They have the best players in the LSC on both sides of the ball, and experienced supporting casts around them. That being said, if the preseason off-the-field drama and NCAA investigation prove distracting, there could be a dropoff. Best case scenario - the teams is able to maintain focus, stay healthy and are able to replicate last years running success, there is no reason to believe they cannot run the table during the regular season and make another run at the national title - 11-0 and home for all playoff games. Worst case scenario - the off-the-field issues take away the team's focus, the offensive line doesn't gel, the run game doesn't materialize, and the team's most important player (Vaughan) goes down with an injury. The team looks much more mortal then, but should still win 8 games. Prediction - There is just too much talent to see them stumble in the regular season. The season ending game at Midwestern State could be scheduling gold. 11-0 and another deep run in the postseason.