No. 1: The Western Kentucky Hilltoppers
My final selection shouldn’t come as a surprise to any of “Website-formerly-known-as-Twitter” followers. I am, unapologetically, an enthusiast for the Air Raid offense. I became obsessed with the philosophy during Mike Leach’s time in Starkville, and I’m sad that we won’t see the Pirate’s unfiltered version of the offense anymore at MSU.
And, unfortunately, we won’t see anyone running that version of the Air Raid going forward. Leach was the last one holding on to the offense’s purest form. But, his disciples are still all over the sport, taking the offense he perfected and modifying it for the modern day.
And Bowling Green, Kentucky has turned into a bit of an Air Raid factory over the last few years. Western Kentucky has a history of high-flying offenses. Under Jeff Brohm, QBs Brandon Doughty and Mike White put together massive seasons through the air in a “pro-spread” attack.
In 2021, HC Tyson Helton hired a little-known OC from FCS Houston Baptist University (now Houston Christian University) named Zach Kittley. Kittley, a Lubbock, TX native, had grown up with a front row seat to Mike Leach’s aerial assaults at Texas Tech. He got his start in coaching serving as a student assistant and GA under former Leach QBs Kliff Kingsbury and Sonny Cumbie at Tech, getting firsthand experience in running the Air Raid.
Kittley took over as OC at HCU in 2018, leading an impressive offensive turnaround with his QB Bailey Zappe. When Kittley got the call up to WKU, Zappe came with him. The result was the most prolific passing season in CFB history. Zappe shattered records, throwing for 5,967 yards and 62 TDs in 2021.
Kittley got the opportunity to return home as OC for Texas Tech, and Zappe went off to the NFL. But that didn’t stop the Hilltoppers from slingin’ it. Staffer Ben Arbuckle was promoted to OC, and called an offense that finished 2nd nationally in passing in 2022. Arbuckle also got the opportunity to jump to the P5, as he will serve as OC for Washington State this season.
So who’s calling plays this year?
How about a guy directly from the Mike Leach School of Passing? Drew Hollingshead was a part of Mike Leach’s staff from 2016 through 2022, starting out as a GA at Wazzu and ending as a WR coach (as well as mentoring QBs) at State. Hollingshead will look to carry on the Air Raid tradition of both Western Kentucky and the Pirate in 2023.
And he’ll have a pretty dang good QB to work with. Austin Reed was phenomenal for the Tops last year. Replacing Bailey Zappe isn’t an easy gig, but he handled it about as well as you could hope for, throwing for 4,744 yards and 40 TDs. Reed contemplated transferring this offseason but ultimately chose to return to WKU. He’s undoubtedly one of the nation’s best.
He’ll have his top WR back to throw to, as well. Malachai Cooley hauled in 101 catches for 1293 yards and 11 TDs last year. While WKU doesn’t run the ball that much, they do return their leading rusher, and Reed is enough of a threat with his legs to make defenses respect the run. OL should be a strong unit led by 1st team all-conference G Quantavious Leslie.
The concerns for WKU are on defense. Jack LB JaQues Evans is back after leading the team with 106 tackles and 9 sacks. But he’s one of just four starters that return, and there are major questions at each level of the defense. What was a solid group in 2022 may have some struggles in 2023.
However, with WKU’s offensive firepower, it may not matter. They’re going to score and score a lot. And since the point of this piece is to showcase G5 teams that will be fun to watch in 2023, a team that will light up scoreboards and likely be in a lot of shootouts is certainly going to be high up on the Fun Meter.
And you’ll get the chance to see them on national television regularly. Conference USA is embracing the tactic of playing midweek games like the MAC and Sun Belt. WKU will have four-straight weeknight games, starting with Middle Tennessee at the end of September and finishing with a potential conference championship preview against Liberty on October 24.
If you want to see Mike Leach’s legacy carried on in college football, Western Kentucky is a team you need to watch this fall.