In the lead-up to the upcoming college football season, Sports Unbiassed is taking a look at the top 20 teams with a chance to win the Access Bowl bid in 2015. You can find the full list of the Top 20, links to other team previews, and read more about the methodology behind the rankings here.
Western Kentucky Hilltoppers
2014 Record: 8-5 (4-4 in C-USA)
Head Coach: Jeff Brohm (.615)
Returning Starters: 18/24 (8 OFF/8 DEF/2 SP)
5-Year Recruiting Ranking Composite: 79th
FIVE POSSIBLE STATEMENT GAMES
- Sept. 3 @ Vanderbilt
- Sept. 10 v. Louisiana Tech
- Sept. 19 @ Indiana
- Oct. 24 @ LSU
- Nov. 27 v. Marshall
WHAT YOU REMEMBER/SHOULD REMEMBER ABOUT THE HILLTOPPERS
WKU was infamous for big scores in 2014. They upset Marshall in a wild 67-66 overtime victory, dealing the Herd their only loss of the season. And the last time we saw the Hilltoppers playing, they were holding off Central Michigan in a wild finale to the inaugural Bahamas Bowl last December. After rolling out to a 42-14 lead by halftime, Western Kentucky allowed Central Michigan to come out of the locker room and claw away at the lead. Only a failed two-point conversion by the Chippewas allowed the Hilltoppers to barely survive to claim the first FBS bowl victory in WKU history:
The school has been a member of the top division only since 2009. Before that they were a I-AA/FCS powerhouse. Perhaps you’ve heard about them in the context of the many articles written about new Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh, in the context of his father’s long tenure at the school. He ended his career at the school with a storybook finish, rolling through the 2002 I-AA playoffs with road victories over Western Illinois and Georgia Southern before stomping McNeese State 34-14 for the national title. The transition to I-A football hasn’t always been easy, but the potential for greatness exists right there in Bowling Green, Kentucky.
THE KEY REASON FOR HOPE FOR THE HILLTOPPERS IN 2015
Western Kentucky has been trending upward for the past five years, even with the transition from the Sun Belt to Conference USA. The Hilltoppers won seven games in 2011 and 2012, and improved to eight wins in 2013 and 2014. And WKU returns more experience than all but 15 other FBS teams — including eight offensive starters, eight defensive starters, and both the starting kicker and punter. Jeff Brohm has a highly experienced team in his second season at the helm.
Leading a dangerous offense once again will be quarterback Brandon Doughty, back for one final season as a graduate student after being granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA following injury-plagued 2011 and 2012 campaigns. Only Marcus Mariota and J.T. Barrett had a higher passer efficiency rating than Doughty, who will pilot an offense that was in the top six in both yards and points per game last season. In a league like Conference USA, when a dangerous attack can take a team a long way, the Hilltoppers bring the best offense to the standoff. They’ll get thrown into the fire immediately out of conference, but the C-USA East is theirs for the taking with Marshall coming to the cumbersomely-named Houchens Industries–L.T. Smith Stadium.
WHAT COULD COST THE HILLTOPPERS THE ACCESS BOWL SLOT
For as good as the Hilltopper offense was last season and should be again in 2015, the defense allowed more points than any other FBS team with a winning record in 2014. Though the defense returns eight players, whether or not experience alone can rectify a lot of the lapses against opponents remains to be seen. Their three road games against Power Five opponents (Vanderbilt, Indiana, LSU) could determine the ceiling for WKU in 2015 if the defense cannot keep enough points off the scoreboard to allow Doughty and company to keep pace.
The other threat is whether or not they can actually snag a victory over even one of their Power Five opponents. The season opens at Vanderbilt, which has regressed since James Franklin’s departure to Penn State but is still an SEC team with SEC-caliber talent. The game against Indiana might be the best opportunity, since stud tailback Tevin Coleman is now in the NFL. The road game in Death Valley against LSU is a near-certain defeat, making it pivotal that WKU takes at least one of those two statement victories over Big Ten and SEC competition if they are to stay in the Access Bowl race.
OFFERING A POTENTIAL OUTCOME FOR 2015
The first three weeks of the season will serve as a referendum on the potential that exists for Western Kentucky in 2015. The trip to Nashville to open the season is going to be close for most of the game, but the relative skill of the WKU offense and the fact that Vanderbilt fields one of the weaker defenses in the SEC will allow the Hilltoppers to pull away late. The home opener against Louisiana Tech offers a first view of the potential C-USA championship game, and the Bulldogs might be a tougher test than the Commodores. Bloomington won’t be a friendly site, but Indiana won’t do much to strike fear into WKU. Though they will already be down in the conference rankings, WKU should be 3-1 with a pair of Power Five victories and a blowout of the Miami RedHawks before the beginning of October.
After losing to Louisiana Tech, the Hilltoppers will face a must-win cross-division showdown with Rice to open the second month of the season. They should be able to meet that obligation, and follow it up with a win over Middle Tennessee upon returning home. A Thursday night game at North Texas will give Western Kentucky a few extra days to rest up before the LSU game, but they must not get complacent and look ahead too much against the Mean Green. While they prevailed over Vanderbilt and Indiana, the Tigers are a different beast, and LSU should have its way with the Hilltoppers for WKU’s only blowout loss of the year.
At that point the Hilltoppers will be at 6-2 by this point, entering the most important stretch of the season. Old Dominion, FAU, and FIU should be improved from 2014, but will not yet be at the level of Western Kentucky. The season will ultimately come down to the final game of the regular season when Marshall comes to town. The Thundering Herd lost a lot of talent from last year’s 13-1 squad, and WKU defeated that squad. After beating Doc Holliday’s team, WKU will have punched its spot in the C-USA championship game — where, sadly for the Hilltoppers, another loss to Louisiana Tech likely awaits. That still means 10-3 and just the third bowl appearance in school history; the result probably won’t end as luckily as last year, but it will still be the best FBS season yet in Western Kentucky history.
PREDICTED RECORD: 10-4 (7-1 in C-USA)