In just a few short months, Western Kentucky opens its first season under Mike Sanford Jr. and its campaign for a third straight Conference USA title. While that championship remains a big goal for the Tops, they have some important non-conference dates on the schedule as well including an old rival and two Power Five opponents. Let’s take a quick look at how WKU can fare against those opponents.
WKU opens their season on September 2nd hosting an FCS opponent in the EKU Colonels. They struggled through the 2016 season last year to a 3-8 record and just 1-6 in the Ohio Valley Conference. The two schools have played quite a bit over the years (85 times) going back to WKU’s many decades as a member of the OVC. This year, however, will be the first meeting of the two programs since 2008.
Head coach Mark Elder will almost certainly have the Colonels looking better in his second season at the helm. But if their spring game in which the defense defeated the offense by a margin of 46-13 is any indication, they still have some kinks to work out. In theory, winning this shouldn’t be an issue for the Hilltoppers.
Illinois isn’t coming off one of their best seasons ever. They went 3-9 in their first year with Lovie Smith as their head coach and finished 6th in the Big Ten West. There’s some great potential in their offensive backfield of Kendrick Foster and Reggie Corbin, but pretty much everything else has serious room for improvement. In fact, 42 percent of Illinois’ offensive possessions ended within three plays for a non-scoring reason in 2016.
Illinois is a very young team this year with just eight starters returning. This is especially true of their defense, who gave up an average of 405.1 yards and 31.92 points per game last season. That match-up bodes very well for a WKU offense that averaged 523 offensive yards per game and 45.5 points per game in 2016. It seems reasonable to think that WKU can get the win in their second all time meeting with the Illini on September 9th.
The Tops host the Cardinals on September 23rd with the game being aired live on Twitter. When that day comes, expect to see Mike White and the WKU offense capitalize on what was a major weakness for Ball State in their 4-8 2016 campaign: passing defense. Their pass rush was solid (32 sacks), but their defensive backfield gave up 3836 passing yards and 27 passing touchdowns. Intriguingly, that defensive unit is led by former WKU head coach David Elson, who took over the coordinator job last season.
On the other side, the offense shows up. The Cardinals had 449 yards of offense per game, but that only translated to six games where the Cardinals scored more than 21 points. If WKU’s defense ends up adjusting well to having an extra defensive back around under Clayton White, then they’ll be fine against the pass. The main threat will be Ball State’s experienced running back James Gilbert, who made All-MAC first team with over 1300 rushing yards.
Vandy BARELY escaped Bowling Green with a win last season defeating the Tops in a 31-30 overtime thriller. Now, WKU will head to Nashville on November 4th looking for revenge. The Commodores are definitely experienced with 15 starters returning, including five in the defensive backfield. This makes for a tough match-up for the Tops and a receiver corps that has some things to prove between inexperience and recovering from injuries.
While they aren’t the top dogs of the SEC, Vanderbilt remains the toughest non conference opponent on WKU’s schedule. Winning this game would be huge for the new coaching regime, especially if the defense is able to contain Vandy’s workhorse running back Ralph Webb. Webb had 13 scores on over 1200 yards in 2016, including a 106 yard, three touchdown day against WKU.
When it’s all said and done, WKU has a good chance of going 3-1 in non-conference play this season. That would improve upon the 2-2 mark they hit in each of the last two years. The defending Conference USA champions have the right tools at their disposal. Now, it’s just a matter of seeing how that talent comes together with the new staff in a real game.