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WKU 2017 Season Preview: Schedule Outlook

The Tops have the tools to win C-USA for the third straight year.

NCAA Football: Western Kentucky at Miami (Ohio) Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

On September 2nd, Western Kentucky opens the 2017 campaign when the Eastern Kentucky Colonels come to Bowling Green. First year head coach Mike Sanford Jr. has plenty of returning talent on his roster, but will need to replace some big performers that either went to the NFL or followed Jeff Brohm to Purdue.

In each of the past two seasons under Brohm, the Tops were able to win the Conference USA championship with double digit win totals. WKU is also riding a three year bowl game win streak. They’ve been able to do all this behind a high powered offense that averaged 523 yards per game in 2016.

Sanford’s given no reason to doubt his ability as a head coach (it’s in his blood, after all) and he’s got possibly the best passing quarterback in college football to work with. All signs point to this group being one of the most impressive in G5 once again in 2017.

Last week, we dove specifically into how WKU’s five most important defensive players contribute to their cause.

For more on the Hilltoppers’ offensive weapons, have a look at our preview of their five biggest contributors for the season.


Schedule

Home vs Eastern Kentucky (Sept. 2) - Prediction: Win

In the 85th meeting between two old rivals, the FCS Colonels will provide a nice tune up game for the Tops. Last time the two sides met, which was 2008, WKU won 37-13. In theory, WKU should have no problem running away with this one in similar fashion.

Away vs Illinois (Sept. 9) - Prediction: Win

Hitting the road for the first time of the year, this one is WKU’s to lose. The Illini’s defense is lackluster, while their offense has some quality, but inexperienced talent. The Tops should be able to pick up an important win over a P5 squad that allowed 405.1 yards and 31.92 points per game in 2016.

Home vs Louisiana Tech (Sept. 16) - Prediction: Win

These two teams have had some of the most entertaining games in Conference USA since WKU joined the league in 2014. In that span of time, they’ve each won two games with the home team winning every time. Tech is really similar to WKU in that they’ve got a fast paced offense and a pass defense that could use some improvement. While they’re evenly matched, I have to go with my gut that the home team will take it once again.

CUSA Championship - Louisiana Tech v Western Kentucky Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Home vs Ball State (Sept. 23) - Prediction: Win

WKU’s victory will come from accomplishing two key objectives. The first is to contain the Cardinals’ All-MAC running back and main offensive weapon James Gilbert. The second is for the relatively inexperienced offensive line to protect Mike White from a pretty decent Ball State pass rush led by senior defensive end Anthony Wimbush. The Cardinals’ biggest weakness is their defensive backfield, so White can have a field day, provided that he has time to throw.

Away vs UTEP (Oct. 7) - Prediction: Win

The Miners of UTEP finished at 4-8 last season and it’s unlikely that we’ll see much improvement from them in 2017. They enter the season ranked #120 out of 130 FBS programs by Athlon with most of their starters from last year back. When these two teams last met in 2014, WKU escaped with a 35-27 win. Expect the Tops to get the win with a margin of more than one score this time.

Home vs Charlotte (Oct. 14) - Prediction: Win

Charlotte is a program on the rise coming into just their sixth season. This being said, WKU still shouldn’t have much of a problem considering Charlotte’s extremely young defense that gave up the most passing yards in all of Conference USA last year. Offensively, their passing game is arguably the strongest card in their deck. Provided WKU is prepared for that, this should be another solid win.

Away at Old Dominion (Oct. 20) - Prediction: Loss

The Monarchs put together the best season of their young FBS life last year with a 10-3 record and a bowl win. They fell just short of winning the division title last season with WKU taking the tiebreaker since the Tops beat ODU 59-24 at home last year. This year, they’re out for revenge with both of their stellar running backs returning and a downright scary defensive line. I think this could be WKU’s lone loss in league play.

NCAA Football: Old Dominion at North Carolina State Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

Home vs Florida Atlantic (Oct. 28) - Prediction: Win

FAU will be one of the more intriguing games of the year when Lane Kiffin’s squad of transfers and Last Chance U stars comes to Bowling Green on Halloween weekend. I think WKU’s experience in their defense will ultimately help them gain a victory in a battle between two offensive specialist head coaches.

Away vs Vanderbilt (Nov. 4) - Prediction: Loss

Vandy’s 31-30 overtime win over WKU last year was a gut punch for Tops fans. I expect another extremely close game this year with a similar result. Vandy’s biggest offensive weapon, running back Ralph Webb, had a huge day against WKU last year so stopping him will be essential. Furthermore, if WKU wants to have a shot at winning this time around, they’ll need their receiver corps to have their best day against a very experienced defense.

Away vs Marshall (Nov. 11) - Prediction: Win

If you like points, then this is the rivalry for you. In the past three Moonshine Throwdown games, there’s been 276 points scored between the two teams. WKU won each of those games with the most recent ending with a score of 60-6. The Herd have an experienced quarterback, but an unproven offensive line and receiver corps. Defensively, Marshall had problems all around finishing 2016 107th in both yards allowed and points allowed. The Herd will be a better team than last year, but not good enough to keep WKU from winning for the fourth straight year.

Home vs Middle Tennessee (Nov. 17) - Prediction: Win

Last season’s 100 Miles of Hate matchup was one for the ages with WKU winning 44-43 in double overtime. This year, MTSU returns plenty of quality offensive talent like QB Brent Stockstill and receiver Ty Lee. This will honestly be the game where we see how well the switch to a 4-2-5 really went for WKU. They can absolutely win this game,as they have the last two years, but they have to slow down the Blue Raider passing game.

NCAA Football: Middle Tennessee at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Away vs FIU (Nov 24) - Prediction: Win

To wrap up the regular season, WKU heads down to Miami to face Butch Davis’ Panthers. FIU may have a good shot at improving upon last year’s 4-8 finish, but one of those wins won’t be against WKU. WKU’s defensive line should have a big day against FIU’s less than impressive offensive line. FIU’s offense is okay, but it’s unlikely they’ll be able to outscore their opponent in this Friday night lights matchup.


Conclusion

I really think WKU can go 10-2 in the regular season. There’s just so much firepower in that offense compared to some of the other teams on that schedule. Furthermore, they have a great shot to go 3-1 in non conference games. To sum it all up, I’d be surprised if they weren’t in the C-USA championship game once again.