The School: Western Kentucky University
Ranking: The formulas have Western Kentucky rated 54th in the Real Time RPI (63 spots ahead of #117 Vanderbilt). They came in 42nd in the preseason AP Top 25 and were unranked in the most recent Coaches' Poll.
Mascot: The Hilltoppers. "We use the region's topographical features to our advantage! Floods are not really an issue! FEAR US!"
Location: Bowling Green, Kentucky. No. Not THAT Bowling Green.
— Jacob Clemens (@jacob_clemens) July 6, 2015
Conference: Conference USA. It says here that the Hilltoppers left the Sun Belt, but I'm pretty sure they just changed the name of the conference in a misguided rebranding effort. Florida Atlantic? Middle Tennessee State? Texas-San Antonio? Nope. That's a league stapled together like a life raft made of old tires, which means that it can only be the Sun Belt.
Or the WAC.
All-time vs. Vanderbilt: 0-3. History is not on your side, WKU. Or need I remind you of that 52-6 beating back in 1931? How do you even lose that badly in the pre-WWII football era? Forward passes and runs of more than seven yards were still illegal.
In the Last 10 Years vs. Vanderbilt: 0-0. These guys haven't played since 1938. Still, the McGugin family probably has some strong feelings about this rivalry.
The Last Time We Saw These Guys: A 12-0 win in the most 1938-sounding game ever played. In three contests against Vandy, Western Kentucky has managed a meager six points total. Of course, that was back when footballs were scarce and games were played with a live badger, but the point about the Commodores' dominance stands.
Is Vandy Favored?: Well, they were. On Sunday, OddsShark reported that most books have Vanderbilt as a -1 favorite, but a handful of others had this game as a toss-up. Since then, the money has flowed in on Western Kentucky and made the Commodores a 2.5 point underdog on their home field. OddsShark also suggests that this game opened with Vandy as a 17.5-point favorite, which only makes sense if the Commodores get a bonus multiplier for every player that throws a pass in their season opener.
Most Potent Offensive Threat: Brandon Doughty is a terrifying quarterback. He led all FBS passers with 4,830 yards through the air last fall - a mark that included four different games with 486 or more passing yards. His 49 touchdowns were seven more than the next closest QB, some scrub named Mariota out in Oregon. Last season, his Hilltoppers scored fewer than 35 points
once twice (a 34-point effort against Illinois and a 10-point shutdown against Louisiana Tech). One state south, the Commodores scored more than 35 points just once - a 42-point explosion versus recent I-AA refugee Old Dominion. While Vandy sputtered, Doughty put together an all-time season. He's a dark horse Heisman pick, and his candidacy begins Thursday night in Nashville.
Most Potent Defensive Threat: Wonderful Terry doesn't just have the greatest name in college sports; he's also the Hilltoppers' version of Darrius Sims. He scored three defensive touchdowns last season (two interceptions, one fumble recovery) and led his team in both passes broken up and defended last season. That made him a first-team All-Conference USA pick. He'll have the chance to pad his stats if Vanderbilt's quarterbacks continue to struggle in 2015.
Matchup to Watch: Brandon Doughty vs. Derek Mason. Mason shut down Oregon's high octane offense when he was the defensive coordinator at Stanford in 2012 and 2013. He'll have to pull off a similar feat when he faces an extremely potent Hilltopper team on Thursday. Doughty and tailback Leon Allen combined for nearly 6,400 yards last season. If the Commodores can limit them to around 400 then they'll give their offense plenty of opportunities to run past Western Kentucky in their season opener.
Interesting Fact: Every so often, an angry and vengeful god tries to swallow Bowling Green, KY into the earth. When this happens, local vicars sacrifice tins of Skoal and High Life tall boys until the beast is sated and western Kentucky is safe for another jubilee period.
Bonus Fact!: Not a fact as much as it is a classic ESPN commercial, but if you're like me then this is how you first became familiar with the Hilltoppers:
If Western Kentucky wins, we: Begin looking for silver linings. An opening-night loss won't be too devastating, especially if it's not as draining as last year's crap tornado against Temple. Vandy fans are looking for improvement this fall, and the Hilltoppers - a team that scored 213 points in their last four football games. That's enough points to beat most Big Ten basketball programs on a good night, so we'll get an immediate idea of whether Derek Mason's decision to tab Derek Mason as defensive coordinator was a good one.
The biggest indicator of 2015 success will come on the opposite side of the ball. Vanderbilt's offense was unwatchable in stretches last season. The Commodores need to prove that they can move the chains with consistency on Thursday. If not, it could be more of the same for Mason this fall.