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Better Know a Conference-USA Opponent: The Western Kentucky Hilltoppers

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A road game against a 12-win team? Neat.

NCAA Football: Western Kentucky at Miami (Ohio)
Jeff Brohm hates interviews, also your face.
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

The School: Western Kentucky University

Record: 2-1 (1-0 in C-USA). Western Kentucky was 12-2 in 2015. How the hell did Derek Mason wind up with a 12-win team on his schedule outside the SEC? At this point, David Williams’ slate of viable non-Power 5 opponents should just be:

  • Playing UMass three times per season

  • End of list

The Hilltoppers have been bowl eligible each season since 2011; last year they won their conference and just happened to wind up on Vanderbilt’s schedule. They probably aren’t as good this year, but getting past Vandy sets the table for an 11-1 regular season in which their only loss came against Alabama.

Ranking: Unranked in the AP Top 25 and Coaches' Poll. The formulas have WKU rated 46th in the Real Time RPI, making them the nation’s third best team with “west” in its name (West Virginia, Western Michigan). Western Kentucky is somehow only one spot ahead of Northwestern, a team that lost to a directional Illinois that wasn’t Northern but is still a top 50 team because computers are irrational creatures. Vanderbilt is 88th.

Mascot: Big Red, a giant furry blob created to highlight America’s growing obesity epidemic.

The team’s nickname is the Hilltoppers. They are literally the people of which we’ve been warned.

Location: Bowling Green, KY. Home of Corvettes and a literal hellmouth, conveniently placed within feet of each other..

Coach: The head coach of YOUR 2017 Vanderbilt Commodores, Jeff Brohm! Brohm got paid for seven NFL seasons as a backup quarterback and only had to play in eight games. The ensuing lack of CTE has made him a pretty good playcaller.

Conference: Conference-USA. If the Sun Belt were Madden 16, C-USA is Madden 17; same basic product, just with some new rosters and fun new glitches to exploit.

All-time vs. Vanderbilt: 1-3. All three losses came before World War II, when the forward pass was still a risky new strategy.

In the Last 20 Years vs. Vanderbilt: 1-0.

The Last Time We Saw These Guys: We got McCrary’ed, hard. Vandy held WKU to its lowest scoring performance of the season but still lost, thanks in part to two Johnny McCrary interceptions in the end zone. The touted QB managed to bring Vandy within two points by leading the Commodores 77 yards in just over two minutes, but his game-tying two-point conversion was stopped short of the end zone.

The Hilltoppers won 14-12. That season, Vanderbilt finished one victory away from being one of the 5-7 bowl teams your uncle complains about at Christmas.

Do They Run the Triple Option?: No. Thank Christ.

Is Vandy Favored?: Nope. 7.5 point underdogs to Western Kentucky. You know what? After last week’s beatdown, that actually feels generous.

Most Potent Offensive Threat: Quarterback Mike White looks like the latest link in WKU’s chain of prolific passers. He threw for 517 yards against Rice in his team’s season opener, but has been limited to only 403 in his last two outings. He’s had a completion of at least 53 yards in each of those games, so don’t be surprised when a Vandy secondary that allowed Georgia Tech to rip off two 75+ yard passing plays gets reduced to a smoking crater in the fourth quarter on Saturday.

Most Potent Defensive Threat: Omarius Bryant is a 310-pound wrecking ball who commands double teams and moves surprisingly well for a man with the same body as his team’s mascot. He leads WKU in both tackles for loss and sacks so far this season and should be a tremendous headache for anyone approaching the middle of the line of scrimmage Saturday.

Matchup to Watch: Kyle Shurmur vs. the WKU secondary. Shurmur took a step forward despite last week’s rout at Georgia Tech’s hands. This week, he’ll face a Hilltopper defense currently ranked 116th in the nation in terms of passing yards allowed. The sophomore QB will have the opportunity for his biggest game as a Commodore on Saturday, but he’ll have to take another step forward in his development to get there.

Interesting Fact: Forbes listed Bowling Green as one of its top 25 places to retire in 2014, narrowly edging out fellow honorees like Abilene, TX, Meridian, ID, Bella Vista, AR, and several places in Florida whose mayors are technically alligators.

If Western Kentucky wins, we: burn the ships. A 1-3 start means Vanderbilt will need to coax at least four wins out of a schedule that features seven SEC teams and Tennessee State to become bowl eligible. A trip to the postseason — even on a technicality — may be what Derek Mason needs to keep his job in Nashville.