The days of Western Kentucky carving through Conference USA are over and Mike Sanford found that out in his first season as head coach, finishing at 6-7 with a 4-4 Conference record. They weren’t a bad team, but they weren’t good and the offense only managed 25.5 points per Game, a disappointment for a team that went 11-3 the previous year. Now they’re battling to reach a bowl with a new quarterback and +800 odds to win C-USA to go with an over/under of five wins at 5Dimes Sportsbook.
The new quarterback is the biggest thing for the offense since Mike White threw for 4,000 yards in each of the last two years. But with White gone, the offense will take up a different look under Sanford so the high-scoring teams of WKU’s past are no longer. Drew Eckels is set to start under center after serving as backup the last couple years. The offense’s first goal is to get more of a running Game going after being worst in the nation in 2017, averaging just 2.0 yards per carry and 60 yards per Game. Eckels’s mobility will help, as will experience at tailback in D’Andre Ferby, Jakairi Moses and Marquez Trigg. One of those guys has to break out behind a line that returns three starters including a senior center. Two of the top receivers are gone, but the Hilltoppers are always good for talent in that area with LUcky Jackson (600 yards) expected to be the top guy with Quin Jernighan (393 yards).
Surprisingly, defense is the area WKU is counting on for the upcoming season. Even with injuries the unit still limited opponents fairly well to 26.8 points per Game. There’s experience across the board with seven starters returning and numerous others coming back from injury. The front has to do a better job at getting to the QB and stopping the run. The back seven should be stout with senior linebacker Masai Whyte doing most of the heavy lifting to go with Four starters in the secondary, including senior cornerback DeAndre Farris. This group held every offense to 23 points or less in the first six Games and then allowed at least 30 in the final six. More consistency will be key in reaching another bowl Game.
The bookmakers aren’t expecting the Hilltoppers to come around in Sanford’s second season with this being another somewhat transition year. The question comes at quarterback where Eckels may not finish the year as starter if the offense can’t figure things out in a more run-heavy attack. The Schedule at least opens up for possibilities even with only five home Games. OUtside of the home contest against Marshall, WKU should be favored in all of those. Finding wins on the road will be a little more difficult with the best chances being at Ball State in non-Conference and then Charlotte in mid-October. Without wins there, reaching a bowl will be tough because they close with three of their final Four on the road against top C-USA competition. The path is there to six wins, but it requires the offense to figure out Sanford’s new system, more so than it did in 2017.
2018 Western Kentucky Hilltoppers Football Schedule
Aug. 31 at Wisconsin
Sept. 8 vs. Maine
Sept. 15 at Louisville
Sept. 22 at Ball State
Sept. 29 vs. Marshall
Oct. 13 at Charlotte
Oct. 20 vs. Old Dominion
Oct. 27 vs. Florida International
Nov. 2 at Middle Tennessee
Nov. 10 at Florida Atlantic
Nov. 17 vs. UTEP
Nov. 24 at Louisiana Tech