October 31, 2011
Regardless of what happens over the next four weeks, WKU's 2011 season is a success.
As the Hilltoppers prepared for training camp in August, I stated on many occasions to those who asked that I thought four wins should be the benchmark for a successful season. Obviously, the Hilltoppers' goal was and is to win the Sun Belt title, as it should be. But as far as fans were concerned, four wins was more than realistic given how competitive the Toppers performed in the Sun Belt the previous year.
Well, here we are eight weeks into the season and WKU has reached the four-win plateau...after an 0-4 start. This surprising run by the Hilltoppers has even led to bowl projections. And that was BEFORE the Toppers defeated Louisiana-Monroe. Assuming the LSU game is a loss, WKU must win two of its final three games against the league to become bowl eligible. Did ANYONE outside of the WKU locker room ever think we would be discussing bowl eligibility with four games to go? If you just answered yes, I don't believe you.
I bring this up because that alone is a sign of a successful season, especially after losing four straight to begin the year. The simple fact that WKU is in the running for a bowl game eight weeks in, even after a blowout loss to Indiana State, spells success in my book.
For a fledgling FBS program like WKU, it is important for fans not to set the bar too high. More often than not, you end up disappointed and disgruntled. You started to see that with the Hilltoppers. It did not help that Western went winless at Houchens Smith Stadium for more than three years, but you must remember this is only year three for the Tops as a full-fledged FBS program. Winning consistently should not come that easy. I said four wins was the mark because it doubles Western's win total from last year and it would demonstrate a clear sign of progress. Check and check.
Now is that to say the Hilltoppers should just fold up shop and call it a year? Of course not. Why stop now? The Hilltoppers have three very winnable games remaining on their schedule. We could be talking seven wins if all goes well. If you can achieve more, by all means do it. The point is even if Western loses out (and I don't think that will happen), while it would be natural to feel extreme disappointment, you would have to keep in mind what the Hilltoppers have already accomplished when the forecast at one time looked so bleak.
But the most important reason why the 2011 season is a success is because of the fans. There is a buzz surrounding this team that I have not felt before. Fans are talking about football. Normally this time of the year is reserved for basketball season. Everybody likes a winner. And right now, the Hilltoppers are winning. The question is whether or not that buzz will lead to a raucous crowd on Saturday when Western hosts Florida International. For the casual fan, the Golden Panthers are the defending Sun Belt champions and already have wins over Louisville and Central Florida this season. It is a big game. Period.
For those who use Twitter, there is a campaign to sell out Smith Stadium this Saturday. You can search #wku22113 to read all of the feedback. WKU Director of Athletics, Ross Bjork, even sent an open letter to "Hilltopper Nation". Below is an excerpt from that letter.
"22,113. You may have heard this number before, but that is the capacity of Houchens-LT Smith Stadium on our campus of Western Kentucky University. There are almost 60,000 people who live in Bowling Green, 120,000 who reside in our “metropolitan” area, and 270,000 people who live in the ten county Barren River Economic District. Our community and region is keenly aware of WKU and the positive impact we have on the region and the quality of life for our residents."
To read the letter in its entirety, visit wkusports.com.
I anticipate a very nice crowd on Saturday. It may not be a sellout, but a strong crowd nonetheless. If the last four weeks do not get you excited for WKU Football, I am not sure what will. The Toppers are winning. Now fans must hold up their end of the bargain. But it looks like the Hilltoppers are beginning to pull the fans back to the stadium. And considering what everyone has endured the past three-plus seasons, I call that a success.