BISHOP | Vegas says 9.5 wins for WKU – you taking the over?

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Oh, Vegas, you cruel, cruel lady.

A few weeks ago the South Point Sportsbook in Las Vegas, Nev., released projected win totals for all 130 Football Bowl Subdivision teams for the 2017 season. The number beside Western Kentucky?

9 1/2.

Such a tricky, tricky number.

Now, for entertainment purposes only, of course, it’s your job to decide whether the Hilltoppers will go over nine wins, or come up short of a double-digit win total (they won 12 in 2015 and 11 in 2016, mind you). And don’t forget to factor in a possible third straight trip to a conference title game and a possible fourth straight trip to a bowl game – two extra chances for a potential 10th win.

Be cautious with your confidence, too. The Tops could very easily go 9-3 this season, then lose a 13th and/or 14th game. They could go 8-4, yet somehow still slide into the Conference USA championship, win that, then conquer a bowl opponent for the fourth time in a row.

Doesn’t sound easy anymore, does it?

If you look at what lies ahead for Western Kentucky in 2017, I count six games you could argue are virtual locks as dubs – home games against Eastern Kentucky, Ball State, Charlotte and Florida Atlantic and road games at Texas El Paso and Florida International. None of those teams won more than four games last season and three of ‘em have first-year head coaches.

Let’s pause here to note one is assuming Western Kentucky will play at the same dominant level it has the previous two seasons despite having a new coaching staff and despite having to replace two NFL draft picks on the offensive side of the ball. We’re also not factoring in injuries, or considering how teams will continue to raise their level of play against the squad going for a third straight conference title. Quarterback Mike White even noted last week the Tops recognize the massive target on their back in 2017.

You’re now sitting at six wins if you chalk a 'W' next to those contests, and WKU is now bowl eligible for the seventh consecutive season. Where are the other four wins coming from? Huh buddy?

In Week Two the Tops head to Illinois for the second time in the last four years. They nearly had the Illini beat, if you’ll recall, in 2014 if not for a second-half come-apart.

Illinois was 3-9 last year and not very good. But Lovie Smith is in his second year in charge (so you’d have to think improvement is on the way) and Western has had trouble in recent years against the Big Ten – the ’14 loss to Illinois the 2015 loss at Indiana – when you could argue WKU had the better team.

The following week, Western and Louisiana Tech meet in the latest installment of a budding rivalry. Tech has owned WKU in Ruston, La., but hasn’t figured out a way to win at The Houch yet, losing 41-38 and 58-44. The Hilltoppers should have the edge simply by being the home team, although LTU is a favorite in the West Division and will be WKU’s first major challenge of the year.

On Oct. 20, Western heads to Old Dominion for a Friday night game in Norfolk, Va. The Hilltoppers are 3-0 against ODU and have averaged 60 points per game in three wins. Remember, however, that the Monarchs won 10 games last season and finished second in the East only to – you guessed it – WKU.

The month of November will make or break Western Kentucky and will make or break your guess as to whether the Tops can reach 10 wins again. The first weekend of the month features a trip back to Vanderbilt. The following Saturday has a visit to Marshall on the docket and the Friday after that Middle Tennessee comes to Bowling Green in what many believe will be the CUSA East Division title game.

Even though WKU won at Vandy two years ago, and even though it has notched back-to-back wins at Edwards Stadium in Huntington, W. Va., you can’t argue with me those two games are automatic wins. The Commodores have continued to trend upward in the Derek Mason era and there’s no way (right? right?) that MU can be as dreadful as it was last year.

Middle, meanwhile, has a bye week before games with UTEP and Charlotte before meeting Western on Nov. 17. Predicting what will happen in the WKU-MTSU series is like predicting... well, something really difficult to predict.

If we give WKU the wins against Louisiana Tech and Marshall, that puts it as an eight-win team. It would need to knock off ODU, Vanderbilt or Middle Tennessee to reach nine or win two those three to get to 10.

We’ve reached the definition of a gamble, eh?

From 2011 to 2016, Western Kentucky has won 53 games – that’s the exact same number of wins the program had between 2002-2010. It has averaged 8.8 wins per season the last five years and hasn’t dropped back-to-back games since Oct. 4 and Oct. 18 of 2014.

So recent history and the current roster should make WKU a safe bet to be a winning team in 2017, a championship contender and bowl participant. Can you safely take the over 9 1/2 wins though?

Damnit, Vegas, you've done it again.

Quote of the week

Western Kentucky quarterback Mike White on thinking about his NFL future: “It is starting to get real. It’s crazy, but it’s cool at the same time. This is what we all dream and hope for. But I try not to get too ahead of myself. Still got a very important season coming up. We still got a big target on our back, back-to-back champions, and we’re going for that third one.”

Musical pick of the week

Twas a joy to have my father in town for Father's Day weekend. That lucky dog has tickets for a Buddy Guy show later this summer:

— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop