Seeing Western Kentucky take a step back in 2017 wasn’t completely unexpected. New coach. Loss of major (and I mean major) talent. Some new schemes. The list goes on.
Expecting the Hilltoppers to completely run roughshod through Conference USA once again was perhaps foolish.
But 6-6? Well that… that is not good.
It’s not bad. Don’t get me wrong. Western, in the wide scope of things, is not too far removed from 0-12 and 2-10 to stick its nose up to a 6-6 season. Winning football games is difficult and coming out on top six times out of 12 shouldn’t be taken for granted.
This Western Kentucky team, however, is better than 6-6. Not 12-0 or 11-1 or 10-2 better, but I can certainly make a case for them to have finished 7-5 or 8-4 or maybe even 9-3.
The Tops played one of – if not the – easiest schedules in America. Texas El Paso and Charlotte managed one win between them in 24 games. Illinois (I don’t care, frankly, that it plays in the Big Ten) finished 2-10. And so did Ball State.
Louisiana Tech earned a hard-fought, one-point win in Bowling Green in September in what many thought was a conference title precursor – it wasn’t. Tech limped to a 6-6 record, too.
That’s part of the frustration for the WKU fan. It’s not as if first-year coach Mike Sanford and these Tops were handed the nation’s most-difficult path to success. If anything the road cleared nicely to have another championship-contending season.
So what went haywire?
The inability to run the ball, obviously, was one of the more confusing developments as the year went on. Who would of thought a quartet of capable running backs behind what many believed to be (at the very least) an adequate offensive line would finish as the nation’s worst rushing team.
And that’s not hyperbole. The Hilltoppers never even managed a rush of at least 20 yards this year. You’d figure one of those plays would have just happened by accident, but nope.
Making the issue even more confounding is the offensive system put in place was supposed to resemble the powerful running attacks of Boise State and Stanford. That it was not.
Be thankful for Mike White, a quarterback battered and bruised and beaten because an ineffective run game made him a sitting duck for defensive pass rushes on 3rd-and-longs all season. He still managed to finish as the nation’s No. 3 passer without all-time great receivers Taywan Taylor and Nicholas Norris.
Western’s defense, in my humble opinion, deserves a lot of credit, too. It had been trending toward becoming one of the league’s best units if not for a rash of major injuries that really began before the year even started.
As the season wore on, that unit appeared to wear down as the injuries took their toll and forced WKU’s depth (talented depth, albeit) to be tested game after game, series after series and play after play.
The Hilltoppers were also underwhelming on special teams despite being in great shape in August. Kicker Skyler Simcox left the team in camp and then Ryan Nuss missed six field goals over the course of the year. In a series of events that somewhat epitomized WKU’s inconsistencies, Nuss won a game for Western over Middle Tennessee then came back the following week and sent two fields goals wide in a loss at Florida International.
Kylen Towner and Nacarius Fant were two of the nation’s most-dangerous return men in college football in 2016. Neither found the end zone on a kick or punt return this season and WKU finished near the bottom of the nation as a team in both return categories.
You can plainly see how if Western Kentucky would have been even slightly better in a few major areas this year how that would have equated to a couple more wins. You can also make the argument the 2017 version of WKU football could have been a lot worse – wins over Middle Tennessee, Old Dominion and winless UTEP were by a combined eight points.
So let’s talk about coaching. And no this won’t be the part where I call for Mike Sanford to lose his job after one season you bloodthirsty piranhas.
First-year coaches, by and large, in my book get a pass. It doesn’t matter what the situation, what was inherited, what was expected. It was plain to see the Jeff Brohm-to-Mike-Sanford transition didn’t go as smoothly as we all thought it could or should.
There were moments that were questionable and there’s no use raking those moments over the coals now. There were personnel changes that left one scratching his head, but we don’t get paid six figures to decide who has earned the right to play and who hasn’t. There were narratives that sounded great on paper that never played out between the lines.
So moving forward the challenge for Sanford will be to learn from what went wrong in 2017 and make amends for it in 2018. That’s where his predecessors in recent years on The Hill have made their money. That's where he needs to make his.
He’ll bring in one of the league’s top recruiting classes. He’ll have nine months to try to figure out how recreate a respectable running game. And his biggest challenge of all on the field will be figuring out how to replace that White guy at quarterback.
Off the field Sanford will have to show signs his program is making strides toward the lofty goals he himself laid out publicly. Because his 2017 team came nowhere close to attaining those goals.
If he can do that, the school’s metaphor of hiring the best conductor to keep the train screaming down the tracks will be closer to reality than fiction. If not, there will be no pass in Year Two.
Year Two, in some ways, starts Dec. 16 when Western Kentucky plays a bowl game against Georgia State. After losing four of his final five, Sanford has an opportunity to somewhat make amends for that stretch.
The Cure Bowl could be just that for Western Kentucky – a cure to all that has ailed WKU over the last month. It's a chance for Sanford to prove this thing is back on track and headed in the right direction.
A win over Georgia State, a team with defeats to Tennessee State and Idaho, would help restore from faith and belief in the process.
A loss would give the Hilltoppers their first losing season since 2010. And it will make for a very long – and very tough – offseason for Sanford.
Quote of the week
Western Kentucky volleyball coach Travis Hudson: “You know I’m in a profession where I’ve been at the same institution for 23 years. And I can’t tell you how many times in those 23 years there’s been people in this profession that think I need to move somewhere else and put different letters on my chest to be good at what I do. I believe the kids that you coach are the same no matter where you coach. They’re the same kids with the same problems and he same issues and they’re trying to grow and become adults and do things with their lives. I don’t think you have to have a certain set of letters across your chest or coach in a certain conference to be a quality volleyball coach or be good at what you do. I’m incredibly proud to where that WKU across my chest. And I don’t need validation. My kids are what give me the validation. To see them go out and play at the level they played (Saturday) is all the validation that I need.”
One thing you can never question about volleyball coach Travis Hudson...his love for Western Kentucky. pic.twitter.com/iN7RWXmo6b— Dominique Yates (@RealDYates) December 3, 2017
Musical pick of the week
A nod to the Cure Bowl with The Cure (coincidentally enough, this was my mother’s first dance selection at her recent wedding):
— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop