It’s been a long time since Western Kentucky has faced this much of a mountain of a challenge – as far as the oddsmakers are concerned anyway.
The Hilltoppers head to Madison, Wisc., to face No. 4 Wisconsin at 8 p.m. Friday on ESPN as 36-point underdogs (as of Tuesday morning). That’s the biggest spread WKU has faced since Alabama was 38-point favorites over the Tops on Sept. 8, 2012.
Alabama won that game 35-0.
“We’re going up there with the mentality to play great football,” WKU second-year coach Mike Sanford said of the challenge. “Worry about each and every individual play. Play with great effort, play with great enthusiasm, take care of the football – which is always of paramount importance going into a game like this – and give it everything we got. Play together for four quarters.
“And that’s the goal, to play possessed, to play excited, to play fresh – because we are. Most of all to play together as one unit as the Hilltopper football team starting this year off in (season) 100.”
Wisconsin enters the week with greater aspirations then just shooing Western Kentucky aside. The Hilltoppers are one of (potentially) 13 stepping stones for the Badgers en route to the college football playoff – UW virtually has its entire offense back and has built one of the toughest defenses in all the land from a team that went 13-1 last year.
Sanford’s program, meanwhile, lost 5 of 6 down the stretch last season, has a new starting quarterback and an untested, unproven offensive line.
That’s not a good recipe for the visitors Friday going into a place where 39 straight nonconference opponents have failed to come away victorious.
“Our players and our program are really excited for this challenge,” Sanford said. “Excited to get up to one of the great atmospheres in all of college football and compete against the best – a team that is going into the season already slotted in the CFP final four as a preseason favorite to be, really, in that top four. That’s earned. That’s deserved.”
Western, certainly, is no stranger to being the underdog, although perhaps by not such a lofty number. On Sept. 10, 2016 it was 27-point underdogs at Alabama and lost 38-10. On Nov. 28, 2014 it was 23 1/2-point dogs to Marshall and won 67-66. The Nov. 12, 2011 game at Louisiana State pegged WKU as 42-point dogs and the Tops fell 42-9 in that one.
Coming off a winless season in 2009, Western started the year at Nebraska on Sept. 4, 2010 as 39 1/2-point underdogs and lost 49-10.
Perhaps what could aid WKU this Friday as an underdog would be its ability to spring a few surprises. Sanford suggested that what the UW defensive staff has likely been preparing for all offseason might not necessarily be what the Tops showcase inside Camp Randall Stadium. He also suggested openers often include more penalties, missed assignments and turnovers than games played later in the season – of course those factors work both ways.
The Hilltoppers will also have to contend with the noise of 80,000 fans. In recent days, the WKU offensive line has ended practice by forming directly in front of speakers blaring crowd noise in order to to work on getting the snap off in inaudible conditions.
But WKU has never won in front of a crowd of more than 54,000 people, going 0-16 in those games.
“We’re now exposing a bunch of young players, especially on the offensive side of the ball, to probably what’s gonna end up being, I would say, the loudest environment in college football in Week One,” Sanford said. “I’m not gonna sleep really well on that front.”
Since 2008, Western Kentucky has been at least a 20-point underdog 14 times and has lost 13 of those matchups (the lone win being the aforementioned victory at Marshall). Ten times it has kept the score within the projected point spread – although that does nothing for anyone in the win-loss column.
A win for WKU on Friday with unquestionably be one of the biggest in program history given the certain doubt outside the away team’s locker room. Walking away defeated by a score closer than anyone expected wouldn't be the worst thing, either.
“I do believe we have a lot to play for this season, being (season) 100, being picked where we were picked in Conference USA,” Sanford said. “So we wanna go out there and play our best football up in Madison regardless of what the circumstances are going into the game, during the game, following the game.
"I think we have a group of mighty men. Mighty warriors, 10 seniors deep that have gone through a lot, gone through a lot of change, a lot of which have fought through a lot of injuries and they’re looking forward to putting it all on the line against one of the best teams in college football.”
— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop