WKU Football: Ranking WKU’s Potential Bowl Destinations

Enhanced photo originally from ConferenceUSA.com

Another Western Kentucky football season is just three days away, and Mike Sanford’s Hilltoppers are predicted to not only have their seventh straight winning season, but they should go bowling for the fifth time in those seven seasons.

Conference USA has six primary bowl tie-ins this season — the newly named Gasparilla Bowl, New Orleans Bowl, Heart of Dallas Bowl, Boca Raton Bowl, Bahamas Bowl and New Mexico Bowl — one secondary bowl tie-in in the Independence Bowl and the CUSA champion vies for spot in the New Year’s Six Access Bowl; this year, it’s the Peach Bowl to be played in Atlanta.

Let’s analyze WKU’s potential bowl destinations and rank them by appeal.

Peach Bowl

Date: Monday, January 1, 2018

Location: Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Atlanta, Georgia

Time: TBD

Matchup: Highest ranked G5 Champion vs. P5 At-large team

Network: ESPN or ABC

The Peach Bowl would be the culmination of a dream season for the Hilltoppers. When Mike Sanford was hired, he stated that his goal was not only to get WKU to a New Year’s Six bowl but to win it as well. WKU would probably have to finish the season undefeated and would have to outrank the highest teams in the other G5 conferences (MWC, AAC, MAC, Sun Belt). With the set-up of the schedule and the returning talent on both sides of the ball, 2017 is as good of a year to break through to a New Year’s Six Bowl as any.

Still, the stars would have to align with a lot luck thrown in as well. The game would be the ultimate statement that WKU has made it as a top Mid-Major program. The opportunity to knock off a highly ranked Power 5 team in a showcase game is what every mid-major fan dreams of. Until the Hilltoppers suffer their first defeat, the G5 standings will be worth monitoring.

WKU’s chances of going to this bowl game: 5%

Gasparilla Bowl

Date: Thursday, December 21

Location: Tropicana Field. St. Petersburg, Florida

Time: 7 p.m.

Matchup: C-USA vs. American

Network: ESPN

If WKU falls short of that New Year’s Six bowl, but still finishes towards the top of C-USA, then I fully expect the program to push for the former St. Petersburg Bowl. Since WKU has started their recent run of C-USA success, it has become apparent that they want to go bowling in Florida when possible. Recruiting is the number one reason for the Florida preference; WKU has 13 Floridians on the current roster as well as five current commitments from the Sunshine State for the 2018 class. That presence not only helps with attendance at the game, but also gives Sanford and staff another opportunity to recruit while preparing for the Bowl.

Another factor that point heavily towards this being WKU’s bowl of choice includes the pre-Christmas week night showcase. Todd Stewart has repeatedly stated he wants to use bowl games as a way to get elevate the program’s awareness across the college football landscape. The Gasparilla Bowl is the only game on TV that night, and all of the college football universe will be watching. One bonus of playing in this game is the recent sponsorship change. The Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl will draw more attention from casual fans due to the quirky name change.

WKU’s chances of going to this bowl game: 35%

Heart of Dallas Bowl

Date: Tuesday, December 26

Location: Cotton Bowl. Dallas, Texas

Time: TBA

Matchup: C-USA vs. Big 12

Network: ESPN

Conference USA’s other relatively upper tier bowl game in the pecking order is the Heart of Dallas Bowl. The opportunity to play a Power 5 opponent in a bowl game is the main reason that I believe WKU would have any interest in the game. While that opponent would probably be a 6–6 or 7–5 team, a win against a middle of the road Big 12 team still makes a statement.

This bowl is designed to be a reward for the top ranked Conference USA West Division team. The four Texas schools, Louisiana Tech and Southern Miss usually have first claims to this bowl. The fact that it is played on the day after Christmas and ten hours from Bowling Green still limits the appeal for WKU. However, the fact that they haven’t played in this bowl yet and the potential P5 matchup make this one a possibility, if the match-up is right.

WKU’s chances of going to this bowl game: 25%

New Orleans Bowl

Date: Saturday, December 16

Location: Mercedes Benz Superdome. New Orleans, Louisiana.

Time: 12 p.m.

Matchup: C-USA vs. Sun Belt

Network: ESPN

Another bowl tie-in that WKU hasn’t played in yet, the New Orleans Bowl could be an option if WKU backslides to a 8–4 or 7–5 record. This game would be a treat for fans more than anything. The appeal of New Orleans before Christmas would draw a solid contingent of WKU fans to the Big Easy.

WKU could draw an upper tier Sun Belt team such as Appalachian State, Troy or Arkansas State for this one, or a regional Sun Belt team such as South Alabama or UL-Lafayette. While playing a noon game against a team from its former conference might not be as attractive as other match-ups, the chance to win a fourth straight bowl game (against a favorable opponent) could draw WKU to this game.

WKU’s chances of going to this bowl game: 15%

Independence Bowl

Date: Wednesday, December 27

Location: Independence Stadium. Shreveport, Louisiana

Time: 12:30 p.m.

Matchup: C-USA vs. SEC or ACC

Network: ESPN

The Independence Bowl is a secondary tie-in for Conference USA — in order for a team to play in it, the SEC or ACC must not fill their full allotment of bowl tie-ins. Like the Heart of Dallas Bowl, the appeal of the Independence Bowl would be the opportunity to play a Power 5 opponent.

The 8 hour and 45 minute drive two days after Christmas probably won’t lend itself to the athletic department pushing for this game. The game would probably match WKU against a 6–6 team such as Duke, Wake Forest or even Kentucky (though I doubt they’d agree to that). If that happens, expect WKU to judge if the potential statement win is worth the less than ideal date and time.

WKU’s chances of going to this bowl game: 5%

Boca Raton Bowl

Date: Tuesday, December 19

Locaton: FAU Stadium. Boca Raton, Florida

Time: 6 p.m.

Matchup: C-USA vs. America

Network: ESPN

WKU’s 2016 bowl destination would normally be towards the top of WKU’s bowl preferences due to location and time. However, the fact that they played in Boca Raton twice last season lends itself to a lower probability of WKU returning at least in 2017. Programs and bowls usually want new blood so they can sell a new trip to fans. WKU actually outdrew Memphis in this game last season, but it will be hard to convince fans to arrange that travel again since they have been there and done that previously. If everything falls into place, I could see the athletic department settling again on this for a favorable match-up but recent precedent shows that WKU will push for somewhere else (they’ve played in four different bowl games in four trips).

WKU’s chances of going to this bowl game: 10%

Bahamas Bowl

Date: Friday, December 22

Location: Thomas Robinson Stadium. Nassau, Bahamas.

Time: 11:30 a.m.

Matchup: C-USA vs. MAC

Network: ESPN

Another bowl game that WKU has played in recently (2014). Most likely, WKU would have to crater to 6–6 to play in this bowl again in 2017. The logistics and accessibility for fans make this a less than desirable destination despite being in paradise. Conference USA has used this bowl as a reward to programs that have broken through (WKU, MTSU, Old Dominion) to bowl eligibility after a drought. In 2017, I fully expect a program such as FIU, North Texas or Charlotte to head to the only international bowl game.

WKU’s chances of going to this bowl game: 2.5%

New Mexico Bowl

Date: Saturday, December 16

Location: Dreamstyle Stadium. Albuquerque, New Mexico

Time: 3:30 p.m.

Matchup: C-USA vs. Mountain West

Network: ESPN

The New Mexico Bowl is another game that I think will have little appeal to WKU. This game is designed to be the West Division equivalent of the Bahamas Bowl, a reward for returning to bowl eligibility. Programs such as UTEP and UTSA have filled the C-USA slot in recent years. The fact that it is 1,280 miles from Bowling Green makes this game have even less appeal. It would take a 6–6 type crater season for WKU to play in the Land of Enchantment. If WKU was to play in Albuquerque, it would be a cool trip for the few fans that make it.

WKU’s chances of going to this bowl game: 2.5%

Over the course of the season, we’ll give you a weekly update update of WKU’s bowl projections.

Where do you think WKU will go bowling in 2017? Besides the New Year’s Six Bowl, where would you like to see the Tops go? Let us know in a comment below, via twitter at @TheTowelRackWKU or on our Facebook page.