WKU Football: Ranking WKU’s Rivals

With Western Kentucky renewing their football rivalry with EKU on Saturday, I wanted to explore where the Colonels now stand in WKU’s rivalry pecking order. This isn’t just a football only exercise; I also took into account basketball and overall history. Not only are rivalries gauged by who matters most to WKU fans, but how important the game is to the other side as well. After careful thought and speculation, here is a 2017 ranking of WKU’s rivals by importance. Here we go:

  1. Middle Tennesse State
  • Football Series — MTSU leads 34–31–1
  • Basketball Series — WKU leads 93–41

The 100 Miles of Hate has been around for decades and is WKU’s oldest rivalry that persists yearly to this day. What once started in the Ohio Valley Conference has endured and elevated since WKU joined FBS in 2007. The combination of long history and recent parity has enshrined this as WKU’s top rivalry. After years of just being a regional rivalry, MTSU overtook EKU and Murray State as WKU’s primary rival due to similar trajectory of the programs.

In football, the series is as even as can be. WKU’s recent two game winning streak coincided with WKU’s ascent to the top of Conference USA. This year’s match-up could decide division supremacy, much like last year’s game looked like it was going to before Brent Stockstill went down with an injury.

The rivalry has historically been much more one sided in basketball however. MTSU has taken control recently winning, 11 of 13 games since 2010. The constant argument of history versus recent success should finally go away this season as both team should compete for an NCAA tournament berth all season. MTSU might be the one rival that fans across all generations would put towards the top of the list.

2. Marshall

  • Football Series — Series Tied 4–4
  • Basketball Series — WKU leads 13–10

WKU’s newest rivalry is now one of the most important. The “Moonshine Throwdown” is a natural rivalry due to geography, as Huntington and Bowling Green are separated by four hours. WKU has controlled the football rivalry going 3–0 since the game became a yearly staple, including a classic shootout in 2014.

Mainly, with the help of Twitter banter, the importance of the rivalry has quickly overcome its lack of history. Marshall fans routinely mock WKU’s attendance while WKU fans regularly point to the football scoreboard, causing further animosity.

Both teams will continuously stand in each other’s way during their quests for conference glory. Marshall has actually taken five of the last seven in basketball since WKU joined Conference USA. Fan animosity and high stakes regularly scheduled games moving forward have helped elevate this new rivalry towards the top.

3. Louisville

  • Football Series — Louisville Leads 19–12
  • Basketball Series — Louisville Leads 40–39

This rivalry is one of WKU’s most interesting as both teams have regularly played in the shadow of that school in Lexington. WKU had the early success in the rivalry but has since faltered as the schools went in different directions.

In basketball, before the 1960’s, both programs were generally on even footing. E.A. Diddle routinely beat solid Louisville teams. But since, victories have become harder for WKU in recent years, but they have produced some memorable upsets of the Cardinals including Darrin Horn’s buzzer beater in 1993 and WKU upsetting the #3 Cardinals in Nashville in 2008. After all the years, the series is just separated by one game (though WKU could overtake again if/when UofL must vacate wins from its recent scandal).

In football, the rivalry turned in the late 40’s with WKU winning just two games (out of 18) since 1946. Since the hey day in the first half of the 20th century, both teams have played sparingly over the years, last meeting on the gridiron in 1998.

Louisville has elevated itself all the way from Mid-Major program to a top tier ACC team while WKU has slowly followed their lead into FBS glory. This rivalry is all about perception; WKU is striving to prove that they are close to UofL’s level, while UofL looks down on WKU as a little brother (despite their own history of being called that with UK). The fact that UofL scheduled WKU in all major sports will elevate this rivalry at least in the short term, even if UofL doesn’t look at WKU the same way. An upset or two by WKU might further cement the rivalry with both team’s fan bases.

4. Eastern Kentucky

  • Football Series — WKU leads 48–34–3
  • Basketball Series — WKU leads 112–44

The “Battle of the Bluegrass” is arguably WKU’s top historic rivalry, but the EKU rivalry has steadily lost importance since WKU moved up to FBS in 2007. WKU was always the big brother in basketball, having dominated the series throughout with some memorable and controversial games over the years. Last season, EKU snapped a 13 game losing streak at the hands of the Tops (dating back to 1987), in a game that Rick Stansbury described as “Their Super Bowl”.

In football, the rivalry has been much closer. EKU was a powerhouse at the 1-AA level back in the late 70’s to the mid 80's, winning national titles that eluded WKU in the seventies. WKU had controlled the rivalry winning 11 of 15 games when the series stopped in 2008. This year’s game is a momentary trip back to a time when both directional teams had arguably the top in-state rivalry (before UK and UofL started playing each other).

Right now, the Colonels are far behind their former top rival and WKU fans have marginalized them in their mental pecking order. The Colonels and their fans hope to change that one day if a FBS conference invites them to join. Until then, 2017 will be the last foreseeable year that the old rivals will renew the Battle of the Bluegrass (in both major sports) and settle it on the field.

5. Murray State

  • Football Series — WKU leads 36–24–7
  • Basketball Series — WKU leads 98–54

WKU’s closest geographic in-state rival is Murray State, another former OVC rival who have suffered a similar fate to EKU when it comes to significance in the eyes of the Topper fan.

While the football rivalry was dubbed “The Battle of the Red Belt,” the Racers rarely had the same sustained success as EKU in football to push the rivalry to the next level. The Racers last played WKU when the Houch expanded in 2008 with WKU dominating 50–9 despite finishing the season 2–10.

The basketball rivalry was always the sport that caused the most vitriol. When WKU left the OVC in the early 80’s, Murray State stepped up and became the top program in the conference. WKU routinely dominated the Racers throughout the decade, but the rivalry turned in the late 90’s. The Racers actually leads WKU in tournament appearances since 1995 (nine for Murray, while Western has gone eight times). They played annually from 1997 to 2014 and the Racers won 10 of 16 games and have been the more consistent program over the past 15 or so years.

Currently, there are no scheduled games upcoming between the two rivals in the two major sports. Many WKU basketball fans would much rather play the Racers than EKU. Hopefully both sides can resume this rivalry here in the next couple of years and WKU can re-establish dominance.

6. Kentucky

  • Football Series — UK leads 3–2
  • Basketball Series — UK leads 4–2

The biggest brother in-state, Kentucky has rarely played WKU in both program’s long histories, making the rivalry case much harder. Adolph Rupp’s policy of not scheduling in-state opponents (because he saw no value in it) caused WKU to only see the blue-blood Wildcats in basketball five times in their history. Three of those occurrences came in the NCAA tournament (1971, 1986, 2012) when the committee forced UK to play them.

The 1971 victory by head coach John Oldham might be the biggest win in program history. The Jim McDaniels-led Hilltoppers spanked Rupp’s Wildcats, 107–83, in route to the only Final Four in school history. Rick Pitino played former assistant Ralph Willard twice in the early 90’s during the regular season but only one more regular season match-up has occurred since then. The 2001 early season victory by Dennis Felton’s squad might be the most talked about regular season victory in program history. The Hilltoppers held their own against the eventual 2012 National Champions losing only by 15 as a 16 seed. No other matchups are on the hard court radar.

On the football field, UK first scheduled WKU during their FBS transition and played five times from 2008 to 2013. UK owned WKU in the first two match-ups, winning by an average of 36.5 points, but Willie Taggart and Bobby Petrin0 turned the tide, winning the final two games of the series in memorable fashion.

Since that opening match-up of the 2013 season, UK has only scheduled WKU in baseball, a series the Cats lead all-time 33–27.

UK’s fans and administration see WKU as lose-lose situation. WKU fans are left to wonder if they’ll ever get another shot; luckily, WKU faithful at least have that two game winning streak to fall back on.

Teams who missed the Cut

Louisiana Tech

  • An on-again-off-again conference rivalry that probably was at it’s hottest in women’s basketball during the mid 80’s and early 90’s has since picked up steam in football. During that women’s basketball hey-day, Paul Sanderford’s annual game with Louisiana Tech was circled on the calendar and routinely sold out Diddle Arena. Tech ended up being the more successful program (having won two national titles) but WKU was always the Lady Techsters’ most difficult conference game. Since 2014, the Bulldogs have played WKU in football more than any other team, splitting the series 2–2. WKU has won when the stakes have been the highest, including last year’s C-USA championship game. The main thing keeping the two teams from making the top six is geography. Both teams are separated by 577 miles, causing the fan acrimony to be minimal.

UAB

  • Another one of WKU’s old Sun Belt rivals has slowly returned to the picture with WKU’s ascent to Conference USA. Back in the 80’s, both programs were regularly competing for NCAA tournament appearances and the game was regularly marked on both teams calenders. The rivalry resumed with occasional moments of vigor, including both squads eliminating each other in the 2015 and 2016 C-USA basketball tournaments. Unfortunately, they will only play sparingly in football because of C-USA’s division alignment, preventing this rivalry from taking another step.

Morehead State

  • WKU’s former OVC rival was always a distant last in WKU’s in-state pecking order. The Eagles haven’t played WKU in basketball since 1985 or football since 2007. There are no scheduled games on the calendar either so we’ll have to look back at this rivalry through the old OVC-days lens.

Northern Kentucky

  • WKU has never played the Norse in basketball (they don’t have a football team), however with the programs recent ascent to Division 1 and their recent NCAA birth, NKU could conceivably emerge as the fourth best Division 1 program in the state and thus are a non existent rival to keep an eye on.

What do you think about our rankings? Were we way off base? Are there any programs that we completely forgot about? Let us know in a comment below, via Twitter at @TheTowelRackWKU or on our Facebook page.