WKU Football: The Next Step - Why A New Year’s Six Bowl Isn’t Out of the Question
WKU Football has reached levels that many thought impossible when they joined the FBS level back in 2007 .They navigated a rough transition from FCS and then started acing all of their hires. Despite now being on their fourth head coach since 2012, WKU has established itself as a top Conference USA team and a consistent top-tier mid major program.
After six straight winning seasons that have led to four bowl berth’s & two conference championships, the question now is; where will the program go next?
While Mike Sanford is in his honeymoon period, the expectations and aspirations of the program have now been raised significantly. Let’s explore where the program can go from here and how realistic the goal of elevating the program is in Mike Sanford’s debut season.
What is the next goal?
Mike Sanford has the unenviable task of following a wildly entertaining, popular and successful coach in Jeff Brohm. Brohm elevated what Willie Taggart and Bobby Petrino built and took the program from competing for bowl games to winning conference titles. There are very few complaints that anyone could have about Brohm’s tenure on the Hill. His teams got better as each season progressed and he was amazing at dominating similarly talented competition.
Sanford has a high hill to climb, even to maintain Brohm’s conference excellence (15–1 last two seasons). Conference USA has repeatedly had programs reach the summit of winning the title, only to have their program backslide once inevitable player and coaching turnover occured (See: Marshall post 2014 and Southern Miss post 2011). Several of the national & conference media are predicting a coming changing of the guard due to roster turnover and unknown coach performance. Sanford not only has to prove he won’t let the program backslide, but he and athletic director Todd Stewart have stated the next goal is take the program to the New Year’s Six Access bowl and win it.
In order to do that, Sanford not only must continue the conference (& G5) dominance that Brohm started but he must also improve on Brohm’s 1–5 record against Power 5 schools (the only win came in 2015 against Vanderbilt). Each season, the top Group of Five program (according to the CFB Playoff Committee)at the end of the regular season gets to square off in one of three rotating New Year’s Six Bowl Games (Fiesta, Cotton and Peach Bowls) against a Power 5 program (usually a conference’s second or third-place team.
In order to become the top G5 program you have to not only win your conference but also have a more impressive resume than teams from the other G5 conferences (AAC, MAC, Mountain West & Sun Belt). WKU has finished as high as second (in 2015) in the final G5 rankings but the biggest differentiator when playing in Conference USA (usually the third-to-last rated G5 conference) is playing a tough non conference schedule. Here is WKU’s non conference schedules moving forward via FBSCHEDULES.com:
The Tops not only have two non-conference Power 5 opponents in each of the next four seasons, but all are semi beatable, instead of typical paycheck games (like Alabama was last year). The future schedules have ample opportunities for signature wins. Now the program has to consistently start winning these showcase games to approach being seen at the same level of programs such as Boise State & Houston among college football’s mid major elite. (Ed. note — WKU and Auburn are scheduled for a non-conference showdown in 2022. With a team as up and down as the Tiger War Eagles can be, that will be more than a perceived paycheck game as well.)
Previous New Year’s Six Access Bowl runs
The Access Bowl slot for Group of Five teams has been around since 2014, when the College Football Playoff came into existence. Let’s compare the schedules of each team that made the game and see if we can draw any conclusions from each.
2014 Boise State
Boise State’s 2014 run started like the other three teams that reppresented the G5 in a NY6 bowl — unranked. Having years of cache and name recognition from perennially competing towards the top of the BCS standing, Boise was able to start the season off in a showcase game against Hugh Freeze’s Ole Miss Rebels. Unfortunately they were just starting the Bryan Harsin era in that game and had a disappointing showing. They didn’t let that defeat ruin their season however, as they rattled off 11 wins in their last twelve games.
Despite not having another Power conference team on the schedule, they took advantage of a weak year in the G5 as no teams finished undefeated (thanks to WKU’s upset win over Marshall) and upset Rich Rodriguez’s best Arizona team in the Fiesta Bowl.
The committee rewarded #21 Boise State for playing that kickoff game across the country and they probably got in due to wins against an eight-win BYU and strong conference foes Colorado State and Utah State (both finished with 10 wins that year). The biggest takeaway from 2014 Boise St. is that schedule matters — if you schedule tough non-conference games, than it gives you some margin for error if your conference is highly regarded that season. Unfortunately for WKU, Conference USA hasn’t been close to the best G5 conference since the league realigned in 2013.
2015 Houston is the perfect example of how scheduling winnable games against Power 5 opponents can propel a program to a New Year’s Six Bowl. By beating Louisville and Vanderbilt, they had two Power Five wins on their resume (WKU only had one, over the same four-win Vanderbilt squad) that could match up with any of the other teams that they were competing with.
Houston also took advantage of an unusually strong season in the AAC to have the best resume of any of the three teams that made the game. They were one of four conference teams that were ranked over the course of the AAC season.
Their resume of three Top 25 wins and two P5 wins might be the strongest for a G5 team for years to come. Had they not lost to UConn it would have been very interesting to see where they could have topped out at in the final playoff standings. Their win over #9 Florida State validated the G5 Access in the New Year’s Six Bowl, pushing the mid-major record to 2–0. They are another example of not having to finish undefeated to separate yourself from the other G5 peers.
2016 Western Michigan
The path I believe WKU can best replicate is Western Michigan’s 2016 season.
PJ Fleck’s Broncos had two lower level Big Ten teams, Illinois and Northwestern, that they successfully beat to add some cache to an otherwise dumpster fire season in the MAC.
Over the course of the season, WMU only beat five teams that went to bowl games (Northwestern, CMU, EMU, Toledo and Ohio) and only beat one team with nine or more wins (Toledo). They rode an undefeated record and weak G5 competition (Houston had three losses, despite beating Oklahoma and Louisville, WKU had zero P5 wins) to a #12 ranking and a Cotton Bowl berth against #8 Wisconsin. They were over matched in that game, but kept the score respectable.
The 2016 Broncos show that you can ride a mediocre schedule and an undefeated record to a New Year’s Six spot if you schedule correctly in the non-conference year. With Conference USA’s weak reputation and recent performance, this will probably be the path that WKU will have to replicate.
Why 2017 can be the year for WKU to make the Access Bowl Run
There are three reasons to believe WKU can be a legitimate contender for a New Year’s Six Bowl in 2017.
Coming back for 2017 is All-Conference quarterback, and Preseason Player of the Year, Mike White, along with several impact players that will lessen the blow of losing several talented players to the NFL.
Without proven talent like Mike White, Nacarius Fant, Dennis Edwards, Joe Brown, Joel Iyiegbuniwe, Chris Johnson and Marcus Ward (and many others) it would be much easier to predict a drop off in the first year of Mike Sanford. These veterans have played a major role in WKU’s success over the past few seasons and they know what it takes to pursue greatness. That leadership will be invaluable if they are going to compete for their third-straight conference title and the New Year’s Six bowl spot.
Like Western Michigan’s 2016 schedule, it’s a perfect mix of beatable Power 5 opponents and favorable conference match-ups.
Illinois is coming off a dumpster fire 3–9 debut season for Lovie Smith and will be breaking in a new quarterback — getting them during the second game of the season can only help WKU’s upset chances. Vanderbilt has proven to be about as close an opponent that WKU can schedule. Their first two matchups have been decided by a total of three points and the rubber match comes late enough in the season that WKU can possibly take advantage of the grind of SEC conference play beating the Commodores up. Beating two power conference teams on the road (even ones with a mediocre reputation) would give WKU a leg up on many of the teams they would be competing with for the Access Bowl slot. According to SB Nation’s stat guru, Bill Connelly, WKU will in fact be favored in eleven of their twelve games:
Getting several C-USA contenders — including Louisiana Tech, MTSU and a wildcard FAU at home — will also give them an advantage in games against teams with similar talent levels. The combination of weaker Power 5 teams and conference opponents that they’ll be overwhelming favorites against, should lead to a scenario where WKU could be talking about an undefeated season heading into November and hopefully December if everything breaks the right way.
Sanford was the Offensive Coordinator during Boise State’s 2014 Fiesta Bowl run. He knows what its like being a part of a special season. He was also the Offensive Coordinator during Notre Dame’s 2015 Sugar Bowl run and was on the coaching staff during Stanford’s Orange Bowl (2011) and Rose Bowl (2012, 2013) runs. The invaluable experience of not only being on staff but being a crucial decision maker will help Sanford keep the team focused and motivated if the season takes off like we hope. The “Boise-East” culture that Sanford is trying to establish can only help WKU climb to that next level.
There will be many contenders for the New Year’s Six spot. If the first three years has shown us anything, its that it pays to schedule beatable Power 5 opponents and you can only afford one loss at most. WKU’s schedule lines up favorably to AAC contenders that will beat each other up and other programs that have much tougher non conference schedules (Toledo and Wyoming).
The prize for being the top Group of 5 program is the easily drivable Peach Bowl in Atlanta on January 1st. Achieving that goal would take WKU to the next level and prove that our upward trajectory since 2011 didn’t top out with Brohm’s departure. The next question after that is how will the fan base respond? Let’s hope we can ask that question here in five months.