CRAWFORD | A day after C-USA title, WKU makes first appearance i - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | A day after C-USA title, WKU makes first appearance in AP Top 25

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BOWLING GREEN, Ky. (WDRB) — I’m not sure which is the bigger reward — whatever bowl bid the Western Kentucky University football team gets later today, or the No. 25 ranking it got from Associated Press poll voters.

WKU was no stranger to the the rankings as a Football Championship Subdivision member. This is its first ranking in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

After the Hilltoppers (11-2) beat Southern Mississippi 45-25 in the Conference USA championship game on Saturday, several people asked me the question: Who is the best football team in the state?

I took a night to sleep on it. Here’s one easy answer: Who is ranked? WKU finishes the season as the state's only football team among the AP Top 25. Here’s another way to answer it: Why don’t we pair Louisville and WKU in a bowl game and find out?

The fact is, WKU right now is trying to travel the road Louisville traveled some time ago. And with Jeff Brohm at the helm, the Hilltopers are making good time.

The Hilltoppers are going bowling in style, with their first FBS conference championship, and they will go on a hot streak. Their 12 consecutive conference victories are the most of any program in the nation.

They’ve been winning games so convincingly that the thought of them having jitters never entered my mind. But that’s what happened at the beginning of Saturday’s game against Southern Mississippi.

WKU had just 24 yards of total offense in the first quarter. It fell behind 21-7.

Quarterback Brandon Doughty has been through a lot of things in his years at WKU. He even was granted an extra year to play out his eligibility on the Hill. He’s thrown for 12,000 career yards. But one thing he’d never done in his career was play for an actual championship.

“I think we got caught up in the minute a little bit,” Doughty said. “We settled down a little bit, myself included. I don’t think we played well in the first half. . . . 

“To put on paper your goals at the beginning of the season and to be able to achieve that is incredible. We have an unbelievable group of guys and guys who make me look a lot better than I am and that don’t get enough credit. . . .  This is only the start of what’s going to happen at WKU in the future.”

It hasn’t been that long ago that any of this talk would’ve seemed absurd. In fact, it did seem absurd.

I was there when WKU president Gary Ransdell sat in front of The Courier-Journal editorial board to talk about wanting to step up to the FBS level in football. Most people around that table thought he’d lost his mind, and would soon lose an incredible amount of money.

And to be sure, there have been costs to making such a commitment to football. You can debate the tangible benefits football brings to a university — if any.

But you can’t debate that, if WKU was looking for exposure, FBS football has at the very least put it on a level with its other major-college peers in the state of Kentucky.

After that move, WKU lost 26 straight games — a span of 763 days.  "When I was recruited, I had no idea we were 0-26 or I wouldn’t have come to WKU," Doughty said, laughing. "No, I'm just kidding."

Fast-forward to today, and WKU football is no joke. It has beaten the University of Kentucky the past two times they've met. The teams had one common opponent this season: Vanderbilt. UK lost to Vandy 21-17. WKU beat the Commodores, 14-12.

Now WKU doesn’t draw the number of fans of those other programs, but it has put itself into the discussion, which is what Ransdell was hoping for when all this began.

It’s safe to say, in fact, that what Brohm has done, building on what Dave Elson, Willie Taggert (who just signed an extension with South Florida after reportedly talking with South Carolina) and Bobby Petrino (now back at Louisville) got going is perhaps more than Ransdell and school administrators expected, at least this quickly, since the program played its first game as an FBS member in 2009.

“What makes this place so special — you have a chance to build something, and you have a chance to continue to grow each and every year, to try to raise the level of play, to try to raise the bar each and every year,” Brohm said Saturday. “We’ve got everything in place. We’ve got a great stadium, great facilities. We’re in a great conference. We have great fan support. We have great leadership at this university that wants sports to excel. They know the importance of winning. We’ve got a great group of guys that are hungry. They all think that they’ve been overlooked to a certain degree. They’re out to prove themselves, but it’s really a great day today. To get this victory, like I said, it’s extremely rewarding and satisfactory. I couldn’t be happier. You know I’ve played in a lot of games myself, at this point I can’t remember any of them. This is the biggest one. I’m really proud of the effort of everyone involved, that’s coaches, administrators, support staff, leadership but definitely our players. I’m very proud right now.”

Coaching searches came and went this season. Brohm got at least a couple of calls for interviews last week, while he was preparing with his team for the C-USA title game. He turned them down. This week, now that he has more time, the coaching carousel has slowed down.

If that’s the case, it’s fine with Brohm. A day will come when he is offered a bigger job, and may take it. But Brohm doesn’t have to have just any job.

And he recognizes what he has. Brohm has played and coached for a lot of great coaches. He has studied Howard Schnellenberger and his program-building, and patterns a great many things he does after his old college coach. A lot of times you’ll ask him something, and he’ll revert back to, “Coach Schnellenberger used to say . . . “

He did that again Saturday when asked to comment on coaching speculation.

“My main comment is I don’t comment,” Brohm said. “I don’t worry about other jobs and speculation. Without question, I love it here. This is where I want to be. We have a great situation. We can build a program, and continue to try to gain steam and elevate it and try to get on the national scene. We can add players, add good teams to the schedule, compete in the conference, all those things that when I played for Coach Schnellenberger way back at Louisville, he was great at doing. He was the ultimate program builder, whether it was Louisville, Florida Atlantic, Miami when he won the national championship, he knows how to build programs. I got to be under him as a player, even as a coach one year, and it’s something special. When he have a chance to build it’s special, and I think we have something special here and I love it here.”

The Hilltoppers have their C-USA trophy and in a few hours will have their bowl bid. Their biggest rewards, however, might well be the recognition national media just gave them in their first Top 25 ranking, and a chance, perhaps, to hang onto Brohm for a while longer, as he works to do a Schenllenberger number on the WKU program.

Update: On Sunday, WKU was selected to play in the Miami Beach Bowl against the University of South Florida on Dec. 21. The game will be played at Marlins Park, home of the Miami Marlins.

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