LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Mike Sanford prepped for his move into the head coaching spot at Western Kentucky by working at Notre Dame the last two seasons, but he did not bring Lou Holtz’s tendencies with him.

When Sanford and two of his players visited WDRB last week, I advised him that ESPN analyst Phil Steele wrote that two of his computer power rankings predicted a 12-win season for the Hilltoppers.

Sanford did not flinch or poor mouth. Play ball.

Expecting 12-0 is unreasonable. But WKU has won at least eight games the last four seasons. I’m surprised the Hilltoppers failed to earn at least one vote in USA Today coaches’ pre-season Top 25 poll Thursday, considering ESPN’s power formula projects WKU will be favored in 10 games.

Las Vegas has put the over/under win total for WKU at 9.5. ESPN's power index projection is 8.


1. Eastern Kentucky, home, Sept 2 – It’s risky putting a rivalry game that triples as a season opener for the players as well as the head coaching career opener for Mike Sanford in the Sure Win category. The time was when EKU, not WKU, was the program more likely to succeed at the FBS level.  But the Colonels lost five of their last six in 2016 and haven’t seen many quarterbacks like Mike White.

2. Ball State, home, Sept. 23 – The Cardinals will be lugging a five-game losing streak into the season and are trying to appease David Letterman by avoiding their fourth consecutive losing year.


3. Charlotte, Home, Oct. 14 – The 49ers gave up 70 in their season opener with Louisville and were later stung for 48 by Temple and 52 by Old Dominion. Warning: Charlotte did win three on the road last season, including games at Marshall and Southern Miss.

4. Florida Atlantic, home, Oct. 28 – Lane Kiffin is coming to town with the keys to the program birthed by Howard Schellenberger. Pretty sure we’ll be able to find an angle or two in late October.

5. UTEP, away, Oct. 7 – It’s only 1,360 miles from Bowling Green, Ky. to El Paso but at least it’s Interstate all the way. The mighty Miners have posted one winning season in the last 10 years and lost four home games last season.

6. FIU, away, Nov. 24 – The Panthers are determined to hit it big with former head coaches from Power Five schools. They dumped former Illinois coach Ron Turner in the middle of last season, replacing him with Butch Davis, who won a game or two with Miami and North Carolina before stuff happened in Chapel Hill. But FIU has endured five straight losing seasons.


7. Middle Tennessee, home, Nov. 17 – MTSU quarterback Brent Stockstill has thrown for more than 7,200 yards the last two seasons, including 31 touchdowns and only seven interceptions a year ago. The winning team in this game has averaged nearly 51 points the last three seasons. Plan for a four-hour game.

8. Old Dominion, away, Oct. 20 – Things got a little frisky – and freaky – between the teams last season when punches were exchanged. But there was no debating the better team after WKU won, 59-24. Beware: WKU was the only team to defeat the Monarchs in their last 10 games.

9. Marshall, away, Nov. 11 – After three consecutive double-digit win seasons, Marshall disappeared to 3-9 in 2016 – and eight losses were by 10 points or more. Phil Steele believes the Thundering Herd will be in the hunt for the nation’s most improved team, saying they’re capable of winning at least eight.

10. Louisiana Tech, home, Sept. 16 – Skip Holtz has built the Bulldogs into the best team not named Western Kentucky in Conference USA. They ranked second nationally in scoring and passing offense last season but Ryan Higgins is gone at quarterback and J’Mar Smith completed 30 of 43 passes as his back-up.

11. Illinois, away, Sept. 9 – Year Two of the Lovie Smith Era has the Illini picked to finish at the bottom of the Big Ten West with Purdue. The Illini had a rocky off-season with player departures and so-so recruiting. The Hilltoppers stopped themselves in Champaign with turnovers in 2014. This is a winnable game.


12. Vanderbilt, away, Nov. 4 – Derek Mason talked like a coach who thinks his team is primed to surprise people in the SEC East. Why not? The Commodores beat Ole Miss and Tennessee last season. This is the rubber match between the teams and the first two games have been decided by 2 (WKU win) and 1 (Vandy win).

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