Tyson Helton

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Western Kentucky has not won the Conference USA football championship since Jeff Brohm led the Hilltoppers to back-to-back titles in 2015 and 2016.

WKU is a trendy pick to contend for the CUSA title again this season. Phil Steele projected the Hilltoppers to tie Florida Atlantic for first in the East Division, while Pro Football Focus ranks WKU the fourth-best overall squad in the 14-team league. Expect improvement from last season’s 5-7 team.

Western has celebrated one winning season (9-4 in 2019) since Brohm departed for Purdue. This should be WKU’s second as coach Tyson Helton has gone all-in on building a dynamic passing game behind quarterback Bailey Zappe, a mature, tested, 22-year-old transfer from Houston Baptist.

For the Toppers, the fun begins at 8 p.m. (EDT) Thursday in Bowling Green as Tennessee-Martin visits Houchens-Smith Stadium.

Surest Ws: Tennessee-Martin; at Old Dominion; Charlotte.

Surest Ls: Indiana, at Marshall.

Swing Games: UTSA, Middle Tennessee.

Upset City: Michigan State. Mel Tucker is two seasons into his rebuilding job in East Lansing. Tucker is playing mind games with announcing his starting quarterback for the Spartans’ opener at Northwestern on Friday. Translation: Michigan State has issues at quarterback that might not be resolved when WKU visits East Lansing Oct. 2. The Spartans went 2-5 last season, losing to Rutgers.

Biggest Strength: The insiders say that Zappe, who threw for over 10,000 yards in four seasons at Houston Baptist and put 567 yards on Texas Tech, will be the talk of Conference USA because his arm is strong and accurate.

Biggest Question: Helton worked overtime in the transfer portal, welcoming 28 transfers, including 10 that played at Power Five programs. He also recruited five new assistant coaches. How long will it take the group to find its mojo?

Mr. Indispensable: Defensive end DeAngelo Malone leads all returning FBS players with 25 career sacks. He’s started 28 consecutive games and delivered three games with 10 or more tackles. He might be the best defensive player in Conference USA.

Breakout Performer: Daewood Davis, a 6-foot-2-inch receiver who transferred from Oregon. Davis was three-star prospect ranked as one of the top 100 players in the Class of 2017 because of his crackling speed. The Ducks shuttled him between cornerback and receiver, but his speed should keep him in the WKU offense.

Did You Know? The Hilltoppers have won all four games against Tennessee-Martin by an average score of 49-4.

Numbers Racket: Western is ranked No. 107 by Phil Steele, 106 by Jeff Sagarin and ESPN’s Football Power Index and No. 99 by Pro Football Focus.

Final Record

  • Tom Lane: 8-4. Toppers ramp up an anemic offense with a major input from Houston Baptist (OC, QB, Receivers) and a roster overhaul via transfers (25 out, 17 in).
  • John Lewis: 7-5. The Hilltoppers revamped offense coupled with a defense that could be a lot stronger in 2021 makes me think last year will be forgotten soon.
  • Eric Crawford: 8-4. No team in the country, perhaps, more thoroughly remade itself in the offseason, with 25 players transferring out but 17 transferring in, including some interesting offensive weapons from Houston Baptist. That crowd should make offense exciting in Bowling Green again, and with super senior DeAngelo Malone (the "De" stands for defense) back on the edge, the Hilltoppers could be a fascinating team. I expect losses to Indiana (at home) and at Michigan State, but all of the others will be up for grabs in a less-than stellar Conference USA.
  • Rick Bozich: 7-5. I agree with Mr. Crawford. WKU should be a fascinating team, the most thoroughly rebuilt team in the area. All the talk about Zappe has been encouraging and he did have success against two Conference USA programs (North Texas and Louisiana Tech) last season. But WKU must improve a rushing defense that was gashed for more than 2,000 yards and 20 touchdowns last season.

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