Bowl season rolls on with an intriguing matchup in the SERVPRO First Responder Bowl between the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers of Conference USA and the Western Michigan Broncos of the MAC. Kickoff is set for 12:30 EST on Monday, December 30 at Gerald J. Ford Stadium in Dallas. The game will be broadcast on ESPN.
Current odds list the Hilltoppers as 3.5-point favorites with an over/under of 52 points. Click here to get a complete list of this year’s bowl game betting odds.
Despite plenty of coaching turnover in recent years, the Hilltoppers put together another solid season under first-year head coach Tyson Helton. Western Kentucky began the year with a puzzling loss to FCS opponent Central Arkansas. However, they turned things around and finished the year with seven wins in their final nine games, including a 45-19 shellacking of SEC opponent Arkansas. In the end, the Hilltoppers finished 8-4 and 6-2 in Conference USA.
After last year’s 3-9 campaign that saw Mike Sanford fired, Helton did a great job of getting WKU back on track quickly. He’ll now lead the Hilltoppers into a bowl game for the fifth time in the last six years. Western Kentucky is 3-1 in bowl games during that span, including a 2014 Bahamas Bowl win against Central Michigan out of the MAC.
As for Western Michigan, they should be eager to get back on the field after losing their regular-season finale to Northern Illinois. That loss kept the Broncos out of the MAC Championship Game when all they needed was a win to reach the conference title game. Instead, Tim Lester’s team had to settle for a 7-5 season and a second-place finish in the MAC West Division.
On the bright side, Lester has gotten WMU to a bowl game for the second straight year after the Broncos were bowl eligible but didn’t get a bid in 2017. Much like Western Kentucky, this will be the fifth time the Broncos play in a bowl in the last six years. However, Western Michigan hasn’t fared all that well, going 1-3 during that span. That includes a 49-18 blowout at the hands of BYU last year.
In an interesting twist to this game, these two programs actually have a fair amount of history with one another, just not recent history. WMU and WKU have 15 previous meetings, with most of them coming in the 1930s and 1940s. For what it’s worth, the Broncos have won 11 of those 15 games. However, this will be the first game between the Broncos and Hilltoppers since 1947.
While I agree that Western Kentucky should be favored in this game, I don’t think this is a slam-dunk win for the Hilltoppers. Despite a couple of puzzling losses, Western Michigan may have been the best team in the MAC this season. On their day, the Broncos are top-notch mid-major. Also, I have a few concerns about Western Kentucky, which is why I’ll take my chances with Western Michigan making this a field goal game and beating the spread.
My biggest concern with Western Kentucky is a lack of explosiveness offensively. Despite having 1,100-yard rusher Gaej Walker, the Hilltoppers averaged less than four yards per carry on the season. The WKU passing game doesn’t exactly create big plays either. Despite quarterback Ty Storey completing 70% of his passes on the season, he only threw 12 touchdown passes. He can manage the game and make a few plays with his legs, but the Hilltoppers aren’t a quick-strike offense. That makes me a little concerned that they won’t be able to get enough separation to cover more than a field goal.
Meanwhile, I’m a huge fan of the Western Michigan offense. The Broncos have a great balance between the run and pass that makes them difficult to defend. Senior LeVante Bellamy was the best running back in the MAC this year, amassing 1,400 yards and averaging close to six yards per carry while finding the end zone 23 times. Western Michigan also has a proven quarterback in Joe Wassink. The senior has over two years of experience under his belt and should be poised to go out with a bang.
On the season, Michigan State and Northern Illinois were the only teams to hold the Broncos to less than 24 points. WMU surpasses the 30-point barrier eight times in 12 games, so beating them usually requires a strong offensive effort. I don’t doubt that Western Kentucky can put up a little resistance defensively. But the Hilltoppers struggled against some of the better offensive teams in Conference USA. I also question if the WKU offense can keep pace if the Broncos are able to turn this game into a shootout.
In the end, I think there will be too much pressure on the Western Kentucky defense in this game. The Hilltoppers don’t want a track meet and they might be hard-pressed to keep the WMU offense at bay all game. I expect a close game, which makes 3.5 points a lot to cover, pushing me to take Western Michigan to beat the spread.