Sun Belt Football: Can Western Kentucky Earn First Bowl Invite?

Alan BlackAnalyst IIINovember 1, 2011

LINCOLN, NE - SEPTEMBER 04: Willie McNeal of the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers attempts to out run Jase Dean #31 of the Nebraska Cornhuskers after a mishandled punt during first half action of their game at Memorial Stadium on September 4, 2010 in Lincoln, Nebraska. Nebraska defeated Western Kentucky 49-10. (Photo by Eric Francis/Getty Images)
Eric Francis/Getty Images

In 2002, the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers won the FCS football championship (formerly known as I-AA).  A few short years later, the program decided to move up to the FBS level.  Since that ascension, few things have gone right for the Hilltoppers. During the program's first three years at the FBS level (2008-2010 seasons), Western Kentucky managed only four wins against 32 losses, with two of those wins coming against FCS teams Eastern Kentucky and Murray State.

Through the first four games of this season, the futility seemed destined to continue, as the Hilltoppers started 0-4, including an embarrassing 28-point loss to FCS team Indiana State.  The only question seemed to be whether Western Kentucky would once again go winless, as it did in the 2009 season.

Four games later, the Hilltoppers' season has taken a rather unexpected turn.  Led by Senior running back Bobby Rainey, the team has reeled off four straight wins, including a 19-point victory over conference front-runner Louisiana-Lafayette.  Western Kentucky is currently in third place in the Sun Belt, and only half a game behind second place ULL.  The Hilltoppers' only conference loss is a narrow four-point defeat to current conference leaders Arkansas State.

Which begs a question that seemed absolutely ludicrous only a month ago: Can the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers make it to a bowl game for the first time since moving up to the FBS level?

At 4-4, the Hilltoppers only need to win two of their last four games in order to become bowl-eligible.  Although an away game against LSU seems like a pretty certain loss, there are still three winnable games left against Sun Belt Conference opponents FIU, North Texas, and Troy.  Of those three teams, only FIU currently has a winning record.

Of course, being bowl-eligible and actually making it to a bowl are two different things, and this could very well wind up being the case with Western Kentucky this season.  The Sun Belt has only two guaranteed bowl tie-ins, the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl and the Bowl in Mobile, Alabama.  If WKU does indeed finish at 6-6, they would in all likelihood be third in the Sun Belt, behind Arkansas State and ULL.  Would any bowl be willing to take the third-place team from the Sun Belt as an at-large?  Probably not.

Now, if the Hilltoppers can win-out in conference play, they will at the very least be tied for second in the conference, having only one conference loss.  Since Arkansas State and ULL have yet to play each other, it is guaranteed that at the end of conference play either Arkansas State will have at least one loss or ULL will have at least two losses, giving a 7-1 WKU team either a share of first or a solid hold on second place.

Regardless of what occurs elsewhere in the conference, the fact that the words "bowl-eligible" and "Western Kentucky Hilltoppers" are even being mentioned together is quite a feat, and shows how times are changing in Bowling Green, Kentucky.