Even with an offense as dynamic as Western Kentucky’s, the Hilltoppers didn’t quite reach the Conference USA Championship after losing to UTSA and North Texas last year.
Still, they ended the 2022 season with a New Orleans Bowl win and a 9-5 record. Now they go into this season with optimism.
In a league with plenty of new teams, could WKU take the conference championship?
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Western Kentucky Football’s Conference USA Title Odds
Western Kentucky Football’s Over/Under Win Total
WKU’s win total Over/Under is tied for the highest in CUSA at 8.5, with Under 8.5 at -135 and Over 8.5 at +115.
Western Kentucky Football’s Schedule
9/2 vs USF
9/9 vs Houston Christian
9/16 at Ohio State
9/23 at Troy
9/28 vs Middle Tennessee
10/5 at Louisiana Tech
10/17 at Jacksonville State
10/24 vs Liberty
11/4 at UTEP
11/11 vs New Mexico State
11/18 vs Sam Houston
11/25 at FIU
Bold indicates CUSA contests.
Key Western Kentucky Football Returners
2022 All-Conference USA 1st Team
WR Malachi Corley
LB JaQues Evans
QB Austin Reed
OL Quantavious Leslie
OL Vincent Murphy
DB Upton Stout
P Tom Ellard
Austin Reed-Malachi Corley Combo Fuels Western Kentucky’s Offense
Western Kentucky is one of the few teams with an elite Group of Five quarterback and wide receiver.
Austin Reed led all of FBS in passing last season with 4,744 yards. He added 40 touchdowns and 11 interceptions while completing 65% of his passes as well as 224 yards and eight touchdowns rushing.
Malachi Corley is arguably the best G5 wide receiver as well. He was fourth in the nation with 1,293 yards and 101 receptions to go with 11 touchdowns, which was also top 10 among FBS wideouts.
Michael Mathison, who was fourth on the team with 615 yards and 52 catches to go with three touchdowns, is also back. The Hilltoppers added transfers Ze’Vian Capers (Auburn), Blue Smith (Cincinnati), and Jimmy Holiday (Tennessee) to their receiving corps this offseason while also bringing in Buffalo transfer tight end Trevor Borland.
At running back, Davion Ervin-Poindexter is back after leading the team with 525 yards and three touchdowns on the ground. Elijah Young, a transfer running back from Missouri, could also be in line to make contributions for WKU.
The Hilltoppers’ offensive line was solid last season. They allowed 14 sacks, the second-fewest in Conference USA, and they averaged 4.9 rushing yards per carry, which was third. They return a couple of their best players up front in 2023.
Both of WKU’s guards, Quantavious Leslie and Vincent Murphy, earned All-Conference USA honorable mention accolades last season and are both back. Mark Goode also returns after starting the team’s first six games at left tackle. Michael Moment, a transfer offensive lineman from Alcorn State, could also be in the mix.
JaQues Evans Sets Tone For Western Kentucky’s Defense
Western Kentucky was in the top three in CUSA for points allowed (23.4 per game) and yards allowed (383.9 per game). But the Hilltoppers will have plenty of production to replace on the defensive side of the ball.
Only four of their top 13 tacklers from 2022 are back in 2023. That includes defensive lineman Brodric Martin, who was selected by the Lions in the third round of the NFL Draft, and cornerback Kahlef Hailassie, who signed an undrafted free agent deal with the Chiefs.
However, first-team all-conference linebacker JaQues Evans is back. He was tied for second in CUSA with nine sacks and was third with 106 tackles as well as fourth with 14 tackles for loss a season ago.
Upton Stout, a defensive back who tied the team lead with four interceptions to go with 44 tackles, is also back. Defensive back Talique Allen is another one of WKU’s top returners, as he totaled 47 tackles, two for loss, and two forced fumbles last year.
The Hilltoppers were also active in the transfer portal, adding several Division I defensive players.
On the defensive line, Marquis Black (Nebraska), Dallas Walker (Texas A&M), Jayden Loving (Bethune Cookman), and Kenyonte Davis (UT Martin) are new to the team. WKU also added Daniel Edwards, a defensive back from Illinois, and Sebastian Benjamin, a linebacker from Saint Francis.
Western Kentucky Football Season Prediction
Western Kentucky will take home the Conference USA Championship and will win nine games in the regular season.
With their offense, playing in a conference like CUSA, the Hilltoppers are probably going to be favored in most of their games. The only clear losses in my mind, looking at their schedule, would be road trips to Ohio State and Troy.
But WKU should open the season with two victories against USF and Houston Christian at home. And beyond that, the Hilltoppers have a stronger roster than every other CUSA program.
The only team that could give them trouble would be Liberty, though that game is even at WKU. Accounting for a letdown loss to the Flames or maybe Louisiana Tech on the road, a single loss in CUSA play wouldn’t prevent WKU from going over that 8.5-win threshold.
And if WKU does lose just three games, it will have proven to be a team capable of winning the Conference USA Championship. With teams like UTSA out of the picture, I believe the Hilltoppers have the best potential to win that title.