Mid-Major Monday: Western Kentucky relishes postseason politicking

Dr. Saturday

Weekly notes from the undercard.

Western Kentucky is in uncharted waters. After defeating North Texas on Saturday to become bowl eligible, the Hilltoppers are now in a position to make their best pitch for an at-large bowl berth.

"You've got a football team that's hot right now," said coach Willie Taggart. "You've got a football team that's been on a roll. Out of our last seven games, we've won six of them. We only lost to the No. 1 team in the country [at LSU]. We've got a red-hot football team that deserves it."

The Sun Belt's automatic ties with the GoDaddy.com Bowl and the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl were filled by Arkansas State and Louisiana-Lafayette respectively. Leaving Western Kentucky and Florida International, which has seven wins compared to the Hilltoppers' six, looking for postseason homes. While Western Kentucky has been the hottest team in the conference next to Arkansas State, it doesn't have the same quality of wins as FIU. The Golden Panthers boast wins over Louisville and Central Florida and, with their season finale against lowly Middle Tennessee, they should finish with their first eight-win season in school history.

Western Kentucky, on the other hand, has some pretty bad losses, including a 44-16 beatdown at the hands of FCS opponent Indiana State. The Hilltoppers also lost to Kentucky and Navy, who are both 4-7 this season.

Florida International also could get the benefit of home-field advantage. With either Conference USA or the Big East Conference likely unable to fill all of its bowl slots, the Beef O'Brady's Bowl in St. Petersburg, Fla., might be the prime destination for FIU. The Golden Panthers, who have had great fan support this season, would probably sell out its allotment of tickets, which is all bowls care about anyway.

Western Kentucky doesn't have proximity or a rabid fan base working in its favor. Attendance has been poor — and that's probably because WKU hasn't had a strong winning tradition — and the bowls near it aren't going to be open. The only possibility might be the Military Bowl, which has an open spot with Navy not reaching bowl eligibility. Western Kentucky sits equidistant between Fort Knox and Fort Campbell, which could make it attractive, especially if there are incentives for active military personnel to attend the game.

Still, Western Kentucky is making its best push to be as attractive as possible and that push starts with beating Troy and becoming a seven-win team.

"We'll just get to work, because that's all you can do, is work and lobby the bowls that we have a great program and we'll bring fans," WKU athletic director Ross Bjork said. "We've got to take care of business to get to seven. We've really got to get to seven to really ensure that we're in a better position."
THE CRIB SHEET. Elsewhere in mid-majordom…

Conference USA's own "Game of the Century" comes Friday between Houston and Tulsa, the only two undefeated teams in conference play. The showdown will decide C-USA's West Division and send the winner to the conference title game.

But all of that is taking a serious backseat to Houston's 11-0 season that could result in the first BCS game for the school and the conference. The final two games of the year — if they Cougars play in the conference title game — are the toughest games of the season. Houston coach Kevin Sumlin said Tulsa's strong play has actually been motivation for Houston's undefeated season.

"We've had to continue to win, not from a national picture but from a conference picture just because Tulsa has the same record as we do and they're in our league," Sumlin said. "The goal is to win the conference championship and based on how Tulsa has played this year, we've had to keep winning to keep pace."

• It's all over but the trophy presentation for TCU, who won the Mountain West Conference with its win against Colorado State and officially ended Boise State's slim hope of a BCS bowl berth and their string of three consecutive conference championships. Boise State could share the conference title in the unlikely event that TCU loses to UNLV this weekend. Otherwise, TCU is heading to the Big 12 Conference with three consecutive Mountain West titles.

After eight consecutive bowl appearances, Navy will be watching the postseason from home. The Midshipmen's 27-24 loss to San Jose State gave them their seventh loss and officially erased them from bowl contention. Four of Navy's losses have been by three or fewer points. Had they gotten to six wins, the Mids would have played in the Military Bowl.

"My worst nightmare came true. We were sleepwalking to start the game. We left a ton of points out on the field offensively. We had some uncharacteristic mental lapses that really hurt us," Niumatalolo said after the game. "We didn't deserve to win. We played horribly, and it starts with me. Obviously, I didn't do a good job of getting us ready."

Louisiana Tech punter Ryan Allen is a Ray Guy Award finalist with Oregon's Jackson Rice and Auburn's Stephen Clark, given annually to the nation's best punter. Allen is averaging 46.2 yards per punt and has had 28 punts over 50 yards. Of his 74 punts, 36 have landed inside the 20-yard line and 19 have been inside the 10-yard line. Of his 25 returned punts, 13 have been returned for less than five yards and 10 have been returned for one, zero, or negative yardage (thanks to La. Tech SID Patrick Walsh for the stats).

RUSH THE FIELD: Wins worthy of a bleacher-clearing celebration.
In a weekend full of upsets, UAB's 34-31 triumph over Southern Miss may have gotten lost in the shuffle, but it was no less important. A week ago, Southern Miss had a chance to sneak into a BCS berth if it could finished off a two-month winning streak with a win over Houston in the C-USA game; instead it battled all night and eventually fell to a 2-8 outfit in front of (officially) just 14,000 people in Birmingham's Legion Field. Credit UAB for inspired football: Even though they had nothing to play for, the upset may have made the Blazers season.

GAME OF THE WEEK: Louisiana Tech 24, Nevada 20.
Louisiana Tech is the frontrunner to win the WAC for the first time since 2001 after a 24-20 win over Nevada. The Bulldogs trailed 20-3 in the fourth quarter before quarterback Colby Cameron found Taulib Ikharo for a touchdown strike with 51 seconds remaining to complete a furious comeback. Cameron actually threw three touchdowns in the final 9 minutes of the game.

The loss was Nevada's first in conference play and Louisiana Tech, which also had a conference loss, owns the tiebreaker and controls its own destiny with a home game against New Mexico State remaining.

Other than the 2001 title, Louisiana Tech has never won any other conference title as a member of the FBS.

In the wake of Oregon, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma losing this past week, it's hard not to think what might have been for Boise State. It sure seems like the fans can't stop thinking about it either.

PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Sammy Brown, Houston.
Houston hasn't been known for its defensive prowess this season, but Brown made a name for himself Saturday with 10 total tackles, including 4.5 tackles for loss and three sacks.

Honorable mention: Western Kentucky running back Bobby Rainey rushed for a season-high 214 yards and a score against North Texas to help the Hilltoppers to their first bowl eligibility. … Northern Illinois quarterback Chandler Harnish broke the school record for total offense with 519 yards against Ball State. … Wyoming quarterback Brett Smith had 352 of his team's 462 yards of total offense in a win over New Mexico. … And San Jose State running back Brandon Rutley rushed for 132 yards and two touchdowns and caught eight passes for 101 more against Navy, becoming the first SJSU player with more than 100 yards rushing and receiving in the same game.

1. Houston (11-0). The Cougars got past SMU, but this week's winner-take-all game at Tulsa will be the toughest of the year.
2. Boise State (9-1). The Broncos got back in the win column, but it's little consolation for what could have been in the wake of chaos at the top of the BCS standings.
3. TCU (9-2). The Horned Frogs locked up their third consecutive Mountain West title with their win over Colorado State.
4. Tulsa (8-3). The Golden Hurricane haven't lost since a brutal September stretch against Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Boise State, and are now a win away from ruining Houston's perfect season.
5. BYU (8-3). The Cougars became the first team to accept a bowl bid with a nod from the Armed Forces Bowl.
6. Southern Miss (9-2). Huge loss to UAB ruined what could have been a breakthrough season for the Golden Eagles, but ten wins and the C-USA title are still within reach.
7. Arkansas State (9-2). The Red Wolves accepted a spot in the GoDaddy.com Bowl, their first postseason date since the 2005 New Orleans Bowl.
8.Northern Illinois (8-3). The Huskies are one win away from wrapping up the MAC West.
10. Wyoming (7-3). The Cowboys are bowl-eligible for the second time in coach Dave Christensen's three seasons.
10. Ohio (8-3). The Bobcats are one win away from their second nine-win season in the past three years.
- - -
Honorable Mention:Nevada (6-4), Louisiana Tech (6-4), Louisiana-Lafayette (9-3), Toledo (7-4), San Diego State (6-4).

- - -
Western Kentucky photos via the Bowling Green Daily News.
Graham Watson is on Facebook and Twitter: Follow her @Yahoo_Graham.

What to Read Next