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Rating WKU's 2021 Non-Conference Opponents

Western Kentucky opens its 2021 season September 2 vs. Tennessee-Martin.
Western Kentucky opens its 2021 season September 2 vs. Tennessee-Martin. (Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY Sports)

Coming off a 2020 season that was one unlike any other due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Western Kentucky – which put together a 5-7 campaign with an appearance in the LendingTree Bowl – returns to the field September 2 to kickoff its 2021 slate with a non-conference matchup against FCS program Tennessee-Martin at Houchens-Smith Stadium.

With the season just over two months away, Inside Hilltopper Sports takes a look at the Hilltoppers' 2021 opponents in a two-part series that ranks each opponent by who we believe will be the not-so-strongest challenges and who we believe will be the strongest challenges.

In Part One of the series, we focus on the non-conference portion of WKU's schedule, ranking the opponents from No. 4 to No. 1.

4. Tennessee-Martin (3-4)

This Season's Meeting: Thursday, September 2, 7 p.m., Houchens-Smith Stadium

Last Meeting: September 9, 2000, WKU 71, UT Martin 0

Offense: UT Martin averaged 25 points and 335 yards per game in a seven-game FCS spring season that included wins over Eastern Illinois, Austin Peay and Tennessee Tech.

Quarterback John Bachus III was the offensive pilot for the Skyhawks, throwing for 1,697 yards and 14 touchdowns, but he entered the NCAA Transfer Portal back in April. Wide receiver Colton Dowell looks to be the leader of UT Martin's offense coming into the year after catching 40 passes for 459 yards and four TDs last season.

Defense: After recording 60 total tackles – including five for loss – a season ago, safety Deven Sims is back to anchor the Skyhawks' defensive unit in 2021. Alongside Sims, linebacker John Ford – who made 43 tackles and picked off two passes during the spring – is also back for a UT Martin squad that gave up just 22 points per game.

Summary: This game was put at No. 4 on the non-conference ratings list for obvious reasoning (it's an FCS opponent), but WKU won't be able to simply overlook UT Martin. We all know what happened with Central Arkansas a couple of years ago.

3. Michigan State (2-5)

This Season's Meeting: Saturday, October 2, 6:30 p.m., Spartan Stadium

Last Meeting: First Meeting

Offense: Michigan State significantly struggled on the offensive side of the ball in 2020, as the Spartans put up just 18 points and 330 yards per outing, including just 91.4 yards in the rushing game. The Spartans' highest-scoring game of the season was 29 points in a win over Northwestern on November 28.

Quarterback Rocky Lombardi threw for 1,090 yards and eight touchdowns with nine interceptions last year and entered the NCAA Transfer Portal before transferring to Northern Illinois. Backup quarterback Payton Thorne recorded 528 yards and three TDs with three INTs and could be the Spartans' starter coming into the season.

Defense: Linebacker Noah Harvey is back to lead Michigan State's defense after recording 54 tackles – 31 of those being unassisted – with a pair of quarterback hurries last season. Safety Xavier Henderson, who made 41 tackles in 2020, will also be expected to play a big role for the Spartans, who allowed 35.14 points and 396.7 yards per game.

Summary: Playing a Big Ten team on the road – and on their Homecoming – is going to be a challenge for WKU, but Michigan State is certainly not the best team in the Big Ten, and the Hilltoppers will be expected to compete.

2. Army (9-3)

This Season's Meeting: Saturday, September 11, 10:30 a.m., Michie Stadium

Last Meeting: October 12, 2019, WKU 17, Army 8

Offense: Army's option-attack offense was in full swing again last season, and it led to much success for the Black Knights as they put together a 9-3 campaign.

Averaging 26.75 points and 317.8 yards per game, Army had seven different players rush for over 200 yards – led by quarterback Tyhier Tyler, who put up 578 yards and five touchdowns on 139 carries and is back for the 2021 season. Alongside Tyhier, running back Jakobi Buchanan – who ran for 474 yards and six TDs on 111 carries – will be expected to play a big role again.

Defense: Defensively, Army gave up just 14.83 points and 275.3 yards per outing, being led by linebacker Arik Smith (78 tackles, one interception) and defensive back Cedrick Cunningham Jr. (70 tackles, one interception), who combined for 148 tackles and a pair of interceptions a season ago.

Summary: Army is going to be a tough opponent for WKU – there's no question about it. The Black Knights return much power, will yet again operate by the ground-and-pound system and the Hilltoppers' hands will be full trying to contain them – and score on them, for that matter. The September 11 meeting in West Point will be a tremendous challenge for Tyson Helton's squad.

1. Indiana (6-2)

This Season's Meeting: Saturday, September 25, 7 p.m., Houchens-Smith Stadium

Last Meeting: September 19, 2015, Indiana 38, WKU 35

Offense: Indiana scored nearly 30 points per game and recorded 360 yards each outing, helping it to a successful 6-2 season in 2020. The Hoosiers scored in the upper 30-point range in their first three games of the season and put up at least 20 points in all put one contest.

Coming into the season, it's no secret that IU will be led by quarterback Michael Penix Jr., who threw for 1,645 yards and 14 touchdowns with just four interceptions a year ago. Although the Hoosiers lost star running back Stevie Scott III (561 yards and 10 TDs) to the NFL, Tim Baldwin Jr. (141 yards) and Sampson James (96 yards) will look to pick up the load in the backfield.

In the receiving category, experienced senior wideout Ty Fryfogle – who caught 37 passes for 721 yards and seven touchdowns – will be a big weapon for the Hoosiers, and for opposing defenses.

Defense: Linebacker Micah McFadden is back, and that is huge for IU. McFadden is coming off a strong 2020 campaign in which he made 58 tackles – 44 being solo – to go along with 10.5 tackles for loss, six sacks, three quarterback hurries and two interceptions.

As a unit, the Hoosiers allowed just 20.25 points per game a year ago.

Summary: Indiana is going to come to Bowling Green ready to play, and WKU has to be ready to compete with the Hoosiers – who have the pieces needed to have another strong season in 2021.

With last year's scheduled matchup being postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the September 25 contest will be an exciting one, and it's being played right on The Hill.


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