Since making the move from FCS to the FBS, many close to the WKU program will tell you that their biggest rival in football has been Middle Tennessee State. While the Blue Raiders are the school's most hated rival in the majority of sports, statistics show that the Tops have developed quite the rivalry with the North Texas Mean Green.
In 2007, WKU lost a heart-breaker in Denton to close the season by a score of 27-26. The following year, the Tops trailed 45-40 with time for one play inside the Mean Green red zone. The WKU pass was intercepted and returned the throw 97-yards for a touchdown to ruin WKU's homecoming 51-40.
2009 may have been the most thrilling contest of the rivalry as the teams were tied at 49 apiece entering the fourth quarter. North Texas scored 19 unanswered points in the fourth to walk away with a 68-49 win. 2010 appeared to be the year for the Tops as they were heavy favorites to defeat the Mean Green; however, head coach Willie Taggart called the game a "total embarrassment" as his team fell 33-6.
The past is the past, and this is a completely rejuvenated WKU team who finds themselves just one win away from bowl eligibility. Despite coming off a 42-9 to top ranked LSU, the team is riding high as they had many bright moments against the Tigers as well as still holding a five game conference win streak. The Tops have also won five out of their last six conference road games including three straight.
"North Texas is the next game on the schedule, and we take every game the same way," said junior tight end Jack Doyle. "Obviously last year didn't go the way we wanted it to, maybe that's in the back of our mind's a little bit. That just comes with preparing, maybe that'll gives us a little extra edge in preparing and things like that. It's just another game that we need to go get the win."
The match-up against North Texas will be arguably the match-up of the best two running backs in the Sun Belt and two of the top 20 running backs in the nation: WKU's Bobby Rainey and North Texas's Lance Dunbar.
"I think Bobby said it best in the preseason, 'The numbers don't lie.' He left it at that," said Taggart. "I don't see him bringing that up. Bobby's all about doing whatever he can to help our football team win ballgames and win the Sun Belt championship. Just make sure that you go out and see that your teammates give you everything they can these last ballgames to see to it that we go out - that you go out of here as a winner'."
The rivalry garnered national attention in the offseason when an article about the two made national news in the US Today. While Bobby has let his game speak for itself, Dunbar has been very outspoken about the rivalry. North Texas is worried about their star running back as he went down with an injury last week against Troy. While he is projected to play, it will be interesting to see much that injury affects his play.
The keys to the game for Tops are 1) control the tempo, 2) keep pressure on the North Texas offense, and 3) bring the "championship effort."
If WKU wants to walk away with the win and make team history, they will have to control the tempo of the game. WKU leads the Sun Belt in time of possession with 33:49 per game. While they have had a considerable advantage in just about every game this season, they are playing a very similar offense that is second in the conference in time of possession. The thing that will make the difference is the passing game. While junior quarterback Kawaun Jakes has not put up spectacular numbers, he has improved game-in and game-out, and as he goes up against the worst passing defense in the conference, Jakes is in prime position to lead him team to a 13th game.
The second key for the Tops is to pressure the North Texas offense. With their star running back already wounded, the Mean Green must find different outlets for offensive success. The challenge will be containing the tenacious and unrelenting play of the WKU defense. Led by sophomore linebacker Andrew Jackson's 98 tackles, good enough for 18th in the FBS, the Tops have made a lot of noise this season. One reason for that success is their pressure. The defense is averaging 2.7 sacks per game (22nd in the FBS) and 7.3 tackles for loss per game (16th in the FBS). In addition to his 98 tackles, Jackson finds himself ranked in the top 15 in the SBC in both sacks and tackles for loss. He is joined in the top 15 of both categories by lineman Jared Clendenin and Bo Adebayo.
The final key to the game is bring the "championship effort." If you have ever set foot on the campus of WKU, you will know that it is a university with tremendous pride and devotion to athletic success. The university talks about bringing "championship effort" in all events. If they want to end their losing streak against North Texas, become bowl eligible, and still have an outside chance at winning the school's first Sun Belt conference football championship, that effort must be there.
When predicting this game, I find it really hard picking against the Tops. They have every going their way and even in defeat against LSU, there were still a lot of positives that came out of that game. WKU wins 31-14 and become bowl eligible setting up a interesting home contest to end the year against Troy.