LOUISVILLE, Kentucky — Western Kentucky showed poise with a season-ending five-game winning streak that earned a bowl berth and the program's first FBS postseason victory.
Coach Jeff Brohm hopes his Hilltoppers sustain the momentum with a strong start.
WKU (8-5, 4-4 Conference USA) is the media's preseason favorite to win the East division. That's a lofty expectation for the second-year conference member, but it says a lot about the 'Toppers ability to light up the scoreboard.
"We've played the underdog role and it's a great role to play because you can sneak up on teams," Brohm said, "but that's no more. We've got a tough schedule, a tough non-conference schedule, so we've got to be at our top level and perform at our peak level or we're not going to win."
All eyes will be on quarterback Brandon Doughty, who returns for a sixth year after another record-setting season highlighted by a nation's-best 4,830 yards passing and 49 touchdowns. Complementing the league MVP is senior running back Leon Allen, who added 1,542 yards rushing and 13 TDs.
That duo helped the Hilltoppers' offense average 44 points and nearly 535 yards per game en route to earning their second bowl berth in three seasons. Good thing, because their young defense yielded nearly 40 per contest including 114 combined over the final two games.
The upside to those frequent trials were maturation and a resolve to hold up its end defensively. WKU is also experienced with nine starters back and intent on preserving leads that Doughty and Allen help create.
"You can't expect your offense to score 60 a game as often as they did, but it help to have such a superior offense," senior linebacker Nick Holt Jr. said. "Our goal is hold (opponents) under 20 points a game, and if we do, we expect to win."
Brohm believes his offense can surpass last season's success and is encouraging his QB and running back to keep it going. He just doesn't want WKU to become too dependent on that duo, especially with teams keying on both.
For his part Doughty is prepared for any responsibility as he begins his third season as WKU's starter.
"We know we have the talent on offense to score points and that's what we want to do," said Doughty, who won the Sammy Baugh Award last season and is on preseason watch lists for several honors. "But our defense is going to be better this year. ... The future is bright."
Some things to watch as WKU tries to win C-USA's East division:
CHALLENGING START: WKU's first three contests are at Vanderbilt (SEC), home against C-USA West favorite Louisiana Tech and at Indiana (Big Ten). That stretch won't make or break the season, but Brohm considers it an important test with late-season meetings looming at LSU and against revenge-minded Marshall, which sustained its only loss 67-66 in overtime against WKU in the regular season finale.
RECORDS IN SIGHT: Owner of numerous school records, Doughty can add several other career passing marks including net yards, attempts and completions.
FINISHING STRONG: The Hilltoppers dominated opponents 352-237 in the first half last season but often eased up in the second in being outscored 259-204 and 21-23 in overtime. Brohm is stressing a "foot on the gas" mentality for both units for 60 minutes, especially a defense that nearly blew a 35-point fourth quarter lead over Central Michigan in the Bahamas Bowl. "We kind of got complacent instead of attacking," Holt said. "We have to be more proactive and really just take the life out of (opponents) in the second half."
KEEP THE STREAK: Allen's rushing helped WKU become the second team in NCAA history to have a 1,500-yard rusher in five consecutive seasons.
HOUSEHOLD NAMES: The Hilltoppers' media guide notes two defensive players with memorable names and performances. Senior cornerback Wonderful Terry, an all-conference second teamer, scored three TDs and saved the bowl win with a conversion pass breakup on the final play. Senior lineman Ge'Monee Brown tied for the team lead with eight tackles for loss.