Tops open with bang this fall at Bama

It’s early, to be sure. Then again, it’s really never too early to begin assessing how the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers will negotiate their 2024 football schedule, which is at once intriguing, exciting and challenging.

WKU was a somewhat disappointing 8-5 overall and 5-3 within Conference USA last season, but the Hilltoppers did come on strong late, winning their final three games — including rallying from 28 points down to stun Old Dominion 38-35 in an electrifying Famous Toastery Bowl in Charlotte, N.C.; one of the most thrilling, most improbable victories in program history.

The Hilltoppers will be looking to build on the momentum created by last season’s stirring finish — but it won’t be easy, beginning with an eye-popping opener on Aug. 31.

WKU kicks off the 2024 season against a historic program in a historic venue on a historic day when it visits the University of Alabama in what will be the first game of the post-Nick Saban era and the first game in Tuscaloosa for new coach Kalen DeBoer — a highly anticipated event that is certain to draw a ton of national media attention.

For the Hilltoppers, this is the very definition of an uphill battle in enemy territory, but it’s also an opportunity to spotlight a WKU program that has never ducked the big boys. It will be a day for the Hilltoppers to collectively put their best foot forward and demonstrate they belong on the national stage — a litmus test of gargantuan proportions. Challenges on the gridiron don’t come any tougher than this one.

Last season, Alabama was 12-2 overall, Western Division champion of the Southeastern Conference (8-0), No. 4 in the College Football Playoff rankings, and was eliminated by top-seeded and eventual national champion Michigan 27-20 in overtime in the CFP semifinals (Rose Bowl).

This will be the fourth meeting between the Crimson Tide and the Hilltoppers, who will feature their fourth different head coach versus Alabama. All matchups have been in Tuscaloosa, of course, and all have been won by Alabama, of course. Strangely, perhaps, each previous meeting set an unmistakable tone for WKU’s season — twice very positively, once very negatively.

We’ll get the negative out of the way first.

In 2008, David Elson led Western into Tuscaloosa for the first time and faced Saban, then in his second season at Alabama. The Hilltoppers were in their transition from FCS to FBS and lost to the Tide, 41-7.

Two weeks later the roof began caving in — temporarily sending WKU in a downward spiral to the college football abyss.

Western dropped the final 10 games of the 2008 season, went 0-12 in 2009 — prompting the dismissal of Elson — and lost the first six games of the Willie Taggart era before defeating UL-Monroe to snap a torturous and humbling 26-game losing streak.

In 2012, with Taggart still at the Western helm, the Hilltoppers lost a misleading 35-0 decision at Alabama in the second game of the season. Afterward, Saban made a point to note how hard WKU played, and perhaps more significantly, how hard the Hilltoppers hit throughout their five-touchdown defeat.

Saban’s words rang even truer the following week.

Playing their second consecutive game against an SEC opponent, WKU shocked Kentucky 32-31 in Lexington — winning on a trick-play 2-point conversion in overtime to conclude one of the signature games in the Hilltoppers’ FBS history. Western went on to finish 7-5 and earn its first FBS bowl bid, falling to Central Michigan 24-20 in the Little Caesars Bowl at Ford Field in Detroit.

WKU’s most recent tussle with Alabama came in 2016. The Hilltoppers, now coached by Jeff Brohm, were much more talented and markedly more competitive in a 38-10 loss to the Tide before 101,821 fans in Bryant-Denny Stadium.

That Western team went on to finish 11-3, win its second consecutive Conference USA championship, and rout Memphis 51-31 under interim head coach Nick Holt (Brohm had departed for Purdue) in the Boca Raton Bowl.

Following the opener at Bama, Western hosts traditional rival Eastern Kentucky (Sept. 7), visits ‘100 Miles of Hate’ rival Middle Tennessee (Sept. 14), hosts Toledo (Sept. 21), visits Boston College (Sept. 28), hosts UTEP (Thursday, Oct. 10), plays at Sam Houston (Wednesday, Oct. 10), hosts Kennesaw State (Wednesday, Oct. 23), visits New Mexico State (Nov. 9), hosts Louisiana Tech (Nov. 16), plays at Liberty (Nov. 23), and hosts Jacksonville State (Nov. 30).

Tough slate.

Clearly, the toughest challenge of all will be the opener at Alabama. It will be interesting and revealing to see how the Hilltoppers respond in that game, and in the games to follow as WKU seeks to play in its sixth consecutive bowl game under head coach Tyson Helton and capture its first CUSA title in nine years.

Stay tuned — Aug. 31 will be here sooner than we think.