Who had a Western Kentucky Hilltoppers and UTSA Roadrunners combination on their Conference USA title game bingo card prior to the season? Answer — not many. Projected to be contenders in the C-USA, neither team was considered the favorite by any stretch, yet this should be one of the most competitive and high-scoring title games of Championship Weekend in college football.
The Roadrunners (11-1, 7-1 C-USA) suffered their first and only loss of the season last weekend, falling 45-23 to a motivated North Texas team that needed a win to secure bowl eligibility. UTSA was already locked into hosting the title game, and after trailing by double-digits in the first half, head coach Jeff Traylor saw the writing on the wall and pulled some of the starters.
"I think human nature is we probably weren't as juiced up as we were last week," Traylor said, referring to a 34-31 victory over UAB. "But it wasn't like a bad effort. They were at a 10 and we probably played at an eight. And you turn it over three times in the weather, you're going to get embarrassed, which we did today."
As for WKU (8-4, 7-1), they secured the C-USA East division crown with a 53-21 blowout victory over Marshall after rattling off 36 unanswered points in the second half. And as has been the case the entire year, it was the offense that led the way behind the arm of quarterback Bailey Zappe, who threw for 328 yards and four touchdowns to finish the regular season as the nation's leading passer.
With the over/under total sitting at 72.5 and their October meeting totaling 98 points, expect some fireworks on Friday night in what should be a highly anticipated Conference USA title game.
Conference USA Championship Game: WKU at UTSA
Kickoff: Friday, Dec. 3 at 7 p.m. ET
TV: CBS Sports Network
Spread: WKU -1
When WKU Has the Ball
It all starts with the triggerman in quarterback Bailey Zappe, who has arguably had the best season of any quarterback in the country, throwing for 4,968 yards and 52 touchdowns — 12 more than both Kenny Pickett and Bryce Young, who will likely be in New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony in a few weeks. Safe to say the offseason moves by head coach Tyson Helton to bring over offensive coordinator Zach Kittley, Zappe, and a number of other pieces from the Houston Baptist offense proved to be a major success as the Hilltoppers averaged a conference-best 43.3 points per game, which is also second in the country behind Ohio State. Zappe threw at least three touchdowns in all 12 games this season but will have a challenge this Saturday against a UTSA secondary that allowed just two passing scores in the final three games.
As one would expect, running the football is a foreign concept for Western Kentucky with a 33 percent rush play rate on the season, second lowest in the country ahead of only Mississippi State. UTSA ranks second in C-USA in run defense, allowing just 121 yards per game on the ground, but did not close the season well, giving up over five yards a carry to both UAB and North Texas with a combined eight rushing touchdowns. Might we see Western Kentucky adjust its offensive philosophy a bit on Friday?
When UTSA Has the Ball
The Roadrunners don't do any one thing on offense exceptionally well but do boast one of the most balanced offenses in the entire country, ranking 46th in passing yards per game and 49th in rush yards. Several players deserve praise for UTSA's 11-1 season, but none more so than quarterback Frank Harris, who finished with a 66.3 percent completion rate, throwing for 2,688 yards, 23 touchdowns, and just five interceptions. Plagued by injuries for a portion of his college career early on, Harris gets it done on the ground as well, rushing for over 1,000 yards with 14 scores in the last two years alone.
Along with Harris, the ground attack is led by one of the best running backs in all of college football in Sincere McCormick, who topped 1,000 rushing yards for the second straight season. Success running the football will be a key factor in Friday's matchup, since teams have looked to keep the high-flying WKU passing offense off the field by controlling the clock with the run. The Hilltoppers are just 113th this season in time of possession. That strategy worked much more successfully at the beginning part of the year, as the Hilltoppers have steadily improved defending the run as the season's gone along, allowing under four yards per carry in six of the last seven games. Senior defensive end DeAngelo Malone will play a major role on Friday night; he's third in the conference in sacks (7.5) and fourth in tackles for loss (14.5).
Nearly 100 points were scored in the first meeting between these two schools earlier in the year with over 1,200 yards of total offense combined between them. Will defense be optional once again on Friday? Both defenses have made steady improvements over the course of the year, but each offense possesses the star power with the likes of Zappe and McCormick to make you think this will go over the Vegas total once again. Western Kentucky enters the matchup as a one-point favorite but will have to withstand what is assuredly going to be a raucous crowd in the Alamodome. UTSA wins by a narrow margin with the backing of the home environment.
Prediction: UTSA 38, WKU 35
Podcast: Championship Weekend Preview and Predictions
Written by Mike Bainbridge, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bainbridge is a graduate of Northern Illinois University. Follow him on Twitter @MBainbridgeCFF.