WKU doesn’t have many nearby rivals in the Sun Belt Conference.
Since most similar-sized schools within a reasonable driving distance of Bowling Green (Eastern Kentucky, Murray State, Austin Peay, etc.) play in the Ohio Valley Conference, the Toppers usually face league teams that are located at least a six-hour-long drive from Bowling Green.
The one Sun Belt exception is Middle Tennessee State, whose Murfreesboro, Tenn., campus is just 90 miles from WKU.
The teams’ close proximity and a competitive series across several sports makes the Toppers’ and Lady Toppers’ match-ups with MTSU a little more important to many WKU fans.
“We’ve had a competitive rivalry in many sports,” Senior Associate Athletic Director Todd Stewart said. “If you look at the conference standings in a lot of sports, one of us is first and the other is second.”
That has especially been the case in volleyball, where either the Lady Toppers or Lady Raiders have won every Sun Belt Tournament since 2005, with MTSU taking the last two.
The two teams meet in a pivotal volleyball contest at 7 p.m. tonight in Diddle Arena, with first place on the line.
Football then takes center stage at 7 p.m. Thursday in Murfreesboro.
WKU has lost the last three in that series, a streak senior safety Ryan Beard said needs to come to an end.
“We need a win, no matter who it’s against, but beating Middle would make it even better,” Beard said.
The passion is shared across the state line.
Mark Owens, associate athletic director of communications at MTSU, said the Blue Raiders view their series with the Toppers as a “heated rivalry.”
“There’s a lot of pride involved,” Owens said. “When you have two teams that are close and competitive, it’s great for the Sun Belt and college athletics as a whole.”
WKU and MTSU, who have met 61 times in football, resumed their gridiron series in 2007 after a 16-year hiatus.
Most of the 61 meetings took place when both the Toppers and Blue Raiders were in the OVC.
Thursday’s matchup will be just the third in which both schools have been Sun Belt members.
“It’s interesting. I don’t know how many schools in the country have had a long-standing rivalry in multiple conferences like we have with the OVC and now in the Sun Belt,” Stewart said.
WKU announced in September that both the Toppers and Blue Raiders will wear home jerseys in each football meeting, regardless of where the game is being played.
Athletic Director Ross Bjork said the idea came from the UCLA-Southern California rivalry in which UCLA wears its home blue uniforms and USC wears its home red jerseys.
Bjork said he hoped that both schools wearing their primary colors each year would “spice up the rivalry a little bit.”
Another relatively new twist in the rivalry is the WKU vs. MTSU Blood Drive Challenge, now in its second year.
Both schools compete to raise blood for the American Red Cross.
Last year MTSU defeated WKU, 551 units to 511, and the winner of this year’s blood drive will be announced at halftime Thursday.
Having the two schools compete for the Red Cross has allowed them to redirect some of their bad blood for a good cause.
But Head Football Coach Willie Taggart said he doesn’t expect the WKU-MTSU feud to cool off anytime soon.
“Middle doesn’t like us and we don’t like them,” Taggart said. “It’s good to have that rivalry.”