The Toppers don’t have the best record in the NCAA — or the Sun Belt Conference, for that matter.
They might not average 50,000 fans per game or draw a significant national TV audience.
They will, however, be playing on Dec. 26 in the first FBS bowl game in school history.
WKU accepted a bid Sunday to the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl and will face Central Michigan at Ford Field in Detroit later this month.
Ken Hoffman, executive director of the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl, said increases in attendance and interest in the program helped WKU earn the bid over other bowl-eligible schools.
“We know that season tickets were up, attendance was up,” Hoffman said. “Clearly, the interest is higher. They are the definition of being a bowl-hungry team and university.”
In a season of big games, this one is the biggest. WKU (7-5, 4-4 Sun Belt) has not played a postseason game since beginning the transition to becoming an FBS school in 2007.
It’s a big turnaround for a team that looked unlikely to earn a bowl bid as recently as this weekend.
The Toppers lost four of their last six games, all against Sun Belt opponents, after starting the season 5-1 and had to wait until the last hour leading up to the bowl selection show on ESPN to learn if they would be in a bowl game or not.
Coach Willie Taggart said the Toppers never lost their will to get to the postseason, even after they struggled through a three-game losing streak in November.
“When we saw that we didn’t have a chance to win the conference, we still knew we had goals out there still ahead for us, and that was to go bowling,” Taggart said. “That gave us something to work toward. Our guys stopped the bleeding (Nov. 24 against North Texas) and got the victory, and that helped us.”
The Toppers have a little more than three weeks to prepare for CMU (6-6, 4-4 Mid-American Conference). The Chippewas, like WKU, were one of the last teams selected.
A few notable bowl-eligible teams being left out helped WKU and CMU secure invitations from the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.
Middle Tennessee State (8-4, 6-2 SBC) finished with a better conference and overall record than the Toppers and even beat WKU in November, but was not invited to a bowl game.
Louisiana Tech (9-3, 4-2 Western Athletic Conference) was ranked No. 2 in total offense in the NCAA and held a spot in the Associated Press Top 25 poll earlier this season but was also left out of a bowl game.
Thinking bids were coming from other games, the school turned down an invitation to the Independence Bowl.
When those other bids didn’t come, the Independence Bowl had already selected another team in place of La. Tech.
Athletics Director Todd Stewart said the Toppers were accepted because representatives from the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl liked WKU’s resume over other schools.
“We’re in Detroit because Detroit wanted Western Kentucky,” Stewart said.
The situation WKU found itself in was a lot like the end of last season — both years, the Toppers finished 7-5 and were right on the bubble of bowl contention. Unlike last year, WKU earned an invite this time around.
WKU had an advantage this year that it didn’t have last season. In 2011, WKU didn’t cross the bowl eligibility threshold of six wins until late November.
The Toppers earned that crucial sixth win on Oct. 27 this season, and Stewart said he had a report advertising WKU to bowl committees in the hands of several bowl representatives on Oct. 29.
“We were having conversations at the end of October and early November that we weren’t able to have a year ago, and I think that played a role in this,” Stewart said.
The Little Caesars Pizza Bowl will take place at 7:30 p.m. at Ford Field, home of the Detroit Lions, on Dec. 26. It is the only bowl game that day and will be broadcast on ESPN.
Taggart said while it feels good earning the first bowl berth in school history, the Toppers aren’t satisfied with just going to the game.
“We’re not just happy about being in a bowl game — we’re in this bowl game to win it and do something again,” Taggart said. “It’s monumental to be in it, but it’d be even better to win that game.”