5 urgent questions, a prediction with a reporter from Western Kentucky

Auburn wraps up its home game for 2022 this weekend, hosting Western Kentucky at Jordan-Hare Stadium in the Tigers’ penultimate game of the season.

Auburn (4-6) will host WKU (7-4) at 3 p.m. Saturday, with the game being televised on SEC Network. It will be Senior Day in the Plains, and along with the senior class departure, the Tigers will be looking to keep their hopes of an outside bowl bid alive. Auburn must win its last two games to qualify for the Bowl for a 10th straight season.

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Ahead of Saturday’s game, we reached out to Bowling Green Daily News’ Jared MacDonald for a preview of the teams’ off-conference matchup in the Plains and to answer five key questions about the game. You can follow Jared on Twitter (@JMacDonaldSport) for more great WKU news and insights.

Let’s get to the questions:

1. How impressive was quarterback Austin Reed in his first season at WKU, especially given the pressure on succeeding Bailey Zappe in the position?

Austin Reed has been impressive in his first season at WKU since transferring from Division II West Florida. He is currently second in the country in passing yards for an offense that has been more balanced in running and passing the ball this season than last year when Bailey Zappe led the offense. While Zappe and 2021 offensive coordinator Zach Kittley are gone now — Kittley is the offensive coordinator at Texas Tech — Ben Arbuckle is still around after working with the pair for several years, and they’re doing similar things offensively as they did last year . From the start of camp, Reed has been open about not trying to be the next Zappe, and he only focuses on winning and not matching the stats set by Zappe.

“For me, a successful debut would be a win – simple as that. I’d love to get the win any way I can,” Reed said ahead of the team’s first game against Austin Peay. “Of course I’d like to do it in style, let us show a good game, look clean and solid, but I’m not really trying to find numbers. If I go out there trying to chase Bailey Zappe’s stats, I’m going to have a hard time doing that. I’m just going to go out and do the work I’ve been asked to do and lead this offense.

WKU also used Reed more in the running game than last year at Zappe. In that regard, he reminds me more of Ty Storey – WKU’s quarterback in 2019, who led the Hilltoppers to a win over Arkansas the last time they faced an SEC team. Reed – who won a national title with West Florida in 2019 – described his style simply as a winner and someone who will do whatever it takes to make it happen.

2. What’s the mood like for the Hilltoppers this week, knowing they missed a chance to win a Power 5 against Indiana earlier in the season and now have a chance to take on an Auburn team that weathered its fair share of struggles this year?

MC Donald: The Hilltoppers don’t mince words when it comes to the Indiana game earlier this year — they feel like it’s a game they should have won and let get away with. I think there’s confidence that they could go to Auburn and walk away with a win, much like they did in the 2019 Arkansas game that I mentioned earlier. While it’s a good opportunity for WKU, the coaches and players are mostly sticking to the same talking points they have in games of this magnitude under Helton – things like focusing on yourself and treating it like any other week. One of Helton’s favorite sayings is that “a Tuesday is a Tuesday and a Wednesday is a Wednesday” when it comes to being a process-oriented group and preparing for games the same way regardless of opponent.

3. After scoring in his first two seasons under FBS in the ’90s, what was key to Western Kentucky’s offensive upsurge in the last two seasons under Tyson Helton?

MC Donald: I think the biggest factor in WKU’s offensive performance over the past two seasons has just been having quarterbacks that fit what Helton wants to do with football. Helton is a former quarterback who played at Houston and is the son of an offensive coach. While he was at WKU as offensive coordinator under Jeff Brohm in 2014 and 2015, the Hilltoppers had Brandon Doughty at quarterback and utilized a big-play offense to have their most winning run since joining FBS. That continued at WKU the following year, after Helton joined his brother at USC, with Mike White as quarterback in Brohm’s senior year as team leader. Storey wasn’t the original starter in Helton’s freshman year, but became a starter in game four and they finished the season strong. Storey wasn’t an elite passer, but he was a player and found ways to amass wins using the program’s best-scoring defense since moving into the FBS ranks.

In 2020, Birmingham native Tyrrell Pigrome made the move and was the starter during an interrupted COVID season, but he was never a strong passer like the team wanted and the entire offense struggled. With Kittley and Zappe, that fun brand of football returned to Bowling Green with the big-play offense—Zappe finished the season with FBS records for passing yards and passing touchdowns. Reed is another strong passer who isn’t afraid of throws — in his first interview after joining WKU, Reed said, “I’m going to do a couple of throws so you can clench your asshole when I do that throw.” The Hilltoppers have also had a large athletic receiver group and a solid offensive line over the past two seasons, which has also played a role.

4. Is there a specific duel that you think will speak for the Hilltoppers this weekend?

MC Donald: I’m not sure if there’s a specific matchup I would look at and say favors WKU, but there is a sort of “matchup” that intrigues me, if you will call it that. That’s between the Hilltoppers and Jordan-Hare Stadium. WKU’s offense had a stretch of 18 straight games in which they scored at least 30 points before losing to Troy on October 1. That game was the first of four in a five-game streak in which the Hilltoppers failed to score 30 points, and coaches said it was because of self-inflicted wounds. At the start of the November 5 game in Charlotte, the Hilltoppers were the most disadvantaged team in Conference USA and one of the most disadvantaged teams in the nation. While Charlotte and Rice don’t have the best defenses, WKU’s attacks haven’t been penalized in either of their last two games, and they’ve posted 59 and 45 points in wins. The two victories, however, came in front of small crowds — 10,127 at Houchens Smith Stadium last week and 10,857 at Jerry Richardson Stadium the week before. Jordan-Hare Stadium has announced over 83,000 visitors for every game this season, so I’m excited to see how WKU reacts to the atmosphere in Auburn on Saturday.

5. How do you see this game and what is your final result prediction?

MC Donald: I think WKU is good enough to go against that Auburn team, but despite Auburn’s struggles this season, it’s still an SEC team playing a C-USA team. If WKU can contain the running game, get away with some turnovers — they lead the country in the takeaway, and that was the biggest key to their victory over a UAB team that runs the ball well — and limit those themselves wounds inflicted on the offensive. I would give them a chance. Throwing stats and logic aside, I have a feeling WKU will be a big win. It hasn’t beaten a Power 5 program since beating Arkansas in 2019, despite some closer games against those teams, like the overtime loss at Indiana this season.

The Hilltoppers have had success against SEC programs since joining the FBS ranks when those SEC teams have had rough seasons — in addition to beating Arkansas in 2019, WKU has also beaten Vanderbilt in 2015 and Kentucky in 2012 and 2013. If I had to make a score prediction based solely on gut feeling, I’d say WKU pulls a 31-28 upset. That being said I think Auburn should win this game – they’re still the SEC team playing the G5 team and the ones generously paying WKU for the trip.

Tom Green is an Auburn beat reporter for the Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @Tomas_Verde.