Conference championships will be earned across college football this weekend, and it all kicks off Friday night in San Antonio. The UTSA Roadrunners will play host to the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers at the Alamodome in the Ryan Conference USA Championship Game, and this conference title showdown is a battle of two teams that look like they are headed in different directions at the moment.
No. 22 UTSA has been something of a Cinderella all season long, finishing the regular season with a record of 11-1 and appearing in the College Football Playoff Rankings. Unfortunately for the Roadrunners, they come into the weekend off their first loss of the season, falling 45-23 at North Texas last week. The Roadrunners defense has been one of the best in the conference but it's allowed 76 points in the last two games. Offensive stars like quarterback Frank Harris, running back Sincere McCormick and receiver Zakhari Franklin might need big days Friday to avoid a second straight loss.
Western Kentucky's path has been different. The Hilltoppers are 8-4, but anybody who saw this team in September would be shocked to learn it's playing for a conference title a few months later. They began the season 1-4 with consecutive losses to Army, Indiana, Michigan State and, yes, UTSA. That UTSA loss was WKU's last of the year, however, as it comes into the weekend riding a seven-game winning streak, clinching the East Division last week by beating Marshall 53-21 on the road.
Western Kentucky also has the most experience in the Conference USA Championship Game. This will be the team's third appearance in the title game, and it's won both of its previous appearances.
UTSA vs. Western Kentucky: Need to know
This is an exciting rematch: These teams met earlier this season in a 52-46 UTSA win in Bowling Green, Kentucky. The Roadrunners improved to 6-0 at the time, while WKU fell to 1-4. It was an incredible game, though, and a sign of what was to come for the Hilltoppers. The teams not only combined for 98 points that day but also 1,234 yards of offense and four turnovers in a crazy, back-and-forth affair.
Harris finished with 400 total yards and six passing touchdowns while Western Kentucky's Bailey Zappe threw for 523 yards. Unfortunately for Zappe, his interception inside the red zone in the final seconds of the game served as the deciding play.
Zappe has had an incredible season: While it's hard to imagine a quarterback from Western Kentucky garnering much Heisman consideration, Zappe has a case. His 414 passing yards per game leads the nation and his 52 touchdown passes are 12 more than anybody else has (Pitt's Kenny Pickett and Alabama's Bryce Young have 40). Zappe also ranks seventh nationally in passing efficiency, and he's been the driving force behind the Hilltoppers offense and the team's seven-game win streak.
It's been a meteoric rise for UTSA: It wasn't that long ago this program didn't exist. UTSA isn't an FCS school that had a long history and decided to make the jump to the FBS level. It's a program that has existed for 11 seasons and spent one year at the FCS level before joining the FBS and the WAC. It moved to Conference USA for the 2013 season and it's been a steady build since.
Larry Coker set an excellent foundation for the program initially, but it took a step backward during Frank Wilson's four seasons in charge, going 19-29 from 2016-19. Then Jeff Traylor took over for the 2020 season, led the Roadrunners to a bowl game and now has them playing for a conference title in Year 2. And this isn't the final stop! The Roadrunners won't be in Conference USA much longer, as they'll soon be making the move to the American Athletic Conference. All in just over a decade.
How to watch UTSA vs. Western Kentucky live
UTSA vs. Western Kentucky prediction, picks
I've got to be honest, this one hurts a little. I've enjoyed following this Roadrunners team all year long, and before the season began, I took out a futures bet on them to win Conference USA. But as this game approaches, I'm not that confident the they are going to win. Western Kentucky has been the better team over the last month and nearly knocked off the Roadrunners earlier this season. Also, while UTSA won the game, if you dig through the box score, there's a strong argument that the Hilltoppers were the better team that day; they just ended up on the wrong side of the score. This game will be different since it's in the Alamodome, but it's hard to go against this Western Kentucky offense with the way the UTSA defense has been performing. I'd also consider a play on the over. Prediction: Western Kentucky (-1.5)
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