We're approaching mid-June, but it's never too early to contemplate the next college football season.
And, while most observers expect the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers to struggle in their first season under new head coach Tyson Helton, I don't see it that way at all.
Look for WKU to exceed expectations in 2019.
Athlon, for instance, has the Hilltoppers projected to go just 4-8 -- up only one game from the 3-9 disaster the program endured in what turned out to be Mike Sanford's second and last season in Bowling Green.
Western struggled in 2018 due to its inability to run the football, and you can bet that vastly improving what wound up as the weakest ground game in America is at the top of Helton's to-do list.
When the Toppers were at their best under coach Jeff Brohm between 2014-16 -- going 31-10 with two Conference USA championships and three straight bowl wins -- it was the team's remarkable offensive balance that befuddled the opposition.
Helton was an assistant on the front end of the Brohm era, and he knows precisely what made WKU click in those days. Will it happen overnight? Of course not. It will, however, come together sooner than most expect.
Upon accepting the Western post following Sanford's ousting, Helton emphasized that the thrill ride would soon re-open at Houchens/Smith Stadium, which Brohm turned into one of the true funhouses in all of college football with a wide-open, wildly unpredictable attack.
Helton hasn't forgotten that, and neither have Hilltopper fans, who, after becoming spoiled by the success of Willie Taggart, Bobby Petrino and Brohm, weren't exactly sure what they were watching the past two seasons -- when WKU went through a painful stretch of 14 losses in 16 games.
As bad as it got, however, it's easy to forget (and quite ironic) that Western actually finished the 2018 season with two consecutive victories, blasting UTEP 40-16 in BG, before stunning Louisiana Tech 30-15 -- the Toppers' first-ever win in Ruston.
The strong finish didn't save Sanford's job, but it did help the Hilltoppers regain a touch of the momentum lost since Brohm's departure for Purdue following 2016.
And, a look at WKU's 2019 schedule -- while challenging -- doesn't appear to be overwhelming.
The opener isn't at Wisconsin this time (a 34-3 loss last fall), but instead at home against Central Arkansas. This game, obviously, must be won by the Hilltoppers. If it's not, be sure to take this column out of your desk drawer and deposit it in your nearest trash receptacle, on or about Aug. 29.
The Tops will have their hands full on a visit to Florida International on Sept. 7 but will return "home" with a golden opportunity to upset rival Louisville on Sept. 14 at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, Tennessee.
WKU outplayed U of L for much of last year's game at Cardinal Stadium, only to have a blocked field goal fuel the fire for a late Cardinals comeback and 20-17 victory. Incentive? The Hilltoppers haven't defeated U of L since 1975.
A visit to Ball State on Sept. 22 could be challenging. and a home game against revitalized UAB on Sept. 29 certainly won't be a piece of cake. To become bowl eligible, however, Western must at least gain a split of these games.
WKU will play at Old Dominion on Oct. 5 seeking to avenge last season's most embarrassing loss. Surely, you recall the visiting Monarchs scoring 10 points in the final nine seconds to win in near-miraculous fashion. I wouldn't have believed it had I not witnessed it.
After that, it's consecutive home games against Army (Oct. 12) and Charlotte (Oct. 19). WKU has a good history against Army -- winning in 2013 and '14 -- but this promises to be a real tester. Charlotte routed the Tops 40-14 last season, so a payback in BG is in order.
Winning at Marshall on Oct 26 will be tough, but Western has played well in Huntington, West Virginia since joining C-USA, and this will likely be a typical dogfight decided late. The Thundering Herd narrowly won at WKU last year, and this game always has a throw-out-the-records feel to it.
Western must take care of business at home against Florida Atlantic on Nov. 2, because a week later the Tops visit Arkansas. There will be nothing easy about a visit to Southern Miss on Nov. 23, and WKU closes out at home with its 'Hundred Miles of Hate' rivalry against Middle Tennessee on Nov. 30.
This, then, is a relatively tough slate, but I believe Helton will find a way to overachieve this fall.
He has a stable full of quarterbacks from which to choose, and although there doesn't appear to be a Brandon Doughty or Mike White in the bunch, Helton's influence will make them collectively more productive.
Defensively, the Hilltoppers have some holes to fill at linebacker, and nothing will dramatically improve on offense until WKU begins to get tough yards on the ground and occasionally, at least, break a big run. Special teams must also improve.
So, what will it be? 2-10? 3-9? 4-8? 5-7?
It says here 6-6, with fun times returning to WKU.