Many pundits think the greatest opportunity for the Hilltoppers to earn out of conference respect will come on the 15th of December. That is when Coach Darren Horn's squad will get a chance to take revenge for last years loss in Knoxville to the Tennessee Volunteers. Bruce Pearl's squad is ranked in the top five by most polls. This is the return game for the Hilltoppers and will be played in Nashville; a win however, would be heard all around the country.
One week later, on Dec. 22nd, the Toppers head to Carbondale Ill. for a rematch with perhaps the fastest rising program in the nation, the Salukis of Southern Illinois. The Toppers would love to play Grinch to the Salukis Christmas holiday in a game that will have major NCAA at large ramifications for both teams.
If the Hilltoppers can get two out of those three "opportunity" games in the win column they might be able to breathe much easier come March with an at large bid all but assured.
Danger sneaks up on you when you least expect it and there are several games that symbolize danger in the out of conference schedule. Danger is losing to a team you should beat. Losing to a team that gets a hot hand. Losing to a team that hurts your chances of getting an at large bid in March, that is the danger. A very dangerous game will be when the Tops go on the road to Eastern Kentucky on Dec. the 5th in a matchup that will test the mettle of this team. A road game in a hostile (heck, very hostile) environment is always tough. This game will just be a number in the win column in March but a loss will be a big bump in the road to receiving at large bid on selection Sunday.
Northern Arizona came to Diddle for bracket busters a couple of years ago and this is the return game. Coming a week after the Great Alaska Shootout, this game will be another road test where there is not much to be gained but lots lose if WKU comes up short.
Nebraska at Diddle is a game the Toppers will need come March. Any win against a BCS school gets the committee's attention. Defending your home Arena is always a must for a team looking for an at large bid. If the toppers can avoid the danger and make the most of the opportunities, they might disprove the notion that the Sunbelt is a one-bid conference. Hopefully it won't come to that. Hopefully the Toppers will be crowned Sunbelt Champions in Mobile. However, heading into the Sunbelt conference championship tournament, with a solid record, and perhaps a spot in the suddenly all too meaningful late season polls, much of the pressure would be off the coaching staff and players.
The best way to breathe easy in March is to make the most of the opportunities in November and December. The Hilltoppers plan to do just that.
We'd like thank GoHerd.com for the photograph used in this story.