(Part 8 of a 14-part Conference USA preview series)
Western Kentucky has a chance to become the first team in Conference USA history to win three straight league titles.
Leading the nation in scoring, the Hilltoppers (11-3, 7-1) won their final eight games last season, including a 58-44 decision over Louisiana Tech in the C-USA championship game and a 51-31 victory over Memphis in the Boca Raton Bowl.
Jeff Brohm accepted the head coaching job at Purdue after guiding WKU to a 30-10 record and two bowl victories. Former Notre Dame offensive coordinator Mike Sanford, an assistant to Willie Taggart at WKU in 2010, is the Hilltoppers' new boss.
Sanford has a tough act to follow as WKU led the nation in scoring with 45.5 points per game, while ranking fifth nationally in both total offense (523.1 yards per game) and passing (336.8 ypg).
Senior quarterback Mike White, the 2016 C-USA Newcomer of the Year, is among five returning offensive starters. A transfer from South Florida,White completed 67.3 percent of his passes for 4,363 yards with 37 touchdowns and only seven interceptions in 416 pass attempts.
WKU will need some new playmakers to emerge following the departure of running back Anthony Wales (237 carries, 1,621 yards, 27 TDs) and receivers Taywan Taylor (98 receptions, 1,730 yards, 17 TDs) and Nicholas Norris (76-1,730-14).
Quinton Baker established himself as a viable option in the running game with 542 yards and four touchdowns on 99 attempts in relief of Wales. Junior D'Andre Ferby (164 carries, 650 yards, 11 TDs in 2015) is back in the mix after being limited to one carry last season.
Senior Nacarius Fant (29 receptions, 407 yards, 2 TDs) and sophomore Lucky Jackson (26-395-2) are the top returning receivers.
Three holdovers remain on the offensive line, though first-team All-C-USA center Max Haplin and four-year starter Forrest Lamp leave huge voids. Lamp became the highest draftee in school history when he was selected by the Los Angeles Chargers in the second round (No. 38 overall).
Junior Brandon Ray, who has started all 41 games of his career, remains a fixture at left guard. Junior Jimmie Sims returns at left tackle, while Dennis Edwards transitions to center after starting all 14 games at right guard.
Defensively, the 'Toppers must replace a pair of first-team All-Conference selections. Led by linebacker Keith Brown (131 tackles), C-USA's leading tackler, and safety Branden Leston, WKU led the league in scoring (24.6 ppg) and rushing defense (97.2 ypg) and was No. 2 in total yardage (376.6 ypg). Alabama was the only team in the nation more effective than WKU at stopping the run.
Senior end Derik Overstreet (34 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, 4 sacks) and senior tackle Chris Johnson (43, 12.5 TFL, 4 sacks) and junior linebacker Joel Iyiegbuniwe (64 tackles, 10 TFL, 3.5 sacks) are the only returnees to the front six.
An all-senior secondary appears to be the strength of the defense, led by incumbent cornerbacks Joe Brown (43 tackles, 4 TFL, 2 sacks, 1 INT, 10 pass breakups) and De'Andre Simmons (30 tackles, 8 PBU). Leverick Johnson (45 tackles, 2 INTs, 8 PBUs) is the nickel back with Marcus Ward and Juwan Gardner (35 tackles) at the safeties. Lost to an injury in last year's season opener, Ward accounted for 57 tackles, 7 TFLs and 2 sacks while starting all 14 games in 2015.
Skyler Simcox made 16-of-22 field goals with a long of 52 and was 70-of-71 on extra points. Fellow junior Jake Collins averaged 42.7 yards on 39 punts.
WKU's return game is outstanding.
Fant picked up first-team All-C-USA accolades after returning 11 punts for a league-leading 15.6-yard average and a pair of scores.
Senior Kylen Towner, meanwhile, ran back 26 punts at an FBS single-season record 40.6-yard pace, including a 93-yard TD vs. Marshall.
2017 WKU SCHEDULE
(All Times Central and Subject to Change)
DATE OPPONENT TIME
Sept. 2 Eastern Kentucky 6 p.m.
Sept. 9 at Illinois 7 p.m.
Sept. 16 Louisiana Tech* 6 p.m.
Sept. 23 Ball State 6 p.m.
Oct. 7 at UTEP* 7 p.m.
Oct. 14 Charlotte* 3:30 p.m.
Oct. 20 (Fri.) at Old Dominion* TBA
Oct. 28 Florida Atlantic* 3:30 p.m.
Nov. 4 at Vanderbilt TBA
Nov. 11 at Marshall* 5:30 p.m.
Nov. 17 (Fri.) Middle Tennessee* 7 p.m.
Nov. 24 (Fri.) at FIU* 6 p.m.