LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- If the Western Kentucky football team needs a target to chase, I'm prepared to provide the bull's eye:

Conference USA inaugurated its championship football game in 2005. No team has won that game in three consecutive seasons.

Not East Carolina, which went back-to-back in 2008-09. Not Marshall. Not Southern Miss.

Western Kentucky will chase the league's first football three-peat this fall. But the Hilltoppers will have to do it with a new coach and about a dozen new starters. The Hilltoppers open at home Saturday against Eastern Kentucky at 7 p.m. (EDT).

Coach Mike Sanford follows Jeff Brohm (Purdue), who followed Bobby Petrino (Louisville), who followed Willie Taggart (Oregon by way of South Florida) who launched the Hilltoppers to the first of their six consecutive winning seasons in 2011. Brohm went 12-2 and 11-3 the last two seasons, winning the C-USA title game as well as two bowl games.

What is the outlook for WKU?

I polled the WDRB sports staff -- and then worked on my list of 5 WKU Players to Watch this season:

Tom Lane -- 9-3 as Mike Sanford keeps things rolling in Bowling Green.

Katie George -- 9-3. A new head coach shouldn't be an issue for the Tops. The return of (quarterback) Mike White will keep the offense rolling. Some key receivers need to emerge early in the absence of Taywan Taylor.

John Lewis -- 7-5. A period of adjustment for the Hilltoppers with a new coach and the loss of some offensive weapons. But quarterback Mike White returns along with some defensive vets. That spells success.

Mike Lacett -- 9-3. New coach, same dominance from Toppers in Conference USA.

Eric Crawford -- 9-3. Don't be surprised if the Hilltoppers knock off Illinois or Vandy -- or both.

Rick Bozich -- 8-4. Circle Sept. 9. If the Hilltoppers can win at Illinois, prepare for liftoff. That game will be the difference between a good and great season.

Five WKU Players to Watch

5. Joel Iyiegbuniwe, linebacker -- Product of South Warren High School, Iyiegbuniwe is WKU's top returning tackler. Coordinator Clayton White has asked him to quarterback the Hilltoppers' new 4-2-5 defensive scheme. He'll have to deliver -- and lead, bringing along new starters in Masai Whyte and two underclassmen in Ben Holt and Demetrius Cain (all Kentuckians) for WKU to have defensive success in 2017.

4. Joe Brown, cornerback -- The loss of De'Andre Simmons to injury makes Brown the Go-To defender in the WKU secondary because he will likely be paired with either true freshman (Roger Cray) or a redshirt junior (DeAndre Farris). Brown is listed at 5 feet 10 and 195 but his athleticism helps him play bigger and tougher. Proud product of Butler High School.

3. Jimmie Sims, offensive tackle -- Replaces powerful Forrest Lamp at left tackle and has just one career start (at right tackle). Do not be deceived. Sims has appeared in 33 games over his career. His effective play as primarily a blocking tight end in 2016 catapulted WKU's offense into one of the most productive in the nation. Now he'll be responsible for keeping quarterback Mike White healthy.

2. D'Andre Ferby, halfback -- Stay tuned for a comparison of Sanford's offense to the one Brohm ran at WKU as the Toppers averaged 523 yards per game last season. Ferby was injured on his first carry last season, but he has dropped 25 pounds and is expected to return to his solid play as a freshman when Ferby ran for 650 yards and 11 touchdowns. Sanford has compared him to former Boise State star Jay Ajayi, who ran for nearly 1,300 yards with the Dolphins last season.

1. Mike White, quarterback -- Before he became the guy who threw for more than than 4,300 yards and 37 touchdowns for WKU last season, White was the guy who lost the job at South Florida, where he struggled to complete 51 percent of his passes and had more interceptions (16) than touchdowns (11) over two seasons. Can he continue the poised, productive and turnover-free play he showed in 2016? Western's success depends upon it.

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