Western Kentucky knows it will be tough trying to follow up a 12-win season that clinched Conference USA, a second straight bowl victory and No. 24 final ranking.
Especially since the Hilltoppers must replace key personnel such as career passing leader Brandon Doughty and tight end Tyler Higbee, both of whom are now in NFL training camps. But WKU has plenty of talent left for coach Jeff Brohm on both sides of the ball to expect continued success.
''Our team understands that this is a new team,'' said Brohm, who agreed to a four-year contraction extension in February. ''We lost some key players and some people out there might think that (because of) the fact that we lost them, we're not going to be as near as good. It's up to guys to prove that they were a big part of that success. ... I like the nucleus of this team.''
WKU returns seven offensive starters from a high-octane squad that averaged 50 points per game while going unbeaten in league play. Five are on an offensive line that helped running back Anthony Wales rush for 1,091 yards over the final nine contests, and they should provide ample protection for Doughty's successor in the pocket.
Senior receiver Taywan Taylor - who set single-season school records with 1,467 yards and 17 touchdowns on 86 catches - and fellow wideout Nicholas Norris (63 receptions, 971 yards) are also back along with tailback D'Andre Ferby, who rushed for 650 yards and 11 TDs.
The Hilltoppers may look different offensively this season, but tackle Forrest Lamp likes their continued capability to pile up yards and points.
''It's fun and we get to do a bunch of different things,'' Lamp said. ''We pass it, run it and have trick plays. There's nothing more fun than blocking for a couple of seconds and seeing (wide receiver) Taywan (Taylor) run down the field and catch the ball wide open off a flea-flicker.''
Though WKU returns just four defensive starters, it has plenty of depth with nearly two dozen players who participated in at least three games last season. The `Toppers also added Louisville graduate transfers Keith Brown and Nick Dawson-Brents, beefing up a unit that might have to carry the load while the offense retools.
''The ability to prove consistency and the fact that we can do it for more than one year is going to be important,'' Brohm said. ''But the bullseye will be on our chest and we understand that we have a challenging schedule.''
Several players are competing to fill the big void left by Doughty's departure and Brohm will take as much time needed to examine a group including junior transfer Mike White - a former starter at South Florida - graduate transfer Tyler Ferguson, sophomore Drew Eckels and freshman Steven Duncan. Senior Nelson Fishback is recovering from a torn pectoral muscle.
The NCAA granted running back Leon Allen a medical hardship waiver for another season of eligibility, but there's no timetable for the senior's return from a serious knee injury sustained in last year's second game. He rushed for 1,542 yards and 13 TDs in 2014.
WKU faces two SEC teams in three weeks when it travels to defending national champion Alabama on Sept. 10 and hosts Vanderbilt on Sept. 24. The `Toppers also travel to face East division favorite Middle Tennessee (Oct. 15) and perennial contender Marshall (Nov. 26).
Seven wins and another bowl appearance are within reach for Hilltoppers.
The Hilltoppers host Rice on Sept. 1.