COACH: June Jones (1-11 in one season; 77-51 in 10 seasons overall).
LAST SEASON: 1-11 overall, 0-8 in Conference USA (sixth in C-USA West).
FINAL 2008 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 118th.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Sophomore QB Bo Levi Mitchell can be expected to make a big jump in his second season in coach June Jones' offense. Mitchell threw 24 TD passes as a true freshman last season – but also 23 picks. He threw for 2,865 yards last season; a 3,500-yard, 30-TD season in 2009 is a reasonable expectation. And, obviously, he needs to cut down on the interceptions.
STAR POWER: There are three potential go-to receivers in Aldrick Robinson, Emmanuel Sanders and Cole Beasley. They combined for 23 TD catches last season, and like Mitchell, they can be expected to be more productive in their second season in this offense.
STRENGTHS: The passing offense should be one of the best in the nation. The skill-position guys have become acclimated to the system, and the line should be more accustomed to the blocking schemes, too. (All five projected starting linemen are sophomores.) CB Bryan McCann and SS Rock Dennis are the guys to watch in the secondary; each has a chance at all-league honors.
WEAKNESSES: The running game was horrible last season (41.4 yards per game, with three – three! – rushing touchdowns), and while it won't be that bad again, it's still not going to be effective. The defense was awful last season and must get tougher against the run. SMU runs a 3-4 set, and coaches are confident some position switches have shored up the linebacking unit. We'll see. The Mustangs also need to find some return men.
THE BUZZ: Growing pains were severe in Jones' first season, but better days should be ahead. This can be a tough offense to grasp, but Mitchell and his receivers should post solid numbers this season. Plus, C-USA is such that a big jump can be made in one year. After an easy opener, SMU goes on the road for three games in a row, with Game 2 against fellow league bottom-feeder UAB. That should be a good gauge for both teams. Starting Oct. 3 against TCU, SMU plays six games in a row against teams that went to bowls last season. Still, this could be a five- or even six-win team if things go well. Realistically, though, a four-victory season would be something to celebrate.
COACH: Paul Wulff (2-11 in one season; 55-51 in nine seasons overall).
LAST SEASON: 2-11 overall, 1-8 in Pac-10 (ninth in Pac-10).
FINAL 2008 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 114th.
KEEP AN EYE ON: The Cougars were abysmal offensively in coach Paul Wulff's first season, and he's hoping the personnel is better-equipped for his version of the spread this season. He junked his no-huddle scheme early last season, but it was brought back for spring ball and the Cougars seemed fine with it.
STAR POWER: Senior C Kenny Alfred is heading into his fourth season as a starter. He's a physical blocker who has a chance at all-league honors.
STRENGTHS: There is some good running back talent on hand. The top four rushers are back, led by Dwight Tardy and Logwone Mitz, and California transfer James Montgomery is eligible. The offensive line has a chance to be good, thanks to Alfred's toughness in the middle. LB Andy Mattingly is talented and has all-league potential. The secondary should be OK even with two new corners; one likely will be Cal transfer Brandon Jones. SS Xavier Hicks and FS Chima Nwachukwu are the guys to watch in the secondary. P Reid Forrest, who's a good one, likely will be busy again this season.
WEAKNESSES: The passing attack looks mighty weak. QB Kevin Lopina threw zero touchdowns and 11 picks last season, and he'll have to hold off Marshall Lobbestael – who's returning from a knee injury – for the starting job in fall practice. Plus, leading receiver Brandon Gibson is gone, and the leading returning receiver, Jeshua Anderson, speny the spring running track. The front six on defense will get a makeover, which might be good considering the Cougars allowed 43.8 points per game last season. The line must get far tougher.
THE BUZZ: A 2-1 start is possible, but then come back-to-back road games against USC and Oregon and the beat(ings) will go on. The Cougars have a long way to go to become respectable again in the Pac-10. Quarterback play must take a quantum leap to even reach the mediocre level, and the defensive front has to show some toughness against the run. If Washington State can somehow get to four wins, Wulff will have done a magnificent job.
COACH: Frank Solich (23-26 in four seasons; 81-45 in 11 seasons overall).
LAST SEASON: 4-8 overall, 3-5 in MAC (tied for fourth in MAC East).
FINAL 2008 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 99th.
KEEP AN EYE ON:Boo Jackson and Theo Scott likely will share time at quarterback; both are athletic and provide a running threat. But each has lacked consistency. If the Bobcats are to make a run at the division title, they need better quarterback play than they received last season.
STAR POWER: Junior LB Noah Keller has all-league potential. Keller, a Nebraska native, had 104 tackles, five tackles for loss, a sack, an interception, two pass breakups and a fumble recovery last season. He has good instincts and always seems to be around the ball.
STRENGTHS: The Bobcats had one of the better defenses in the MAC last season, and there's no reason not to expect more of the same. Keller and LB Lee Renfro combined for 187 tackles, and FS Steven Jackson should be one of the best defensive backs in the league. If Es Kris Luchsinger and Curtis Meyers can provide a pass rush, big things could happen for the defense. The return teams were good last season, and the Bobcats' return men are big-play threats.
WEAKNESSES: The offensive line has been rebuilt, with T Cole Bunner the potential standout; all five projected starters are upperclassmen. The running game struggled last season, putting too much pressure on a passing offense that lacks playmakers. The punt-coverage team must be upgraded.
THE BUZZ: The Bobcats' defense gives them a chance to contend for the MAC East title. But the offense has to get a lot better. The Bobcats didn't hit their stride offensively last season until the final two games, but that may have been more because of the competition (Akron and Miami) than anything the Bobcats did. While this season's opener is against Connecticut, there still are some winnable early season games. October will tell the tale for the Bobcats. The potential exists for at least a 3-2 mark in that month, and if that happens, a first- or second-place finish in the division is possible. But what seems more likely is a four- or five-win season.
COACH: Doug Marrone (first season).
LAST SEASON: 3-9 overall, 1-6 in Big East (tied for seventh in league).
FINAL 2008 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 94th.
KEEP AN EYE ON: New Orange coach Doug Marrone won't decide on a quarterback until fall drills. Redshirt freshman Ryan Nassib was the starter out of spring ball, ahead of incumbent Cameron Dantley. But the transfer of Duke basketball player Greg Paulus will make it a three-man race in the fall. As bad as Syracuse has been the past few seasons, it's still hard to imagine that a guy who hasn't played football since 2004 – Paulus – could be the starting quarterback.
STAR POWER: Senior DT Arthur Jones is a nice building block for Marrone; alas, there aren't enough like Jones on the roster. Jones is sixth in school history in tackles for loss (31.5), and his 13 tackles for loss last season was the 11th-best single-season mark in Syracuse history.
STRENGTHS: There is a nice group of running backs, headed by Delone Carter, and big things are expected from redshirt freshman Averin Collier. WR Mike Williams' return from a year-long academic suspension will provide a boost to the passing attack; he should be one of the best receivers in the Big East. There is some speed in the secondary, which has potential. P Rob Long has a legit chance to lead the Big East, and he likely will be called on often.
WEAKNESSES: The quarterback situation obviously is unsettled; who will emerge and will he be able to throw effectively? The offensive line has some issues, too, and new line coach Greg Adkins – who held the same position at Tennessee – doesn't have that much talent to work with this season. A more consistent pass rush must be developed. The linebackers need to upgrade their play.
THE BUZZ: Syracuse plays seven of its first eight games at home and is one of just seven teams with eight home games this season. But there are three Big Ten bowl teams in a row to open the season, so the offensive growing pains could be severe. And despite all those home games, this team lacks talent and depth. Williams' return is a big plus, and if the line can open some holes, the Orange have the running backs to take advantage. But expecting more than four victories is foolish in Marrone's first season.
COACH: Rick Stockstill (17-20 in three seasons).
LAST SEASON: 5-7 overall, 3-4 in Sun Belt (tied for fifth in league).
FINAL 2008 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 97th.
KEEP AN EYE ON: A lot depends on QB Dwight Dasher, who was solid as a freshman, then lost his starting job last season as a sophomore. The new offensive coordinator is Tony Franklin, fired at midseason by Auburn last season, and he'll try to take advantage of Dasher's mobility.
STAR POWER: Senior LB Danny Carmichael is a tough, productive player for the Blue Raiders. He had 89 tackles last season and easily could surpass that number this season, when he should be one of the best 'backers in the league.
STRENGTHS: MTSU has perhaps the best group of receivers in the Sun Belt. The Blue Raiders had eight players catch between 13 and 54 passes last season, and each returns. There's a nice mix of big, physical receivers and small, speedy guys. If Dasher can be a competent passer, this could be a highly dangerous offense. RB Phillip Tanner is steady and the line – decimated by injuries last season – has a chance to be one of the best in the league. The secondary should be good, led by CB Alex Suber and FS Jeremy Kellem. K Alan Gendreau and P David DeFatta are among the best in the league at their positions.
WEAKNESSES: The defense struggled against the run last season. The interior of the line is a question mark, as are the linebackers other than Carmichael. Senior NT Brandon Perry has been an underachiever, and he needs to play better this season if the Blue Raiders hope to be stronger against the run. There are two new starters at linebacker and they are unproven. The coverage units and return teams were mediocre last season, though Desmond Gee has the potential to be a big-time return man.
THE BUZZ: Four of the first five games are on the road, and that includes two visits to ACC schools and two trips to conference foes. Winning the conference opener Sept. 26 at North Texas is vital if MTSU is to have any shot at the league title. The flipside is that five of the final seven games are at home. In addition, most of the tough league games are at home. The season's success likely comes down to how well Dasher plays. Even if the defense struggles again, MTSU still should be able to win five league games if the offense comes through.