COACH: Bill Cubit (40-33 in six seasons at Western Michigan; 74-51-1 in 10 seasons overall)
LAST SEASON: 6-6, 5-3 (3rd in MAC West)
OFFENSE: The Broncos want to sling it behind junior QB Alex Carder, who tossed 30 touchdown passes in 2010 and is one of the nation's most underrated passers. He threw for 3,334 yards and completed 63.1 percent of his passes. Look for WR Jordan White - who was granted a sixth season of eligibility - to have another big season; he had seven 100-yard games and finished with 94 receptions for 1,378 yards and 10 TDs last season. A No. 2 receiver has to step up with the departure of 1,000-yard receiver Juan Nunez. Unless Western Michigan can pump up its ground attack, the offense may be too one-dimensional. RB Tevin Drake led the team with 405 yards rushing (on just 40 carries) in 2010 as a true freshman, and he will vie with fellow sophomore Brian Fields for the starting job. Fields also played well down the stretch last season and is a more well-rounded back than Drake at this point. Senior Aaron Winchester also could get in the mix. The key is developing a line that returns only two starters. G Anthony Parker and T Dann O'Neill, who began his career at Michigan, are the guys to watch.
DEFENSE: Improvement by a unit that ranked ninth in the MAC (387.8 ypg) is vital if the Broncos want to return to a bowl. With all four starters back, the line looks like the strength of the unit. T Drew Nowak is the star, and E Paul Hazel was third in the MAC in sacks last season with eight. He had 46 tackles overall. The Broncos run a 4-2-5 set, and LB Mitch Zajac is the unquestioned defensive leader; he paced the team with 97 tackles in 2010. SS Doug Wiggins, who began his career at Miami, is a hard hitter with star potential in the secondary. Wiggins is one of seven Florida natives who is projected to start on defense. Lewis Toler was one of the best freshmen corners in the nation last season, when he had five picks, nine pass breakups, three fumbles recoveries and 59 tackles.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Ben Armer may be the top punter in the MAC. He averaged 41.2 yards per boot and dropped 17 punts inside the 20. K John Potter is a steady force who hit 10-of-12 field-goal attempts in 2010. The return game is unproven and in need of playmakers. The coverage units were adequate last season.
THE BUZZ: The key to success will be the defense. Can it pick up where it left off in 2010, when it yielded a total of 10 points in the final two games? The offense teems with potential, especially the passing attack. If the running game takes off, the Broncos may have the top offense in the conference - and WMU may find itself back in a bowl for the first time since 2008. But playing only five home games could hamper Western Michigan's postseason aspirations. The Broncos open at Michigan and also travel to Illinois and Connecticut, and the toughest league games also are on the road. Conference play opens with a home game against Central Michigan on Sept. 17, and that game should serve as a good gauge as to who is going to finish third in the MAC West behind Northern Illinois and Toledo.
COACH: Rich Ellerson (12-13 in two seasons at Army; 72-54 in 11 seasons overall)
LAST SEASON: 7-6 (beat SMU in Armed Forces Bowl)
OFFENSE: Army ranked eighth nationally at 251.6 rushing yards per game and racked up its highest point total since 1996, but the Black Knights could have a tough time matching those totals this season. Although Army has plenty of experienced skill-position performers, junior G Frank Allen is the only returning starter on the line. The inexperienced line could put more pressure on junior Trent Steelman, who enters his third year as Army's starting quarterback. Steelman threw for 995 yards, rushed for 721 yards and accounted for 18 touchdowns last season while directing Army's triple-option attack. Army also returns FB Jared Hassin, who averaged 5.3 yards per carry and rushed for 1,013 yards and nine touchdowns last season.
DEFENSE: The Black Knights run what Ellerson calls a double-eagle flex defense; it employs four linemen but only one is a true tackle and another plays a hybrid position that Army terms "bandit." Army has plenty of rebuilding to do on this side of the ball. LB Stephen Anderson led Army with 108 tackles last season, but he's gone. So is E Josh McNary, who ended his career as the school's career leader in sacks and tackles for loss. Army also must replace S Donovan Travis, who had the second-most interceptions in program history. Army must replace seven starters in all and could be particularly susceptible up front. Junior E Jarrett Mackey and senior MLB Steven Erzinger are the only projected first-teamers on the line or at linebacker who were regular starters last season. Mackey ranked second on the team in sacks (six) last season, while Erzinger was Army's second-leading tackler (76). Mackey's brother, A.J. Mackey, is the projected starter at nose tackle, and the Mackey brothers and starting CB Josh Jackson have played football together since the sixth grade. They were teammates at Snellville (Ga.) Brookwood and also attended the U.S. Military Academy Prep School together. As a whole, the front seven is an extremely small group that relies on quickness rather than size and bulk.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Alex Carlton returns for his senior season after bouncing back from a slow start to make each of his final 11 field-goal attempts last season. Carlton ended up going 15-of-22, including 8-of-13 from at least 40 yards out. Army must find a new punter and also needs to replace departed kickoff specialist Matthew Campbell. The coverage teams were quite good last season: Army ranked fourth nationally in punt coverage and 32nd in kickoff coverage. Jackson is nothing special as a return man.
THE BUZZ:Army has some reason for optimism after earning its first bowl win since 1985 last season, but don't bet on a second consecutive postseason appearance. The Black Knights have too many holes on the offensive line and everywhere on defense. Army's schedule won't allow all these new starters to ease into their assignments. Army opens the season by facing three consecutive 2010 bowl teams: Northern Illinois, San Diego State and Northwestern. The Black Knights play just four true home games, none after Oct. 29.
COACH: Frank Solich (40-36 in six seasons at Ohio; 98-55 in 12 seasons overall)
LAST SEASON: 8-5, 6-2 (2nd in MAC East; lost to Troy in New Orleans Bowl)
OFFENSE: It all begins up front, with a line that returns all five starters and will be among the best in the MAC. The tackle duo of Joe Flading and A.J. Strum is outstanding. The receiving corps will get a huge boost from the return of LaVon Brazill, who missed all but three games of 2010 with a broken hand. He caught 53 passes in 2009 and Ohio ranked just 102nd nationally in passing offense without him last season. The Bobcats may use a committee approach to run the ball. Leading rusher Vince Davidson is gone, and senior Donte Harden looks as if he has first dibs on the starting job. Tyler Tettleton - son of former major-league catcher Mickey Tettleton - emerged from spring practice as the starting quarterback, but the competition will continue in camp to run Ohio's new no-huddle attack. He will compete with Phil Bates, the Bobcats' leading returning rusher. Bates, who began his career at Iowa State, remains an unpolished passer, and that may be enough to give the job to Tettleton. Redshirt freshman Kyle Snyder also should be in the mix.
DEFENSE: Questions abound with just two starters back. Keep an eye on the line, which needs four new starters. Squatty T Carl Jones (6-0/265) has some pass-rush ability and made 40 tackles in a backup role last season. One positive is that all four projected starters are upperclassmen. The linebacking corps is in the best shape of the defensive units. Noah Keller is back in the middle after missing all but three games in 2010 with a foot injury. He's a two-time All-MAC choice and an inspirational force who makes plays from sideline to sideline. Eric Benjamin is his sidekick on the weakside. CB Travis Carrie is the lone returning starter in the secondary, but the Bobcats should receive a boost from the return of FS Gerald Moore, who missed last season with a foot injury. He was excellent as a redshirt freshman in 2009, with 68 tackles and six interceptions. In addition, CB Omar Leftwich played a lot as a reserve last season and had two picks and seven pass breakups.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Matt Weller and P Paul Hershey may be the best kicker/punter duo in the MAC. Weller nailed 11-of-14 field-goal attempts in 2010 and has 50-yard range. He didn't miss a kick from inside 37 yards last season. Hershey averaged 41 yards per punt and had 14 punts downed inside the 20. Brazill is a deadly punt returner man who has run back four for touchdowns in his career. Harden is adequate as a kick returner. The Bobcats' coverage teams were strong last season.
THE BUZZ: Ohio's bowl hopes are fueled by one of the softest non-conference schedules in the MAC: at New Mexico State, Gardner-Webb, Marshall and at Rutgers. In addition, the majority of the teams in the MAC East look like three- or four-win teams at best. Plus, the toughest league games (Miami and Temple) are at home. But all that won't matter if the overhauled defense flops and no consistent quarterback emerges to run the new offense.
COACH: Turner Gill (3-9 in one season at Kansas; 23-39 in five seasons overall)
LAST SEASON: 3-9, 1-8 (6th in Big 12 North)
OFFENSE: Kansas ranked 113th in total offense and 111th in scoring offense last season. Three quarterbacks started for the Jayhawks, but Jordan Webb started seven games and had the most success. He threw more interceptions (eight) than touchdown passes (seven), though. WR Daymond Patterson hopes to build on a 60-catch campaign, though he averaged fewer than 10 yards per grab. But he is the only proven wide receiver on the roster. TE Tim Biere is talented, if underutilized. Up front, three starters return, but the Jayhawks allowed 37 sacks and couldn't run consistently in 2010. The return of T Jeff Spikes from an Achilles injury should be a big help for TB James Sims, who rushed for 742 yards and nine touchdowns. C Jeremiah Hatch is heading into his fourth season as a starter. True freshman RB Darrian Miller enrolled early and had an impressive spring.
DEFENSE: Patching up a sieve-like run defense is vital. A year ago, Kansas was 107th in the nation in rushing defense. The return of LB Huldon Tharp from injury and the addition of LB Darius Willis, who sat out last season after transferring from Buffalo, will provide a boost. Tharp started seven games and posted 59 tackles in '09. Meanwhile, Willis was the Jayhawks' scout team defensive player of the year last fall. They should team with Steven Johnson, who led the team with 95 tackles last season, to give the Jayhawks a solid three-man rotation at linebacker. The Jayhawks' pass rush produced just 14 sacks in 2010. KU needs continued improvement from junior E Toben Opurum. He led the Jayhawks in rushing as a true freshman in 2009, the moved to linebacker last spring. He eventually found his way to end and played well down the stretch. Three starters are back in the secondary, but the Jayhawks had just seven interceptions last season.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Punt coverage has been a major problem. The Jayhawks were among the worst in the country last season, allowing 13.9 yards per return and three touchdowns. Kickoff coverage wasn't that good, either. KU will have new kickers and punters, too. Sophomore K Ron Doherty kicked off in 2010, but he has not attempted a college field goal. True freshman Alex Mueller could win that job. Redshirt freshman Victor McBride will punt. Backup WR D.J. Beshears is a good kick returner, while Patterson was mediocre as the punt returner last season.
THE BUZZ: Gill's first season at Kansas turned out like an overhyped bad movie. There were good parts - an upset of Georgia Tech, a fourth-quarter rally from a 28-point deficit to stun Colorado. Overall, though, it was a big disappointment. Yet, there are reasons to believe that Gill's sequel season could be better. The Jayhawks have experience at quarterback, a rising talent at running back in Sims and help at linebacker to bolster a defense that surrendered at least 31 points seven times. Still, the Jayhawks need a better offensive line, an improved pass rush and more consistency in the secondary. The opener against FCS McNeese State should be a win, but then comes six consecutive games against bowl teams from 2010. If KU can get to four or five wins, it will have been a successful season.
COACH: Paul Pasqualoni (first season at Connecticut; 135-72-1 in 19 seasons overall)
LAST SEASON: 8-5, 5-2 (T-1st in Big East; lost to Oklahoma in Fiesta Bowl)
OFFENSE: The offense last season was, in essence, a one-man show, and that one man is gone. Jordan Todman rushed for 1,695 yards and 14 touchdowns before entering the NFL draft as a junior (he was selected in the sixth round). With Todman gone and Robbie Frey, last season's backup, leaving via transfer, D.J. Shoemate could have his long-awaited chance to be a feature back. A four-star recruit in 2008, Shoemate transferred from USC, where he had been moved to fullback. Shoemate carried the ball 28 times last season and primarily was a special teams player. Redshirt freshman Lyle McCombs (5-8/163) could team with Shoemate (5-11/217) in a committee approach. The Huskies continue to have questions at quarterback. The starter this season will be untested, whether it's sophomore Mike Box, redshirt freshman Scott McCummings, true freshman Mike Nebrich or junior Johnny McEntee. The quarterback will work with a questionable group of receivers after WR Michael Smith (46 receptions for 615 yards and two touchdowns last season) was declared ineligible. Now, the good news: The Huskies have one of the best lines in the Big East. T Mike Ryan and C Moe Petrus are seniors and All-Big East candidates. Ryan has All-America potential.
DEFENSE: Given all the offensive question marks, new coach Pasqualoni has to be thrilled with the experience and talent returning on defense. The line and secondary have a combined eight returning starters, and all are juniors and seniors. Kendall Reyes is the star here. Shuffling between end and tackle last season, Reyes was perhaps the top defensive player in the Big East over the second half of the regular season (5.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions in Connecticut's last four conference games). If the secondary can continue its improvement, the defense could be one of the best in the league. Three of the four returning starters (CBs Dwayne Gratz and Blidi Wreh-Wilson and SS Jerome Junior) have been key players since they were freshmen. Opponents completed 58.7 percent of their passes last season against UConn, down from 64.4 percent in 2009. If there is a question on the defense, it's at linebacker, where the unit must replace mainstays Lawrence Wilson and Scott Lutrus. Sio Moore emerged last season to amass 110 tackles. The candidates for the middle (Jerome Williams, Jory Johnson and Mike Osiecki) and strongside (Yawin Smallwood) are short on experience.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Connecticut will have one of the steadiest kickers in the Big East in Dave Teggart. He has made all 99 of his career extra points and a school-record 52 field goals (on 69 attempts). He clinched UConn's BCS berth with a 52-yard field goal in the final seconds against USF. He also kicked the game-winner in overtime against West Virginia. Cole Wagner averaged 41.3 yards per punt, but the Huskies were seventh in the Big East in net punting (34.4 yards). Connecticut's return game will be in good shape with backup WR Nick Williams, who led the nation with 35.3 yards per kickoff return and added two touchdowns. The coverage units need to improve, though.
THE BUZZ: Pasqualoni won't make any major scheme changes, as he retained six assistants. Will the Huskies have the same results under Pasqualoni as they did under the departed Randy Edsall? The schedule certainly should help this season. While we have picked Connecticut to finish last in the Big East, the schedule, along with the returning talent on defense and along the offensive line, is such that a bowl bid is possible. But big questions at quarterback and tailback could keep the Huskies from the top half of the Big East. None of the five non-conference opponents had a winning record last season, and the schedule is such that a 5-0 start is entirely possible. There are two Big Six non-conference opponents - but they are Iowa State and Vanderbilt, which might be the worst teams in the Big 12 and SEC, respectively.