COACH: Paul Johnson (26-14 in three seasons at Georgia Tech ; 133-53 in 14 seasons overall)
LAST SEASON: 6-7, 4-4 (T-3rd in ACC Coastal; lost to Air Force in Independence Bowl)
OFFENSE: Georgia Tech's task this season is to prove it can continue having one of the nation's most prolific rushing attacks - the Yellow Jackets led the nation in rushing last season - without Joshua Nesbitt, the starting quarterback in each of Johnson's first three seasons on the job. Although Nesbitt completed just 43 percent of his career pass attempts, the former All-ACC selection was a tough runner who effectively engineered Johnson's option attack. The favorite to replace Nesbitt is Tevin Washington, who started in place of an injured Nesbitt in Georgia Tech's final four games last season. Redshirt freshman Synjyn Days also will compete for the job. The departures of Nesbitt and Anthony Allen mean the Yellow Jackets have to replace two guys who combined to rush for more than 2,000 yards last season; still, Orwin Smith (53 carries, 516 yards, four TDs) and Roddy Jones (52-353-4) should keep the rushing attack humming. The key is whether Tech can have at least a semblance of a downfield passing game to complement the rushing attack. No Tech player caught more than 15 passes or exceeded 291 receiving yards last season. Three starters return on the line. The Yellow Jackets committed 27 turnovers last season, third-most in the league; they lost 20 fumbles, tied for most in the nation, and obviously must take better care of the ball.
DEFENSE: Tech won the ACC title in spite of its defense two years ago, then ranked ninth in the conference in scoring defense and total defense last season. The Yellow Jackets believe they should be better this fall now that they've had a year to adjust to coordinator Al Groh's 3-4 scheme. Tech returns each of its three starting linemen from last season in Izaan Cross, Jason Peters and Logan Walls. The Jackets also return LB Julian Burnett, who made a team-high 89 tackles last season. Tech must replace the entire starting secondary, though the Yellow Jackets do have some promising underclassmen in the defensive backfield.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Sophomore Justin Moore exited spring practice as the favorite to replace the departed Scott Blair as the kicker. Sean Poole is back as the punter, but he must get better. Georgia Tech ranked 114th in net punting last season. Tech was 11th in kickoff coverage but just 98th in punt coverage a year ago. Tech is breaking in new return specialists this season.
BUZZ: Consider this a transition season as the Yellow Jackets usher in the post-Nesbitt era while continuing to improve their defense. While Tech is a triple-option team, there must be some semblance of a passing attack to keep opposing defenses somewhat honest. The schedule is such that a 3-0 start is likely. But it toughens considerably after that, even if four of the first six games are at home. Tech has gone to 14 consecutive bowls, tying the fourth-longest streak nationally. Making it 15 in a row is going to require some work.
COACH: Tom O'Brien (25-25 in four seasons at North Carolina State; 100-70 in 14 seasons overall)
LAST SEASON: 9-4, 5-3 (T-2nd in ACC Atlantic; beat West Virginia in Champs Sports Bowl)
OFFENSE: O'Brien showed his faith in junior Mike Glennon by naming him the starting quarterback even as two-sport athlete and former All-ACC selection Russell Wilson pondered a return for the 2011 season. Wilson was granted a release to play elsewhere, ushering in a new era of Wolfpack football. While Wilson loved to make plays with his feet, the strong-armed Glennon is more of a classic dropback quarterback. Glennon has thrown 52 passes in his college career and played in just three games last season. NC State must replace WRs Owen Spencer and Jarvis Williams, who caught a combined 112 passes for 1,625 yards last season. The top returning receiver is TE George Bryan, an All-America candidate who had 35 receptions for 369 yards last season. The Wolfpack have experienced tailbacks in Mustafa Greene (134 carries, 597 yards four TDs) and James Washington (71-215-1). They'll work behind a line that returns at least three starters; the line could add a fourth returning starter if G Andrew Wallace makes a successful comeback from a knee injury.
DEFENSE: NCSU returns eight starters overall and all four starters from the secondary. The Wolfpack's toughest task will be replacing LB Nate Irving, who made 21.5 tackles for loss last season. But the Wolfpack return LBs Audie Cole and Terrell Manning, who combined for 161 tackles in 2010. T J.R. Sweezy also returns after delivering 11.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks last season. Sweezy helped the Wolfpack rank second in the ACC and 14th nationally in run defense. The safety duo of Earl Wolff and Brandan Bishop should be productive.
SPECIAL TEAMS: This area could be a concern, as North Carolina State is breaking in true freshmen at kicker (Niklas Sade) and punter (Wil Baumann). Sade grew up as a soccer player in Munich before moving to North Carolina in middle school. The Wolfpack do have an experienced return man in T.J. Graham. The punt coverage was OK last season but the kick coverage was shaky, as the Wolfpack allowed two kickoffs to be returned for touchdowns.
BUZZ: So much depends on Glennon, a former Rivals100 prospect without much game experience. O'Brien has raved about Glennon throughout the offseason. If he's as good as advertised, the Wolfpack could finish as high as second in the Atlantic Division. But if Glennon endures growing pains, the inexperienced special-teams unit and Irving's absence means NCSU could finish as low as fifth. O'Brien said there is more depth than at any time during his tenure. More good news for the Wolfpack is that the schedule isn't that difficult; a 4-0 start looks likely. But the closing five games make for a tough finish to the regular season.
COACH: Joker Phillips (6-7 in one season)
LAST SEASON: 6-7, 2-6 (5th in SEC East; lost to Pittsburgh in BBVA Compass Bowl)
OFFENSE: The Wildcats lost their two best players in do-everything WR Randall Cobb and underrated TB Derrick Locke; they also lost their other starting wide receiver, Chris Matthews, as well as QB Mike Hartline. But while the skill positions look shaky, the line looks fine. G Larry Warford should be an All-SEC candidate, and he teams with Stuart Hines to give UK a good guard tandem. Junior Morgan Newton, who has started nine games in his career, is the new quarterback. He's a big guy with some skills, but maintaining consistency is going to be a key, especially with the questions at tailback and at wide receiver. Sophomore Raymond Sanders, who ran for 254 yards and three TDs, is the new tailback; he does have good hands, which should make him a valuable safety-valve receiver. La'Rod King, who was the No. 3 receiver last season, is the most likely go-to guy this fall. Can he make the jump from complementary receiver to No. 1 target? There is no other proven wide receiver on the roster. There is a nice group of tight ends, though, and they should become a more important part of the offense.
DEFENSE: Kentucky has struggled on defense seemingly forever. Phillips, in his second year as coach, has brought in veteran assistant Rick Minter to be co-coordinator with Steve Brown. Minter is a 3-4 proponent, so expect the Wildcats to show that look often this season. The top 11 tacklers are back, but that's from a unit that had trouble stopping the run last season. LB Danny Trevathan led the SEC with 144 tackles. Depth is questionable at the position, and coaches need some young players to make their presence felt. Other than Trevathan, there aren't a lot of playmakers on this unit; UK had 21 sacks and just nine interceptions last season. The line is nothing special, and any SEC fan will tell you that a solid defensive line is a must if you're going to compete for titles in that league. SS Winston Guy is the leader in the secondary; he had 106 tackles and three interceptions last season. Starting CBs Randall Burden and Anthony Mosley had a combined two picks and 11 pass breakups last season.
SPECIAL TEAMS: P Ryan Tydlacka is a good one; he averaged 43.8 yards per attempt last season and should contend for all-league honors this fall. K Craig McIntosh is back after going 11-of-15, including 5-of-8 from at least 40 yards; he kicked a 50-yarder last season. The rest of the special teams are questionable. The coverage teams were pitiful last season, and Cobb and Locke were excellent return men. Sanders could get a shot as a returner.
THE BUZZ: Kentucky has gone to a school-record five consecutive bowl games, but the Wildcats finished with a losing record last season and lost their two best players. Newton has enough experience to give Wildcats coaches hope that he will come through, but the tailbacks and the wide receivers are big question marks. So is the run defense. Six of the first nine games are at home, and the opener is a neutral-site game against Western Kentucky. Back-to-back home games against Louisville and Florida on Sept. 17 and 24 will be an indicator of how the season is going to go. If UK makes it to a sixth consecutive bowl, Phillips will deserve a ton of credit.
COACH: Pat Hill (108-71 in 14 seasons)
LAST SEASON: 8-5, 5-3 (4th in WAC; lost to Northern Illinois in Humanitarian Bowl)
OFFENSE: Over the past decade, Fresno State has been one of the most consistent programs in the nation, reaching a bowl in 11 of the past 12 seasons. The Bulldogs generally have won eight or nine games per season; that run is admirable but not spectacular, and in a league such as the WAC, if you're not spectacular, not that many notice. After redshirting last season, sophomore Derek Carr, the brother of former Bulldogs star David Carr, is the presumptive starter at quarterback. David Carr led Fresno State to an 11-3 season in 2001, when the Bulldogs were ranked as high as No. 8. Derek Carr has a strong arm and quick release. He's inexperienced, but there are high hopes. He should have a solid running game thanks to the return of TB Robbie Rouse, a 5-foot-7 junior who rushed for 1,129 yards and eight touchdowns in 11 games last season. The question is whether Rouse can stay healthy. The Bulldogs lost top WR Jamel Hamler, but they have the pieces in place for a solid receiving corps with Jalen Saunders and Rashad Evans. The biggest addition could be speedster Devon Wylie, who suffered a broken foot in last season's opener. The line is a question mark, as T Bryce Harris is the only returning starter. The remaining four projected first-teamers started a combined 10 games last season, led by G Leslie Cooper's six starts.
DEFENSE: Fresno State has an anchor on the line in T Logan Harrell, but this unit must improve in the turnover department. The Bulldogs' overall defensive numbers weren't terrible, but Fresno State forced just 13 turnovers (eight interceptions, five fumbles); only Kansas and New Mexico State finished with fewer takeaways nationally. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs must replace two productive mainstays - LB Ben Jacobs and E Chris Carter. Coaches will look to Harrell to set the tone, and that's not a bad place to start. He had 10.5 sacks last season, but how much of that production was because of Carter's presence? Fresno State was ninth in the nation in sacks last season, but Harrell and Carter were the only players with more than two. Travis Brown (79 tackles, nine tackles for loss) and Kyle Knox (74 tackles, 6.5 TFL) will hold down the outside linebacker spots, though Jacobs' replacement at middle linebacker will be untested. FS Phillip Thomas is the only returning full-time starter in the secondary. CBs Isaiah Green and L.J. Jones started late last season, but the defense was roughed up by Boise State and Northern Illinois. The secondary could get a boost if CB Jermaine Thomas, who started the first eight games last season, can return from a knee injury.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Kevin Goessling is one of the most consistent kickers in the country, converting 21-of-26 attempts last season. He was automatic inside 40 yards (11-of-11) and kicked two 50-yarders last season. Fresno State must improve its punting as Andrew Shapiro averaged only 37.4 yards per attempt, and the Bulldogs ranked eighth in the league in net punting. The Bulldogs also bring back all of their top return men. But Fresno State allowed three touchdowns in the return game (two on kickoffs, one on a punt).
THE BUZZ: The last time a Carr was the quarterback at Fresno State, the Bulldogs were at the top of the WAC and one of the biggest non-Big Six success stories. Although the Bulldogs remain a consistent program, they were passed by Boise State, TCU and Utah among the non-Big Six crowd. With the Broncos out of the league, Fresno State has as good a chance as anyone to win the WAC this season. As usual, the non-conference schedule is brutal (California, at Nebraska, Ole Miss, Boise State, at San Diego State), but Carr may be the quarterback to return Fresno State to the top of the conference standings. The toughest conference games (Hawaii and Nevada) are on the road, and Fresno plays 13 games, so seven wins are needed if the Bulldogs are to become bowl eligible. If the Bulldogs can get out of September at 2-2, they will be in good shape in terms of eventually landing a bid.
COACH: Charlie Strong (7-6 in one season)
LAST SEASON: 7-6, 3-4 (T-5th in the Big East; beat Southern Miss in Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl)
OFFENSE: TB Bilal Powell showed flashes of potential in his first three seasons before putting together a complete season as a senior, finishing with 1,305 yards and 11 touchdowns last season. Now Louisville needs another veteran tailback to have a career year before leaving school. Victor Anderson had a standout freshman season in 2008 with 1,047 yards and eight touchdowns, but he's been hobbled by injuries since. He and sophomore Jeremy Wright, who rushed for 98 yards and two touchdowns when Powell missed the win over Syracuse, should be an effective duo. Louisville needs its running game to produce because quarterback could be a problem. Will Stein is a junior with starting experience, but he's 5 feet 10 and a former walk-on. Teddy Bridgewater, a four-star true freshman from powerhouse Miami Northwestern, enrolled in January and will get a long look (he's one of 12 Louisville signees from the state of Florida). If he ends up as the starter, he could complete passes to former high school teammate Michaelee Harris. Louisville expected Harris to contribute as a true freshman receiver last season, but a knee injury sidelined him for the year. The Cardinals return starting WRs Josh Bellamy and Andrell Smith and TE Josh Chichester. Mario Benavides is one of the top centers in the Big East, but he's the only sure thing on the line. The line could feature youth or untested veterans. Either way, it's an even bigger question than quarterback. The new quarterback coach is Shawn Watson, who had been Nebraska's coordinator.
DEFENSE: The Cardinals' defense is in good hands under Strong, in his second year as Louisville coach. This group could be one of the best in the Big East for years to come. The defense could have five sophomore starters, including SS Hakeem Smith, who led the team with 88 tackles and earned Rivals.com freshman All-America honors last season. The line features the sophomore tandem of E B.J. Butler and T Brandon Dunn, who showed promise last season. LB Daniel Brown (11 tackles for loss) and FS Shenard Holton (74 tackles) are juniors. The major hole on defense is at cornerback, where Johnny Patrick had locked down one spot for the past three seasons. The position faces more questions following projected starter Darius Ashley's suspension after his second drunken driving arrest in seven months. Depth at linebacker also is a concern.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Chris Philpott has turned out to be a reliable specialist, converting 14-of-18 field-goal attempts last season. He assumed punting duties at midseason and averaged 40.5 yards per attempt. Louisville will have a new punt returner, while the tandem of Anderson and Wright averaged a combined 30.4 yards per kickoff return last season. The punt coverage was good, but the kickoff coverage was shaky last season.
THE BUZZ: Strong needed only one season to lift Louisville out of the malaise of the Steve Kragthorpe era. All signs point to Louisville eventually returning to the top of the Big East. Five of the Cardinals' six losses came by eight or fewer points. The Cards may have some growing pains as Strong's recruits - who are freshmen and sophomores now - start to make their way into the lineup. The schedule is such that a 4-0 start is possible; the Cardinals better have success early because the closing stretch is a tough one.