COACH: DeWayne Walker (first season).
LAST SEASON: 3-9 overall, 1-7 in WAC (tied for eighth in league).
FINAL 2008 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 112th.
KEEP AN EYE ON: New coach DeWayne Walker is a defensive guru, but he doesn't have a lot with which to work. Offensively is where the most changes will be made; Hal Mumme and his pass-happy attack are gone, so expect more of a traditional look from the Aggies this season.
STAR POWER: Senior Nick Paden is a nice-sized linebacker (6-3/235) who should be even more productive with Walker's arrival. Actually, Paden was productive already, finishing with 107 tackles, two sacks and two interceptions last season.
STRENGTHS: There is a nice group of running backs, headed by Marquell Colston. Marcus Anderson was the No. 2 receiver last season, but he should be able to easily make the transition to go-to receiver this season. CB Davon House is another player who should benefit from Walker's arrival; he has a chance to be an all-league guy.
WEAKNESSES: JC transfer Jeff Fleming likely will be the quarterback, and he'll be protected by a line that has to adjust to all-new blocking schemes. A new quarterback protected by a line in flux? That's not a good formula. Walker and his assistants need some junior college transfers to come through on the interior of the defensive line. The Aggies were horrible against the run last season, and improvement there is the No. 1 priority. The Aggies also had just 19 sacks last season; will any playmakers emerge this season?
THE BUZZ: On paper, it doesn't appear as if Walker and his staff have a lot to work with offensively. The transition from Mumme's pass-happy system could take a while. Then again, there are some OK running backs on hand, so if the linemen can become adequate run-blockers, there is some hope for the offense. The defense must get better against the run, and Walker can be counted on to come up with some schemes that will enable New Mexico State to apply more pass-rush pressure this season. The first three games are at home, and the Aggies don't see a bowl team from last season until Game 7, so there's a chance that the early season growing pains won't be as severe as expected. But the second half of the schedule is brutal, including trips to Ohio State and Boise State. A five-win season would be cause for parties, but this looks more like a two- or three-win team.
COACH: Rich Ellerson (first season).
LAST SEASON: 3-9 overall.
FINAL 2008 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 105th.
KEEP AN EYE ON: New coach Rich Ellerson is known for his defensive acumen, but one of the boldest moves he made in spring practice involved the offense. He moved Ali Villanueva, who was a starting tackle last season, to wide receiver. Yes, you read that right: from tackle to wide receiver. Villanueva is 6-10 and 283 pounds.
STAR POWER: Junior LB Stephen Anderson should be a good fit in Ellerson's system. Anderson was Army's second-leading tackler last season with 82, including 11 tackles for loss.
STRENGTHS: The secondary is filled with upperclassmen and could be OK. Army had some success against the run last season and the line has some potential, especially if T Victor Ugenyi – who was a starting end last season – can adjust to his new position quickly.
WEAKNESSES: Ellerson has tweaked the triple-option attack used last season, when Army ran well but finished last nationally in passing. Chip Bowden and Max Jenkins will vie for the quarterback job in fall drills; Bowden can run but can't throw, while Jenkins might be the best all-around candidate. No projected line starter has started a college game, which bodes ill for a revamped backfield. Ellerson likes an aggressive, attacking defense, but there is a lack of speed. The return units were poor last season, the coverage units adequate; until there is a big-time infusion of athleticism, that's going to remain the case.
THE BUZZ: Ellerson arrives at West Point after a successful run as coach at FCS (Football Championship Subdivision) member Cal Poly, but Army lags far behind service-academy rivals Air Force and Navy. Ellerson has to find a way for Army to throw the ball better – the Black Knights were absolutely inept in that category last season – and become more physical on defense. Army plays four "Big Six" opponents this season, with three of those games at home. The schedule isn't that tough; then again, this team isn't that good.
COACH: Mike Haywood (first season).
LAST SEASON: 2-10 overall, 1-7 in MAC (seventh in MAC East).
FINAL 2008 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 113th.
KEEP AN EYE ON: The offense has struggled the past few seasons. Enter new coach Mike Haywood, who had been offensive coordinator at Notre Dame. He needs to find a way to energize the offense.
STAR POWER: Caleb Bostic, a 6-3, 232-pound senior, is the only returning starter at linebacker. He was overshadowed at the position last season but has a chance to make a big splash this season. Frankly, this is a team lacking in star power – which is a big reason we have them 113th in the nation.
STRENGTHS: The wide receivers have some talent, and Eugene Harris and Dustin Woods are solid return men. The secondary could be a good one, and CB Jeff Thompson has a chance to garner all-league notice.
WEAKNESSES: Senior QB Daniel Raudabaugh has some physical tools, but he has lacked consistency. It's up to Haywood and new coordinator Peter Vaas to turn Raudabaugh's potential into production. The offensive line has been reshuffled, and former defensive tackle Sean Redwine won a starting job at guard during spring drills. The RedHawks did not run all that well last season and must find a way to be more productive on the ground. Just five starters are back on defense, and linebacker was hit especially hard. New defensive coordinator Carl Reese needs to find a pass rush; Miami had just 13 sacks last season, and no returning player had more than 2.5. Special teams are a concern, as there is a new kicker and a new punter.
THE BUZZ: Five of the first seven games are on the road; plus, the first three games and five of the first six are against bowl teams from last season. What that means is that the growing pains on both sides of the ball could be severe. Four of the final five games are at home, but the season likely will be lost by then. If Miami can get to four wins, it will have been a good first season for Haywood.
COACH: Charlie Weatherbie (25-45 in six seasons; 70-109 in 16 seasons overall).
LAST SEASON: 4-8 overall, 3-4 in Sun Belt (tied for fifth in league).
FINAL 2008 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 106th.
KEEP AN EYE ON: The loss of three-year starting QB Kinsmon Lancaster hurts. New starter Trey Revell, a 6-4 junior, has the potential to improve the passing attack, though. The passing game will be helped if senior WR Darrell McNeal returns from a suspension that kept him out of spring ball.
STAR POWER: Senior LB Cardia Jackson should contend for all-league honors and is the defensive headliner. He had 127 tackles last season, including eight tackles for loss and four sacks, and also had two interceptions.
STRENGTHS: All things being equal, the Warhawks would rather run the ball, and RB Frank Goodin has some skills. The line should be fine, especially the left side with G Doug Stroud and T Ryan Dercher. The Warhawks run a 3-3-5 set on defense and the secondary has a chance to be the best in the league, especially if FS Greg James returns from a suspension. SS James Truxillo's return from injury will be a boost. Scott Love should be one of the best punters in the Sun Belt.
WEAKNESSES: Revell threw just 28 passes in nine games last season, so his play will be heavily scrutinized. Lancaster was the second-leading rusher last season, but Revell is not the same type of runner, so more of the load will fall on Goodin. The run defense wasn't that good last season, and the Warhawks' defensive front needs improvement. While Love is a good punter, the rest of the special teams are barely adequate - though backup RB Luther Ambrose has some kick-return skills.
THE BUZZ: A lot depends on Revell. The Warhawks look as if they could be a middle-of-the-pack team in the Sun Belt if he plays well. The secondary should be a good one, putting even more pressure on the front six to shut down opponents' rushing attacks. Two of the first three games are against "Big Six" opponents on the road, including the opener at Texas, and three non-conference games are against major-conference foes. Back-to-back home games against Florida International and Arkansas State – teams that should contend for the Sun Belt title – in early October will be a good gauge as to how ULM will fare in the league race.
COACH: Neil Callaway (6-18 in two seasons).
LAST SEASON: 4-8 overall, 3-5 in Conference USA (tied for fourth in C-USA East).
FINAL 2008 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 101st.
KEEP AN EYE ON: K/P Swayze Waters, one of the best dual-position kickers in the nation last season, is gone. He was a big weapon for the Blazers. Sophomore Trey Ragland likely will handle both jobs this season.
STAR POWER: No player is as important to his team in Conference USA as senior QB Joe Webb, who threw for 2,367 yards and ran for 1,021 last season. Webb was one of eight quarterbacks in the nation to lead his team in passing and rushing. But Webb has to become a better decision-maker (10 touchdown passes, 16 interceptions).
STRENGTHS: The offensive line returns intact, and C Jake Seitz and T Terence Edge have all-league potential. Starting RB Rashaud Slaughter also returns, and he and Webb form a duo that can be dangerous. WR Frantrell Forrest has all-league talent, but all of the receivers are underutilized.
WEAKNESSES: The defense struggled for most of last season, though it played relatively well in the final three games. Still, even in defense-challenged C-USA, this unit still has a ways to go. All four starting linemen return, and UAB also had three junior college linemen go through spring ball. The secondary has to be rebuilt and will be the weak link. The return units need a big upgrade, and given that the Blazers will be breaking in a new kicker and punter, special teams could be an adventure.
THE BUZZ: Webb gives the Blazers hope they can nab a bowl spot out of Conference USA. He is a big-time athlete who has a big stride and gobbles up chunks of yardage when he's on the run. If he can flip his TD-to-picks ratio from last season, this will be a dangerous offense. Still, the defense is the issue. The back seven has some problems, though the line could help out if it plays as well as it did late in the season; the potential exists for some nice depth up front. The Blazers open the season with two winnable conference games at home before playing five of their next six on the road. Any bowl hopes depend on a fast start.