COACH: Tommy West (47-51 in eight seasons; 82-86 in 14 seasons overall).
LAST SEASON: 6-7 overall, 4-4 in Conference USA (tied for second in C-USA East). Lost to USF in St. Petersburg Bowl.
FINAL 2008 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 88th.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Memphis has some nice skill-position talent, but will it be properly utilized? Arkelon Hall, who began his career at Washington State before moving on to a junior college and then Memphis, is the returning starter at quarterback. But he'll have to fend off Brett Toney and Georgia Tech transfer Byron Ingram and maybe Will Hudgens, who has petitioned the NCAA for a sixth season of eligibility in fall drills. Hall is athletic and has a strong arm, but he struggled with consistency last season.
STAR POWER: RB Curtis Steele was the C-USA newcomer of the year last season after rushing for 1,223 yards and seven TDs; he redshirted in 2007 after transferring from a junior college, then burst on the scene with seven 100-yard games last season. Wisconsin transfer Lance Smith could end up being his backup.
STRENGTHS: There is a nice group of receivers, headed by 6-foot-8 Carlos Singleton and Duke Calhoun, who has caught a pass in 37 consecutive games. LB Greg Jackson should be one of the best at his position in the league; he's a playmaker for the Tigers. LSU transfer Derrick Odom and Mississippi State transfer Jamon Hughes should help the depth at linebacker. The coverage teams were solid last season.
WEAKNESSES: Steele may have a tougher go of it as a senior, as just one starting offensive lineman G Dominik Riley returns. While Calhoun and Singleton are a talented duo, they combined for just eight touchdown passes last season; that number needs to get into the mid-teens this season. The defensive line will have three new starters, but coaches profess confidence in what they have remaining. Memphis' pass rush wasn't good last season, and senior Es Jada Brown and Greg Terrell need to step it up this season. Memphis had just seven interceptions last season and the secondary must be more opportunistic this season. Three starters return, but corners D.A. Griffin and Deante Lamar combined for just one pick last season. FS Alton Starr, a returning starter, missed spring with a knee injury; his status for the fall is uncertain. His return would be a boost. The return units need an upgrade.
THE BUZZ: Memphis has been one of the most consistent bowl teams in Conference USA five appearances in the past six seasons but expecting the Tigers to get to the postseason again this season appears to be asking a bit much. The rebuilt lines could pose a problem. The schedule isn't that favorable, either, as all but one of the toughest conference games are on the road.
COACH: George O'Leary (26-36 in five seasons; 78-69 in 12 seasons overall).
LAST SEASON: 4-8 overall, 3-5 in Conference USA (tied for fourth in C-USA East).
FINAL 2008 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 103rd.
KEEP AN EYE ON: QB Rob Calabrese wasn't ready to play as a true freshman last season, but he was thrown into the breach anyway. He was the starter coming out of spring practice, but he could have a battle in fall drills if Wake Forest transfer Brett Hodges gets a waiver from the NCAA; Hodges who is from the Orlando area is trying to gain immediate eligibility. The offense needs vast improvement. UCF finished last in the nation in total offense (229.5 yards per game) and 114th in scoring offense (16.6 points per game). Coach George O'Leary likes a run-first offense, but UCF couldn't run last season and the passing attack was worse.
STAR POWER: Junior DE Bruce Miller is a bit undersized (6-2/258), but he has a quick first step and is relentless. He had 17 tackles for loss last season and again should be one of the best pass rushers in C-USA. A rebuilt secondary's job will be eased if there is a consistent pass rush, and that's where Miller comes into play.
STRENGTHS: There is OK depth, if not a true standout, at tailback. Injuries hurt the receiving corps last season, but that position should be the offensive strength this season. Look for Rocky Ross to lead the team in receptions, and he'll be ably complemented by Kamar Aiken, A.J. Guyton, Brian Watters and Khymest Williams. The big concern is whether the receivers will get the ball enough. The front seven on defense will be fine. T Torrell Troup is another with all-league potential. There is good depth at linebacker, and coaches have some interchangeable parts with which to tinker. The Knights ranked third in the nation last fall by averaging 8.17 tackles for loss per game; UCF also ranked 26th nationally in sacks. P Blake Clingan is solid and dependable. The coverage units were strong last season and should be again.
WEAKNESSES: The offensive line has undergone a makeover. Last season's best lineman, Patrick Brown, is gone, and the starting tackles this season were starting guards last season. One new starter at guard is converted DT Theo Goins; the other new guard is redshirt freshman Steven Robinson, whom coaches are high on. The secondary which was the team strength last season but lost all four starters is a huge question. Touted true freshman Josh Robinson, who enrolled early, emerged from spring ball as a starter at cornerback. Robinson will be joined by Darin Baldwin to give the Knights what should be a solid duo. The new free safety is Derrick Hallman, who was a starting linebacker last season. The return teams took a huge hit with the graduation of CB Joe Burnett.
THE BUZZ: If recent history holds true, this will be a good season for UCF. In 2005, in the second season under O'Leary, the Knights won a division title in Conference USA; in 2007, they won the C-USA title. But in the three even-numbered years under O'Leary, UCF is a combined 8-27, including 4-8 last season. A winning season in '09 will require vastly better offensive production. The defense should be fine again; the offense remains a work in progress. After an easy opener, the Knights play six games in a row and eight of their next nine against teams that went bowling last season.
COACH: Dick Tomey (23-25 in four seasons; 181-135-7 in 28 seasons overall).
LAST SEASON: 6-6 overall, 4-4 in WAC (tied for fifth in league).
FINAL 2008 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 87th.
KEEP AN EYE ON: The offense will get an immediate boost from the return of senior WR Kevin Jurovich, who missed all but two games last season with mononucleosis. The Spartans hope his return will spice up an offense that was last in the league in scoring and yards per game. In his only full season in 2007, Jurovich caught a school-record 85 passes for 1,183 yards and nine touchdowns. All the pieces are in place for QB Kyle Reed, who began his career at California, to have a productive season. He'll have two productive receivers and a new quarterback coach, Terry Malley, who comes with an impressive résumé from Arena Football.
STAR POWER: The most productive brother duo resides at San Jose State. DE Carl Ihenacho finished last season with 18.5 tackles for a loss. Duke Ihenacho is moving to safety from linebacker after intercepting five passes and returning two for touchdowns last season.
STRENGTHS: San Jose State was one of the few strong defensive teams in the WAC last season. The Spartans ranked 21st in the nation in total defense, joining Boise State as the only top-60 defenses in the league. The Ihenacho brothers and junior LB Justin Cole need to take charge of the defense after the loss of DT Jarron Gilbert and CBs Christopher Owens and Coye Francies. Cole returns after amassing 8.5 tackles for a loss and three sacks last season.
WEAKNESSES: Fielding a capable running game would be a major improvement for the Spartans. San Jose State has failed to average even 90 rushing yards per game as a team over the past two seasons. Coach Dick Tomey will look for answers from sophomore Brandon Rutley, junior college transfer Lamon Muldrow and now-healthy senior Patrick Perry. There aren't any excuses for an offensive line that returns five projected starters who were first-stringers in either 2007 or '08.
THE BUZZ: San Jose State had a chance for one of the WAC's better bowl bids last season but collapsed down the stretch to miss the postseason again. The Spartans lost their last three games by a combined 86-27. With only one bowl bid since 1990, San Jose State's goal should be to reach the postseason. As one of the few defense-minded teams in the WAC, the Spartans need to find an offense to match to contend in the conference.
COACH: Mario Cristobal (6-18 in two seasons).
LAST SEASON: 5-7 overall, 3-4 in the Sun Belt (tied for fifth in the league).
FINAL 2008 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 104th.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Senior QB Paul McCall played well last season but further development is needed this season. McCall still needs to work on his completion percentage (51.7); look for him to get it into the high 50s. The Golden Panthers' rushing attack looks iffy, so McCall has to throw the ball better this season if FIU is to make the jump that many expect.
STAR POWER: The big star for the Golden Panthers and one of the best players in the league is sophomore WR T.Y. Hilton, who has electrifying quickness. Hilton a Miami native who was overlooked by virtually every program in the nation averaged almost 25 yards per reception on his 41 catches; look for coaches to try to get him the ball at least 10 times per game this season, in a variety of ways. Hilton also is one of the best return men in the nation; he scored on a kickoff return and a punt return last season.
STRENGTHS: Greg Ellingson and Junior Mertile are solid complementary receivers to Hilton. LB Scott Bryant is small[/db] (5-10/224) but quick, and he can be expected to be one of the tackle leaders in the Sun Belt. CB Anthony Gaitor has all-conference talent and will be the leader of what should be an OK secondary, one that will start all upperclassmen. Gaitor had five picks last season and returned two for touchdowns.
WEAKNESSES: The running game last season improved from 2007, but FIU still averaged less than 100 rushing yards per game. The two leading rushers are gone, but the line should be better, which gives hope that the per-game average can go above 100 yards. The defensive line has to replace three starters and is the potential weak link on the entire team. FIU needs junior college transfer Thatcher Starling, who went through spring ball, to have a productive season at end. Coaches do look to have some depth to work with on the line, which may ease some of the concern. FIU had just 18 sacks last season, and it's vital that someone emerge as a dangerous pass rusher. Special teams could be a problem, other than Hilton. True freshman Jack Griffin will be the punter, K Dustin Rivest lacks consistency and the coverage units need work.
THE BUZZ: FIU started its football program in 2002, and four of the Golden Panthers' seven seasons have seen them win three or fewer games; the high-water mark for victories is five. But coach Mario Cristobal a former player and assistant coach at crosstown Miami has FIU poised to be a sleeper in the Sun Belt this season. Four of the first five games are on the road, but FIU gets Troy and Florida Atlantic at home. Two of the first three league road games are eminently winnable, and if FIU does win two, bowl eligibility would be within reach. Then the question becomes how long FIU can hold on to Cristobal, who has done a great job upgrading FIU's talent level in a short time.
COACH: Stan Parrish (0-1 last season; 57-42-3 in 11 seasons overall).
LAST SEASON: 12-2 overall, 8-0 in MAC (first in MAC West). Lost to Tulsa in GMAC Bowl.
FINAL 2008 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 45th.
KEEP AN EYE ON: The offense basically will have to start from scratch with just four starters back. The decision by QB Nate Davis to skip his final year of eligibility and turn pro hurts. Redshirt freshman Kelly Page, a 6-foot-3 Texan, earned the No. 1 quarterback spot in spring drills. He has the tools but remains an unknown commodity.
STAR POWER: RB MiQuale Lewis is a great building block. He ran for 1,736 yards in 2008 and is the nation's No. 2 returning rusher, behind California's Jahvid Best. Lewis' 22 rushing TDs tied for the national lead. The bottom line: Lewis must come close to duplicating those numbers if the Cardinals are to have any hope of going to a third consecutive bowl.
STRENGTHS: A veteran line that returns all four starters will anchor the defense. E Brandon Crawford is a standout. There may not be a better tandem of safeties in the MAC than Sean Baker and Alex Knipp, an all-star candidate. Three of last season's top four receivers are gone, but Page will be helped by the presence of WR Briggs Orsbon, who paced the squad with 68 catches for 813 yards last season. TE Madaris Grant will need to be a playmaker with Darius Hill gone.
WEAKNESSES: The diminutive Lewis will work behind a line that's breaking in four new starters; a redshirt freshman (Cameron Lowry) is the new starter at left tackle. The top three cornerbacks from 2008 are gone, and the linebacking corps is being rehabbed, too. The defensive line lacks size, which means stopping the run may be an issue. The search is on for a punter with Chris Miller departed.
THE BUZZ: Last season, Ball State won a school single-season record 12 games and earned its first national ranking. But what's next? Coach Brady Hoke and most of his staff bolted to San Diego State. Offensive coordinator Stan Parrish was promoted to take over as coach. Parrish is in his 39th season as a coach and has been a head coach at Kansas State and Marshall. Still, he'll be hard-pressed to get Ball State back into the postseason with so many questions, particularly on offense.