COACH:Al Golden (10-26 in three seasons).
LAST SEASON: 5-7 overall, 4-4 in MAC (tied for second in MAC East).
FINAL 2008 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 91st.
KEEP AN EYE ON:Chester Stewart and Vaughn Charlton will continue their competition to take over as the starter at quarterback. Stewart appeared to win the job in the spring after Charlton threw three interceptions in the spring game, but Charlton should continue to be a factor into fall practice.
STAR POWER: Temple will miss DT Terrance Knighton, who was picked in the third round of the NFL draft, but NT Andre Neblett is poised to step into his shoes. Neblett, a senior, is ready for the challenge after starting since his true freshman season. In the past two seasons, Neblett has 16 tackles for loss.
STRENGTHS: Starting with Neblett, the front seven should anchor the Temple defense despite the departure of E Junior Galette (15 sacks in two seasons) after spring practice. Galette, who had disciplinary problems in the past, no longer is with the team. The Owls return all three starting linebackers – Amara Kamara, Alex Joseph and Elijah Joseph (no relation). Both starting safeties also return, and there are some good corners, too. Temple likely will need its defense to carry the load while it sorts out its starting quarterback and running game.
WEAKNESSES: Temple will have little hope for a bowl berth if its rushing attack is as weak as it was last season. The Owls were the worst rushing team in the MAC and didn't have anybody run for more than 394 yards. Leading rusher Kee-ayre Griffin returns, but Joe Jones, Ahkeem Smith and former linebacker Lamar McPherson will vie with Griffin for the starting job. The offensive line returns just one starter, G Wayne Tribue. But at least Temple returns four linemen who started at some point last season, plus T Marcus Brown, who started in 2006. Temple has to replace Travis Shelton, who led the nation in kickoff returns.
THE BUZZ: Temple is getting closer to ending its bowl drought, which has lasted since 1979. The Owls' five wins last season were the most since they went 7-4 in 1990. The season could have been even better: The Owls lost three games on the last play last season. There's no question Al Golden has turned around the culture at Temple; it's only a matter of time before the Owls start playing for bigger prizes. Temple plays three bowl teams from last season in the first five games of the season. But there's just one bowl foe among the final seven opponents, so the Owls could overcome a slow start.
COACH:Steve Roberts (37-47 in seven seasons; 86-80-1 in 15 seasons overall).
LAST SEASON: 6-6 overall, 4-3 in Sun Belt (tied for third in league).
FINAL 2008 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 95th.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Senior TB Reggie Arnold is coming off a 1,074-yard season and is trying to become just the eighth back in major-college history to rush for 1,000 yards in four consecutive seasons.
STAR POWER: The light finally went on for E Alex Carrington as a junior last season, and he was dominating at times en route to winning league defensive player of the year honors. He finished '08 with 10.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss. He has great size (6-5/284) and has worked hard on becoming quicker off the edge.
STRENGTHS: This is a team that gets places by running the ball. The Red Wolves return three 500-yard rushers – QB Corey Leonard (516 yards, four TDs), Arnold (1,074 yards, seven TDs) and backup TB Derek Lawson (695 yards, four TDs). The trio was a big reason Arkansas State set a school record for total offense (4,786 yards). Arnold and Lawson should be the most productive rushing duo in the Sun Belt. Leonard threw 16 TD passes last season and his favorite targets – WRs Jahbari McLennan and Brandon Thompkins – return. Carrington is one of three starters back on the defensive line, and all four projected starters are upperclassmen. The secondary returns three starters from a solid unit; the one new starter is CB Cordarious Mingo, who played well in a reserve role last season. K Josh Arauco was 17-of-20 last season, including 4-for-5 from beyond 40 yards. He hit his first 15 attempts of the season before slumping somewhat at the end, but he should be one of the most efficient kickers in the nation this season.
WEAKNESSES: While Arkansas State wants to run as often as possible, the Red Wolves have a rebuilt offensive line, with just two starters back. Both starting tackles are new, and that could be problematic. The one bit of good news about the line is that all five projected starters are upperclassmen. The linebacker corps took a hit with the graduation of Ben Owens, so the Red Wolves need sophomore Michael Adams to be productive in the middle. While Arauco is solid, the rest of the special teams have some concerns; there is a new punter, and the return teams were mediocre last season.
THE BUZZ: Arkansas State has been a consistent contender in the Sun Belt Conference under coach Steve Roberts. The Red Wolves have finished third or better in three of the past four seasons, and they appear poised to contend again this season thanks to their rushing attack. Arkansas State gained some national attention last season by upsetting Texas A&M in the opener. That spurred them to a 3-1 start, but a three-game losing streak at midseason ended any momentum and the Red Wolves finished 6-6. There are three chances for an attention-grabbing victory this season: Game 2 at Nebraska, Game 3 at home vs. Troy and Game 4 at Iowa. While winning against the Huskers or Hawkeyes would be nice, it's not likely. Beating defending champion Troy, though, would put the Red Wolves in the driver's seat in the Sun Belt race.
COACH:Steve Fairchild (7-6 in one season).
LAST SEASON: 7-6 overall, 4-4 in Mountain West (fifth in league). Beat Fresno State in the New Mexico Bowl.
FINAL 2008 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 62nd.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Colorado State not only loses Mountain West rushing leader Gartrell Johnson III but also backup Kyle Bell, himself a former 1,000-yard rusher. John Mosure is the returning rushing leader with 122 yards. Mosure is a junior from Miami Columbus who was virtually ignored by the Florida schools in recruiting despite leading Miami-Dade County in rushing in 2005. He'll compete with Leonard Mason, a three-star junior college transfer. The backfield is the most questionable part of the offense.
STAR POWER:Rashaun Greer and Dion Morton emerged last season to become the top wide receiver duo in the Mountain West. Despite playing with shaky first-year starter Billy Farris, Greer and Morton combined for 1,973 receiving yards. Greer is the bigger target of the two and averaged 17.7 yards per catch last season. The duo again will be instrumental in breaking in a new quarterback.
STRENGTHS: Besides the top wide receiver duo in the league, Colorado State also will have one of the more experienced offensive lines. Four starters – all seniors – return on a line that paved the way for Johnson; C Tim Walter is the star. The defense will be led by the secondary, where three starters return. CBs Nick Oppenneer and Gerard Thomas made for a capable tandem last season. The biggest source for optimism is the return of SS Klint Kubiak, who missed six games with injuries last season.
WEAKNESSES: Coach Steve Fairchild was unimpressed by QBs Grant Stucker and Jon Eastman during spring drills, which could open the door for sophomore Klay Kubiak, Klint's brother and the son of Houston Texans coach Gary Kubiak. Klay Kubiak, who was Farris' backup last season, missed the spring with injury. The year-long suspension of LB Ricky Brewer, the Rams' second-leading tackler last season, is a blow to the front seven. Mychal Sisson, who led the team with 105 stops as a freshman, will have to move from the strongside to the weakside. Combined with Ty Whittier's move from tackle to end, that leaves no returning starter in the front seven who will start at the same position he played a year ago. P Anthony Hartz, who might have been the best in the league this season, left the team, so the new punter likely will be true freshman Pete Kontodiakos. The Rams also must improve the worst coverage teams in the conference: Colorado State finished last against both punt and kick returns and was the only team in the nation to give up two touchdowns in each category.
THE BUZZ: Fairchild breathed some life into a Colorado State program that was one of the nation's more respectable programs outside the major conferences from 1994-2002 before falling on hard times. Still, the New Mexico Bowl berth came after a 6-6 regular season in which the Rams did not defeat any of the Mountain West's top four teams. Repeating that success will be difficult unless the new quarterback comes through. The first three league games are against BYU, Utah and TCU, which look to be the three best teams in the conference. The second half of the schedule is a lot easier than the first half.
COACH:Jerry Kill[/db] (6-7 in one season; 104-57 in 15 seasons overall).
LAST SEASON: 6-7 overall, 5-3 in MAC (fourth in MAC West). Lost to Louisiana Tech in the Independence Bowl.
FINAL 2008 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 74th.
KEEP AN EYE ON: QB Chandler Harnish predictably struggled as a freshman starter. Although Harnish led the Huskies with 539 rushing yards, he threw for only 1,528 yards and had more interceptions (nine) than touchdown passes (eight). But he made progress with an impressive spring and could be significantly improved this season.
STAR POWER: Offensive linemen don't often have "star" power. But there's little doubt G Jason Onyebuagu and C Eddie Adamski are the Huskies' top players. Both earned third-team All-MAC recognition a year ago and figure to move up that depth chart this season. Last season, the Huskies ranked third in the MAC in rushing offense and tied for second in fewest sacks allowed. Onyebuagu and Adamski were primary reasons.
STRENGTHS: Onyebuagu and Adamski head a list of four returning starters on an offensive line that paved the way as the Huskies averaged 171.3 rushing yards per game and allowed only 16 sacks. The defensive line is formidable, too. NIU was solid against the run last season and figures to be again with E Brandon Bice, E Jake Coffman and NT Mike Krause up front. There is a good group of safeties. FS David Bryant and SS Mike Sobol were the team's leading tacklers last season, but Sobol has lost his starting job to sophomore Tracy Wilson, who has better speed. Special teams also are an area of strength. K Mike Salerno is reliable and can hit from beyond 50 yards, Ricky Crider is dangerous on kick returns and five players blocked punts last season.
WEAKNESSES: The Huskies desperately need to improve the passing game, which was hapless a year ago. Part of that could be attributed to Harnish's inexperience. Landon Cox caught just 16 passes a year ago, and he's the most productive returning wide receiver. There is no proven feature tailback. Juniors Patrick George and Kiaree Daniels have to prove themselves as projected first-time starters at cornerback.
THE BUZZ: Coach Jerry Kill had an impressive debut in taking over a team that finished 2-10 in '07 and leading it to a bowl in '08. With a good nucleus returning, there is optimism that the Huskies will keep climbing. Although DE Larry English - twice the MAC defensive player of the year - has departed to the NFL, six players who started in the Independence Bowl are back from the MAC's best defensive unit. Harnish has a year of experience and made strides this spring, so the offense should be better. The special teams already are among the league's best. The Huskies are aiming for another bowl appearance, and contending for the MAC championship isn't out of the question. The season's key game could be the Oct. 3 home matchup with West Division favorite Western Michigan. A win in that one means NIU will be in good shape.
COACH:Danny Hope (first season; 35-22 in five seasons overall).
LAST SEASON: 4-8 overall, 2-6 in Big Ten (tied for ninth in league).
FINAL 2008 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 73rd.
KEEP AN EYE ON: The passing game is a mystery. Few schools are as tied to the aerial game as Purdue, but the receiving corps is littered with questions and QB Joey Elliott has limited experience.
STAR POWER: It's difficult to find any headliners. The closest is RB Jaycen Taylor, who must show he is over a serious knee injury that forced him to redshirt last season. Taylor lacks ideal size, but he plays with a lot of passion.
STRENGTHS: With four starters back, the offensive line has potential. RB Kory Sheets is gone, but new coach Danny Hope likes the duo of Taylor and Ralph Bolden. And keep an eye on true freshman Al-Terek McBurse, Purdue's most decorated recruit. The unquestioned strength of the defense is the secondary, led by the cornerback tandem of Brandon King and David Pender. Even better: FS Torri Williams was granted a sixth year of eligibility. E Ryan Kerrigan and T Mike Neal are potential standouts for a line that has potential. Chris Summers flopped as a kicker, but he has blossomed into a nice punter. K Carson Wiggs came on last fall as a true freshman and showed a powerful leg.
WEAKNESSES: The jury is out on Elliott, who is coming off a serious shoulder injury. He was supposed to compete with Justin Siller for the job, but Siller got booted from school for academic reasons. If Elliott flops, big trouble looms. The receiving corps is the ultimate work-in-progress unit. Keith Smith and Aaron Valentin are pedestrian veterans; the staff is banking on incoming freshmen such as Gary Bush and Xavier Reese, along with a couple of junior college transfers, to have an instant impact. Defensive coordinator Brock Spack left after 12 seasons to become coach at Illinois State. Hope hired former Eastern Kentucky assistant Donn Landholm as the coordinator; is Landholm ready for this? The linebacking corps is a worry. Will Jason Werner's back hold up? And are Joe Holland and Chris Carlino ready for bigger roles? The return teams need a difference-maker.
THE BUZZ: The coach-in-waiting label has been peeled off Hope, who takes over following Joe Tiller's 12-year run that saw him leave as the school's winningest coach. Hope served as an assistant at Purdue during Tiller's most successful years (1997-2001). Hope came to West Lafayette after a five-year run as coach at his alma mater, Eastern Kentucky, where he went 35-22. Hope is the breath of fresh air the Boilermakers needed coming off the school's second losing record in the past four seasons. Purdue's Big Ten record in Tiller's final four seasons tells you all you need to know about the program's direction: 13-19. Hope is a bundle of energy who emotes a positive vibe. He'll need all of the good karma he can generate coaching a roster that has fallen into disrepair.