COACH: Steve Fairchild (13-24 in three seasons)
LAST SEASON: 3-9, 2-6 (T-6th in Mountain West)
OFFENSE: Colorado State is counting on the development of promising sophomore QB Pete Thomas to help upgrade an offense that ranked 114th in scoring at 16.5 points per game last season. Thomas, a former four-star recruit, was the only true freshman quarterback last season to start each of his team's games. He completed 64.7 percent of his passes, for 2,662 yards with 11 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Thomas' favorite target likely will be Lou Greenwood, who caught 34 passes for a team-high 474 yards last season. But the rest of the receiving corps is unproven. The Rams need a big season from RB Raymond Carter, a UCLA transfer who rushed for 235 yards while battling injuries last season. Colorado State's top returning rusher is Chris Nwoke, who ran for 357 yards on 74 carries. The Rams return four starters on a big line. C Weston Richburg had a good freshman season and could develop into a star.
DEFENSE: The Rams won't make a move up the MWC standings unless they get better on this side of the ball. Colorado State ranked 118th in pass efficiency defense and picked off just four passes last season. The Rams plan to alternate between 3-4 and 4-3 schemes this season. Colorado State returns 13 defensive players who have made at least one career start. The best of them is small-but-speedy LB Mychal Sisson, who made 95 tackles and led the nation with seven forced fumbles last season. The Rams must find a way to replace the production of departed All-MWC NT Guy Miller. The cornerbacks have promise. Elijah-Blu Smith has moved back to corner, where he is more comfortable, from free safety. Colorado State's defense has a couple of familiar names. New linebackers coach Bernard Clark played on Miami's 1987 and 1989 national championship teams, and sophomore LB Mike Orakpo is the brother of Washington Redskins star Brian Orakpo.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Colorado State returns its kicker (Ben DeLine), punter (Pete Kontodiakos), holder (Matt Yemm) and long snapper (Tanner Hedstrom) from last season. DeLine went 16-of-22 on field goals last season, with a long of 43. Kontodiakos averaged 43.7 yards per punt to rank second in the MWC and 27th nationally. Colorado State must improve a kickoff-return coverage unit that ranked 114th a year ago.
THE BUZZ: The offense should get much better now that Thomas has a year of experience, but Colorado State won't make serious progress until its defense improves. The Rams could benefit from a soft early-season schedule, as four of their first five games are against New Mexico, Northern Colorado, Utah State and San Jose State. Despite all the questions about this defense, the schedule is such that six victories is a possibility.
COACH: Kevin Wilson (first season)
LAST SEASON: 5-7, 1-7 (11th in Big Ten)
OFFENSE: Even with the losses of Terrance Turner and Tandon Doss (who left early), wide receiver still looks strong with senior Damarlo Belcher and sophomore Duwyce Wilson. Belcher led the Big Ten in receptions (78) last season, and Wilson averaged 15.3 yards per grab as a freshman. Coaches are high on sophomore WR Kofi Hughes. Ted Bolser led all freshman tight ends nationally with 27 catches. But who will play quarterback? Ben Chappell, a two-year starter, is gone. Edward Wright-Baker and Dusty Kiel (former Notre Dame and NFL QB Blair Kiel's nephew) are the top contenders. Kiel held the lead out of spring ball but needs a strong summer camp to keep the starting job. A big season is needed from RB Darius Willis, who has been dogged by injury and off-field woes. Poor line play has been a recurring issue for Indiana, which ranked 112th in the nation in rushing (100.3 ypg) last season. Until the issues up front get fixed, the Hoosiers will struggle to be a really good offense. They lose only one starter from last season's line (standout T James Brewer), so it will be interesting to see how this group develops.
DEFENSE: Can Indiana cobble together a strong defense? That likely will be what ultimately determines new coach Wilson's long-term success. The anemic unit generated a Big Ten-low 13 turnovers in 2010. The strongest area is tackle, with four juniors back to anchor the front. T Adam Replogle is one to watch. Last season, the secondary was poor all-around. Some of that was because of inexperience and some was because of injuries to key players. FS Greg Heban looks like a rising star and a potential leader. Led by Leon Beckum and Jeff Thomas, the linebacking corps lacks bulk but has some speed. This group must make some plays behind a decent line. Beckum led IU with nine tackles for loss last season. Two young guys to watch are sophomore CB Lawrence Barnett and redshirt freshman LB Chase Hoobler.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Indiana will have one of the Big Ten's top kickers in Mitch Ewald, who nailed 16-of-19 field-goal attempts in 2010. Late season, Adam Pines impressed after assuming punting duties from Chris Hagerup. The return game will miss Doss' big-play skills. An overall lack of speed will hamper coverage teams.
THE BUZZ: How success-starved is Indiana? Since going to the Independence Bowl after the 1993 season, Indiana has been to one bowl - the 2007 Insight. Enter Wilson, who had been Oklahoma's offensive coordinator. His marching orders: Try to make Indiana football relevant. It won't be easy. His first schedule sets up for a fast start, with an unbeaten September not out of the realm of possibilities. In addition, four of the first six games are at home. But can the Hoosiers win even two Big Ten games?
COACH: Paul Rhoads (12-13 in two seasons)
LAST SEASON: 5-7, 3-5 (T-3rd in Big 12 North)
OFFENSE: First, the good news: Ts Kelechi Osemele and Brayden Burris and G Hayworth Hicks return along the line; Osemele is one of the best linemen in the nation. The bad news: There are no proven players at running back or quarterback. Sophomore RB Shontrelle Johnson gained just 218 yards last season, but he did average 6.2 yards per carry. Junior college transfer Steele Jantz, who threw for 3,075 yards and 23 touchdowns last season, is a good bet to start at quarterback, though the competition with junior Jerome Tiller, last season's backup, could go deep into August. WRs Darius Darks and Darius Reynolds are capable, but they have been slowed by injuries in the past.
DEFENSE: Opponents scored al least 35 points in five of Iowa State's seven losses in 2010. Obviously, improvement is needed. Talented LBs Jake Knott, an all-conference selection, and A.J. Klein each had more than 110 tackles last season, but the Cyclones still allowed more than 185 rushing yards per game (93rd in the nation), which shows a serious need to get better up front. E Rony Nelson, who sat out last season with academic issues, could provide immediate help. CBs Ter'Ran Benton, Leonard Johnson and Jeremy Reeves started at least seven games apiece a year ago and their experience should boost the secondary. But questions remain at safety.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Sophomore P Kirby Van Der Kamp aims to build on an impressive debut season in which he averaged more than 45 yards per attempt. K Grant Mahoney has converted field goals from 57 yards, but he's unreliable beyond 40 yards. Return units are sound - especially Leonard Johnson on kickoff returns - though porous coverage teams must be upgraded.
THE BUZZ: The days of counting Iowa State as an easy victory are gone; Nebraska and Texas can attest to that. The Cyclones knocked off the Huskers in 2009 (and nearly did it again last season) and beat the Longhorns in 2010. They have the wild postgame celebrations posted on YouTube to prove it. Still, while upsets are wonderful, a couple of glorious afternoons per season do not make a contender. If the Cyclones are to become a true factor in the slimmed-down 10-team Big 12, they must improve on defense, plug holes in the offensive line and find productive starters at tailback and quarterback. Three of the first four games are at home, and the one road game in that stretch is against Connecticut, which is expected to fall off dramatically from last season. But after Oct. 1, Iowa State has just three homes games left, and other than a contest with Kansas, the other conference home games are tough ones.
COACH: Jim Grobe (62-60 in 10 seasons at Wake Forest; 95-93-1 in 16 seasons overall)
LAST SEASON: 3-9, 1-7 (6th in ACC Atlantic)
OFFENSE: An unsettled quarterback situation caused Wake Forest to struggle last season, as the Demon Deacons finished 11th in the 12-team ACC in scoring, total yards per game and passing yards per game. QB Tanner Price eventually broke away from the pack and started the final nine games as a true freshman a year ago, and he heads into fall camp as the likely starter. His favorite target likely will be Chris Givens, who caught 35 passes for 514 yards and four touchdowns last season. But there is no other proven receiver on the roster. The rising star of this offense is sophomore TB Josh Harris, who rushed for 720 yards and seven touchdowns on just 126 carries last season. Harris ran for 241 yards and two touchdowns against eventual ACC champion Virginia Tech. He will be working behind a big line that returns four starters; all five projected starters are upperclassmen, including four seniors.
DEFENSE: Wake returns nine starters on this side of the ball, but they need to get much better. Wake ranked 110th in scoring defense last season and allowed four opponents to rack up at least 48 points. The Demon Deacons showed more 3-4 looks last season and plan to continue that transition this season. Wake Forest also must adjust to changes on the coaching staff, as Brian Knorr and Tim Billings take over as co-coordinators for Brad Lambert, now the coach at Charlotte. Wake's most notable player on defense is OLB Kyle Wilber, who had 14.5 tackles for loss and six sacks last season. Eight players in the secondary - four cornerbacks and four safeties - have started at some point in their Wake careers, yet redshirt freshman Merrill Noel emerged from spring practice as a likely starter at one corner spot.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Wake has reason to feel good about its kicking situation, as Jimmy Newman went 12-of-13 on field-goal attempts last season and made each of his last 12 tries. The Demon Deacons will break in a new punter this season as they attempt to upgrade a phase of the game that caused them major headaches last season. The Deacons ranked 118th in net punting a year ago. Redshirt freshman WR Michael Campanaro appears set to handle all the returns.
THE BUZZ: Wake fell so far last season that it could take a couple of years for the Demon Deacons to get back into bowl contention. It's tough to imagine Wake Forest escaping the Atlantic Division cellar, as the other five teams in the division all reached bowl games last season and have legitimate postseason aspirations again this season. There is one tough non-conference game and four of the first six contests overall are at home. Consider it a step forward if the Deacons win five games and get respectable on defense.
COACH: Neil Callaway (15-33 in four seasons)
LAST SEASON: 4-8, 3-5 (5th in C-USA East)
OFFENSE: Bryan Ellis was overshadowed by a lot of other C-USA quarterbacks, but he had a big season in 2010, throwing for 2,940 yards and 25 touchdowns. He needs to improve his completion rate (56.0) and cut down on his picks (12). JC transfer Pat Shed did a good job at tailback; he rushed for 847 yards and also caught a team-high 47 passes. He averaged 177.1 all-purpose yards per game, which was third nationally. He's not a big guy (5-9/175), but he's shifty and a great fit for this offense. Georgia transfer Dontavious Jackson will back up Shed, and the backs will run behind a line that returns four starters. The standout is T Matt McCants, who is the best lineman in the league and one of the top 12 or so tackles nationally. All five of the projected starting linemen are upperclassmen. UAB lost its top two wide receivers, meaning junior Patrick Hearn or sophomore Jackie Williams needs to emerge as the go-to guy. As good as Shed is as a receiver, UAB would be better-served if a wide receiver is the team's reception leader. The Blazers will miss TE Jeffery Anderson, who graduated.
DEFENSE: The Blazers made some strides defensively last season, but Callaway still jettisoned coordinator Eric Schumann and brought in former Clemson and Memphis coach Tommy West to oversee the unit. West has one true standout to work with in senior T Elliott Henigan, who is a disruptive force in the middle. He had 55 tackles and 15.5 tackles for loss last season. But the other projected line starters are sophomores or redshirt freshmen, though sophomore E Connor Boyett came on strong down the stretch last season. Marvin Burdette, who made 114 tackles last season, heads up what could be a solid group of linebackers. All four projected starters in the secondary are seniors, and if FS Chase Daniel can stay healthy, this could be a solid group. CB T.J. Ballou and SS Jamie Bender were high-performing JC transfers last season, and three JC transfers - CB Cornelius Richards and Ss Lamar Johnson and Calvin Jones - should see time this season. UAB came up with just nine interceptions last season.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Trey Ragland did a solid job as the punter last season (42.0 yards per attempt) and could do double-duty as the kicker this season. He will battle two true freshmen from the Atlanta area, Colin Anderson and Ty Long, for the kicking job. Shed did an OK job as the main return man last season. The kickoff coverage was good, but the punt coverage needs to improve.
THE BUZZ: The Blazers won four games last season but should've won six; they lost to Florida Atlantic and Rice, and had they won those games, they might have gone bowling. The schedule this season is such that UAB could get to six or seven wins. The Blazers won't beat Florida or Mississippi State in non-conference play, but for the most part, the toughest conference games (UCF, Houston and Southern Miss) are at home, lending hope that UAB can qualify for just the second bowl appearance in school history.