COACH: Ruffin McNeill (7-7 in one-plus seasons)
LAST SEASON: 6-7, 5-3 (T-2nd in C-USA East; lost to Maryland in Military Bowl)
OFFENSE: Coach Ruffin McNeill brought a version of Mike Leach's "Air Raid" offense with him from Texas Tech, and the personnel adapted quickly - and quite nicely. ECU was eighth nationally in pass offense (318.7 ypg), 25th in total offense (437.6 ypg) and 16th in scoring offense (36.8 ppg). JC transfer QB Dominique Davis threw for 3,967 yards and 37 TDs, but needs to cut down on his picks (16). Lance Lewis will be his favorite receiver; Lewis has great size (6-3/212) and had 89 receptions for 1,116 yards and 14 TDs after transferring in from junior college. He was the No. 2 receiver last season, and with Dwayne Harris now in the NFL, a 100-catch season is a legit goal. Slot receiver Michael Bowman should be the No. 2 target this season. Keep an eye on true freshman WR Danny Webster, who enrolled early and has good speed. McNeill is used to coaching on teams with mediocre rushing attacks, and last season was no different. ECU did not run the ball well and lost its top two tailbacks and three starters off the line. Michael Dobson, who had 11 carries last season, is the new tailback. The line could be an issue. The staff is high on sophomore T Grant Harner, and it helps that G Doug Polochak was granted a sixth year of eligibility because of past injuries.
DEFENSE: McNeill also is used to coaching defenses that have some problems, but last season had to be nightmarish even for him. For years, ECU contended for Conference USA titles because of its defense. But last season, the bottom fell out. Quite simply, this defense was atrocious. Remember how ECU averaged 36.8 points per game? The defense surrendered 44.0 per game. The Pirates allowed at least 42 points an astounding 10 times; they allowed at least 42 in each of their final six games, including four games with at least 49. They gave up 76 to Navy and 62 to Rice (Rice?!?!). They were horrendous against the run (117th nationally at 226.7 ypg, along with 41 rushing TDs allowed) and only marginally better against the pass (107th at 252.1 ypg). Six starters return, but is that a good thing? ECU has moved to a 3-4 scheme and, not surprisingly, needs some JC transfers to provide an infusion of talent. Coaches expect JC transfers John Lattimore at end, Chris Baker at outside linebacker and Joseph Banks at inside linebacker to either start or play key backup roles. Nose tackle actually could be a strength with Michael Brooks and Antonio Allison, and CBs Derek Blacknall and Emanuel Davis could form a nice duo as well. Blacknall was moved from free safety. ECU had just 15 sacks and 11 interceptions last season.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Michael Barbour should contend for all-league honors. He was 16-of-18 last season, including a 52-yarder. P Ben Ryan averaged 39.4 yards and could use improvement. ECU will have new return men, with Dobson getting first dibs on kickoff returns and Bowman on punt returns. The coverage units did an OK job last season.
THE BUZZ: Even in C-USA, which isn't a league where a lot of teams place a high priority on defense, the Pirates' shoddy defense stood out. It's a good thing the offense is so potent; indeed, the offense is good enough to win a C-USA crown. But the Pirates have no shot at a top-two finish in the East Division unless the defense makes drastic improvement. The schedule doesn't help. The first five games are against South Carolina, Virginia Tech, UAB, North Carolina and Houston. While Houston and UAB have defensive issues, both were in the top 30 in total offense last season and figure to be better on that side of the ball this season. Tough division games against UCF and Southern Miss are at home, but it's going to take at least one upset at some point during the season for ECU to get back to a bowl.
COACH: Bill Snyder (149-80-1 in 19 seasons)
LAST SEASON: 7-6, 3-5 (T-3rd in Big 12 North; lost to Syracuse in Pinstripe Bowl)
OFFENSE: The rebuilding Wildcats must replace their leading rusher, leading passer, top two receivers and three starting linemen. Yet coaches are optimistic most of those holes can be adequately filled. Junior QB Collin Klein had more yards rushing (432) than passing (138) last season, but showed progress with his passing arm in the spring. He may be able to hold off a challenge from JC transfer Justin Tuggle, a dual-threat from Blinn College (Texas). Tuggle, the son of former NFL LB Jessie Tuggle, began his career at Boston College. Wichita native Bryce Brown, who originally signed with Tennessee as the nation's top-rated recruit in 2009, is the likely starter at tailback. The top receiver is Chris Harper, an Oregon transfer who had 25 receptions in 2010, and WRs Brodrick Smith and Tramaine Thompson have recovered from broken legs. Ts Manase Foketi and Clyde Aufner are returning starters, yet vacancies at guard and center are worrisome.
DEFENSE: Safety is an area of strength with sophomore SS Ty Zimmerman, an All-Big 12 selection last season, and senior FS Tysyn Hartman, a jarring tackler. CB David Garrett started all but one game last season as the nickelback in the 4-2-5 set and led the team in tackles. K-State ranked 119th in the nation (231.3 yards per game) against the run last season. LB Arthur Brown, Bryce's older brother and a transfer from Miami, could lead a major change. He was a disappointment at UM but is intent on proving himself now that he is back home. Sophomore LB Tre Walker played well down the stretch last season and coaches hope that carries over. Coaches need Es Adam Davis and Meshak Williams, a pair of junior college transfers, to help up front. Tackles is a potential problem position.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K-State always seems to have a dangerous return man. Maybe that will be Thompson, who returned punts before his injury. P Ryan Doerr averaged 41.3 yards in '10, but there will be a new kicker. Anthony Cantele converted one of his two field-goal attempts last season. The coverage teams were adequate last season.
THE BUZZ: Fast starts haven't been a problem in Manhattan; advantageous scheduling has ensured that. It's the finishes that have doomed the Wildcats to mediocrity. Over the past four seasons Kansas State has gone 12-4 in September, but each season lost at least three of its last four games. The late slides may be because of depth issues stemming from the 2008 recruiting class, which included 19 junior college transfers. Or perhaps it's just a matter of facing stronger opposition. Whatever the case, the Wildcats obviously are hoping to start and finish strong in 2011. That will require better quarterback play and dramatic improvement in run defense. Four of the first six games are at home, including FCS member Eastern Kentucky and Kent State in the first two contests. But the schedule toughens considerably after that. There are games against Baylor, Texas Tech and Kansas in October, and K-State's play in that month is going to determine whether they go bowling again.
COACH: Rick Neuheisel (15-22 in three seasons at UCLA; 81-52 in 11 seasons overall)
LAST SEASON: 4-8, 2-7 (9th in the Pac-10)
OFFENSE: New coordinator Mike Johnson arrives from the San Francisco 49ers. Junior TB Johnathan Franklin is coming off a breakout season in which he rushed for 1,127 yards and scored eight touchdowns. But the Bruins' offense is unstable elsewhere. Junior QB Richard Brehaut threw more interceptions than touchdown passes as a first-time starter last season and former starter Kevin Prince is coming back from a knee injury. Heralded recruit Brett Hundley, a dual threat who enrolled early to compete for the starting job, may be the most talented quarterback on the roster. Up front, UCLA allowed 28 sacks in 2010. C Kai Maiava is back from an ankle injury, but T Jeff Baca broke his left ankle in spring drills and sixth-year G Sean Sheller was slowed by a broken hand. The top six receivers return, though none had more than 32 catches. That appears to be more a function of poor quarterback play than anything else. Receivers such as Nelson Rosario, Taylor Embree (the son of new Colorado coach Jon Embree), Josh Smith (who began his career at Colorado) and Randall Carroll have the necessary talent.
DEFENSE: The new coordinator is Joe Tresey, who had been with the Omaha Nighthawks of the United Football League after serving as coordinator at Cincinnati and USF. Even without NFL early entry Akeem Ayers, the Bruins project to be sound at linebacker with Sean Westgate and Patrick Larimore, who is coming back from a shoulder injury that kept him out of spring practice. Standout CB Sheldon Price is among three starters back in the secondary. The safety duo of FS Dietrich Riley and SS Tony Dye has the potential to be one of the best on the West Coast. E Datone Jones missed all of last season with a foot injury and his return should boost the line, which should improve with age; sophomores Cassius Marsh, a tackle, and Owamagbe Odighizuwa, an end, had solid showings as freshmen.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Field goals were nearly automatic when Kai Forbath was kicking them. He's gone and the reliability of redshirt freshman Kip Smith, the likely successor, remains to be seen. There are no questions about P Jeff Locke, who has a 44.7-yard career average. Josh Smith (kickoffs) and Embree (punts) are capable return men. Last season, kickoff coverage was abysmal but punt coverage was solid.
THE BUZZ: From all accounts, UCLA had an exceptional spring. That's fine, but it's those pesky autumns that have riled up so many frustrated Bruins followers. Three seasons under Neuheisel has yielded just 15 wins. A moribund offense has been the main cause of UCLA's problems, though the defense allowed at least 31 points in five games (all losses) during last season's 4-8 disaster. Neuheisel, who brought in new coordinators on both sides of the ball, needs a strong season to retain his job. The opener at Houston should be a good "test case" in that the Cougars' offense is good (can the Bruins' defense step up?) and the Cougars' defense is shaky (can the Bruins' offense do anything?). Three of the first four conference games are on the road, including matchups with Arizona and Oregon State, which, like UCLA, have some things to prove. UCLA also is on the road against Stanford, Utah and USC.
COACH: Jon Embree (first season at Colorado)
LAST SEASON: 5-7, 2-6 (5th in Big 12 North)
OFFENSE: Senior TB Rodney Stewart returns after rushing for a career-high 1,318 yards in 2010. He has the luxury of running behind a solid line; G Ryan Miller is the best of the bunch up front and one of the best linemen in the nation. Still, first-round pick Nate Solder will be missed at tackle. QB Tyler Hansen is experienced and held off challenges to his starting job during the spring, but he needs to be more productive. He passed for 1,102 yards and six touchdowns in an injury-shortened 2010. WR Paul Richardson showed flashes of excellence as a freshman last season and looks like a developing star. Toney Clemons, who began his career at Michigan, is a solid receiving option, too.
DEFENSE: Running inside doesn't figure to produce much yardage against Colorado, not with Will Pericak, Curtis Cunningham and Conrad Obi in the tackle rotation. Junior Jon Major is the best of a non-descript group of linebackers. But opponents would rather attack the Buffaloes through the air, anyway. Colorado gave up 27 touchdown passes and its pass defense was among the worst in the nation last season - and that was with first-round pick Jimmy Smith at cornerback. Safety play must improve dramatically and two corners must be replaced. Jared Bell and Makiri Pugh, who sat out last season after transferring from Georgia, could be the answers at corner. Ray Polk is athletic and has good size, but he must play more consistently at free safety. It's vital that SS Anthony Perkins comes back strong from injury.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Colorado traditionally has high standards for its kicking game, though they haven't been met of late. Newcomer Will Oliver and sophomore Justin Castor will vie for the kicking duties. Castor's only field-goal try last season was blocked, and CU had four kicks blocked overall. P Zach Grossnickle, who averaged 39.5 yards, had two attempts blocked. Clemons is a good kick returner, but there will be a new punt returner. Kickoff coverage was good and punt coverage was solid last season.
THE BUZZ: In hopes of moving forward from five consecutive losing seasons, Colorado looked back and hired Embree, a former CU player and assistant during the 1980s and '90s - the Buffaloes' most successful era - to replace Dan Hawkins. Embree takes on the challenge of leading the program into the expanded Pac-12 and back to national prominence. That likely will require time. It definitely will require patching up a pass defense that allowed 27 touchdown passes and was ranked 110th in the country in 2010. Embree and his staff also need to add a big-play element to the offense. There are 13 games, thanks to the season-opener at Hawaii, so the Buffs have to win seven if they want to go bowling. If they start at least 3-2, they have a shot at a seven-win season; if they don't, they'll almost certainly be home for the holidays.
COACH: Tim Beckman (13-12 in two seasons at Toledo)
LAST SEASON: 8-5, 7-1 (2nd in MAC West; lost to Florida International in Little Caesars Bowl)
OFFENSE: This has the makings of the top offense in the MAC. It begins with junior WR Eric Page, a playmaker who is a threat to score every time he touches the ball. Page had 99 receptions for 1,105 yards and eight TDs last season, and he has 181 catches and 15 TDs in his career. Keep an eye on WR Cordale Scott, an Illinois transfer who could take the heat off of Page, who is the only returning wide receiver with more than 18 receptions. The Rockets have the deepest collection of running backs in the MAC. Adonis Thomas (1,133 yards in 2010) and Morgan Williams (1,010 in 2008) have shown they have 1,000-yard ability. Boston College transfer Josh Haden will be eligible this fall, and he should be in the mix, as well. Toledo may employ a two-quarterback scheme with junior Austin Dantin and sophomore Terrance Owens, using each in specific situations. Dantin started the first nine games last season before sustaining a season-ending shoulder injury. He is the better runner, while Owens, a lefty, has a better arm. The line should be a good one, with seniors Mike VanDerMeulen and John Morookian forming a formidable duo at tackle. They are the most experienced tackle tandem in the nation.
DEFENSE: The Rockets forced 34 turnovers last season and nine defensive starters are back. A strong linebacking corps heads a veteran unit. Dan Molls is the unquestioned leader in the middle, while Isaiah Ballard is an athletic option on the outside. The line is loaded with talent and depth. E T.J. Fatinikun brings the heat off the edge, and the Rockets can rotate four players at tackle; the tackle group is headed by senior Malcolm Riley, who had 5.5 sacks last season. The secondary should be OK, thanks to the return of CB Desmond Marrow, who was granted a sixth season of eligibility after missing most of 2008 and '09.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Page is a primo return man. He led the MAC and ranked third in the nation with a 31.1-yard kickoff return average and ran back three kickoffs for touchdowns. But Page was a poor punt returner, averaging just 1.9 yards on 16 returns. The kicking needs work, too. Toledo ranked last in the MAC in net punting with a 31.7-yard average in 2010, and sophomore Vince Penza must improve. Toledo hit just 6-of-14 field-goal attempts in 2010, and Ryan Casano is back after going 2-of-7; his longest was 34 and he had one blocked. The punt coverage was awful, the kickoff coverage adequate.
THE BUZZ: Beckman has one of the best teams in the MAC. Experience abounds on both sides of the ball, but the kicking game must improve. A slow start also could derail the Rockets. After opening with FCS member New Hampshire, Toledo plays three of its next four on the road, including a trip to Ohio State - and the one home game in that span is against Boise State. Except for a trip to Temple, though, the toughest MAC games are at home, including a Nov. 1 showdown against Northern Illinois that likely will determine the MAC West titlist. Barring an unforeseen meltdown, Toledo will go bowling for the second season in a row.