COACH: Mike Locksley (2-22 in two seasons)
LAST SEASON: 1-11, 1-7 (T-8th in Mountain West)
OFFENSE: The Lobos were last in the nation in total offense (265.7 ypg) and 116th in scoring offense (15.8 ppg) last season. They scored more than 23 points just once - 34, in a win over Wyoming - and were held to 14 or fewer points six times. Four quarterbacks attempted at least 58 passes last season, and three of those guys are back. Look for Stump Godfrey to be the starter; he has good mobility, which is a needed plus for this offense. The Lobos had just 10 rushing TDs, and Godfrey had four of them. Starting TB Kasey Carrier returns, but he ran for just 373 yards and two scores. He has some receiving skills that need to be put to use. The receiving corps has potential. TE Lucas Reed has All-Mountain West talent, and in Ty Kirk and Lamaar Thomas (who began his career at Ohio State), the Lobos have two potential No. 1 receivers. The question, though, is whether either will get the ball enough. Two starters return along the line, with C Dillon Farrell the standout. JC transfer Korian Chambers enrolled early and won a starting job at tackle during the spring; he and sophomore Darryl Johnson could form a solid duo at tackle.
DEFENSE: The offense was atrocious last season - and the defense may have been worse. New Mexico was 119th in total defense (469.0 ypg) and 120th (last) in scoring defense (44.3 ppg). The Lobos surrendered at least 50 points four times and at least 40 points seven times; only one team (New Mexico State) scored fewer than 30. The talent is on hand for at least incremental progress this season. Ts Reggie Ellis and Ugo Uzodinma are transfers from Illinois who need to ramp up their intensity level. Senior LB Carmen Messina is a tackle machine. He had 115 last season and has 312 for his career; that is fifth-most among active players. The Lobos have switched from a 4-3 to a 4-2-5 set this season, which might seem surprising since they had just four (next-to-last nationally) interceptions last season. But there is reason for optimism in the secondary. JC transfer DeShon Marman had a strong spring and is expected to start at one of the safety spots, and FS Bubba Forrest has all-league ability. The secondary would be helped by a stronger pass rush; the Lobos had just 12 sacks last season.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K James Aho has all-league talent; it's not his fault he was called on just nine times last season. He was 8-of-9, including a 51-yarder. Aho has a strong leg and is accurate. P Ben Skaer averaged 40.5 yards per attempt - and he had a lot of attempts (85). Emmanuel McPhearson is a solid kick returner, but Kirk did a poor job as a punt returner last season and could lose the job. The coverage units were brutal; the Lobos allowed three punt-return TDs and also surrendered 29.7 yards per kickoff return.
THE BUZZ: Locksley likely is coaching for his job this season. The Lobos have gone 1-11 in each of his first two seasons, and though he seemingly has increased the talent level with his recruiting, it surely hasn't shown on the field. New Mexico has no shot at a top-four finish in the Mountain West, but the Lobos do have a chance to finish fifth or sixth. The rushing attack must improve for that to happen. Four of the first five games are at home, and while the Lobos aren't going to beat Arkansas or Texas Tech, the other three early-season games are winnable, including the opener at home against MWC foe Colorado State. The Lobos play at home just twice after Oct. 1.
COACH: Mike Price (40-45 in seven seasons at UTEP; 169-167 in 29 seasons overall)
LAST SEASON: 6-7, 3-5 (T-4th in C-USA West; lost to BYU in New Mexico Bowl)
OFFENSE: Only two starters return on this side of the ball, meaning Price and his staff are in trouble. When UTEP has been successful under Price, it has been because of a high-powered offense. Junior college transfer Nick Lamaison enrolled early and won the starting job at quarterback during spring drills; he'll have to hold off redshirt freshman Javia Hall and senior Tate Smith in the summer to keep the job. TB Joe Banyard is a returning starter and he ran for 623 yards last season. But he'll run behind an all-new starting line. The Miners signed three JC linemen, and it wouldn't be a surprise if one or two emerged from fall drills with a starting job. The receivers could be OK if Donavon Kemp can come back strong from a torn ACL. WR Marlon McClure has a ton of speed and doubles as one of the nation's best return men, but he has been suspended indefinitely and may not return.
DEFENSE: Eight defensive starters return, and that lends hope because the unit has the potential to finish in the top half of Conference USA despite ranking 91st nationally last season. The Miners have some big bodies in the interior and need a big season from sophomore T Germard Reed if they are to improve against the run. In addition, all three starting linebackers are seniors, but the trio of Isaiah Carter, Jamie Irving and Royzell Smith combined for just 10.5 tackles for loss last season and must make more plays this fall. A lack of playmakers also came into play in the secondary, as UTEP had just 11 interceptions last season. There is a nice safety duo with FS DeShawn Grayson and SS Travaun Nixon; Nixon had four picks and eight pass breakups last season.
SPECIAL TEAMS: McClure can be electric with the ball in his hands. He averaged 31.0 yards on kickoff returns and took two back for TDs; he also averaged 13.1 yards on punt returns. If he does not return, that's a blow to the Miners. P Ian Campbell has a shot at all-league honors after averaging 45.1 yards last season, including 17 attempts of at least 50 yards. K Dakota Warren has a monster leg - he kicked a 57-yarder last season - but he's inconsistent, finishing 12-of-20, including 5-of-12 from beyond 30 yards, and having three blocked. He is a good kickoff man, with 13 touchbacks. The coverage teams were bad last season, especially on punts.
THE BUZZ: UTEP started 5-1 last season, then collapsed down the stretch, finishing 6-7. The Miners went to the New Mexico Bowl and got spanked, 52-24, by BYU. A bowl appearance this season is going to take a miracle. Conference USA as a whole looks better than it did last season, and UTEP lost a ton of talent on offense. Four of the first six games are on the road, and one of the home games in that span is against West Division contender Houston. Any chance at another bowl means UTEP has to be 2-2 in September, but that might be too much to ask.
COACH: Dave Clawson (9-16 in two seasons at Bowling Green; 67-65 in 11 seasons overall)
LAST SEASON: 2-10, 1-7 (6th in MAC East)
OFFENSE: WR Kamar Jorden should be the focal point of the offense; he had 96 receptions for 1,109 yards and four TDs last season, and he should benefit from added experience for QB Matt Schilz. Schilz had the growing pains associated with most freshmen quarterbacks last season, when he threw for 2,223 yards and eight TDs. Redshirt freshman Matt Hurley has good size (6-4/215) and will give Schilz a strong run for the starting job. Bad news for the quarterbacks is that no other wide receiver on the roster caught more than 20 passes last season, so an effective No. 2 man has to emerge. The rushing attack looks highly questionable, as the leading returning rusher (Jordan Hopgood) had just 167 yards last season. BG ranked last nationally in rushing last season at 62.8 yards per game. At least the offensive line has potential. C Ben Bojicic is a big-timer and is one of four returning starters on what should be a physical unit. TE Alex Bayer should become an effective weapon this fall after showing well as a reserve last season. Expect some true freshman wide receivers to get into the mix for the Falcons.
DEFENSE: This is an extremely young unit, as just two seniors are projected to start - one on the line and one in the secondary. The Falcons run a 4-2-5 set, and the top four tackles return from last season. But both starting ends will be new. BG's best player is LB Dwayne Woods, who made 134 tackles last season; he added 2.5 sacks, three forced fumbles, two interceptions, seven pass breakups and a fumble recovery. Two redshirt freshmen appeared to win starting jobs in the secondary during spring practice. CB Devon McKoy and S Ryland Ward beat out more established players as coaches look for a way to shore up a unit that allowed 25 TD passes last season. If that duo keeps their starting jobs, the Falcons should have good depth in the defensive backfield.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The Falcons will be breaking in a new kicker and a new punter. Freshman Tyler Tate is the new kicker, and he replaces two guys who were a combined 5-of-14 last season. Junior Jerry Phillips is the new punter. Slot-back Eugene Cooper is a dangerous punt returner - he took two back for scores last season - and backup S Booboo Gates returned a kickoff for a score. The coverage teams were adequate last season.
THE BUZZ: Clawson took the Falcons to a bowl in 2009, his first season as coach. But they regressed last season and this season could be more of the same. There are a lot of questions on offense, especially in regard to what was a non-existent rushing attack last season. Perhaps a more seasoned line will help. But the passing attack has some questions, too, and BG has far from a dominating defense. One positive: The first three games are relatively easy. But four of the next six games are on the road. If the Falcons can finish close to the .500 mark, that bodes extremely well for the 2012 season.
COACH: Rick Stockstill (33-30 in six seasons)
LAST SEASON: 6-7, 5-3 (3rd in Sun Belt; lost to Miami of Ohio in GoDaddy.com Bowl)
OFFENSE: The Blue Raiders played Santa Claus far too often last season, turning it over an amazing 38 times, including 24 interceptions (with just nine TD passes). Logan Kilgore and Jeff Murphy will vie for the starting quarterback job in fall drills; both played in three games last season. There is a solid group of receivers, though there is no established go-to guy. The talent is there for a productive passing attack, assuming the quarterback comes through. Look for a committee approach at tailback with Benjamin Cunningham and D.D. Kyles, who combined for 769 yards and eight TDs in backup roles last season. With mobile QB Dwight Dasher gone, the tailbacks will get more carries this season. G Brandon McLeroy and T Mike Williams should contend for all-league honors, and they head what should be one of the Sun Belt's best lines.
DEFENSE: Just three starters return on this side of the ball, and one of those - LB Justin Allen - could lose his starting job. MTSU struggled against the run last season and the Blue Raiders must get physically tougher up front. There could be two redshirt freshmen starting at tackle. The linebacker corps has the potential to be a good one. Stephen Roberts is returning from injury, and his play in the middle bears watching,. The secondary was one of the best in the Sun Belt last season, but there will be three new starters in the defensive backfield this season. The one returning starter is CB Arness Ikner, who had 56 tackles, an interception and four pass breakups last season. While there are three new starters, each of the projected starting quartet is a senior.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Alan Gendreau was just 10-of-12 last season, but that was more a function of an underachieving offense than a lack of faith in his leg. Gendreau made a 55-yarder last season and might be the best kicker in the league. Senior Nathaniel Toulson is the new punter; he kicked 16 times last season as the backup. SS Eric Russell again will return kicks and punts; he is dangerous on kickoffs, averaging 26.3 yards with a TD last season, but merely adequate as a punt returner. The kickoff coverage was fine, but the punt coverage needs to improve.
THE BUZZ: MTSU went to a bowl last season - its third in five seasons - but it still was a disappointing season. The Blue Raiders were the preseason favorite to win the league, but Dasher was suspended for the first four games for receiving illegal benefits and he never seemed to find his groove. Turnovers were a huge problem, and Stockstill knows it. Even without Dasher, the offense should be good enough to contend for a top-four finish in the Sun Belt. But what about the rebuilt defense? The secondary lost its three best players, and there's a giant question as to who will pressure opposing passers. MTSU has little time to get all the new starters acclimated, as the season starts off with two games against Big Six foes and a road trip to league title contender Troy. The schedule eases up in the middle before toughening again down the stretch.
COACH: David Bailiff (19-30 in four seasons at Rice; 40-45 in seven seasons overall)
LAST SEASON: 4-8, 3-5 (T-4th in C-USA West)
OFFENSE: The Owls averaged 28.4 points per game last season and were OK on the ground and in the air. Sophomore Taylor McHargue won the starting quarterback job in spring drills, and his mobility adds an extra dimension to the offense. Sam McGuffie, a former four-star recruit who began his career at Michigan, is the Owls' leading returning rusher and receiver, and he's a nice fit for the offense. Backup RB Jeremy Eddington has a nose for the end zone, as he scored 10 times in just seven games last season. The backs will run behind what should be a solid line. Senior T Jake Hicks will contend for all-league honors, and keep an eye on redshirt freshman G Ian Gray, who is huge (6-8/340) and displaced a returning starter in the lineup. There is no true go-to receiver or a real deep threat, and that hurts. Still, it's an OK group overall, one that certainly won't hurt the team.
DEFENSE: While the offense was scoring 28.4 points per game, the defense was giving up 38.5, and that won't cut it, even in Conference USA. Rice surrendered at least 30 points in every game but one (the season finale against UAB), and gave up at least 41 five times. The Owls also allowed at least 420 yards nine times. The return of E Scott Solomon, who missed last season with an injury, is huge. He is one of the best linemen in the league and can provide a pass rush, which the Owls did not have last season (just 14 sacks). Rice was OK against the run last season, allowing 145.2 yards per game. But the secondary was torched often, as the Owls gave up 303.7 passing yards per game and 34 TD passes (against just six interceptions). A better pass rush obviously would help, as the Owls actually have some talent in the secondary. FS Travis Bradshaw is another who should contend for all-league honors. Coaches are high on redshirt freshman CB Bryce Callahan, who could win a starting job in fall drills.
SPECIAL TEAMS: P Kyle Martens is excellent and a legit contender for All-America honors. He averaged 45.98 yards per boot last season and dropped 22 of his 52 attempts inside the 20. K Chris Boswell has a strong leg but was just 11-of-17 and had three blocked; he has range to 50 yards. The Owls need new return men, but backup RB Charles Sims did a nice job as the No. 2 kick returner last season, averaging 29.1 yards on 17 attempts. The coverage teams were adequate last season.
THE BUZZ: There's a new offensive coordinator (John Reagan) after David Beaty left for Kansas. Reagan, who had been the Owls' running game coordinator, is a former Kansas assistant. The offense isn't the problem, though. The defense has to make huge strides if the Owls are to get back into the bowl hunt. You can't give up almost 40 points per game and expect to win, not even in C-USA. The schedule is a tough one - too tough for Rice, in fact. The Owls open with three consecutive Big Six teams, including trips to Texas and Baylor, and the first league game is at Southern Miss, which will be an East Division contender. The Owls also get Tulsa and Houston back-to-back on a killer Saturday-Thursday turnaround. Finally, there are road games in November against Northwestern and SMU. All four non-conference games are against Big Six schools. This season's team might have more talent than last season's, but matching last season's win total will be tough with this schedule.