COACH: Mark Snyder (16-31 in four seasons).
LAST SEASON: 4-8 overall, 3-5 in Conference USA (tied for fourth in C-USA East).
FINAL 2008 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 92nd.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Senior DE Albert McClellan was the conference defensive player of the year in 2006 but hasn't matched those heights since. He missed 2007 with a torn anterior cruciate ligament and managed just 2.5 sacks in '08. Now that he's played a full season since his recovery, Marshall coaches hope he will be the impact player he was when he had 11.5 sacks as a sophomore.
STAR POWER: If Marshall fielded a better offense, senior TE Cody Slate would be a stronger candidate for the Mackey Award. He might not win the award for best tight end, but he should be in the discussion. Slate is coming off career lows of 40 catches and 510 yards but a career-high eight touchdowns. His production will be even more critical this season following the departure of leading receiver Darius Passmore.
STRENGTHS: Marshall had one of the league's better cornerback tandems last season, and both were freshmen. DeQuan Bembry was the better of the two with 11 pass breakups and 80 tackles; T.J. Drakeford added nine pass breakups. The Thundering Herd also return RB Darius Marshall, who rushed for 1,099 yards last season. Marshall allowed the fewest sacks in Conference USA last season, and the line should be good again; there is good depth. LB Mario Harvey has all-league potential.
WEAKNESSES: Mark Cann started most of last season at quarterback but struggled. Backup Brian Anderson took over in the last game of the season and threw three touchdown passes in a near upset of Tulsa. Anderson won the starting job in spring ball, but he will be pressed by Cann, Jacob Laudenslayer and Press Taylor, brother of former Nebraska quarterback Zac Taylor. The passing game, which ranked 11th in Conference USA, needs to find a go-to receiver on the outside.
THE BUZZ: Mark Snyder is entering a critical season in his tenure at Marshall. Simply getting to his fifth season is something of a surprise as the Herd hasn't had a winning record since 2003. After finishing last season on a 1-7 slide, Snyder can't afford a similar swoon in 2009. Marshall returns several key players capable of all-conference honors, meaning Snyder will be expected to challenge for his first bowl bid as Marshall's coach. There's a key three-game stretch starting in late September that covers games against Memphis, East Carolina and Tulane, with ECU the only home game. Marshall likely needs to go 2-1 in that stretch to have any bowl hopes.
COACH: Turner Gill (15-23 in three seasons).
LAST SEASON: 8-6 overall, 5-3 in MAC (first in MAC East). Beat Ball State in MAC championship game. Lost to Connecticut in International Bowl.
FINAL 2008 RIVALS.COM RANKINGS: 50th.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Sophomore QB Zach Maynard has big shoes to fill in replacing departed Drew Willy, who threw for 3,304 yards and 25 touchdowns last season. Maynard, who attempted just three passes in '08, has minimal playing experience and had a mediocre showing in the spring game. But he should benefit from a strong running game and excellent receivers.
STAR POWER: All-MAC WR Naaman Roosevelt had 104 receptions last season, the most in the nation among returning receivers. Roosevelt ranked eighth in the nation with 7.4 receptions per game and ninth with 100.1 receiving yards per game. He had at least four catches in every game and scored at least one touchdown in every Buffalo victory, which included a winning 35-yard "Hail Mary" catch for a touchdown on the final play against Temple. Roosevelt also had three touchdown catches in the MAC championship game.
STRENGTHS: A new quarterback raises doubts of whether Roosevelt can be as productive, but the Bulls can compensate with their running game. Buffalo has relied heavily on RB James Starks, but with an unproven quarterback, the Bulls could become even more dependent on Starks. Starks has posted back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and also is an excellent receiver. Last season, he rushed for 1,333 yards and had 52 catches. Depth at running back isn't bad, either. Junior LB Justin Winters posted a team-leading 125 tackles in his first year as a starter and could be even better with a season of experience under his belt. The secondary should be efficient; the safety tandem of Davonte Shannon and Mike Newton has all-conference credentials and CB Domonic Cook is steady. Brett Hamlin is a productive punt returner.
WEAKNESSES: Without Willy at the controls, the passing attack is a mystery. The offensive line will have three new starters. Defense is a concern, especially against the run. The Bulls were 92nd nationally in run defense and allowed 31 rushing touchdowns. Ouch. The defensive line has three new starters, which could be a blessing in disguise. T Dane Robinson will provide a big boost if he feels no lingering effects from a thumb injury that forced him out of three games in '08. The Bulls' kick coverage needs to be improved.
THE BUZZ: From 2002-06, the Bulls managed just seven total victories. They surpassed that total last season in their surprising run to the MAC championship. Coach Turner Gill, who built the Bulls into champs, was rumored to be in consideration for several open jobs in the offseason, but he returns to Buffalo along with six offensive and nine defensive players with starting experience. Three of the first four games are on the road, with the only home game in that span against Pittsburgh. Could the Bulls win two championships in a row? It's possible but not likely.
COACH: Mike Locksley (first season)
LAST SEASON: 4-8 overall, 2-6 in Mountain West (tied for sixth in league).
FINAL 2008 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 75th.
KEEP AN EYE ON: How quickly will the players pick up the new spread offense of coach Mike Locksley? Muddling the situation is that the quarterback job may not be decided until camp. Donovan Porterie, who missed spring drills recovering from a knee injury suffered early last season, is battling Brad Gruner and Tate Smith for the starting job in an offense coordinated by former North Texas coach Darrell Dickey.
STAR POWER: It's vital that OLB Clint McPeek is healthy. He missed almost all of spring drills after two knee surgeries, leaving him little time to learn the new defense. New Mexico needs McPeek's energy, passion and playmaking skills.
STRENGTHS: New Mexico has produced a 1,000-yard rusher in each of the past seven seasons, the longest such streak in the nation. The staff loves the 1-2 running back punch of powerful James Wright and redshirt freshman A.J. Butler, who finished spring drills with a flourish. The ground game has a good chance to continue thriving with three standout linemen back in T Byron Bell, C Erik Cook and G Joshua Taufalele. Special teams look solid, led by blossoming K James Aho.
WEAKNESSES: The Lobos welcome back their top three receivers, but there isn't a wealth of speed and athletic ability. Former coach Rocky Long's funky 3-3-5 scheme is out, replaced by a conventional 4-3 alignment led by former LSU co-coordinator Doug Mallory. How will the personnel adapt? There are worries at cornerback with both of last year's starters drafted by the NFLGlover Quin and DeAndre Wright. The staff likes Ts Kendall Briscoe and Peter Gardner, but depth is dicey as the Lobos' transition from a stunt-heavy three-man front to a traditional four-man line.
THE BUZZ: Long is out after 11 years and Locksley, who had been Illinois' offensive coordinator, is in. There's no doubt New Mexico wasn't totally broken under Long. But Locksley's different approach may be the spark needed to launch the Lobos from the middle of the MWC pack toward the top. The players are excited about the spread offense that Locksley has incorporated at a program that for too long has struggled to move the ball consistently. Locksley also will have a big impact from a talent procurement standpoint, as he is one of the nation's most renowned recruiters. The Lobos play five of their first seven games against teams that went to bowls last season, so a slow start is possible.
COACH: Howard Schnellenberger (48-48 in eight seasons; 148-125-3 in 24 seasons overall).
LAST SEASON: 7-6 overall, 4-3 in Sun Belt (tied for third in league). Beat Central Michigan in Motor City Bowl.
FINAL 2008 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 86th.
KEEP AN EYE ON: QB Rusty Smith followed up a great 2007 season (3,688 yards, 32 TDs, nine interceptions) with just an OK 2008 season (3,224 yards, 24 TDs, 14 interceptions). Smith's completion percentage was just 53.8 percent last season, so new quarterback coach Jeff Brohm who had been an assistant at Louisville can be expected to drill into Smith the importance of being more accurate.
STAR POWER: Smith has prototypical pocket-passer size at 6 feet 5 and is the most talented quarterback in the Sun Belt; he has the tools to be one of the best 20 or so in the nation. But he struggled last season and must regain his sophomore form if FAU is to legitimately challenge for the league title.
STRENGTHS: The passing game should be good. Leading receiver Cortez Gent returns, and he should put up all-conference numbers. Smith's cause will be helped by the return of TE Jason Harmon, who missed last season with a knee injury. FB Willie Rose is a good receiver, a solid blocker and an effective between-the-tackles runner. The secondary should be solid, though it would help if the Owls can mount more of a pass rush. FAU had just 13 sacks last season. CB Tavious Polo also a good punt returner and FS Ed Alexander should be the standouts. FAU's coverage teams were excellent last season.
WEAKNESSES: The rushing attack is a mystery. FAU loses 1,000-yard rusher Charles Pierre and his backup, and the new starter at running back is sophomore Alfred Morris, who had seven carries last season. FAU's run defense was a big problem last season. Teams that made it a priority to run on the Owls were able to do so, and that has to change. Sophomore Jarvis Givens, a 300-pounder who played sparingly last season, is a new starter at tackle, and he and incumbent starter Josh Savidge will be on the spot to clog up the middle. FAU will greatly miss LB/tackle machine Frantz Joseph, who had 154 stops last season. All three starting linebackers are new, which given the defensive woes last season has to make coach Howard Schnellenberger nervous. The special teams have some issues. Junior Ross Gornall is the new kicker, while Keegan Peterson returns as the punter; Peterson had a mediocre 2008, averaging 38.3 yards per punt and having two blocked. The Owls also are looking for a new kick returner.
THE BUZZ: FAU went into the 2008 season expected to contend for if not win the Sun Belt Conference title. Instead, it was a disappointing season for the Owls, who went just 4-3 in conference play and finished tied for third. At the same time, though, the Owls received a bowl bid and upset Central Michigan in the Motor City Bowl to finish 7-6 overall. That's a prime example of the kind of job Schnellenberger has done in building the FAU program: In a disappointing season, FAU still gets a bowl bid and pulls a postseason upset. It was the second bowl bid in a row for FAU, but to get a third will take some work. The Owls don't look to have the talent necessary to win the Sun Belt this season. But never count out Schnellenberger.
COACH: Mike Price (30-30 in five seasons; 159-152 in 27 seasons overall).
LAST SEASON: 5-7 overall, 4-4 in Conference USA (fourth in C-USA West).
FINAL 2008 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 89th.
KEEP AN EYE ON: The defense has to get tougher if the Miners want a bowl appearance. It's an undersized unit, where quickness matters, but the Miners don't look to have enough of that, either. Coordinator Osia Lewis is a disciple of former New Mexico coach Rocky Long, which means this is an aggressive defense. UTEP forced 27 turnovers last season, but allowed foes to convert 49.0 percent of their third downs.
STAR POWER: Junior QB Trevor Vittatoe put up great numbers 3,274 yards, a school-record 33 touchdowns, just nine interceptions but he was overshadowed in his own division last season because three quarterbacks threw for more yards. Regardless, Vittatoe is a good one.
STRENGTHS: The passing offense again will be productive. Vittatoe has a nice group of receivers to work with, most notably Kris Adams and Jeff Moturi (a combined 101 receptions for 1,613 yards and 23 touchdowns). The 23 touchdown receptions are the most of any returning duo in the nation. The offensive line should be solid because of the return of three starters, headlined by G Cameron Raschke. Though the secondary was strafed often last season, it should be solid this season. The return of S Braxton Amy, who missed all of last season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, will help; he had 112 tackles in 2007, but he will need to win back his starting job during fall drills. P Kyle Petersen returns, and he should be one of the best in C-USA.
WEAKNESSES: The rushing attack could be a problem. The Miners are counting on a new running back, Donald Buckram, coming through; Buckram was the Miners' third-leading rusher last season, and the top two graduated. UTEP ran for just 10 TDs last season, and that number obviously must increase. The run defense was atrocious last season, as the Miners gave up 199.5 rushing yards per game and 22 touchdowns. UTEP runs a 3-3-5 set, and there will be four new starters in the front six, including all three linebackers. The three projected starting linebackers combined for 64 tackles last season, so their production or lack thereof this season warrants attention. The Miners suffered a big blow with the graduation of K Jose Martinez, who had one of the strongest legs in the nation. He'll be replaced by redshirt freshman Logan Barrett. The return and coverage teams were weak last season; the kickoff coverage was egregiously bad (26.9 yards per return, with two returns for TDs).
THE BUZZ: Coach Mike Price looked to have re-energized the program after he arrived at UTEP before the 2004 season, leading the Miners to back-to-back 8-4 finishes in '04 and '05. But three consecutive losing seasons have followed and you wonder if Price has lost his magic. The Miners should have a good offense not surprising, given Price's background but the defense has been a huge problem of late and could be so again. Plus, the schedule is a bear. Three of the first four games are against teams that went to bowls last season, including games against Kansas (at home) and Texas (on the road). In addition, UTEP plays Conference USA West powers Houston and Tulsa during a three-game stretch in October.