COACH: Mike Stoops (25-34 in five seasons).
LAST SEASON: 8-5 overall, 5-4 in Pac-10 (fifth in league). Beat BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl.
FINAL 2008 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 32nd.
KEEP AN EYE ON: The Wildcats' secondary will be one of the strongest in the Pac-10. It could be one of the best in the nation if two sophomores, CB Trevin Wade and SS Robert Golden, mesh with returning starters Devin Ross, a corner, and Cam Nelson, a free safety. Wade had four interceptions as a freshman, though two were against Idaho and one was against Washington State. Golden, a four-star recruit out of high school, has the highest ceiling. Defensively, former H-Back Brooks Reed blossomed as a defensive end and had seven sacks in his final seven games. How good can he be with a full season of experience?
STAR POWER: TE Rob Gronkowski will be a top candidate for the Mackey Award, given to the nation's top tight end. He's a physical receiver, a good blocker and a sure target in the red zone. Ross will be one of the best corners in the league after intercepting three passes last season and recording 13 pass breakups. P Keenyn Crier should earn his fair share of postseason awards; he has averaged 43.8 yards per punt in his two seasons.
STRENGTHS: Arizona has plenty of depth at running back and wide receiver. RBs Nic Grigsby and Keola Antolin combined for 1,678 yards and 23 touchdowns last season, with each taking turns as the primary back. Despite losing Mike Thomas, the Pac-10 leader in receptions, WRs Delashaun Dean and – who both topped 500 receiving yards – give Arizona a solid duo. In addition to the secondary, the line should be strong on defense; all four starters return, including solid T Earl Mitchell.
WEAKNESSES: The offense has two glaring holes. The first is QB Willie Tuitama, who rewrote the school's record books. Matt Scott, the team's third-leading rusher last season, and Michigan State transfer Nick Foles will continue to battle in fall drills for the starting position. Second is T Eben Britton, a longtime starter on the offensive line who was a second-round pick in the NFL draft. The line is undergoing some additional changes with G Colin Baxter moving to center. There will be two new starters at linebacker. The Wildcats will miss Thomas' skill as a punt returner; he averaged 13.5 yards per return last season and took two back for touchdowns.
THE BUZZ: Hopes are high in Arizona after the Wildcats went to their first bowl since 1998, likely saving coach Mike Stoops' job. Arizona has enough veterans remaining to make a run at another bowl, but the Wildcats haven't been to bowls in consecutive seasons since 1997-98. The schedule is tough. There are five league road games, and the Wildcats also play at Iowa. Arizona's success likely will be dictated by the final four games, three of them on the road: at California, Oregon, at Arizona State and at USC.
COACH: Rick Neuheisel (4-8 in one season; 70-38 in nine seasons overall).
LAST SEASON: 4-8 overall, 3-6 in Pac-10 (eighth in the league).
FINAL 2008 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 81st.
KEEP AN EYE ON: The offensive line projects to be significantly improved after being an absolute wreck last season. T Sean Sheller is recovered from a knee injury that sidelined him. Sophomore Kai Maiava, who started at Colorado as a freshman before transferring, is ready to take over at center. They will bolster a unit that was awful in pass protection and worse in run blocking. If the line play improves significantly, the Bruins likely will, too.
STAR POWER: The Bruins are well-equipped defensively with a standout at each level. Junior T Brian Price has received all-conference acclaim and could land even grander honors; he has 21 tackles for loss in 22 career games. Senior LB Reggie Carter is one of the best in the Pac-10 at his position. He moves back inside after a season as an outside linebacker in which he posted 83 tackles and forced three fumbles. Senior CB Alterraun Verner has eight career interceptions, three of which he has returned for touchdowns. He is solid in run support – he was second on the Bruins with 73 tackles last season – and had 18 pass breakups, a number that led the nation.
STRENGTHS: The Bruins' special teams should be among the nation's best. Terrence Austin set a school record for kick-return yardage last year, and he's just as dangerous on punt returns. Meanwhile, K Kai Forbath has outstanding accuracy and range in excess of 50 yards. The linebacker corps has great potential, too. Carter is a proven commodity in the middle, Kyle Bosworth, who had a good year in '07, is back from an injury that forced him to miss most of the '08 campaign, and sophomore Akeem Ayers played well as a freshman and figures to be even better the second time around. The Bruins should have a productive group of receivers, with Austin (53 catches) and sophomore Taylor Embree (40) leading the way. Now, if someone can get them the ball consistently ….
WEAKNESSES: Quarterback has been a sore subject for the Bruins since '05. Unless quarterback play improves, the Bruins will tread water again. Redshirt freshman Kevin Prince won the starting job this spring over incumbent Kevin Craft, who threw almost three times as many interceptions as touchdown passes last season (20 picks, seven touchdowns). But Prince performed inconsistently in the spring and hasn't thrown a college pass. He'll need help from the line and the running game. Last year, the Bruins gave up 35 sacks and averaged just 82.8 rushing yards per game.
THE BUZZ: The high hopes that accompanied Neuheisel's return to Westwood tumbled down in a four-win debacle. But the second season under the former Bruins quarterback could be much better. The defense is good, the offensive line should be better and the quarterback play couldn't be much worse. Forbath will provide the Bruins an edge in close games. Bowl eligibility is within reach, but UCLA isn't ready to challenge that other team across town for Pac-10 supremacy. The first four games are against teams that didn't go to bowls last season, but then come four consecutive games against teams that did go bowling. The Pac-10 opener Oct. 3 at Stanford is big for both teams.
COACH: Ken Niumatalolo (8-6 in one season, plus bowl in 2007 season).
LAST SEASON: 8-5 overall. Lost to Wake Forest in the EagleBank Bowl.
FINAL 2008 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 54th.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Navy fans are anxiously awaiting the full-time debut of junior QB Ricky Dobbs. He's a powerful runner who will be the best passer Navy has had in a while. In emergency duty last season, Dobbs rushed for 224 yards and four touchdowns against SMU and 124 yards against Northern Illinois.
STAR POWER: The nod is going to LB Ross Pospisil, a defensive captain. In his first season as a starter, Pospisil led Navy with 106 tackles on a defense that greatly improved from 2007 to '08. He came up big with interceptions in wins over Rutgers and Wake Forest, and he had 24 combined tackles in shutouts of Northern Illinois and Army.
STRENGTHS: With eight projected senior starters, Navy should have a standout defense. New SS Wyatt Middleton had 80 tackles and five pass breakups last season as the starting free safety. E Jabaree Tuani had a breakout season as a freshman, a rarity at Navy; he led the Midshipmen with nine tackles for loss. He and T Nate Frazier will be an intimidating duo on the line. Navy returns three offensive linemen who started at least six games – Ts Jeff Battipaglia and Matt Molloy and G Curtis Bass. P Kyle Delahooke returns after averaging 41.6 yards per kick last season, the fourth-best total in school history. The kick- and punt-coverage units were solid last season.
WEAKNESSES: Just three starters return on offense, and it remains to be seen how Dobbs will hold up over the course of a season. FB Eric Kettani and RB Shun White were major contributors last season, but they're gone and will be replaced by untested players. The coaching staff feels good about FB Alex Teich, but he had just seven carries last season. RB Bobby Doyle had 18 offensive touches last season but scored two touchdowns; he also scored on a blocked punt. There's no reason the new backs can't be productive, but Dobbs will carry much of the pressure. As for special teams, the return units were mediocre last season and Navy will replace reliable K Matt Harmon with sophomore Jon Teague, who was the kickoff specialist.
THE BUZZ: Navy could be an improved team this season but have a worse record. The Midshipmen's schedule will be challenging, with games against eight bowl teams from last season and only six games in Annapolis. The Midshipmen will have a chance at their seventh consecutive Commander-in-Chief's Trophy, which will likely come down to who wins their home game against Air Force.
COACH: Todd Graham (21-7 in two seasons; 28-13 in three seasons overall).
LAST SEASON: 11-3 overall, 7-1 in Conference USA (tied for first in C-USA West). Lost to East Carolina in the C-USA championship game. Beat Ball State in the GMAC Bowl.
FINAL 2008 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 40th.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Junior QB Jacob Bower has thrown for just 138 yards in his career, but he'll likely better that in some quarters this season. The previous quarterbacks in coach Todd Graham's system have put up big numbers, and Bower likely will, too. He'll have to hold off challenges from sophomore G.J. Kinne, who began his career at Texas, and true freshman Shavodrick Beaver, who enrolled early and went through spring practice, to keep the starting job.
STAR POWER: What will sophomore Damaris Johnson do for an encore? Last season, he set a school record for kick-return yardage and led Conference USA with 2,201 all-purpose yards. Johnson also led the Golden Hurricane with 53 receptions and 10 touchdown catches and rushed for 327 yards, including a 62-yard run.
STRENGTHS: The Golden Hurricane have no shortage of receivers with big-play potential to complement Johnson. Trae Johnson slumped to 20 catches after a 70-catch freshman season in 2007, and Slick Shelley, a transfer from Tennessee, averaged more than 16 yards on 39 catches and hauled in eight touchdown tosses in his first season at Tulsa. Junior FB Charles Clay has 107 career receptions.
WEAKNESSES: The running attack could be a concern. Tulsa averaged 268.0 rushing yards per game, but it lost 1,500-yard rusher Tarrion Adams and three starting linemen. Pass defense was a major problem for the Golden Hurricane, who allowed 32 touchdown passes a year ago, and that was with a pass rush that produced 38 sacks. Only four teams allowed more touchdown passes, and Houston burned Tulsa for six. The secondary is back intact, but obviously needs significant improvement. Sophomore K Cory Jefferis has not attempted a college field goal.
THE BUZZ: Tulsa led the nation in total offense in each of the past two seasons, but lost a quarterback that passed for 4,000 yards, a running back who rushed for 1,500 yards and a receiver with more than 1,100 yards. There also will be a new offensive coordinator, with Herb Hand being promoted from line coach to replace Gus Malzahn, who went to Auburn. Replacing the production of departed QB David Johnson won't be easy, but plenty of offensive talent returns. And with some defensive improvement, the Golden Hurricane again figure to be contenders in the Conference USA race. At the very least, another bowl appearance is expected. The first three games are on the road, as are five of the first seven, including a Sept. 19 trip to Oklahoma. But other than the meeting with the Sooners and an Oct. 14 home game with Boise State, the rest of the first seven games are winnable.
COACH: Bobby Johnson (27-56 in seven seasons; 87-92 in 15 seasons overall).
LAST SEASON: 7-6 overall, 4-4 in SEC (third in SEC East). Beat Boston College in the Music City Bowl.
FINAL 2008 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 52nd.
KEEP AN EYE ON: In his only career start, QB Larry Smith led a late field-goal drive that helped Vanderbilt rally for its first bowl victory in more than a half-century. Vanderbilt fans could be seeing a lot more of Smith in the years to come. Smith, a sophomore, exited spring practice with the upper hand in a quarterback competition that also features senior Mackenzi Adams, who has made nine career starts. Adams has plenty of mobility and possesses more experience than Smith, but he also completed less than half his passes last season.
STAR POWER: Vanderbilt's secondary suffered a major blow when CB D.J. Moore left early for the NFL. Senior CB Myron Lewis could join his former teammate in the pros next season. He recorded 76 tackles last season and picked off five passes, the last of which clinched the Music City Bowl. Lewis enters his third season as a starter with legitimate All-SEC aspirations.
STRENGTHS: Vanderbilt boasts plenty of experience with nine starters returning on each side of the ball. The secondary has two all-conference candidates in Lewis and FS Ryan Hamilton, who recorded 104 tackles and four interceptions last season. Any team in the SEC would love to have LBs Patrick Benoist and Chris Marve. Brandon Barden is a quality pass-catching tight end.
WEAKNESSES: Vanderbilt failed to exceed 14 points in any of its six losses, and the Commodores likely will struggle to score again this season. The passing game is a major concern. Adams lacks accuracy, Smith lacks experience and the receiving corps lacks a player who caught more than 17 passes. Vandy's rushing attack also lacks explosiveness. Jared Hawkins is a tough runner, but he's no breakaway threat. The Commodores also must find a new kicker following the graduation of Bryan Hahnfeldt.
THE BUZZ: Now that they finally have snapped that string of 25 consecutive losing seasons, the Commodores won't sneak up on anybody. Vanderbilt will go as far as its defense can carry it because the offense won't scare anybody. That defense might be good enough to produce at least a couple of SEC wins, but it's hard to imagine the Commodores going bowling for a second consecutive season. Vanderbilt's back-loaded schedule traditionally results in fast starts and slow finishes. This season looks like no exception. Don't be surprised if Vanderbilt wins four of its first six games but struggles to pick up a fifth victory.