COACH: Ron English (2-22 in two seasons)
LAST SEASON: 2-10, 2-6 (T-5th in MAC West)
OFFENSE: The Eagles ran the ball quite well last season, finishing second in the MAC in rushing offense (173.3 ypg). QB Alex Gillett, the leading rusher, is back, but starting TB Dwayne Priest will be missed. Senior Dominique Sherrer emerged from spring ball as the new tailback, and look for Javonti Greene and Corey Welch to also get carries. But the line is an issue, with two new starters and two returning starters changing positions. The good news: There is a big, physical group up front. While the rushing attack was a good one last season, the passing attack was abysmal. Only one returning receiver caught more than 12 passes, and the top two tight ends are gone, bad news for a unit that likes to throw to the tight end. WR Kinsman Thomas had four TD receptions in the first five games, including one in a blowout loss to Ohio State, but none the rest of the way. He must show he can be the go-to guy.
DEFENSE: The defense was awful last season (118th against the run, 113th overall, 118th in scoring), which has to irk coach Ron English, a defensive coordinator by trade. There is reason to expect some improvement this season - and improvement in the MAC could mean flirting with a .500 record. The line has potential, and the secondary has a chance to be one of the four or five best in the league thanks to transfers at strong safety (Latarrius Thomas, from Louisville) and cornerback (Marlon Pollard, from UCLA, where English used to be coordinator). But the Eagles managed just 10 sacks last season, and no matter how much talent there is in the secondary, that group will get torched unless EMU finds a way to apply some heat. As a whole, the front seven is a bit undersized, which means the run defense likely will be iffy again. EMU signed eight junior college transfers, all on defense, and LBs Justin Cudworth and Blake Poole earned starting jobs during the spring; in addition, some JC transfers should provide better depth than EMU has been used to of late.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The Eagles attempted just nine field goals last season, making five. The kickoff coverage was bad, with two returns for TDs. But P Jay Karutz is adequate, the punt coverage team was OK and Welch has the potential to be a solid kick returner.
THE BUZZ: How bad was EMU's defense last season? Forget the 73 points that Ohio State rang up and instead focus on the 52 (52!) managed by offensively inept Vanderbilt. Even in the sad-sack MAC, the Eagles won't move up unless they get a lot tougher on that side of the ball. That said, English and his staff have improved the talent level a bit and there is at least some hope that the defense can make some strides this season.
COACH: Robb Akey (17-33 in five seasons)
LAST SEASON: 6-7, 3-5 (6th in WAC)
OFFENSE: The Vandals lost a lost of talent on this side of the ball, including QB Nathan Enderle, the top three receivers, the leading rusher and two starting linemen. In all, just four full-time starters are back. The new quarterback is senior Brian Reader, who has talent and is well-schooled in this offense. But will he have enough help? There is hope that Arizona State transfer Ryan Bass can provide a boost at tailback. At the least, the tailbacks will run behind a massive line, as the average weight of the five projected starters is 323.6 pounds. Ts Matt Cleveland and Tyrone Novikoff are the standouts. The Vandals like to use their tight ends, and Taylor Elmo and Mike LeGrone form what should be a solid duo. At wide receiver, seniors Preston Davis and Armauni Johnson and junior Daniel Veltung need to show some consistency.
DEFENSE: Eight full-time starters are back, but two of the departed are SS Shiloh Keo, who was one of the best defenders in the league, and E Aaron Lavarias, who had 9.5 sacks, 5.5 more than any other Vandal. T Michael Cosgrove is effective in the middle and provides a nice push against the pass. The linebackers should be the best unit on the team, assuming Robert Siavii is healthy after suffering a knee injury in the spring game. He and fellow LBs Tre'Shawn Robinson and Homer Mauga combined for 255 tackles last season. The secondary has potential, especially at cornerback. Coaches need someone to step up to replace Lavarias' pass-rush ability. That someone could be junior Benson Mayowa, who had sacks against Nebraska and Boise State last season.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Bobby Cowan is one of the best punters in the nation; he averaged 45.1 yards per boot and 24 of his 58 attempts went for at least 50 yards. K Trey Farquhar is back after going 18-of-25; he has a strong leg but can be erratic. The coverage units were horrible last season and must improve. The kick returners are fine, but the Vandals have to become more productive returning punts.
THE BUZZ: Idaho went to a bowl in 2009 but just missed last season. It's hard to see the Vandals returning to the postseason this fall because so many key performers were lost. Enderle and Keo were drafted, and they were the best players on their respective units. Still, even without Keo, the defense has a chance to be OK. But that's going to happen only if the offense does its part. And that's a potential problem because that unit has to be rebuilt. The WAC looks as if it will be way down, but that still might not help the Vandals.
COACH: Jeff Quinn (2-10 in one season)
LAST SEASON: 2-10, 1-7 (T-5th in MAC East)
OFFENSE: The Bulls struggled to run the ball last season, which in turn led to a bigger emphasis on the pass. And that was a bad thing, considering Buffalo quarterbacks tossed 23 interceptions. There looks to be a good group of tailbacks, with a committee approach likely. Will there be room to run? The line had some injury issues last season, which could pay off in better depth this season. The health of T Matt Ostrowski is important, as he is the Bulls' best lineman. This is a big group whose physicality is a question. The receiving corps looks good, with Terrell Jackson, Alex Neutz and Marcus Rivers giving the Bulls a solid trio. But will they get the ball enough? Junior Jerry Davis, who threw 16 TD passes but also 16 picks last season, kept the starting job through spring practice and will have to fend off sophomore Alex Zordich (one TD, six interceptions) in fall drills.
DEFENSE: The Bulls run a 3-4 scheme, and there is a solid group of linebackers led by sophomore Khalil Mack, who had 14.5 tackles for loss and 10 pass breakups last season. E Steven Means has some pass-rush skills, but as a team, Buffalo managed just 16 sacks last season and that number obviously has to get bigger. A rebuilt secondary makes it vital that the Bulls pressure opposing passers. All four starting defensive backs from what might have been the MAC's best secondary are gone. Returning players accounted for just two interceptions and both were by defensive ends. The cornerbacks - Cincinnati transfer Romel Dismuke and redshirt freshman Cortney Lester, a former all-county performer in high school in the Fort Lauderdale area - lend hope that the secondary can be at least adequate.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The Bulls will miss K A.J. Principe, the school's leading career scorer. He'll be replaced by Peter Fardon. P Jake Schum is back, but he'll have to hold off Fardon in the fall. Jackson is an excellent punt returner (16.7 yards per attempt last season) but he was mediocre as the kick returner. The punt coverage was OK, but the kickoff coverage needs big-time improvement.
THE BUZZ: Buffalo won the MAC title under Turner Gill in 2009 and looked to have turned the corner. Instead, the Bulls have regressed and could be at the bottom of what looks to be a weak MAC again this season. Any hope for improvement rests on improving the rushing attack. There are three games against Big Six foes among the first five contests, including visits to Pitt and Tennessee. But two other early-season games are against a FCS foe and against fellow MAC bottom-feeder Ball State. While the November schedule isn't daunting, the Bulls will be lucky to win a game in October.
COACH: Willie Taggart (2-10 in one season)
LAST SEASON: 2-10, 2-6 (9th in Sun Belt)
OFFENSE: The Hilltoppers' offense is centered on 5-foot-8 TB Bobby Rainey, who ran for 1,649 yards and 18 TDs last season. Those numbers are even more impressive when you consider WKU threw for just 1,722 yards and 11 TDs. In short - and no pun intended - Rainey is the offense. He ran for 155 yards and a TD against Nebraska and rumbled for 184 and two TDs against Kentucky. The line has two new starters but it should be fine; T Wes Jeffries is an All-Sun Belt candidate and headlines a big, physical unit. Now, unfortunately, it's time to talk about the passing attack. Junior Kawaun Jakes is the holdover starter at quarterback, and while he is a running threat, he needs a ton of work as a passer. TE Jack Doyle is a good target, but the wide receivers have a lot to prove. Rainey had 29 receptions last season and is the Hilltoppers' No. 2 returning receiver. Redshirt freshman WR Rico Brown had a good spring and needs to provide a boost this fall.
DEFENSE: There is work to do on defense. Western managed a paltry 12 sacks last season, and it's vital the Hilltoppers do something in an attempt to apply consistent pressure. All four starting linemen return, but two are set to begin the season as second-teamers. Four linebackers started at least seven games last season, but only one returns (Xavius Boyd) and he begins the season as a backup. The secondary should be adequate, assuming they get some help from the pass rush. The corners, especially, have potential, and depth is solid at safety. Sophomore Jonathan Dowling, a transfer from Florida, has the talent to make a big impact in the Sun Belt; he could play safety, corner or even wide receiver. He is from the same hometown (Bradenton, Fla.) as coach Willie Taggart.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Casey Tinius is back, but he was dreadful last season, going 6-of-15; he was 2-of-11 from 30 yards and longer. P Hendrix Brakefield is competent, and in an attempt to rev up the return units, Rainey will be used to return kicks and punts. He was taken off those duties last season. The coverage units need some work.
THE BUZZ: This is Taggart's second season as coach - he's a WKU alum who was Stanford's running backs coach when he was hired - and using his ties in Florida, he has done a nice job in recruiting. But it likely won't show on the field this season, which is Rainey's last with the Hilltoppers. Rainey is a big-time running back who received zero help from the passing attack last season. Western's defense is going to struggle again, but if the passing attack moves from "dreadful" to "bad," Rainey's presence could mean another one or two wins over last season. The schedule is navigable, with just two true road games among the first six contests. But the closing stretch is a tough one, so if Western wants to get to three or four wins, it had better bear down in September and October.
COACH: Mike MacIntyre (1-12 in one season)
LAST SEASON: 1-12, 0-8 (9th in WAC)
OFFENSE: Quarterback is a huge concern. Jordan La Secla, last season's starter, is gone, and that set up a three-way free-for-all during spring drills. But no one distinguished himself, and the three candidates were listed as co-starters on the post-spring depth chart. Senior Matt Faulkner was the backup but threw just 39 passes last season, and considering that second-year coach Mike MacIntyre is trying to build a program, it may make more sense to choose a younger quarterback that the team can grow around. True freshman Joe Gray arrives in the summer after being named first-team All-Los Angeles at Dorsey High, and MacIntyre raved about him on National Signing Day. The line is a big one, with three starters back, and the receiving corps is young but talented. WRs Noel Grigsby, Kyle Nunn and Chandler Jones all had big seasons in 2010 as freshmen, and there's a nice group of tight ends, too. The rushing attack was pitiful last season - 119th in the nation overall, and just seven TDs - but incumbent starter Brandon Rutley kept his job during spring practice. Junior David Freeman and true freshman Cedric Simmons can be expected to make that an interesting fall-camp battle.
DEFENSE: The back seven could be quite good. All three starting linebackers return, and sophomore Keith Smith was a standout as a true freshman last season, with 116 tackles. Star S Duke Ihenacho is back after missing most of last season with a foot injury. There is a good three-man rotation at corner with Peyton Thompson, Brandon Driver and Ronnie Yell, and Ihenacho's returns means the Spartans have four safeties who started multiple games last season. The line, though, has some questions. JC transfer David Tuitupou enrolled in January and emerged from spring drills as a starter at end. Tuitupou, 25, is a former BYU player who has served a Mormon mission. Senior T Joe Nikos missed most of last season with an injury, and his return could help the Spartans' run defense. E Travis Johnson had 7.5 sacks last season and is one of the best pass rushers in the WAC.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Harrison Waid likely again will pull double-duty as the kicker and punter. He was better as the punter (43.8 yards per attempt) than as the kicker (14-of-22, including 11-of-18 from beyond 30). He has a strong leg but must become more accurate. The return teams were OK, and the kickoff coverage was quite good. But the Spartans allowed two punt-return TDs.
THE BUZZ: Freshmen played a key role for the Spartans last season in MacIntyre's first season, and all those youngsters should be even better as sophomores. Ihenacho's return is big, as he might be the best defensive player in the WAC. But unless the Spartans find a quarterback, they are going to struggle mightily again. If there was a strong rushing attack in place, finding a playmaking quarterback wouldn't be that big a deal. But because the running game is iffy, the quarterback issue is magnified. There is no chance to ease into the schedule, either. Four of the first six games are on the road, including the opener at Stanford. There also are tough non-conference games against UCLA, BYU and Navy. While the WAC appears wide-open, San Jose State isn't going to have a say in who wins the league unless coaches can unearth a star quarterback.