COACH: Butch Jones (4-8 in one season at Cincinnati; 31-21 in four seasons overall)
LAST SEASON: 4-8, 2-5 (7th in Big East)
OFFENSE: Cincinnati had high hopes for its offense last season, its first with Zach Collaros as the starting quarterback. Collaros thrived as a super-sub for Tony Pike in 2009. Moreover, he had RB Isaiah Pead and WR Armon Binns and D.J. Woods at his disposal. For the most part, Cincinnati delivered on offense. The Bearcats led the Big East in total offense, scoring and passing. But despite the prolific numbers, the offense couldn't get out of its own way at times, leading the Big East in turnovers with 29 (15 interceptions, 14 fumbles) and allowing the second-most sacks. When Cincinnati went 12-1 in 2009, the Bearcats turned the ball over only 10 times (eight interceptions, two fumbles). If last season's issue was related to the installation of a new offense, Cincinnati should improve. Other than Binns, the key skill-position players are back and joined by four-star junior college transfer Kenbrell Thompkins at wide receiver. The Bearcats must replace their best offensive lineman, C Jason Kelce. Evan Davis is the likely starter there after being a backup the past two seasons.
DEFENSE: The defense wasn't that great to begin with, and all the turnovers didn't help matters. The Bearcats ranked either last or next-to-last in total defense in the Big East in the past two seasons. Like the offense, the defense didn't help itself in turnover margin. Cincinnati forced the fewest turnovers in the Big East (14). Every starter returns, and Jones doesn't see that as a negative. Perhaps the most important returnees are co-coordinators Tim Banks and John Jancek. Cincinnati has had three coordinators in the past three seasons while moving from a 4-3 to a 3-4 and back to a 4-3. Now, the defense has some continuity. The Bearcats have some potential stars in T Derek Wolfe and LB J.K. Schaffer. The most intriguing piece may be Walter Stewart, a former linebacker who has bulked up to play defensive end full-time. Cincinnati could have depth issues at linebacker and in the secondary, though. True freshman Dwight Jackson is a likely starter at linebacker; he was a key player on a state championship team at Miami Central. The secondary would get a boost if CB Dominique Battle, a starter in 2009, is healthy after missing all but three games last season with a knee injury.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Cincinnati will have a new kicker for the first time since 2007 now that four-year starter Jake Rogers is gone. Redshirt freshman Tony Miliano is the probable replacement, but he will face competition. The Bearcats return P Patrick O'Donnell, who was second in the Big East at 41.9 yards per attempt. Cincinnati will look to revive the return game, which was pedestrian (last in the Big East in punt returns, next-to-last in kickoff returns). The coverage units were solid last season.
THE BUZZ: Cincinnati had increased its win total every season since 2006 before plummeting to 4-8 in 2010. Perhaps the downfall was because of coaching change, but the simple answer is the Bearcats didn't do many of the little things that had led to at least a share of back-to-back Big East titles. In 2010, Cincinnati's defense played just well enough to win, mainly because it forced turnovers. The offense was prolific, and it rarely gave the ball away. In one season, Cincinnati went from plus-nine in turnover margin to minus-15. That's an easy way to fall from 12-1 to 4-8. Four of the first six games are at home this season, and the schedule as a whole isn't that daunting. Still, getting to a bowl isn't a given by any stretch.
COACH: Danny Hope (9-15 in two seasons at Purdue; 44-37 in seven seasons overall).
LAST SEASON: 4-8, 2-6 (T-9th in Big Ten)
OFFENSE: QB Robert Marve, WR Keith Smith and RB Ralph Bolden were lost at varying points to season-ending knee injuries. The result? This was a pop-gun offense that ranked last in the Big Ten in total offense (311.6 ypg), passing (150.8 ypg) and scoring (19.7 ppg). Turnovers also were killer, as only one league school committed more than Purdue's 27. Quarterback is key. Keep an eye on Marve, the former Miami signal-caller who played in just four games. Is he really the answer? Rob Henry is the returning starter and emerged from spring drills atop the depth chart. He led the team in rushing but needs to improve as a passer. It was a blow when Smith's petition for a sixth year of eligibility was denied. Who will be the top pass catcher? Former QB Justin Siller, a tremendous athlete, could emerge as a weapon. Antavian Edison and O.J. Ross are other targets to watch. Gabe Holmes is a promising young tight end. Can Bolden regain the mojo that saw him run for 935 yards in 2009? Purdue signed Akeem Shavers from the JC ranks as insurance. With four starters back, the line has a chance to be solid with T Dennis Kelly serving as an anchor.
DEFENSE: E Ryan Kerrigan was a first-round pick and leaves a massive void after earning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors. The front seven must improve against the run, and more forced turnovers are needed for a defense that generated only 21 takeaways. The line looks OK at tackle with Bruce Gaston and Kawann Short. The staff likes the potential at end with youngsters Rashad Frazier and Ryan Russell along with vets Gerald Gooden and Robert Maci. Linebacker play has been abysmal in recent seasons. Joe Holland is a try-hard guy who often is overmatched. Dwayne Beckford and Will Lucas need to become playmakers. With four starters back, the secondary may be the strongest area of the defense. CB Ricardo Allen is a future star who could play for any team, and SS Logan Link is back after pacing the team in tackles.
SPECIAL TEAMS: This always is a mixed bag. The return game is abysmal: Purdue was ninth in the league in kickoff returns and 10th in punt returns. It's hoped speedy true freshman Raheem Mostert can inject some much-needed juice. Carson Wiggs hit 15-of-19 field-goal attempts in 2010 and has a cannon for a leg, drilling a 67-yarder in the spring game. Wiggs has the four longest field goals in school history: 59, 55, 53 and 52 yards. Cody Webster had a good freshman season, ranking fourth in the Big Ten in punting (43.3 ypg).
THE BUZZ: Purdue doesn't figure to catch Ohio State, Wisconsin or Penn State in the Leaders Division. But can it finish ahead of Illinois and Indiana? The Boilermakers, who lost their last six games of 2010, have a great chance to open 3-0. It better happen because Purdue may struggle to find the three additional victories needed for bowl eligibility. The make-or-break stretch of the season will be October. Can Purdue go 2-3 in the month? If not, it may be home for the holidays for a fourth season in a row. And that may mean trouble for Hope.
COACH: Greg Schiano (59-63 in 10 seasons)
LAST SEASON: 4-8, 1-6 (8th in Big East)
OFFENSE: Schiano stepped out of his comfort zone on offense last season, attempting to run a spread rather than a more conventional pro-style attack. By the end of the season, no one was comfortable with the offense. Chas Dodd replaced Tom Savage at quarterback in October for a team that relied too heavily on the "Wildcat" package. This season, Schiano is going back to his roots by hiring former Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti. Savage transferred, leaving Dodd, a sophomore, as the clear starter. And the best news for the offense: No more Wildcat. That should free up Rutgers' skill-position playmakers to return to their natural positions. Mohamed Sanu, who was hobbled by injuries at the end of the season, will be a full-time wide receiver. The other Wildcat back, Jeremy Deering, could be the top running back; there's also touted true freshman Savon Huggins. WR Mark Harrison, who emerged to catch 44 passes for 829 yards and nine touchdowns last season, would benefit from consistency at quarterback. The major question is the line. Rutgers allowed 61 sacks, the most in the country and 10 more than the second-worst. Former starters Art Forst and Caleb Ruch have been relegated to the bench for now. The projected left tackle, Andre Civil, is a former defensive lineman.
DEFENSE: Rutgers hopes the offensive changes will improve the defense, which collapsed late in the season, particularly against the run. The math is simple: The more the offense is on the field, the less the defense is on the field. Schiano also expects to spend more time with the defense with Cignetti heading up the offense. At least in the spring, Schiano and the defensive staff were busy with personnel moves. Hard-hitting safety Khaseem Greene moved to linebacker, LB Manny Abreu moved to end and CB David Rowe moved to safety. Scott Vallone had a dominant spring after moving to nose tackle. In addition to Greene, Rutgers' linebackers have potential. Steve Beauharnais took a step back at middle linebacker last season, but he's back on the strongside, where he showed promise as a freshman. The secondary remains a work in progress, especially at cornerback.
SPECIAL TEAMS: San San Te returns after converting 14-of-20 field goals, but he struggles from long range. He missed all five attempts that were longer than 43 yards. He's 38-of-44 from inside 40 yards in his career. Punter will be interesting to watch. Freshman Anthony DiPaula enrolled early to work on replacing Teddy Dellaganna. DiPaula's potential backup is Sanu. Mason Robinson was OK as the punt returner last season, and Deering likely will be the new kick returner. Punt coverage was bad, kickoff coverage adequate last season.
THE BUZZ: After five consecutive winning seasons, Rutgers slipped back to the Scarlet Knights of old last season. With major changes on offense and defense, no one will accuse Rutgers of standing still. The question for the Scarlet Knights is if all the personnel tweaks - on the field and on the coaching staff - will pay off. The season opens with a gimme against FCS member North Carolina Central, but it's a tough one overall. The league opener at Syracuse on Oct. 1 is big for both teams. The stretch run looks relatively easy.
COACH: Chris Ault (219-97-1 in 26 seasons)
LAST SEASON: 13-1, 7-1 (T-1st in the WAC)
OFFENSE: Nevada must replace one of the most prolific backfields in college football history. The Wolf Pack finished in the top three nationally in rushing in each of the past two seasons and led the WAC all four years Colin Kaepernick was the starting quarterback. Kaepernick and TB Vai Taua finished their careers with a combined 18,798 yards of total offense and 113 touchdowns. With that duo gone, Nevada may tweak its offense to be more balanced. Senior Tyler Lantrip, a dropback passer who has attempted 23 career passes, is the leader to replace Kaepernick. Redshirt freshman Cody Fajardo and sophomore Mason Magleby are dual-threat options short on experience but long on potential for the "Pistol" offense. At running back, Mike Bell made the most of limited opportunities the past two seasons and has two 100-yard games. The new backfield will have the luxury of working behind an experienced line. T Jeff Nady, G Chris Barker and C Jeff Meads are returning starters, and each is an all-league candidate, especially Barker. Leading receiver Rishard Matthews (56 catches, 879 yards, five touchdowns) emerged late last season, especially with a two-touchdown performance against Boise State. But projected starting WR Brandon Wimberly was hospitalized last week after he was shot in the abdomen in Reno, and coach Chris Ault told reporters Wimberly will not play football again.
DEFENSE: The focal point of Nevada's 12-1 record was Kaepernick and the offense, but the difference between Nevada winning seven or eight game and winning a share of the WAC title was the defense. Ault brought in coordinator Andy Buh to rebuild the unit, particularly against the pass. Nevada allowed 243 passing yards per game, which was 98th in the country, but it was Nevada's best pass-defense performance in four seasons. Three starters return in the secondary, including potential all-conference candidates in CB Isaiah Frey (14 pass breakups) and SS Duke Williams (two interceptions, two forced fumbles, 4.5 tackles for loss). The Wolf Pack will have difficulty replacing E Dontay Moch, who had 8.5 sacks last season. Brett Roy, who had eight sacks, is a nice building block at tackle. The leader at linebacker is James-Michael Johnson, who led the team with 88 tackles last season.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Nevada ended one of the nation's longest streaks of futility last season, but needed the bowl game to do it. Matthews' 72-yard punt return for a touchdown in the first quarter against Boston College in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl was Nevada's first score in the return game in a decade (119 games). Ball is back as the kick returner. K Anthony Martinez was 11-of-15 but didn't make a field goal longer than 36 yards. Nevada needs a new punter for the first time since 2007 with Brad Langley gone.
THE BUZZ: Nevada will have difficulty duplicating the best season in school history. The only thing standing between the Wolf Pack and an undefeated season was a loss by six at Hawaii. Nevada begins the season with four road games (Oregon, San Jose State, Texas Tech, Boise State). If the Wolf Pack and its new backfield can get out of that stretch with their ego intact, it can make a run at another league title in a much-weaker WAC. Just don't expect the run to be as dominant or as pretty as it was a year ago.
COACH: Don Treadwell (first season).
LAST SEASON: 10-4, 7-1 (1st in MAC East; beat Northern Illinois in MAC championship game and beat Middle Tennessee in GoDaddy.com Bowl)
OFFENSE: The new staff will tweak the RedHawks' multiple offense, but it won't be a radical change. But a decision must be made a quarterback: Will it be Zac Dysert or Austin Boucher? Dysert was zipping along in 2010 until a spleen injury ended his season in early November. Boucher took over and won the final four games, including an upset of Northern Illinois in the MAC title game. There is a strong corps of receivers led by Nick Harwell, who grabbed 64 passes in 2010. The biggest issue on offense is finding a tailback with the departure of Thomas Merriweather, who rushed for 921 yards last season. Even with Merriweather, Miami's ground game ranked 12th in the MAC and 113th in the nation (98.3 ypg) and improvement is needed. Tracy Woods was the leading returning rusher, but he surprisingly decided to transfer, meaning junior Danny Green - who has 87 career rushing yards - heads into fall camp as the starter. Miami signed three tailbacks in February, including Spencer Treadwell, the son of new coach Don Treadwell. The line should be OK. Brad Bednar has moved from center to tackle in an attempt to get the five best linemen on the field. G Brandon Brooks, a 357-pounder, has all-league potential.
DEFENSE: The new staff will retain the 4-3 alignment of the previous staff but has added a variety of looks in the secondary. The linebacking corps is loaded with depth, talent and experience. Evan Harris and Jerrell Wedge form the best linebacker duo in the MAC; Wedge had 101 tackles, 15 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, an interception, two pass breakups and two forced fumbles last season, while Harris had 94 tackles, six interceptions, 9.5 tackles for loss and three pass breakups. If he stays healthy, Ryan Kennedy is another linebacker who could vie for all-league honors. T Austin Brown is the best lineman; there is good depth at tackle, but the end spots could be problematic. The secondary should be fine. SS Pat Hinkel is an all-league candidate, and CB Dayonne Nunley was a big-play guy last season as a redshirt freshman with six picks, 51 tackles and seven tackles for loss. Depth looks good at cornerback, too.
SPECIAL TEAMS: P Zac Murphy returns after averaging 39.1 yards per attempt, while sophomore Mason Krysinski looks primed to take over for K Trevor Cook. Harwell brings a big-play element to the return game, and backup WR DeMarco Paine is another option as a return man. The coverage teams were solid last season.
THE BUZZ: Former Michigan State offensive coordinator Don Treadwell has taken over for Mike Haywood, who left for the Pitt job but then lost it a month later following an off-field incident. Treadwell inherits a team that made one of the biggest turnarounds in college history, going from 1-11 in 2009 to 10-4 and the MAC title last season. Treadwell, a Miami alum who was interim coach of the Spartans last season while Mark Dantonio was recovering from a heart attack, is a low-key coach who thrives on discipline. Treadwell has enough talent on hand to keep the RedHawks at or near the top of the MAC East. But the schedule has hurdles, with games at Toledo and at Temple, as well as four challenging non-conference games: at Missouri, at Minnesota, Cincinnati and Army.