COACH: Jeff Tedford (72-42 in 10 seasons)
LAST SEASON: 5-7, 3-6 (8th in Pac-10)
OFFENSE: California managed 20 or fewer points in each of its last five games of 2010, which obviously is a major concern. The Golden Bears' top offensive threats are WRs Marvin Jones and Keenan Allen, who both have big-play ability. But they have been underutilized because of inconsistent quarterback play. The hope is that with transfer QB Zach Maynard, who threw for nearly 2,700 yards as a sophomore at Buffalo in 2009, the passing game will be more consistent. It had better be. During the past six seasons, when their quarterbacks have struggled, the Bears compensated with a star tailback. But Cal's top returning rusher is Isi Sofele, a speedy but undersized (5 feet 7) junior who rushed for just 338 yards last season. Maynard rushed for 300 yards in 2009 - more rushing yardage than Cal quarterbacks accounted for in the previous six seasons combined. His mobility will aid a line that has allowed 79 sacks over the past three seasons. T Mitchell Schwartz is an all-league talent, but he must become more consistent.
DEFENSE: Cal held eight opponents to fewer than 20 points last season and should be good again this season. Linebacker projects as an area of strength with D.J. Holt and Mychal Kendricks, who aims to build on a strong season in which he posted 8.5 sacks en route to earning all-conference honors. CB Marc Anthony and FS Sean Cattouse have plenty of starting experience in the secondary, while sophomore CB Steve Williams has the potential to develop into a special player. Up front, the Bears are excited about redshirt freshman E Gabe King. At the least, he'll provide depth behind Ernest Owusu and Trevor Guyton.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Senior P Bryan Anger is an All-America candidate. K Giorgio Tavecchio has good range, but is inconsistent and must compete to keep his job. Allen is a major threat on kick returns. But Cal must bolster its coverage teams, which were among the weakest in the nation last season.
THE BUZZ: Despite a quarterback who hasn't played in a year, no proven running back and no games on its home field, the overall feeling at Cal remains optimistic. The talent level has been boosted by consecutive recruiting classes ranked among the nation's top 20. Three starters return along the offensive line. The receivers have NFL potential. And Tedford, once considered one of the nation's premier developers of quarterbacks, has given more direct supervision to the position after enduring six seasons of mediocrity there. Perhaps an even greater concern is whether the Bears can work out their issues on the road. Last season, they were 1-4 and often blown out away from Memorial Stadium, which this year is closed for renovations. "Home" games are in San Francisco, at the Giants' AT&T Park. The Golden Bears play at Colorado on Sept. 10, but it is not a league game; the game was in place before the Buffs moved into the Pac-12.
COACH: Doug Marrone (12-13 in two seasons)
LAST SEASON: 8-5, 4-3 (3rd in Big East; beat Kansas State in Pinstripe Bowl)
OFFENSE: How bad was Syracuse's offense near the end of the Greg Robinson era? Achieving basic competence has become a major improvement. The Orange put up only 322.9 yards per game last season, but that was better than Rutgers and USF in the Big East. It also was good enough for Syracuse to win eight games for the first time since 2001. The unit will miss TB Delone Carter, who rushed for 2,254 yards and 20 touchdowns in the past two seasons. A productive backup the past three seasons, Antwon Bailey will be the feature back. He brings an added dimension as a pass catcher. More of the focus this season will be on QB Ryan Nassib, who was serviceable in his first season as a starter. He had the best performance of his career against Kansas State in the Pinstripe Bowl, passing for 239 yards and three touchdowns. He will have an experienced group to work with in WRs Van Chew, Marcus Sales and Alec Lemon and TE Nick Provo. Not long ago, Syracuse's offensive line was the laughingstock of the league. With four upperclassman starters returning, the line will be an asset this season. That should be no surprise, as Marrone is a former Syracuse offensive lineman. The only new starter is sophomore C Macky MacPherson, grandson of former Syracuse coach Dick MacPherson. Syracuse also will have a change in play-callers; Marrone relinquished those duties and the offensive coordinator title to quarterback coach Nathaniel Hackett, Paul's son.
DEFENSE: Syracuse's defense has improved in each of the past four seasons, and the culmination was that last season's unit was the best defense at Syracuse statistically since 1999. Coordinator Scott Shafer's group allowed only 301 yards per game; that dropped to 287 yards in conference games. The unit will need to rebuild without stud LBs Derrell Smith and Doug Hogue. Mikhail Marinovich (brother of Todd) and Chandler Jones (brother of Arthur) return at end. Syracuse has high expectations for this duo, but the Orange has concerns with size at tackle. Marquis Spruill had 51 tackles last season as a freshman at strongside linebacker. He's moving to the middle this season and will be flanked by inexperience. Dyshawn Davis is a true freshman who enrolled in time for spring practice, and Dan Vaughan is a junior who has played sparingly in his career. Ss Shamarko Thomas and Phillip Thomas were thrown in the fire as freshmen, but they've become a solid duo as juniors. Syracuse must replace both cornerbacks. The key here will be health. Ri'Shard Anderson was a projected starter last season before a season-ending shoulder injury. Senior corner Kevyn Scott has battled injuries throughout his career. Sophomore Keon Lyn also is in the mix. All three of those guys are from the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., area.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Syracuse loses a mainstay with the departure of senior P Rob Long; he was a four-year starter who is undergoing treatment for a malignant brain tumor. Long's likely replacement, junior Shane Raupers, walked-on in the spring but hasn't kicked since high school. Syracuse looks to be set with Ross Krautman at kicker; he was a Rivals.com Freshman All-American after making 18-of-19 field goals last season. Backup TB Prince-Tyson Gulley is back as the kick returner (he averaged 21.8 yards per attempt last season), but the Orange need a new punt returner. The coverage units were adequate last season.
THE BUZZ: Marrone has Syracuse on the right path after nearly a decade of futility. Unfortunately, the home crowd hasn't seen much of this progress: Syracuse lost all four of its Big East home games last season. This could be a key season to build momentum, but the schedule is more challenging because Syracuse traded one of its FCS opponents for a trip to USC. Still, the bar has been raised. If the offense improves and the defense can absorb the departures at linebacker and tackle, Syracuse actually could contend for its first Big East title in 10 years. Back-to-back road games against Louisville and Connecticut in late October/early November will tell a lot about the Orange's Big East fate.
COACH: Art Briles (15-22 in three seasons at Baylor; 49-50 in eight seasons overall)
LAST SEASON: 7-6, 4-4 (4th in Big 12 South; lost to Illinois in Texas Bowl)
OFFENSE: Baylor ranked 13th nationally in total offense last season, and if the Bears find an effective running back, they could be at least as good this season. Stellar QB Robert Griffin III is a big play waiting to happen. He threw for 3,501 yards and rushed for 635 a year ago, and he accounted for 30 TDs. He has thrown for 41 TDs with just 11 picks and rushed for another 23 scores in 28 career games. Kendall Wright, who had 78 catches a year ago, heads a list of three returning receivers who had more than 40 grabs in 2010. T Ivory Wade anchors a line that has four returning starters. The Bears may have to rely on a tailback-by-committee approach, though Jarred Salubi and Terrance Ganaway have both vowed they can adequately replace departed 1,000-yard rusher Jay Finley.
DEFENSE: Coordinator Phil Bennett, who oversaw stingy units at Kansas State, Texas A&M and Pittsburgh, was brought in to overhaul a defense that surrendered at least 38 points in seven games. Bennett, who will run a 4-2-5 set, takes over a defense that lost its top five tacklers from last season. LB Elliot Coffey is solid and Bennett said he thinks CB Tyler Stephenson has star potential. Former touted recruit Ahmad Dixon will be the nickel back, and coaches say he can be a playmaker. The Bears also added help in the secondary late in the spring with a couple of transfers. Tackle looks OK, but end and linebacker could be a problem. Baylor managed just 21 sacks last season, and Bennett needs to find a way to apply more pressure.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Sophomore K Aaron Jones has a strong leg but has been inconsistent. The Bears typically have a good punter, and true freshman Spencer Roth - from Knoxville, Tenn. - aims to maintain the status quo. Josh Gordon (kickoffs) and Wright (punts) are threats on returns, but the coverage teams need to improve. The Bears allowed three kickoff-return TDs last season.
THE BUZZ: Now that a 15-year postseason drought is over, Baylor hopes to take the next step and become a legitimate Big 12 contender. Any team directed by Griffin cannot be dismissed. Still, Baylor won't be a major threat unless the defense makes significant improvement under Bennett. Last season, Baylor lost three games in which it managed at least 28 points or more, and in its six losses, Baylor surrendered an average of 46.3 points. Still, a second consecutive bowl appearance (a feat not seen in Waco since 1991-92) is a possibility. Four of the first five games are at home, and other than the opener against TCU, the early-season schedule is relatively easy. But a three-game midseason stretch with Texas A&M, Oklahoma State and Missouri and the closing stretch with Oklahoma, Texas Tech and Texas are going to be tough.
COACH: Dave Doeren (first season at Northern Illinois)
LAST SEASON: 11-3, 8-1 (1st in MAC West; lost to Miami in MAC title game, beat Fresno State in Humanitarian Bowl)
OFFENSE: The Huskies have the makings of another strong offense. Yes, stud TB Chad Spann is gone after pacing the MAC with 1,388 yards rushing and 22 TDs, but NIU will build around QB Chandler Harnish, the most efficient passer in the MAC last season. He threw for 2,530 yards, tossing 21 touchdown passes and just five picks. And Harnish will have ample weapons on the outside. The trio of Martel Moore, Nathan Palmer and Willie Clark combined to grab 111 passes in 2010. When it's time to run, NIU will turn to Jasmin Hopkins. He's a small (5 feet 9) but powerful runner who can make people miss. A line that returns all five starters will escort Hopkins. T Trevor Olson is the stud, and C Scott Wedige and G Joe Pawlak also should contend for all-league honors. A big key to last season's success was that NIU committed a MAC-low 14 turnovers. Can it protect the ball again?
DEFENSE: Six starters are gone from a defense that ranked third in the MAC in 2010, so there are some questions. One thing is certain: FS Tommy Davis is the cornerstone. He's an aggressive player who hits hard. The key cog up front is NT Nabal Jefferson, a squatty (5-11/287) force in the middle who can stuff the run. E Sean Progar must bring the heat off the edge. Keep an eye on the linebacking corps; there is just one starter back and playmakers are needed.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The Huskies will miss K Michael Cklamovski, who nailed a MAC-best 17 field goals in 2010. Northern Illinois also will break in a new punter. Davis is a solid return man; he ranked fifth in the MAC in punt returns and third in kickoff returns, taking one back for a touchdown. The coverage units were OK last season.
THE BUZZ: Jerry Kill left to coach Minnesota after leading the Huskies to three bowls in three seasons, but NIU thinks it hired an able replacement in Doeren, who had been Wisconsin's defensive coordinator. He is an intense coach and bright mind who has a lot to work with. Save for a game against Wisconsin, the non-conference schedule is manageable. And other than a game at Toledo, the conference schedule isn't that tough, either. The game at Toledo should be for the MAC West crown. Bottom line: The Huskies again should be one of the league's best teams as they aim for their fifth bowl in six seasons.
COACH: Ron Zook (28-45 in six seasons at Illinois; 51-59 in nine seasons overall)
LAST SEASON: 7-6, 4-4 (T-4th in Big Ten; beat Baylor in Texas Bowl)
OFFENSE: Paul Petrino was brought in from Arkansas to coordinate the offense last season and had an immediate impact. Petrino's attack set school single-season records for points (423) and points per game (32.5). This season, a new running back must be found and Petrino needs to pump air into a passing attack that ranked 10th in the Big Ten and 111th in the nation (151.0 ypg). QB Nathan Scheelhaase is back after a solid season as a redshirt freshman in 2010. He hit 58.7 percent of his passes for 1,825 yards with 17 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He also ran for 868 yards (a school single-season record for a quarterback) and five scores. For all his good traits, though, Scheelhaase must become a better passer. Three starters are back from a line that helped the Fighting Illini pace the Big Ten in rushing (246.1 ypg). T Jeff Allen and C Graham Pocic are standouts who should be among the best in the Big Ten at their positions this season. T Corey Lewis, who sat out last season with a knee injury, is a projected starter, but he re-injured the knee in the offseason, so his health bears watching. In 2010, RB Mikel Leshoure ran for a school single-season record 1,697 yards, then left early for the NFL. He was a workhorse who carried more times (281) than any Big Ten player. Burly Jason Ford (6-0/230) will get first crack to replace Leshoure. Speedy Bud Golden, a big-play threat who needs consistency, and Troy Pollard will push Ford, who has battled knee issues in the past. Freshmen Donovan Young and Josh Ferguson also may be factors. The passing game needs more big plays. WR A.J. Jenkins is back after leading the team with 56 catches for 746 yards and seven touchdowns. He is a true game-changer. But Jarred Fayson and Eddie McGee are gone, and other wide receivers must emerge. TE Evan Wilson impressed as a true freshman and may be a future star.
DEFENSE: Zook's hiring of Vic Koenning from Kansas State last season paid immediate dividends. The defense excelled at big plays, ranking second in the Big Ten in turnovers gained (27), tackles for loss (6.2 pg) and sacks (1.8 pg). But work still must be done. The defense foundered down the stretch, as the Illini allowed an average of 33.7 points (not including overtimes) in the last four regular-season games after yielding 16.7 in the first eight. The secondary was a mess last season but should be better this season for new position coach Mike Gillhamer, who coached safeties for the Carolina Panthers. CB Tavon Wilson is the leader. CB Terry Hawthorne (foot injury) missed all but the Texas Bowl, and FS Supo Sanni is back after being sidelined in 2010 with an Achilles injury. The return of both is a big boost. The front seven suffered two big blows when T Corey Liuget, a first-round pick, and LB Martez Wilson, a third-round pick, turned pro early. No one on the roster comes close to matching the talent level of that duo. T Akeem Spence is a rising star who has lost weight and shifted from nose tackle to take Liuget's 3-technique spot. Former offensive lineman Craig Wilson is the new nose man. Senior Ian Thomas is on the spot at linebacker.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Derek Dimke may be the top kicker in the Big Ten and one of the nation's best. He nailed a league-best 24 field goals last season (on 29 attempts). But the return teams are awful. Illinois ranked 10th in the league in kickoff returns and 11th in punt returns. The coverage units need improvement. More bad news: A punter must be found because of the departure of Anthony Santella, who ranked second in the Big Ten. True freshman Justin DuVernois is expected to take over.
THE BUZZ: Illinois has momentum, and it's vital for Zook to keep the ball rolling. There are some good building blocks on offense, led by a strong line and Scheelhaase. But the unit must pass better and find a running back. The defense has bigger issues, needing to replace four of the front seven. No Big Ten school was hurt more by early departures to the NFL than Illinois. But Zook's staff should be up to the task and Illinois has enough to play in back-to-back bowls for the first time since a five-year run from 1988-92. Other than a game against Arizona State, the non-conference schedule is soft. The first five games are at home, and there are eight home games overall. In addition, except for a game at Penn State, the three league road games are against teams likely to finish with losing records, and tough league games against Northwestern, Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin are at home.