Rivals.com today begins its 2009 countdown, ranking the teams from first through No. 120.
We're starting at the bottom and the first two weeks of rankings will be in groups of five; then we'll do a daily countdown from 50th to first, with our No. 1 team to be unveiled Aug. 13 - which will be three weeks from the start of the season.
After that, you won't see any team rankings from Rivals until early October. The reason: We will wait until enough games have been played so we can legitimately rank the teams.
COACH: Todd Dodge (3-21 in two seasons).
LAST SEASON: 1-11 overall, 0-7 in Sun Belt (eighth in league).
FINAL 2008 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 119th.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Two-year starting QB Giovanni Vizza transferred, so a team that has struggled mightily in the past two seasons is breaking in a new starter at quarterback. The quarterback will be touted redshirt freshman Riley Dodge, the coach's son and a guy who originally committed to Texas.
STAR POWER: LB Tobe Nwigwe is one of the best in the league at his position. He had 111 tackles and three interceptions last season, when he was a bright spot on a horrible unit.
STRENGTHS: This team is all about the pass, and Dodge has a nice pedigree and understands the offense. RB Cam Montgomery does a nice job, and if the line were a bit better, he could run for 1,000 yards this season. Nwigwe stands out on defense, and he could be an all-league pick.
WEAKNESSES: The Mean Green lost 113-catch WR Casey Fitzgerald, so two or three receivers have to emerge for the offense to have a shot to keep this team in games. The defense has been a sieve, and until there is noticeable improvement, North Texas is going to struggle. Some players changed positions to get more speed on the field, including E Brandon Akpunku from linebacker. Three sophomores are projected to start in the secondary. The Mean Green's coverage teams were among the worst in the nation last season, allowing a combined five touchdowns; the return teams were weak, too.
THE BUZZ: The Mean Green have struggled mightily on defense under Todd Dodge. The offense has had its moments, and Riley Dodge should provide a steady hand at quarterback, Montgomery gives UNT a running back it can count on this season. But the receiving corps needs to be rebuilt, and the defense has to get a lot tougher overall. There is only one game against a "Big Six" opponent (Alabama), and two winnable non-conference games are at home (Ohio and Army). A four- or five-win season should be the goal, but it will be hard to get that many victories unless the defense plays a lot better under second-year coordinator Gary DeLoach.
COACH: Robb Akey (3-21 in two seasons).
LAST SEASON: 2-10 overall, 1-7 in WAC (tied for eighth in league).
FINAL 2008 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 117th.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Junior QB Nathan Enderle, heading into his third season as the starter, has a career completion percentage of less than 50 percent and obviously must improve if this team is to move up at all in the WAC standings.
STAR POWER: Junior SS Shiloh Keo was one of the best defenders in the WAC in 2007, but he was hurt in the first quarter of Game 4 last season and missed the rest of the season. He is solid in run support and also has good ball skills, as evidenced by his 184 career tackles and five interceptions. In addition, he is a solid punt returner and should be one of the league's best in that department this season.
STRENGTHS: The Vandals have some good running backs, led by Deonte Jackson. The secondary should be OK. Keo is good, and the corners have some potential. They have good return men in Keo and backup RB Kama Bailey.
WEAKNESSES: Remember how we said there are some good running backs? Well, the line has to replace three starters and running room will be hard to come by; G Mike Iupati has all-league potential, though. Idaho must find a go-to receiver, and Preston Davis looks as if he'll be the guy. The Vandals were woeful on defense last season, so the return of nine starters might be a mixed blessing. The front four could be a mess. The Vandals also are looking for a new kicker and a new punter.
THE BUZZ: Three of the first four games are on the road, which isn't good for a team that is looking to find its way. A lot depends on Enderle's development; he has some good physical skills, but must be more accurate and make better decisions. It doesn't help Enderle that the Vandals need to find a new go-to receiver. The Vandals gave up 35 rushing touchdowns last season, and unless that figure drops by 10 or so, they are going to finish at or near the bottom of the WAC again.
COACH: David Elson (39-32 in six seasons).
LAST SEASON: 2-10 overall as an independent.
FINAL 2008 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 120th.
KEEP AN EYE ON: This is the Hilltoppers' first season as a full-fledged FBS member. Both of their wins last season came against FCS members, and they went 0-5 against Sun Belt teams.
STAR POWER: Senior LB Blake Boyd should contend for all-league honors. He had 67 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, an interception and seven pass breakups last season in Western's 3-4 scheme.
STRENGTHS: RBs Marell Booker and Tyrell Hayden are solid, and the offensive line should at least be adequate, thanks to the return of all five starters. Linebacker is the strength of the defense. Boyd and ILB Darvis McBride are the guys to watch. P Jeremy Moore returns; he averaged just 36.9 yards per punt last season, but he did have 16 downed inside the 20 and another 16 were fair caught. Backup RB Bobby Rainey is a good kick returner.
WEAKNESSES: If the Hilltoppers are to have any success offensively, they must throw the ball better. There are some good receivers, led by Jake Gaebler, so new QB Brandon Smith must produce. Smith, a senior, attempted only 25 passes last season. Western needs some youngsters to play well on the defensive line. The starting corners are new, and that could hurt. The punt-return unit and the coverage units need work.
THE BUZZ: Four of the first six games are at home, so the Hilltoppers need to make some hay early in the season. The non-conference schedule is tough, with the only truly winnable game against an FCS opponent (Central Arkansas). One advantage is that the toughest league games are at home; the flipside is that the winnable league games are on the road. There's a lot of pressure on Smith to produce; is he up to the task?
COACH: Ron English (first season).
LAST SEASON: 3-9 overall, 2-6 in Mid-American (tied for fifth in MAC West).
FINAL 2008 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 110th.
KEEP AN EYE ON: New coach Ron English, who was defensive coordinator at Louisville and also served in that capacity at Michigan, doesn't have much speed on the roster. How much he and his staff can do with the defense this season will determine whether the Eagles can pull a few upsets or languish at the bottom of the league again.
STAR POWER: English has a good building block in QB Andy Schmitt. A 6-foot-4, 238-pounder, Schmitt threw for 2,644 yards and 15 TDs last season; he also has some mobility and is a tough short-yardage runner.
STRENGTHS: The offense could be solid. Schmitt is someone the offense can be built around, and there is good depth at running back - headed by Dwayne Priest. WR Jacory Stone had 88 receptions in 2008 and again should be one of the more productive wide receivers in the league. The line should be OK; all five projected starters are upperclassmen. K Joe Carithers and P Zach Johnson are back this season. Johnson had injury problems last season, but if he can return to previous form, he could lead the MAC in punting.
WEAKNESSES: The defense as a whole has a ton of questions. Junior college transfers Delano Johnson (at end) and Ryan Leonard (tackle) should provide some much-needed size up front. Andre Hatchett heads an undersized group of linebackers, and EMU will miss star LB Daniel Holtzclaw. The secondary was pitiful last season - EMU allowed 27 touchdown passes and came up with just eight picks - and must become more aggressive. The return units need a big upgrade.
THE BUZZ: The Eagles haven't had a winning season since 1995, so there's a lot of work for English and his staff. The offense had its moments in 2008 and should score in the 20s against most MAC foes. It's the defense that needs the big upgrade. The schedule is tough, with three of the four non-conference games on the road against "Big Six" opponents' plus, there are just five home games total. If EMU can get to five wins, it will be a hugely successful first season for English.
COACH: Bob Toledo (6-18 in two seasons; 84-86 in 15 seasons overall).
LAST SEASON: 2-10 overall, 1-7 in Conference USA (fifth in C-USA West).
FINAL 2008 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 115th.
KEEP AN EYE ON: The defensive line has some potential. DT Reggie Scott - who received a sixth season of eligibility from the NCAA - was moved from end, and he could cause some problems with his quickness in the interior. Es Logan Kelley and Adam Kwentua should be OK. A little bit of defense goes a long way in C-USA.
STAR POWER: Senior WR Jeremy Williams will be a three-year starter and should be one of the most productive players at his position in the league. He was having a big season - 27 catches for 437 yards and five touchdowns - before missing the final seven games last season with hand and knee injuries.
STRENGTHS: The skill-position players on offense lend hope. QB Joe Kemp - who beat out incumbent Kevin Moore in spring drills - has a strong arm and should be a good fit in this offense. Williams will be one of the best at his position in Conference USA, and RB Andre Anderson is capable. P Ross Thevenot has a big leg.
WEAKNESSES: The offensive line is a huge concern. The two best linemen from last season are gone, and the best returnee is Andrew Nierman, who has moved to center from guard. Linebacker play must improve. No returning player in the secondary had an interception last season. While Thevenot is good, punt coverage was atrocious last season. The return games need an upgrade, too; LB Travis Burks was the main kick returner last season.
THE BUZZ: The Green Wave regressed last season, not surprising considering that Matt Forte was such a huge part of the offense in 2007. A lot depends on how well Kemp plays this season; 20 TD passes from him is a legitimate expectation. The Green Wave open with three consecutive home games and have five of their first six at home. The problem is the opponents: Tulsa, BYU and Houston are among the teams traveling to the Superdome, and it's not likely that the Green Wave can beat those teams. Plus, five of the final six games are on the road. A third-place finish in C-USA West looks like the best Tulane can hope for, and that would require a big year from Kemp and excellent play from the revamped linebacker corps. More likely is a fifth- or sixth-place finish in the division.