COACH: Doug Martin (19-39 in five seasons).
LAST SEASON: 4-8 overall, 3-5 in MAC (tied for fourth in MAC East).
FINAL 2008 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 102nd.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Julian Edelman was one of the best running quarterbacks in the nation, but he's gone and the battle to replace him will continue in fall drills. Sophomore Giorgio Morgan is the likely winner, but senior Anthony Magazu also will get a shot. While neither runs as well as Edelman, the passing game could be improved despite the lack of a proven go-to receiver.
STAR POWER: Mighty-mite TB Eugene Jarvis – all 5 feet 5 of him – is a big key for the Golden Flashes. He rushed for 1,669 yards in 2007 but managed just 801 last season because of injuries. If healthy, he'll go a long way toward making up for the loss of Edelman by himself.
STRENGTHS: A 1,700-yard season is a legit goal for Jarvis, considering he'll run behind a solid line with four returning starters (though the one missing – T Augustus Parrish – was the best). LB Cobrani Mixon and FS Brian Lainhart have all-conference talent. The coverage teams were solid last season.
WEAKNESSES: The passing offense was a problem last season, and only one returning wide receiver caught more than 11 passes. Improving against the run is vital; Kent State was gouged for 178.7 rushing yards per game and allowed 31 rushing TDs last season. Mixon is the only returning starter at linebacker, and cornerback also could be an issue. K Nate Reed and P Matt Rinehart return; neither is anything special. The return units were pitiful last season.
THE BUZZ: While three of the first five games are against "Big Six" foes, two of the matchups are with Iowa State and Boston College, which both could struggle. And none of the conference road games are really that tough. Still, the new quarterback must get acclimated quickly, Jarvis needs to stay healthy and the defense has to make a huge improvement. Kent State hasn't had a winning record since 2001, and that streak should reach eight years this season.
COACH: Gary Andersen (first season).
LAST SEASON: 3-9 overall, 3-5 in WAC (seventh in league).
FINAL 2008 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 107th.
KEEP AN EYE ON: New coach Gary Andersen, who had been defensive coordinator at Utah, takes over this season. Former coach Brent Guy had done a nice job gradually increasing the talent level, and he left the program in better shape than when he took over. The Aggies won three conference games last season – the first time they had won that many league games in a season since 2003.
STAR POWER: Senior LB Paul Igboeli should thrive under Andersen. Igboeli (6-0/201) lacks size, but he runs well and he can be expected to be a playmaker in Andersen's scheme. Last season, he had 78 tackles, four pass breakups, two fumble recoveries, an interception and a blocked field goal.
STRENGTHS: The Aggies look as if they could have a good rushing attack. QB Diondre Borel is a dual threat who led the Aggies in rushing, and RB Robert Turbin looks adequate. Four line starters are back, headed by C Brennan McFadden. Defensively, though the Aggies will be undersized up front, they will have more speed than they did last season.
WEAKNESSES: A go-to receiver needs to emerge, and Borel needs to become a more effective passer. Expect Andersen to make some adjustments to a defense that struggled against the run and was awful against the pass. The return units were mediocre last season, while the kick-coverage team was downright awful.
THE BUZZ: Four of the first five games are on the road, so the defense will be tested early. The non-conference schedule is a tough one. Five wins should be the goal, but the tough schedule may preclude the Aggies from getting that many. This team could – and should – be better than last season, but the record may not reflect it.
COACH: Tim Beckman (first season).
LAST SEASON: 3-9 overall, 2-6 in MAC (tied for fifth in MAC West).
FINAL 2008 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 108th.
KEEP AN EYE ON: New coach Tim Beckman arrives from Oklahoma State, where he had been defensive coordinator. Toledo has been a solid program for most of the decade but fell upon hard times of late, mainly because of poor defense. Beckman's job will be to keep the offense humming along but add a lot of toughness to the defense. He won't be able to turn it around in one season.
STAR POWER: Senior Barry Church will play the "Star" spot – a hybrid strong safety/outside linebacker. He has good size, can run and packs a wallop. Beckman's scheme should put him in a position to make more plays this season.
STRENGTHS: The offense as a whole should be productive. QB Aaron Opelt enters his fourth season as the starter, and he has some good weapons, most notably WR Stephen Williams. Williams is one of the best at his position in the MAC – 144 catches and 15 touchdown receptions in the past two seasons. However, Beckman doesn't think Williams' skill set has been utilized properly; thus, expect Williams to get more opportunities this season. TBs DaJuane Collins and Morgan Williams are a good duo, and they'll run behind a line that returns all five starters, though there has been some reshuffling of positions. K Alex Steigerwald is solid. Five of the top six tacklers are back for the Rockets, led by Church and LB Archie Donald.
WEAKNESSES: Opelt must be more productive in the passing game if this offense is to reach its potential. While he is entering his fourth season as the starter, he has thrown just 30 career TD passes. As good as Williams is, there is no established No. 2 – or No. 3 – receiver, and until someone steps up, Williams is going to see a lot of double-teams. The defense was horrible against the run, so you can expect Beckman to make some adjustments. Toledo had just 10 sacks last season; junior E Douglas Westbrook has pass-rushing skills, but he has battled injuries thus far. Special teams could be an adventure: There's a new punter, the return teams were weak last season and the coverage units weren't much better.
THE BUZZ: The non-conference schedule is a bear, and it's hard to see Toledo winning more than one non-conference game – and going 0-4 in non-league play wouldn't be a surprise. Plus, each of the first three MAC games is against a team that went to a bowl last season. In short, this is not a schedule that will lead to a lot of wins. If the Rockets can get to five, it will have been a great first season for Beckman.
COACH: Brady Hoke (first season; 34-38 in six seasons overall).
LAST SEASON: 2-10 overall, 1-7 in Mountain West (tied for eighth in league).
FINAL 2008 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 111th.
KEEP AN EYE ON: New coach Brady Hoke led Ball State to a 12-2 record last season, but it will take a miracle for the Aztecs to even sniff .500 this season. This is one of the most underachieving programs in the nation, and whether Hoke can get more out of the Aztecs bears watching.
STAR POWER: Senior WR Vincent Brown has a chance to make a big leap in Hoke's new offense. Hoke's attack at Ball State took advantage of his playmakers, and Brown – who is one of the most talented receivers in the Mountain West – has 75-catch potential.
STRENGTHS: QB Ryan Lindley has some skills and should make the normal progression between his freshman and sophomore seasons. Hoke's offense will let him air it out. Brown will be his go-to receiver. LB Luke Laolagi is active and productive. The new defensive coordinator is Rocky Long, the former coach at New Mexico ; he knows the league and will install a much more aggressive defense.
WEAKNESSES: The new staff has to find a way to make the rushing attack more productive; it was pitiful last season (73.2 ypg, just 11 TDs). The left side of the offensive line is new and inexperienced. A consistent No. 2 receiver has to emerge. The run defense was shredded last season, and the Aztecs have changed to a 3-3-5 set. There are five new starters in the secondary, though senior CB Aaron Moore could regain his starting job in fall drills.
THE BUZZ: The Aztecs haven't had a winning record since 1998 and have made just two bowl appearances in the past 20 seasons, so Hoke and his staff have a lot of work to do. Hoke has veteran coordinators – Long on defense, Al Borges on offense – but there's a lack of talent. Hoke patiently rebuilt Ball State, and there's obviously talent in southern California; the key for Hoke and his staff is to get those players to attend San Diego State. There are three winnable games among the first five, and if everything breaks right, the Aztecs could start 3-2. But finishing with at least six wins and nabbing a bowl bid would take everything breaking exactly right, and that doesn't seem likely.
COACH: Rickey Bustle (32-50 in seven seasons).
LAST SEASON: 6-6 overall, 5-2 in Sun Belt (second in league).
FINAL 2008 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 93rd.
KEEP AN EYE ON: The Ragin' Cajuns might have the best offensive line in the Sun Belt. Who will run behind that line is the question. The offense was decimated by the graduations of QB Michael Desormeaux, RB Tyrell Fenroy and WR Jason Chery. Desormeaux and Fenroy were 1,000-yard rushers, and Bustle and his staff need to find adequate replacements or they could be on the firing line.
STAR POWER: Senior C Chris Fisher is a returning first-team all-conference player, and he's the headliner on a strong offensive line. ULL was seventh in the nation in rushing last season.
STRENGTHS: The offensive line is the strongest area on the team; all five projected starters are upperclassmen, including three seniors. The back seven on defense looks fine, headed by LB Antwyne Zanders. The return units have potential, and the coverage units were excellent last fall.
WEAKNESSES: Brad McGuire and Chris Mason will duel in the summer for the quarterback job, but neither is going to provide the running ability of Desormeaux. Mason and McGuire threw a combined 39 passes last season. Undrea Sails goes into fall camp as the leader at running back, but it could end up being by committee; no back on the roster has the talent to replace Fenroy. The holdover wide receivers haven't done much. Can the defensive line hold up against the run? A lot is expected from T Jermaine Rogers, whose production hasn't matched his physical skills.
THE BUZZ: The Ragin' Cajuns couldn't get to a bowl with Desormeaux and Fenroy, so it's hard to imagine them getting into one without that duo. The potential exists for a strong rushing attack because of the line, but the passing attack is a huge mystery. Defensively, the line must play better if the Ragin' Cajuns are to again contend for the league crown. Games two, three and four are against "Big Six" foes – Kansas State, LSU and Nebraska – though the K-State game is at home. For the most part, the toughest conference games are in the latter part of the season. ULL has to win its first two league games to have a chance at even sniffing an upper-division finish.