COACH: Dave Christensen (first season).
LAST SEASON: 4-8 overall, 1-7 in Mountain West (tied for eighth in league).
FINAL 2008 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 98th.
KEEP AN EYE ON: New coach Dave Christensen had been offensive coordinator at Missouri. Wyoming isn't going to duplicate Missouri's success on offense right off the bat. With the Tigers, Christensen had a quarterback tailor-made for his system in Chase Daniel; at Wyoming, he has a motley crew of inexperienced or uninspiring signal-callers. Karsten Sween and Dax Crum shared the starting role last season, but they combined for 12 interceptions, two touchdowns and a completion percentage of 50.9. Sween was named the starter coming out of spring practice, but it remains to be seen if he can run the new offense. Junior college transfer Robert Benjamin and freshman Austyn Carta-Samuels could beat him out for the job.
STAR POWER: DT John Fletcher and DE Mitch Unrein will be one of the better defensive line duos in the Mountain West and should contend for postseason honors. They combined for only six sacks last season but combined for 15.5 in '07.
STRENGTHS: Wyoming returns three starters in a secondary that ranked second in the league in pass defense and third in pass efficiency defense. FS Chris Prosinski intercepted three passes last season, and the Gipson brothers – Marcell and Tashaun – could be one of the conference's best cornerback tandems. Tashaun started every game as a true freshman, and Marcell broke up 10 passes. Greg Bolling could be a playmaker at wide receiver, but he didn't have many opportunities to shine.
WEAKNESSES: Quarterback play was embarrassing last season. Three quarterbacks combined for 17 interceptions and fewer than 1,500 yards. The rest of the backfield needs help, too. Devin Moore and Wynel Seldon were productive backs over the past three seasons. In their place is little-used junior Darius Terry, who has 42 career rushing yards.
THE BUZZ: School officials hope Christensen's arrival jump-starts a program that faded to the bottom of the Mountain West standings while other conference programs reached new heights. This is a tough rebuilding job. Wyoming has the defense to contend for a bowl game, but the offense needs to be productive enough to keep the Cowboys competitive - which was rarely the case last season.
COACH: Greg McMackin (7-7 in one season).
LAST SEASON: 7-7 overall, 5-3 in WAC (tied for second in league).
FINAL 2008 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 76th.
KEEP AN EYE ON: LB Blaze Soares has missed most of the past two seasons with injuries. His return will be key to a defense that lost nine starters. A projected starter at strongside linebacker, Soares can be a difference-maker. But he hasn't played since suffering a torn Achilles' tendon in the second week of training camp before the '08 season.
STAR POWER: C John Estes has some PR disadvantages – the Warriors' high sack numbers and pass-happy reputation – but he will be one of the best in the country at his position. The Warriors had their most balanced offense in a decade last season, and part of the reason was Estes' role in the running game. He's the only remaining starter from the Warriors' Sugar Bowl team in 2007.
STRENGTHS: Hawaii knew the offense would be a work in progress at the start of last season after the exodus of Colt Brennan and his top receivers. Once Greg Alexander settled into the quarterback position, Hawaii's offense became more reliable. In his last six starts, Alexander – who had transferred in from a junior college – completed 62 percent of his passes and threw 12 touchdown passes. Greg Salas became his go-to receiver with at least seven catches in three of the last five games.
WEAKNESSES: What Hawaii had to do on offense last season, it will do on defense in 2009. The defense loses nine starters, many of whom played on the 12-1 team in '07. E John Fonoti (9.5 tackles for loss) is the only player who started all of last season. Brashton Satele, the only other defender who started for half the season, is moving from middle linebacker to the end slot opposite of Fonoti. Remember Hawaii's horrendous performance on the offensive line against Georgia in the Sugar Bowl? That continued into 2009 as the Warriors allowed more than four sacks per game, the highest average in the nation. Estes and LT Aaron Kia are the only full-time starters back.
THE BUZZ: Promoting Greg McMackin was hardly the splashy thing to do when June Jones left for SMU, but he turned out to be a good fit. The Warriors had an identity crisis early in the season, but they rebounded to go 6-2 in October and November. Hawaii has one of the best home-field advantages in college football, but any hope for another bowl appearance likely will depend upon whether the Warriors can win three or four games on the mainland.
COACH: Mike Sanford (11-36 in four seasons).
LAST SEASON: 5-7 overall, 2-6 in Mountain West (tied for sixth in league).
FINAL 2008 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 84th
KEEP AN EYE ON: Malo Taumua is a smaller defensive tackle (6 feet 1/270 pounds), especially compared to 340-pound linemate Martin Tevaseu. But Taumua makes up for his size with his motor. He has started in both of his seasons on campus and is poised for a career year after totaling 12 tackles for loss the past two seasons. UNLV could play Taumua at end at times to take advantage of his playmaking ability.
STAR POWER: Senior Ryan Wolfe will set the Mountain West's career receiving record if he hits 900 yards this season, a mark he already has topped twice in his career. He's also within striking distance of the receptions record. Even with the departure of Casey Flair, UNLV has plenty of depth at receiver to make sure opponents don't focus all of their attention on Wolfe.
STRENGTHS: The Rebels' passing game should keep UNLV in most contests. QB Omar Clayton was off to a fine start before a knee injury derailed his season in October. Through nine games, he passed for 1,894 yards and 18 touchdowns. He'll have a deep receiving corps to work with, starting with the reliable Wolfe. Phillip Payne made a splash as a freshman before concussions forced him to miss three of the last four games. Rodelin Anthony should also make a seamless transition into the starting lineup after catching 17 passes last season.
WEAKNESSES: UNLV was the worst team in the Mountain West in several defensive categories, including scoring, yards per game, rushing and passing. The front seven has several standouts, including Taumua and LB Jason Beauchamp. But the Rebels are desperate for an upgrade in the secondary, where four junior college transfers and two converted quarterbacks will vie for playing time.
THE BUZZ: No one is going to throw a parade for a five-win team. But, hey, last season, coach Mike Sanford nearly doubled his win total in Las Vegas. After the Rebels had been stuck at the two-win mark for three seasons, five victories is progress. The first three games are at home, as are five of the first seven. On the flipside, five of the seven home games are against teams that went bowling last season. If UNLV can get a full season out of Clayton while improving the defense, the Rebels could end a nine-year bowl drought.
COACH: Steve Sarkisian (first season).
LAST SEASON: 0-12 overall, 0-9 in Pac-10 (10th in league).
FINAL 2008 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 116th.
KEEP AN EYE ON: One of the reasons for optimism at Washington is the return of redshirt freshman RB Chris Polk. He enrolled early in 2008 and won the starting tailback job. But in the second game of the year he suffered a dislocated shoulder that ended his season. A run/catch threat, Polk came back strong this spring. New coach Steve Sarkisian said Polk has a chance to be special.
STAR POWER: Another reason for optimism is the return of QB Jake Locker. He's entering his fourth year on campus after redshirting his first season, starting the next and missing most of last season with a broken thumb. In 16 games, Locker has completed only 48.8 percent of his passes and thrown as many touchdowns as interceptions. He also rushed for 986 records in 2007, a Pac-10 record for a quarterback. Now healthy, Locker is the key to Sarkisian's early years at Washington. The coach, a former quarterback himself, would like to develop Locker as a passer and protect him from injury.
STRENGTHS: No one will say Washington's defense is a strength, but the Huskies have a couple of veteran building blocks. E Daniel Te'o-Nesheim has been one of the few reliable contributors the past two seasons, with 16.5 sacks over that span. Washington will welcome back LB E.J. Savannah, who had 111 tackles in 2007 before being suspended last season for academic issues.
WEAKNESSES: Locker has to get better as a passer, and someone needs to emerge as a go-to receiver. Still, Washington has potential on offense and a couple of solid contributors in the front seven on defense. Things in the secondary aren't quite so bright. SS Nate Williams and CB Quinton Richardson probably are in good shape to retain their starting jobs, but there are few other reasons for excitement in the secondary.
THE BUZZ: Few programs as prominent as Washington have sunk to such depths as the Huskies in the past five years, bottoming out last season with the first winless record in school history. The Huskies could tie the Pac-10's longest losing streak at 15 with a loss to LSU in the opener, but it could turn around after that. After four seasons under the bland Tyrone Willingham, Sarkisian has brought energy and life to the program. Wins and bowl games might take a little longer. Sarkisian has some building blocks from Willingham's 2008 signing class, but the junior and senior classes are thin. Getting to five wins would be an achievement.
COACH: J.D. Brookhart (27-33 in five seasons).
LAST SEASON: 5-7 overall, 3-5 in MAC (tied for fourth in MAC East).
FINAL 2008 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 96th.
KEEP AN EYE ON: J.D. Brookhart hired former Miami University coach Shane Montgomery as offensive coordinator and former Pitt and Stanford head coach Walt Harris as assistant head coach/passing game coordinator/quarterbacks coach. Pair that brain power with veteran talent, and Akron has the makings for a dynamic attack. Will the defense deliver? That will be the key to success.
STAR POWER: The Zips have the potential for a strong attack with the return of two-year starting QB Chris Jacquemain, who is one of nine returning starters on offense. He tossed 20 touchdown passes but must cut down on the 14 picks he threw last season.
STRENTHS: The top four pass-catchers from 2008 are back, and Deryn Bowser and Andre Jones are the ones to watch. Akron has lost Dennis Kennedy, but Brookhart still likes his options at running back; the position could be especially strong if Louisville transfer Dale Martin has recovered from a spring injury. This array of skill-position talent should find plenty of room to work behind a line that returns four starters, headed by Gs Mike Ward and Zack Anderson and T Corey Woods. Special teams look solid with K Igor Iveljic and P John Stec.
WEAKNESSES: Last season, Akron ranked 90th in total defense and 95th in scoring defense. This unit must improve. The back eight bears watching in a 3-3-5 scheme. Akron lost a lot of experience at linebacker with the departures of Kevin Grant and Doug Williams. Coaches will look for speedy Mike Thomas to carry a big load. Miguel Graham looks like a strong cornerback, but who will start opposite him? And depth at the position is dicey. At least a defensive line led by NT Ryan Bain – who began his career at Iowa – and T Almondo Sewell looks strong.
THE BUZZ: Excitement surrounds a program that christens a new stadium this fall. Say "good-bye" to the Rubber Bowl and "hello" to 30,000-seat InfoCision Stadium. And the Zips have a good chance to break in their new digs with a strong season, perhaps even advancing to a bowl for the first time since 2005. Three of the four non-conference games are against "Big Six" opponents, but that includes Indiana and Syracuse. Taking care of business at home in MAC play will be crucial.