COACH: David Bailiff (13-12 in two seasons; 34-27 in five seasons overall).
LAST SEASON: 10-3 overall, 7-1 in Conference USA (tied for first in C-USA West).
FINAL 2008 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 35th.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Rice enjoyed its first 10-win season since 1949 largely on the strength of its prolific offense. But most of the key cogs in that attack will have to be replaced following the departures of QB Chase Clement, WR Jarrett Dillard and TE James Casey. The starting quarterback spot won't be decided until fall drills, with senior John Thomas Shepherd, Alabama transfer Nick Fanuzzi and redshirt freshman Ryan Lewis battling. Three starting wide receivers return, led by breakout candidate Toren Dixon. RB Tyler Smith won the starting job during the spring after recovering from a career-threatening knee injury.
STAR POWER: Rice's defense has struggled over the past two seasons, but that hasn't stopped senior FS Andrew Sendejo from racking up good numbers. He has led the team in tackles in each of the past two seasons and intercepted eight passes during that span. If Sendejo doesn't lead the Owls in stops during his final year, that's a good sign for the rest of the defense.
STRENGTHS: Rice didn't need to rely on its defense last season, but it might need to in 2009. The Owls return their top nine tacklers from a team that allowed 452 yards per game last year. Perhaps that's not too impressive, but the Owls improved their scoring defense from 42.9 points in 2007 to 33.3 points in 2008.
WEAKNESSES: Replacing Dillard, one of the most accomplished receivers in college football history, won't be easy. Dixon caught 50 passes last season, the third-highest total on the team, while fourth receiver Corbin Smiter averaged 16.3 yards per catch. They must adjust to being the top two options rather than secondary targets. The offense as a whole will be remade behind a new quarterback. Four sophomores are projected to start on the offensive line.
THE BUZZ: After enjoying one of the best seasons in school history in 2008, Rice appears headed for a fall. Losing its top passer, top two receivers and top rusher, not to mention offensive coordinator Tom Herman, will hurt - especially early with road trips to Texas Tech and Oklahoma State. If the defense can continue improving, though, Rice should be in the mix for one of Conference USA's bowl bids.
COACH: Bill Snyder (first season back after a three-year retirement; was 136-68-1 in 17 seasons in his first go-round at K-State).
LAST SEASON: 5-7 overall, 2-6 in Big 12 (tied for fourth in Big 12 North).
FINAL 2008 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 82nd.
KEEP AN EYE ON: The quarterback situation figures to draw attention all summer and likely well into the season. Josh Freeman's early departure for the NFL draft leaves a gaping hole. Replacing a first-round draft choice isn't easy, especially one who passed for nearly 3,000 yards and rushed for more than 400 yards. Unproven junior Carson Coffman is Freeman's probable successor, but he's only thrown 46 college passes. Another option is sixth-year senior Grant Gregory, who transferred in after graduating from USF. He threw 50 passes in two seasons as Matt Grothe's backup.
STAR POWER: With so many terrific receivers in the Big 12, something really spectacular is required to get recognition. Diminutive Brandon Banks complied. Last season he earned newcomer of the year honors in the conference after averaging 15.7 yards on 67 catches with nine touchdowns, seven of which came on catches that covered at least 30 yards. Banks (5-7/150) compensates for his lack of size with great speed. He also rushed for a 93-yard touchdown and is a weapon on kickoff returns, where he averaged 27.7 yards per return.
STRENGTHS: Whoever emerges at quarterback will have a good group of receivers. Banks is a big-play threat who can turn a short toss into a long gain, and Lamark Brown, maybe the team's most talented player, is moving back to receiver – his natural position – after spending last year at running back. He had 24 catches out of the backfield. TE Jeron Mastrud and WR Aubrey Quarles are productive as secondary targets. DEs Brandon Harold and Eric Childs will ensure the Wildcats are solid there, and the secondary has three returning starters, led by CB Joshua Moore - who had three interceptions in '08.
WEAKNESSES: Stopping the run projects as a big problem. Last season, the Wildcats allowed 217.7 rushing yards per game to rank 11th in the Big 12 and 112th in the nation in run defense. Kansas State needs help getting started on the run, too. Last season's top rushers both gained just more than 400 yards, and now Brown is at wide receiver and Freeman is in the NFL. Senior Keithen Valentine will step in at running back. Valentine, however, will be running behind a line that has three new starters.
THE BUZZ: Bill Snyder's back. Will the Wildcats be, too? Snyder transformed Kansas State from one of the nation's worst programs into a national championship contender in the '90s. Now, he's coming out of retirement to try to duplicate that feat, which won't be easy. The Wildcats managed just 17 victories during Snyder's three-year sabbatical, and they lost many of the top players from last season's team, including Freeman, WR Deon Murphy and DE Ian Campbell. But there is optimism because Snyder is in control again. There are two Football Championship Subdivision opponents in the first month, and K-State plays just one bowl team from last season in its first eight games.
COACH: David Cutcliffe (4-8 in one season; 48-37 in seven seasons overall).
LAST SEASON: 4-8 overall, 1-7 in ACC (sixth in ACC Coastal).
FINAL 2008 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 79th.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Re'quan Boyette led the Blue Devils in rushing in 2006 and '07, but he sat out the '08 season with a knee injury. If he stays healthy, Boyette could help awaken a dormant rushing attack. Duke hasn't averaged more than 3.2 yards per carry and hasn't featured a 500-yard rusher since 2003.
STAR POWER: Senior QB Thaddeus Lewis enters his fourth year as a starter having thrown for more than 2,000 yards in each of his first three seasons. He leads all ACC active players in career passing yards (6,735), touchdown passes (47), 300-yard passing games (four) and total offense (6,609). After getting picked off 16 times as a freshman, Lewis has had a 36-to-16 touchdown-to-interception ratio in the past two seasons. Lewis faces an additional challenge this season as he looks for a new favorite target following the departure of Eron Riley.
STRENGTHS: Lewis gives Duke one of the better quarterbacks in the ACC, though the losses of Riley and Raphael Chestnut in the receiving corps could hinder the passing game. DT Vince Oghobaase is one of the nation's most underrated defensive linemen; he has 29 career tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks, which ranks him below only North Carolina State DE Willie Young among active ACC players. Duke's biggest strength may be its coaching staff. Cutcliffe's arrival has helped give Duke a sense of legitimacy that was apparent in the Blue Devils' improved record. Cutcliffe's arrival also has paid off on the recruiting trail, which eventually should make Duke more competitive within the conference.
WEAKNESSES: Duke has struggled to run the ball for the past five years and likely won't be able to leave the Coastal Division basement until it can establish some semblance of a rushing attack. The Blue Devils could struggle to solve that problem this season with only two returning starters on the offensive line. Duke also must do a better job of stopping people after ranking last in the ACC in pass efficiency defense and 11th in run defense last season.
THE BUZZ: Duke clearly is on the right track. By going 4-8 in Cutcliffe's first season, the Blue Devils matched their win total from the previous four years combined. The question is whether Duke can take that next step by challenging for a bowl bid. That goal might be a bit too ambitious this season. The Blue Devils lack experience on the offensive line and in the receiving corps, and their defense could have a tough time replacing star LB Michael Tauiliili. Duke ought to win three of its first four games before beginning its conference schedule, but the Blue Devils could have a tough time winning more than one league game.
COACH: Paul Rhoads (first season).
LAST SEASON: 2-10 overall, 0-8 in Big 12 (sixth in Big 12 North).
FINAL 2007 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 109th.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Iowa State's passing game could be as intriguing as any unit north of Lubbock. New coordinator Tom Herman supervised the fifth-ranked passing offense in the nation at Rice last season and has some good material to work with in Ames. QB Austen Arnaud is coming off a solid year. Sophomore Darius Darks, who had 49 catches as a freshman, heads a list of six receivers who had at least 15 catches a year ago.
STAR POWER: Although a two-win debacle effectively concealed it, Arnaud actually had an impressive showing in his first season as a starter. He completed more than 61 percent of his passes, while throwing for 2,792 yards and 15 touchdowns. He passed for more than 300 yards in three games and closed the season with a school-record 440 yards against Kansas State. Arnaud also was second on the team in rushing with 401 yards.
STRENGTHS: Quarterback is in good hands with Arnaud. The receiving corps also is in good shape with several productive receivers returning. TE Collin Franklin is a big target (6-6/247); he averaged 17.2 yards on 15 catches in '08 and figures to get more chances this season. RB Alexander Robinson is coming off a solid sophomore season. Seven offensive linemen have starting experience. Iowa State's kicking game is strong, too. P Mike Brandtner is among the Big 12's best, K Grant Mahoney is reliable and KR Leonard Johnson ranked 18th in the nation last season.
WEAKNESSES: Rhoads was a successful defensive coordinator at Pittsburgh and Auburn, and he'll need all of his expertise to straighten out the defensive mess at Iowa State. The Cyclones gave up at least 28 points in 10 games last season. The play at safety was especially lacking, a big reason Iowa State ranked 116th in the nation in pass defense and allowed 31 touchdown passes. Complicating matters, the Cyclones had trouble mounting a consistent pass rush. But E Chris Lyle is moving into the starting lineup after posting five sacks as a backup last season, so improvement could come. The Cyclones were vulnerable to the run, too. Opponents averaged 176.2 rushing yards in '08.
THE BUZZ: The arrivals of Rhoads and Herman have raised hopes of better fortunes in Ames. Despite managing just two wins last season, a certain optimism remains based on near-misses. The Cyclones lost in overtime to UNLV, fell by four points to Colorado, blew a 20-point halftime lead in a two-point loss to Kansas and were tied with Iowa going into the fourth quarter. With some improvement, some luck and a schedule that doesn't include Texas, Oklahoma or Texas Tech, the Cyclones could make a run at bowl eligibility.
COACH: Bill Lynch (10-15 in two seasons; 91-82-3 in 16 seasons overall).
LAST SEASON: 3-9 overall, 1-7 in Big Ten (11th in league).
FINAL 2008 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 100th.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Ben Chappell has been anointed as the quarterback and better not flop now that Kellen Lewis has been booted from the team. Chappell showed promise last season, playing in 11 games with three starts. He won't beat foes with his feet, but he's a solid passer with pocket presence and savvy who threw for 1,001 yards and four TDs in 2008. The staff thought enough of Chappell to move Lewis to receiver before he was booted. Losing Lewis' playmaking skills hurts.
STAR POWER: The closest thing to a star is DE Jammie Kirlew. He had 10.5 sacks and nine tackles for loss last season, often taking advantage of double teams on fellow E Greg Middleton.
STRENGTHS: Defense rarely is a strength in Bloomington. But the unit has a chance to be better than average if everything clicks for what looks like a strong front seven. The line features Kirlew and Middleton, who is looking to finish his career with a bang after a disappointing 2008. The offensive line also looks solid. The leader is T Rodger Saffold, who should be one of the Big Ten's best. There are an array of pass-catching options; Terrance Turner is a savvy veteran, while Damarlo Belcher and Tandon Doss are exciting youngsters. Chris Hagerup is one of the conference's top punters.
WEAKNESSES: While there is hope on defense, know this: Indiana has allowed less than 400 yards per game in a season just once this decade – in 2001. Offensively, Indiana has to run the ball better. The Hoosiers made good progress last season despite a rash of injuries that wrecked offensive line chemistry. It is hoped redshirt freshman RB Darius Willis can tote a big load. The kicking situation is unstable with Austin Starr gone. Look for Nick Ford to battle numerous newcomers, including top recruit Mitch Ewald. And the Hoosiers will miss Marcus Thigpen's kick-return skills.
THE BUZZ: The Hoosiers followed an emotional 7-6 season in 2007 with a 3-9 flop in 2008. Injuries were a big factor last season, as 17 starters missed a combined 41 games. The secondary lost three-quarters of its starters to anterior cruciate ligament injuries, and the offensive line was a turnstile, featuring eight starting lineups. Indiana has to have better luck on the injury front this fall, but it may not translate into any more success.