COACH: Al Groh (56-44 in eight seasons; 82-84 in 14 seasons overall).
LAST SEASON: 5-7 overall, 3-5 in ACC (fifth in ACC Coastal).
FINAL 2008 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 61st.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Vic Hall spent most of his junior year as an effective starting cornerback for Virginia, but he moved to quarterback for the season finale against Virginia Tech and performed well enough to stay there through spring practice. Hall will open the season as Virginia's No. 1 quarterback if he can beat out 2007 starter Jameel Sewell, who was out of school last year for academic reasons. Hall remains an unproven passer, but his performance against Virginia Tech revealed he had the running ability to cause headaches for opposing defenses.
STAR POWER: Junior Ras-I Dowling has established himself as one of the top cover corners in the ACC. If the third-year starter continues his rapid rate of improvement, Dowling has an outside chance of competing for All-America honors this season. OT Will Barker is another All-ACC contender who should continue Virginia's recent tradition of sending offensive linemen to the NFL.
STRENGTHS: Barker leads an offensive line that returns four starters. Virginia also has plenty of experience on the defensive line, even though the Cavaliers don't have a whole lot of star power up front. The presence of Dowling and the return of CB Chris Cook after a one-year absence should fortify the Cavaliers' secondary. Virginia should be able to run the ball effectively with either Hall or Sewell joining TB Mikell Simpson in the backfield.
WEAKNESSES: The passing attack is a huge concern. Hall and Sewell are outstanding runners, but can either throw the ball with consistent accuracy? Virginia also must replace its top four receivers from last season. The departures of Clint Sintim, Antonio Appleby and Jon Copper leave a major hole at linebacker. The kicking game must get a whole lot better; every field-goal attempt was an adventure for the Cavaliers last season.
THE BUZZ: Virginia is counting on the arrival of new offensive coordinator Gregg Brandon to help spark a team that averaged just 16.1 points per game last season. Virginia has ranked outside the top 100 in total offense each of the past three seasons. The offense should be more exciting under Brandon, a spread proponent who spent the past six seasons as Bowling Green's coach. Virginia probably will need to score more points this season because the defense isn't likely to be as effective after losing so much talent at linebacker. After a "gimme" opener against William & Mary, the Cavs play three tough games in a row: TCU, at Southern Miss and at North Carolina. It looks as if a 2-2 start is the best Virginia can hope for, and 1-3 wouldn't be a surprise. If the Cavs start 1-3, it will be a long season.
COACH: Pat Hill (92-61 in 12 seasons).
LAST SEASON: 7-6 overall, 4-4 in WAC (tied for fifth in league). Lost to Colorado State in New Mexico Bowl.
FINAL 2008 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 78th.
KEEP AN EYE ON: The defense struggled for most of last season, especially against the run and in rushing the passer. The Bulldogs ranked 108th in the nation in rush defense and had just 17 sacks. This group should have better results. LB Ben Jacobs, DE Chris Carter and SS Moses Harris have all-league talent. At the same time, the group will be playing with heavy hearts after coordinator Dan Brown died in March after a two-year battle with brain cancer.
STAR POWER: Junior RB Ryan Mathews looks like a rising star, but he can't seem to stay healthy. He has missed seven games with injuries in the past two seasons. He rushed for 163 yards and three touchdowns at Rutgers and 166 yards at UCLA last season. The Bulldogs need Mathews healthy.
STRENGTHS: Fresno State has great depth at tailback. Anthony Harding and Lonyae Miller each topped 800 yards last season, and Mathews, Harding and Miller combined for 2,309 yards and 19 touchdowns. The Bulldogs also have depth at wide receiver. Seyi Ajirotutu led the team with 795 yards and 16.9 yards per catch last season, and Marlon Moore and Chastin West are dependable complementary receivers. The interior of the offensive line is good. Special teams are solid all around – from kicker to punter to return men. The best specialist is kick returner A.J. Jefferson, who averaged 29.3 yards per return.
WEAKNESSES: Fresno State needs to find a replacement for three-year starting QB Tom Brandstater. Junior Ryan Colburn was the starter out of spring practice, but he didn't throw a pass last season. True freshman Derek Carr, the brother of former Bulldogs standout David Carr, enrolled early and went through spring practice to compete for the job. There are two new starting offensive tackles, and the Bulldogs will miss TE Bear Pascoe. The run defense needs to improve; take out performances against San Jose State and New Mexico State, and the Bulldogs allowed nearly 250 rushing yards per game. With five returning starters in the front seven, coach Pat Hill will be working with the same key personnel.
THE BUZZ: Has Hill done all he can at Fresno State? The Bulldogs are one of the more respected non-"Big Six" programs, yet they haven't won a share of the WAC title since 1999. Fresno State also is 1-7 against Boise State since the Broncos joined the league. The story could be the same in Hill's 13th season in the Valley: Fresno State will be in bowl contention but will have to overachieve to win the WAC. Three of the first four games are against Wisconsin, Boise State and Cincinnati, so a slow start is a possibility.
COACH: Frank Spaziani (first season).
LAST SEASON: 9-5 overall, 5-3 in ACC (first in ACC Atlantic). Lost to Virginia Tech in the ACC championship game. Lost to Vanderbilt in the Music City Bowl.
FINAL 2008 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 29th.
KEEP AN EYE ON: The suspension and resulting transfer of sophomore QB Dominique Davis – who started late last season – means that junior college transfer Codi Boek, redshirt freshman Justin Tuggle or redshirt freshman Alexander Atiyeh will open the season as Boston College's starting quarterback. The Eagles' chances of contending for a third consecutive Atlantic Division title depend in large part on whether one of those candidates can do an adequate job. The Eagles also need LB Mike McLaughlin to recover quickly from an Achilles injury, particularly now that 2008 ACC defensive player of the year Mark Herzlich has been diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma, a form of cancer found in bone or soft tissue; Herzlich's career appears to be over. McLaughlin's injury caused him to miss all of spring practice and has left his status uncertain for the start of the season.
STAR POWER: T Anthony Castonzo and C Matt Tennant are two of the best offensive linemen in the ACC. Their presence could open up plenty of running room for Montel Harris and Josh Haden, sophomore running backs with loads of potential.
STRENGTHS: BC annually boasts one of the best offensive lines in the ACC, and this season ought to be no exception. The Eagles return four starting linemen who should control the line of scrimmage all season. BC has enough firepower to run the ball effectively, though the lack of a proven quarterback could cause opposing defenses to stack the line to stop the run. BC also returns three starters from a secondary that helped the Eagles tie for the NCAA lead with 26 interceptions last season.
WEAKNESSES: The uncertainty at quarterback overshadows everything else on offense and could haunt BC all season. Will anyone respect BC's passing attack? The health problems of Herzlich and McLaughlin at linebacker turned a potential strength into a major weakness. Boston College also will have trouble replacing first-round draft pick B.J. Raji and second-round selection Ron Brace at defensive tackle.
THE BUZZ: Few college programs in recent memory have endured offseasons as discouraging as what BC has gone through this year. First came the firing of coach Jeff Jagodzinski after he interviewed for an NFL head-coaching job; Jagodzinski led the Eagles to division titles in each of his two seasons on the job. New coach Frank Spaziani was one of the nation's most underrated defensive coordinators, but he's an unknown quantity as a head coach. Then came the heartbreaking news involving Herzlich, who would have opened the season as an All-America candidate. Finally, there was Davis' departure. BC has proved the experts wrong by reaching the ACC championship game each of the past two seasons. If BC makes it again this season, it would represent this program's most stunning accomplishment yet.
COACH: Art Briles (4-8 in one season; 38-36 in six seasons overall).
LAST SEASON: 4-8 overall, 2-6 in Big 12 (tied for fifth in Big 12 South).
FINAL 2008 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 69th.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Baylor lost both of its starting offensive tackles from last season, including Jason Smith, selected by the St. Louis Rams with the No. 2 overall pick in the NFL draft. That creates a huge opportunity for Danny Watkins, a former youth hockey player and part-time firefighter from British Columbia who didn't play organized football until he went to Butte College in Oroville, Calif., two seasons ago. Watkins, a former junior college All-America, enrolled at Baylor in time to participate in spring practice and figures to start this fall.
STAR POWER: He doesn't get nearly as much attention as fellow sophomore Terrelle Pryor, but Robert Griffin gives Baylor an equally dangerous and multi-talented quarterback. As the nation's youngest starting quarterback last season, Griffin threw for 2,091 yards and 15 touchdowns (with three interceptions) while also rushing for 843 yards and 13 more scores. He's the main reason Baylor enters the season with legitimate hopes of earning its first bowl bid since 1994.
STRENGTHS: Baylor has plenty of experience on both sides of the ball. The Bears return the players who accounted for 91.2 percent of the team's total offense last season. LB Joe Pawelek ranked seventh in the nation in tackles and interceptions last season, making him the only player in the country to rank in the top 10 in each of those categories. Pawelek should help make the linebacking corps the strength of Baylor's defense. Derek Epperson gives Baylor arguably the best punter in the nation. His 44.3 punting average last year ranked ninth in the nation and helped Baylor finish seventh in net punting. The coverage units were solid last season.
WEAKNESSES: Baylor's inexperience at offensive tackle is a concern, as the Bears could sorely miss Jason Smith. The Bears will have two new starters at defensive end and one new starting defensive tackle; the tackle is Penn State transfer Phil Taylor, who was booted from Happy Valley for off-field issues. Fifth-year senior FS Jordan Lake gives Baylor a leader in the secondary, but the Bears need to shore up their pass defense. Baylor ranked ninth in the Big 12 and 90th in the nation last year in pass efficiency defense, and none of the corners stand out. The Bears were awful on punt returns last season.
THE BUZZ: Baylor fans haven't had this much reason for optimism since the creation of the Big 12. Art Briles brought a winning attitude from Houston, and Baylor could have avoided a losing record last season if it hadn't gone 0-3 in games decided by seven or fewer points. Griffin gives Briles the type of cornerstone player who can take a program to the next level. Lake and Pawelek would be standouts almost anywhere in the nation, and Epperson should help Baylor win the field-position battle most weeks. If Baylor were in the Big 12 North, a bowl bid would look realistic. The problem for the Bears is they're competing in the much tougher South Division, which could make it difficult for them to get six wins. The first two games of the season, against Wake Forest and Connecticut, are huge. If Baylor wins both, the Bears just might go bowling for the first time in 15 years.
COACH: Larry Blakeney (144-73-1 in 18 seasons).
LAST SEASON: 8-5 overall, 6-1 in Sun Belt (won league). Lost to Southern Miss in the New Orleans Bowl.
FINAL 2008 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 65th.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Redshirt freshman WR Josh Jarboe began his career at Oklahoma, but he was kicked off the team a few weeks after arriving on campus. While he has had off-field issues, his deep-threat ability would add another dimension to the Trojans' offense. He's unlikely to start, but if he has a strong fall practice, he will be a part of the rotation.
STAR POWER: Senior DE Brandon Lang is seen as a future first-rounder by some draft analysts. Lang is a pass-rusher deluxe, following in the footsteps of former Troy standouts DeMarcus Ware and Osi Umenyiora. Lang had 58 tackles, 19 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks last season. Lang originally signed with Georgia out of high school, but he had academic issues. He went to prep school, then signed with Troy.
STRENGTHS: This is a veteran team: All 11 projected starters on offense and 10 on defense are upperclassmen. In fact, each of those 10 on defense is a senior. A prime example of Troy's depth occurred last season, when starting QB Jamie Hampton was lost for the season in Game 5. Levi Brown stepped in and the offense didn't miss a beat. Brown threw 15 TD passes and just three interceptions, and he completed almost 62 percent of his throws. His top target is Jerrel Jernigan, who is one of the Sun Belt's top receivers. TB DuJuan Harris ran for 1,077 yards and 11 TDs in his first season as the starter; he's also a good receiver, making him a great fit in the Trojans' spread attack. The interior of the offensive line looks strong. LB Boris Lee has led the team in tackles each of the past two seasons, with a combined 190 in that span. Bear Woods is an able running mate for Lee. P Will Goggans had a nice freshman season, downing more than a third of his attempts inside the opponents' 20. Jorrick Calvin is an excellent return man, especially on kickoffs, and last season's coverage units were excellent - befitting a team that frequently overwhelms its league opponents with its athleticism.
WEAKNESSES: There will be two new starting offensive tackles. Junior college transfer James Brown was a pleasant surprise during spring ball and will head into fall practice as the starter at one of the tackle spots. There also will be two new starting defensive tackles. Calvin, a cornerback, is the only returning starter in the secondary; the other cornerback, redshirt freshman Bryan Willis, is the only non-senior projected to start on defense. K Sam Glusman has a strong leg (he was 7-for-9 from between 40 and 49 yards) but lacks consistency (he was 5-for-9 from between 30 and 39 yards).
THE BUZZ: Troy coaches always seem to do a great job mixing and matching junior college transfers, four-year transfers and youngsters into a cohesive and productive team. Troy has been the dominant Sun Belt Conference program the latter half of this decade, and the Trojans are in good position to win at least a portion of their fourth consecutive league title. The Trojans are one of 23 programs nationally that has won at least eight games in each of the past three seasons, and they should reach that plateau again this season. There are two road games against SEC schools, but Troy might be favored in each of the 10 other games. A game Sept. 26 at Arkansas State could be the de facto Sun Belt title game.