COACH: Pat Fitzgerald (19-18 in three seasons).
LAST SEASON: 9-4 overall, 5-3 in Big Ten (tied for fourth in league). Lost to Missouri in the Alamo Bowl.
FINAL 2008 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 33rd.
KEEP AN EYE ON: With QB C.J. Bacher gone, the Wildcats have handed the reins of the offense to senior Mike Kafka. He has shown he's equipped to make plays with his feet, setting a Big Ten quarterback record for rushing yards in a game (217) in a wild victory at Minnesota last fall. But Kafka must show he's a capable passer.
STAR POWER: At 6 feet 7 and 265 pounds, DE Corey Wootton is an NFL-ready pass rusher off the edge. Wootton was a first-team All-Big Ten choice (coaches) and team MVP, but he is coming off a serious knee injury suffered in an Alamo Bowl loss to Missouri. Northwestern obviously needs Wootton at 100 percent.
STRENGTHS: The offensive line welcomes back four starters, including potential star T Al Netter. The defense was a pleasant surprise last season. Credit veteran coordinator Mike Hankwitz, who will have a lot to work with this fall with eight starters returning. The secondary remains intact, with playmakers in FS Brendan Smith, SS Brad Phillips and CB Sherrick McManis. CB Jordan Mabin rounds out what may be the top secondary in the Big Ten. Really. Stefan Demos is entrenched as the punter, showing decent oomph and an ability to drop the ball inside the 20. Demos also may be the kicker.
WEAKNESSES: RB Tyrell Sutton has departed, along with the top three receivers. Coach Pat Fitzgerald likes his options at running back, led by diminutive Stephen Simmons. Josh Rooks is an underrated weapon at what Northwestern calls "superback," a hybrid fullback/tight end. Andrew Brewer, Sidney Stewart and Jeremy Ebert need to prove themselves at wide receiver. The defense will miss T John Gill, who often commanded double-teams.
THE BUZZ: In the past six seasons, the Wildcats are 24-24 in the Big Ten, sixth-best in the conference. That's better than Purdue, Michigan State and Illinois, among others, and Penn State (26 wins) and Iowa (28) aren't that far ahead. Fitzgerald's main focus is rebuilding an offense that lost six starters. If that happens, the Wildcats could enjoy another upper-division finish. The schedule is conducive to a fast start; just one of the first six opponents and two of the first eight went bowling last season, and the Wildcats miss Ohio State (and Michigan) this season.
COACH: Ralph Friedgen (64-36 in eight seasons).
LAST SEASON: 8-5 overall, 4-4 in ACC (tied for third in ACC Atlantic). Beat Nevada in the Humanitarian Bowl.
FINAL 2008 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 34th.
KEEP AN EYE ON: WR Torrey Smith set an ACC single-season record with 1,089 kickoff return yards last season. This season, he should make more of an impact on offense. Smith caught 24 passes for 336 yards last season, which makes him the Terps' top returning receiver. RB Davin Meggett showed plenty of big-play potential while rushing for 457 yards and four touchdowns as a true freshman. He should emerge as a nice complement to Da'Rel Scott in the backfield. Phil Costa, one of the Terps' only experienced offensive linemen, is shifting from guard to center.
STAR POWER: Scott ran for 1,133 yards last season and ranked second in the ACC with 94.4 rushing yards per game. He sat out the first half of the Humanitarian Bowl and still managed to gain 174 yards on just 14 carries. Maryland's inexperience on the line and the emergence of Meggett could prevent Scott from matching his 2008 totals, but he still should emerge as one of the ACC's most dangerous runners.
STRENGTHS: Scott and Meggett could give Maryland one of the nation's most effective running back tandems. Smith's presence ought to give the Terps a dangerous kick-return unit. P Travis Baltz should be one of the best in the nation at his position. Maryland's strength against ranked opponents last season shows that Friedgen has a way of getting his team fired up for big games.
WEAKNESSES: Maryland lost five of its top seven offensive linemen, including three-year starting C Edwin Williams. LT Bruce Campbell is the only returning starter on the line playing the same position he did last season. The losses of Dave Philistin, Moise Fokou, Chase Bullock and Rick Costa leave the Terps untested at linebacker. QB Chris Turner is a returning starter, but he has struggled with consistency for much of his career.
THE BUZZ: Maryland was one of the most unpredictable teams in the nation last season, as the Terps went 4-1 against teams ranked in The Associated Press poll yet also lost to Middle Tennessee, struggled to beat Delaware and got waxed 31-0 by Virginia. Maryland now must gain consistency after losing a bunch of experience. The Terps return six starters on offense and four on defense. Scott and Meggett are dynamic players, but how much running room will they find when the line is young and the passing game is lackluster? The answer to that question could determine whether Maryland earns a bowl bid. After opening on the road at California, Maryland plays its next four – and five of its next six – at home.
COACH: Bill Cubit (29-20 in four seasons).
LAST SEASON: 9-4 overall, 6-2 in MAC (tied for second in MAC West). Lost to Rice in the Texas Bowl.
FINAL 2008 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 51st.
KEEP AN EYE ON: There is work to do for defensive coordinator Steve Morrison, who will be working with perhaps his youngest defense since arriving in Kalamazoo in 2005. There are 14 redshirt freshmen and sophomores on the two-deep roster, and only two seniors are projected to start. It all will come down to the Broncos' ability to get off the field on third downs, which was a bugaboo last season all the way into the Texas Bowl. WMU allowed foes to convert 42.7 percent of their third downs, which ranked 83rd in the nation.
STAR POWER: Senior QB Tim Hiller has prototypical pocket-passer size (6-5/228) and has become a playmaker. Hiller – who has thrown for 8,080 yards and 76 touchdowns – is on pace to break numerous school passing records and could set a MAC record for career TD passes (it's 100, by Chad Pennington).
STRENGTHS: With seven starters back, the offense should hum after ranking 28th in the nation in 2008. Brandon West, a 1,000-yard rusher last season, headlines a deep corps of running backs and forms a strong 1-2 punch with Aaron Winchester. Glenis Thompson and Jamie Simpson offer a change of pace with their downhill styles. All of this running back talent will run behind a line that welcomes back four starters. Phil Swanson is one of the top guards in the MAC, but it's key the starters stay healthy; depth is iffy along the line. There are two starting linebackers returning, with senior Austin Pritchard being the headliner. He's a terrific tackler who covers a lot of ground. Cody Cielenski is an anchor up front and one of the top tackles in the conference. Special teams look good with P Ben Armer and K John Potter returning; each could end up being the best at their position in the MAC.
WEAKNESSES: Who will catch Hiller's passes? Juan Nunez looks like a top target, but he'll draw lots of attention now that Jamarko Simmons – who had 104 catches last season – is gone. Nunez needs some fellow wide receivers to emerge, as well as a tight end. One of the projected starters at wide receiver is Robert Arnheim, who is a converted quarterback. The secondary must be rebuilt after losing four starters, including FS Louis Delmas, who was a second-round draft pick. The new free safety is Doug Wiggins, a former highly touted prep star from North Miami Beach High who began his college career at Miami. There's a lot of youth on defense, and that could lead to mistakes.
THE BUZZ: Bill Cubit has this program rolling. His 29 wins in four years are the second-best run in school history, and last season was one of the best for the Broncos. They won nine games for just the third time and advanced to their fourth bowl, which was their second in three years. Western Michigan is poised for another strong campaign. This is the first time during Cubit's tenure that he experienced no staff turnover. Having the same coaches, terminology and schemes will be a plus. Still, there will be plenty of tests for the Broncos, who play three Big Ten schools and three of their five MAC West foes on the road.
COACH: Chris Ault (198-91-1 in 24 seasons).
LAST SEASON: 7-6 overall, 5-3 in the WAC (tied for second in league). Lost to Maryland in the Humanitarian Bowl.
FINAL 2008 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 72nd.
KEEP AN EYE ON: With its offense, Nevada won't need its defense to win games. But it would be nice if the "D" made a key play here or there. The Wolf Pack were 1-4 in games in which both teams scored 30 points and the final margin was 10 or fewer points last season. The Wolf Pack had growing pains with a new 4-3 scheme, along with new personnel in the secondary. Nevada must improve the nation's worst pass defense if it's going to play more high-scoring games.
STAR POWER: Nevada's dynamic offense begins with QB Colin Kaepernick, only the fifth player in NCAA history to pass for 2,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards in the same season. Kaepernick could improve his accuracy (54 percent), but he is efficient enough with 22 touchdowns compared to seven interceptions. He also rushed for 17 scores.
STRENGTHS: Kaepernick was only part of the rushing attack that ranked third the nation at 277.8 yards per game. TB Vai Taua stepped in for the injured Luke Lippincott to lead the WAC with 1,521 rushing yards. Lippincott, who led the WAC in rushing in 2007 with 1,420 yards, received a sixth season of eligibility after missing all but two games with a knee injury last season. On the line, Ts Mike Gallett and Alonzo Durham are all-conference candidates and 6-8 G John Bender is a good one, too. Defensively, Nevada is the only team in the country to return a double-digit sack duo in Es Dontay Moch (11.5 sacks) and Kevin Basped (10).
WEAKNESSES: Despite an effective pass rush, Nevada was last in the nation in pass defense at 311.6 yards per game. Credit some of that to the nation's No. 6 rush defense and Nevada's prolific offense; opponents generally went to the air because they couldn't run or they fell behind early. Still, the secondary must improve. The bright side about 2008 is that FS Jonathon Amaya (four interceptions) was the only starter in the secondary at the end of the season who wasn't in his first season on campus. The linebackers also need to improve. James-Michael Johnson and Brandon Marshall return on the outside after seeing plenty of time as freshmen. Mike Bethea will be in the middle after missing much of last season with a foot injury. Nevada also must make up for the loss of WRs Marko Mitchell and Mike McCoy, who combined for 115 catches and 1,761 yards last season. Nevada's special teams need work. While P Brad Langley (44 yards per punt) is solid, junior college transfer Ricky Drake is expected to be the kicker and both return men must be replaced.
THE BUZZ: Nevada should build on its school-record bowl streak with its fifth postseason bid in a row. The Wolf Pack also hope to challenge Boise State for the WAC title. That's not too audacious a goal, as Nevada is the only team in the conference other than Hawaii to really challenge the Broncos over the past two seasons, though Nevada lost both games. Nevada also has a realistic chance to steal non-conference games against rebuilding Missouri and Mountain West foes Colorado State and UNLV. Even if Nevada doesn't accomplish all those goals, the team should be fun to watch.
COACH: Troy Calhoun (17-9 in two seasons).
LAST SEASON: 8-5 overall, 5-3 in Mountain West (fourth in league). Lost to Houston in the Armed Forces Bowl.
FINAL 2008 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 55th.
KEEP AN EYE ON: The quarterback situation is intriguing. Sophomore Tim Jefferson led Air Force to five victories in eight starts last season and was named the MWC Freshman of the Year. But he missed most of spring drills for academic reasons, which allowed TB Asher Clark, who was recruited as a quarterback, to get extensive action there until he suffered a knee injury that required surgery. Clark may enter fall workouts competing at quarterback, but he figures to split time at tailback.
STAR POWER: Junior LB Ken Lamendola posted 118 tackles in '08, which was third-most in the MWC. Senior SS Chris Thomas, an All-MWC selection a year ago, is another sure tackler who led the MWC with four forced fumbles. He's aiming to post at least 100 tackles for the third consecutive season.
STRENGTHS: Air Force typically has one of the nation's most productive running attacks and that doesn't figure to change. Under coach Troy Calhoun, Air Force is 12-3 when it has had a 100-yard rusher. Jefferson and Asher double the chances to reach the century mark. All-MWC guard Nick Charles leads an accomplished line that includes three returning starters; all five projected line starters are seniors. DT Ben Garland provides a good push in the middle and is a legitimate all-league candidate. Lamendola heads the list of three returning starters at linebacker.
WEAKNESSES: Even though the Falcons depend on the running game, they need to upgrade the passing attack. Last season Air Force ranked 118th in the nation in passing offense; only Navy and Army were less productive. Jefferson passed for just 655 yards and five TDs in his debut season. The leading receiver had just 16 catches. Running will remain Air Force's forte, but the ground game would be even better if opponents at least have to respect the pass. While the defense generally was solid last season, the Falcons struggled against the Mountain West's premier offenses, giving up at least 30 points to BYU, Utah and TCU. The Falcons will miss the pass-rush skills of graduated all-conference DE Jake Paulson, who had nine sacks a year ago. The graduation of Ryan Harrison leaves a void at punter and kicker. Starting CB Reggie Rembert has big-play ability on punts and kickoff returns, but he was indefinitely suspended in April and his status is up in the air.
THE BUZZ: Air Force hasn't reached bowl games in three consecutive years since 1990-92. In his first two seasons as coach, Calhoun has directed Air Force to back-to-back Armed Forces Bowls and another postseason appearance is anticipated. While the Falcons aspire for a more prestigious bowl game, unless a decent passing game surfaces to complement the running game, Air Force doesn't figure to challenge the "Big Three" in the MWC race.