COACH: James Franklin (first season)
LAST SEASON: 2-10, 1-7 (6th in SEC East)
OFFENSE: Vanderbilt averaged just 298.2 yards and 16.9 points last season; the Commodores scored only 96 points in eight SEC games, with 28 of those coming in an upset of Ole Miss. Nine starters return, but is that a good thing? Returning starter Larry Smith is a senior and the only quarterback on the roster who has thrown a college pass. But he hasn't necessarily thrown them well: He's a career 47.6 percent passer, with 11 TDs and 13 picks. He does have good mobility, though. Jordan Rodgers - a junior college transfer who sat out as a redshirt last season - was limited during spring practice by injury, and he will vie with Smith for the starting job in summer camp. Rodgers is the brother of Green Bay Packers QB Aaron Rodgers. There actually are some good tailbacks on hand. Warren Norman is the Commodores' best offensive player, but he missed spring practice with an injury. Backups Zac Stacy and Wesley Tate will get playing time, as well. The tailbacks will run behind a line that returns all five starters, but the guys up front have been physically overmatched in league play, and the lack of depth is a concern. TE Brandon Barden is one of the 15 or so best at his position nationally, but he has been underutilized because the quarterbacks have been so bad. The receivers haven't done much, either, but, again, that could be because the quarterback play has been so abysmal.
DEFENSE: CB Casey Hayward and LB Chris Marve have All-SEC talent. Hayward had 70 tackles, six interceptions, 11 pass breakups and a forced fumble last season; he was tied for fifth in the nation in interceptions, and the 11 breakups led the SEC. Marve will be a four-year starter and has 306 career tackles, the most of any current SEC player. SS Sean Richardson is solid, as well. The run defense has to get a lot better, which means the tackles need to step up their level of play. Vandy had 20 sacks last season, and coaches need someone - maybe E Walker May? - to become a consistent pass rusher. LB Tristan Strong looks fully recovered from a 2009 knee injury and should provide a boost playing alongside Marve.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Ryan Fowler is back after going 8-of-13 last season, but he was 0-of-4 from beyond 31 yards and must hold off sophomore Carey Spear during summer camp. P Richard Kent also returns, and he averaged 41.8 yards per boot and dropped 27 of his 84 attempts inside the 20. Norman is an explosive kick returner, and starting WR John Cole did an OK job as the punt returner last season. The coverage units also were OK last season.
THE BUZZ: Franklin - who had been offensive coordinator at Maryland - has a lot of work to do in his first season as coach. Vandy went to a bowl in 2008 under then-coach Bobby Johnson, but the Commodores have gone backward the past two seasons. A pitiful offense has been the reason. Vandy lacks playmakers on the outside, and the quarterback play since Jay Cutler left has been embarrassingly bad. Vandy was held to 14 or fewer points in six of its final seven games last season, not surprising considering opponents had no reason to fear the pass. This season's opener against FCS member Elon looks like a sure win; other than that, though, Vandy is going to have to scrap for two or three more wins. The defense has potential, especially the back seven. Hayward is a big-timer, and Marve and Richardson are close. But until the Commodores find a way to generate some offense, they are going to have problems.
COACH: Hugh Freeze (first season at Arkansas State; 20-5 in two seasons overall)
LAST SEASON: 4-8, 4-4 (T-4th in Sun Belt)
OFFENSE: Freeze was promoted from offensive coordinator to coach, and his group performed well last season. QB Ryan Aplin should contend for all-league honors; he threw for 2,939 yards and 21 TDs last season, when he completed 61.5 percent of his passes. He has a nice group of receivers, headed by Dwayne Frampton, who became the go-to guy in his first season after transferring in from a junior college. Allen Muse and Taylor Stockemer are 6-foot-4 juniors and effective complementary receivers; Stockemer averaged 16.5 yards on 34 receptions last season. Redshirt freshman Earl Lucas had a solid spring and should work his way into the receiver rotation. The rushing attack could be problematic. Aplin has good mobility and led Arkansas State with 11 rushing TDs last season. Starting TB Derek Lawson is a plugger, though, and he'll be running behind a line with four new starters. C Tom Castilaw, who was granted a sixth season of eligibility, has all-league talent, but the Red Wolves need some other guys to step up their level of play.
DEFENSE: The Red Wolves averaged 30 points per game last season but gave up almost 31 per game. They were especially porous against the run, surrendering 206.1 yards per game. There is more beef up front this season, and coaches are hoping 305-pounder Ryan Carrethers can hold up in the middle against the run. E Dorvus Woods is a good one and heads a nice group of ends; he should contend for all-league honors. Demario Davis and Nathan Herrold might be the best linebacker duo in the Sun Belt, but they need to play with more consistency, especially Davis, who had a strong 2009 but fell back a bit last season. The Red Wolves runs a 4-2-5 set, and senior SS Kelcie McCray is the leader in the secondary. McCray had 79 tackles and two picks last season. Arkansas State managed just 11 interceptions last season, and the cornerbacks need to do a better job this season.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Ks Brian Davis and Bobby Zalud combined to go 12-of-21 last season, and Davis figures to get first dibs on the job this fall. The Red Wolves were 1-of-4 from beyond 40 yards, and Davis is the guy who made the plus-40-yarder. P Neely Sullivent is adequate, as were the coverage teams last season. Backup WR Roderick Hall is an OK kick returner, and Frampton should be the lead punt returner this season.
THE BUZZ: It's not often a coach gets fired and an assistant from his staff replaces him, but that's what happened with Arkansas State. Steve Roberts was ushered out after nine seasons and Freeze - perhaps best-known for being Michael Oher's high school coach - was given the job. Arkansas State had a solid offense last season, and Aplin - as long as he is given time to throw - should have another big season. But the rush offense and the rush defense are questions. If the Red Wolves get those solved, they can finish third in the league. But they also could finish seventh or worse. Four of the first six games are on the road, including trips to Illinois and Virginia Tech. But the other four games in that stretch are winnable. Four of the final six are at home, and if Arkansas State is 3-3 heading into the second half of the season, a .500 record beckons and that might be enough for a bowl bid, which would be the Red Wolves' first since 2005.
COACH: Dan McCarney (first season at North Texas; 56-85 in 12 seasons overall)
LAST SEASON: 3-9, 3-5 (T-6th in Sun Belt)
OFFENSE: RB Lance Dunbar ran for 1,553 yards and 13 TDs last season, and ranked sixth nationally at 129.4 yards per game. He had eight 100-yard games, including three with at least 215 yards. In two games against Big Six foes that went to bowls (Clemson and Kansas State), he rambled for 387 yards and three TDs. He also is a good receiver and obviously one of the leading contenders for Sun Belt player-of-the-year honors. But he'll run behind a line that is missing three starters - and each received all-league notice last season. C J.J. Johnson is a key; he was injured in the opener and missed the rest of the season, but he has all-league potential. Two projected line starters are redshirt freshmen. Derek Thompson was one of four quarterbacks who started for the Mean Green last season and one of three that suffered a season-ending injury (in his case, a broken leg). He's healthy now and won the starting job in spring practice, but he'll have to continue to fend off JC transfer Brent Osborn in summer camp. The quarterbacks have a solid group of receivers with which to work, led by Darius Carey and Tyler Stradford, who began his career at Oklahoma. Because of the quarterback injuries last season, Dunbar basically provided all the offense down the stretch. While the passing attack should be better this season, the rebuilt line means there are some questions about the running game.
DEFENSE: McCarney has a defensive background and was hired off the staff at Florida, where he was the defensive line coach. He needs to work some magic with the Mean Green's defensive line because UNT was weak against the run last season, allowing 184.9 yards per game. Both starting tackles will be new, but there is some size, most notably with 336-pounder Tevinn Cantly. Both starting ends return from a team that had 19 sacks; UNT has just 91 sacks in the past six seasons, and McCarney and new coordinator Clint Bowen must find a way to apply some pressure. Jeremy Phillips and Zach Orr head what could be a solid group of linebackers. The secondary looks fine. CB Royce Hill should contend for all-league honors, and there is a lot of experience at safety.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Backup WR Brelan Chancellor was excellent as a kick returner last season, averaging 28.0 yards per return and taking two back for TDs. He and Carey shared punt returner duties, but neither did anything of note in that role. K Zach Olen was one of the better freshman kickers in the nation last season, going 13-of-15, including a 53-yarder. P Will Atterberry is fine, but the coverage units need to be shored up.
THE BUZZ: McCarney, the former coach at Iowa State, takes over a program on a slight uptick. Injuries wrecked the Mean Green last season, but there is some talent on hand. Dunbar is a great building block, and if he gets some help from the passing attack, this could be quite a potent offense. McCarney kept offensive coordinator Mike Canales, so continuity on offense should be a plus. Still, UNT has to get a heck of a lot better against the run before it can hope to go bowling again. The early-season schedule is a bear. UNT opens at defending league champ Florida International, then plays Houston, Alabama, Indiana and Tulsa in the next four (Houston and Indiana are home games, in UNT's new stadium). The schedule then softens considerably, and a .500 season is a legit goal in McCarney's first season.
COACH: Doc Holliday (5-7 in one season)
LAST SEASON: 5-7, 4-4 (4th in C-USA East)
OFFENSE: The Thundering Herd were 114th nationally in rushing offense last season and scored just seven rushing TDs. Three line starters return, and the unit has to become more physical. Tron Martinez, who ran for 262 yards and one TD, has dibs on the starting tailback job, but expect Herd coaches to mix-and-match at the position because there is no top-flight tailback on the roster. There are some good receivers, though, led by junior Aaron Dobson. Antavious Wilson had a great freshman season (60 catches) in 2009 but had only 29 receptions in an injury-marred sophomore season. If he returns to his '09 form, he and Dobson could be a potent pair. Depth is good at receiver, as well. Who will get the receivers the ball is a question. Sophomores Eddie Sullivan and A.J. Graham - both former all-state players (in difference classifications) in Florida - are vying for the quarterback job, and Sullivan held a slight advantage out of spring practice. Each played sparingly last season, combining to attempt 36 passes.
DEFENSE: Marshall was fourth in Conference USA in total defense last season, but that was good for just 71st nationally. The run defense was solid, but stud LB Mario Harvey is gone. The good news is that star E Vinny Curry is back; he had 94 tackles, 12 sacks and 16 quarterback hurries. Curry heads up what should be a solid front four, one that has some nice depth at end. But the linebackers are a giant question mark without Harvey. Devin Arrington and Tyson Gale are returning starters, but neither made many big plays. The safety tandem is the best in Conference USA with Donald Brown and Omar Brown (no relation); they combined for 163 tackles, six interceptions and eight pass breakups. The cornerbacks are a question, though there is potential there with sophomores Monterius Lovett and Darryl Roberts and junior Rashad Jackson. Each of the trio is a Floridian, a state that Holliday, in his second season as Thundering Herd coach, considers Marshall's natural recruiting territory.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Tyler Warner is back, but he attempted just eight field goals last season, making five; he was only 2-of-5 from beyond 29 yards. P Kase Whitehead is solid. Backup WR Andre Booker has the potential to be a good kick returner, and starting WR Troy Evans is OK as a punt returner. The coverage teams were adequate last season.
THE BUZZ: Marshall finished strong last season, winning four of its final five. The question: Was that because the opponents were weak or because things began to click as the season progressed? Defensively, the Herd should be one of the top teams in the league. Curry is hard to handle off the edge, and the safety duo can erase mistakes. But Harvey's loss is a big one, and you wonder if the Herd's linebackers will be up to the task. There are numerous questions offensively, the main one being whether the Herd will get consistent quarterback play. Revving up the rushing attack is important, too. Each of the first six games is against a bowl team from 2010, so a fast start is doubtful. If Marshall can match its victory total from last season, it will be a surprise.
COACH: Howard Schnellenberger (57-63 in 10 seasons at Florida Atlantic; 157-40-3 in 25 seasons overall)
LAST SEASON: 4-8, 3-5 (T-6th in Sun Belt)
OFFENSE: While Schnellenberger's best teams at FAU - and Miami and Louisville - have had quarterbacks who threw it around, look for senior TB Alfred Morris to be the focal point of this offense. He ran for 928 yards and seven TDs last season, and he rumbled for 1,392 yards and 11 TDs in 2009. The line this season will be more like the line in '09, so a 1,000-yard season beckons. T Samuel McRoy is the leader of the line and an All-Sun Belt candidate. It's good the rushing attack looks like a strong one because the passing game could be a problem. There will be a new quarterback, with 6-foot-7 junior David Kooi battling 6-6 junior Graham Wilbert for the starting job. Neither distinguished himself during spring drills, so the battle will continue during summer camp. The top three receivers are gone, which means DeAndre Richardson - who had 12 catches last season - is the leading returning wide receiver. Coaches are high on redshirt freshman Marcus Cunningham, who sits atop the depth chart after spring drills. Schellenberger loves throwing to the tight end, which means senior Darian Williams could double his career receptions total (23) this season.
DEFENSE: The Owls need to get a heck of a lot tougher against the run after allowing 203.6 rushing yards per game last season. They are shifting to a 3-4 set, and there's a nice-sized linebacker group headed by all-name team candidate Yourhighness Morgan, who should vie for all-league honors. David Hinds and former E Cory Henry are other 'backers to watch. Up front, E Kevin Cyrille should be one of the league's top linemen. NT Jarvis Givens might be the most important defender, as he has to prove he can hold up when taking on double-teams. FS Marcus Bartels has 422 career tackles, which leads all current players nationally; he had 104 tackles, two interceptions and seven pass breakups last season. He is the only proven player in the secondary and both starting corners are new, which makes that a potential trouble spot.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Mickey Groody is the best punter in the league; he averaged 45.7 yards per punt last season. Vinny Zaccario is the new kicker. Both return men are back, though neither truly flashed last season. The coverage teams were spotty, especially considering the number of good athletes FAU coaches have at their disposal.
THE BUZZ: FAU opens a 30,000-seat, on-campus stadium this fall, and perhaps the Owls can use that momentum to surge back ahead of archrival Florida International in the battle for south Florida supremacy in the Sun Belt. The first game in the new stadium doesn't come until Oct. 15, and that's because FAU opens with five consecutive road games; the first three games - at Florida, at Michigan State, at Auburn. Ouch. Then comes the portion of the schedule where FAU must get some wins. A strong October would put FAU in position for a .500 record and a possible bowl bid heading into November.