HOW THEY'LL FINISH
While first-year starting quarterback DAYNE CRIST has received the most attention since coach BRIAN KELLY took over at Notre Dame, the Irish are going through a more drastic change on the other side of the ball. The defense is switching from a 4--3 to a 3--4, which will help hide one of the team's vulnerabilities: lack of depth on the defensive line. Kelly's top defensive priority is to stop the run (the Irish were 89th in 2009) because, he says, "I know we can bring pressure from the edge with our athletes." . . . Even with running back Ryan Mathews, whose 150.7 rushing yards per game led the nation last year, gone to the NFL with one season of eligibility left, signs point to Fresno State's remaining a running club. The Bulldogs have all five starters back from an offensive line that helped the team finish eighth in the nation in rushing (228.9 yards a game). And taking the place of Mathews will be 5' 7", 185-pound sophomore ROBBIE ROUSE(left), who coach PAT HILL says reminds him of San Diego Chargers mighty mite Darren Sproles. . . . One year after a 12--2 MAC championship season, Central Michigan is undergoing a major overhaul, with a new coach (DAN ENOS), staff, scheme and quarterback (RYAN RADCLIFF). Gone are the up-tempo spread offense and record-setting quarterback Dan LeFevour; in their place will be a more traditional, under-center attack led by Radcliff, last season's backup. . . . With his team bringing back four of five members of its offensive line and three experienced running backs (BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM, D.D. KYLES and PHILLIP TANNER), Middle Tennessee State coach RICK STOCKSTILL says the Blue Raiders may take advantage of their strengths by running the wishbone in short-yardage and goal line situations.
Top offensive player
QB, Houston, Sr.
The 2009 Conference USA MVP is the no-brainer choice for stat-loving Heisman voters. Last year he led the nation with 5,671 yards (third most in I-A history) and 44 touchdowns. This season, with his top four pass catchers back, those numbers could even improve.
Top defensive player
DE, Central Florida, Sr.
No active I-A player has more career sacks (27) or tackles for loss (44) than this 6' 2", 248-pound pass rushing force. His sacking skills will be needed on a Knights defense that is looking to improve against the pass; it ranked 113th (eighth worst) in the country last season.
True freshman to watch
With last year's starter, Max Hall, off to the NFL, Heaps has an opening to contribute early. The 6' 2" 205-pounder from Issaquah, Wash., was rated the No. 1 quarterback prospect in the country by one recruiting service. He will battle junior Riley Nelson for the job.
Coach on the hot seat
In his first season in Albuquerque, he got into an altercation with an assistant coach (for which Locksley was suspended one game) and then directed the Lobos to a 1--11 record. Having barely survived '09, Locksley will have to work some magic (he has just 12 starters back) to make it to next year.
Coach on the rise
Always nattily attired during games in a shirt and tie, Golden has turned a program that was among the worst in I-A into a bowl qualifier. In '09, his fourth season, he led the team to its first winning record (9--4) since '90 and just its third bowl in 111 years. This year's team is his most talented yet.
PLAYERS TO WATCH (Top performers from unranked teams)
DONALD BUCKRAM, RB, UTEP, Sr.
Only Ryan Mathews, Toby Gerhart and Dion Lewis rushed for more yards per game last season than did Buckram (left), who averaged 132.8. This year he will be running behind an offensive line that is slated to start five seniors.
NOAH KELLER, LB, Ohio, Sr.
The defense for the reigning MAC East division co-champs will be led by this 6' 1", 227-pound tackling machine, who last year finished sixth in the nation in stops (11.1 per game), including 17 against Marshall in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.
JOSH MCNARY, DE, Army, Sr.
Named to the Lott and Nagurski watch lists, McNary is a dangerous pass rusher who will anchor a defense that brings back eight starters. Exceptionally quick off the ball, McNary had 12½ sacks last season, which tied for fifth best in the country.
DONTAY MOCH, DE, Nevada, Sr.
An active defensive end who is a frequent presence in opposing backfields, Moch had 20 tackles for loss (good for eighth in the nation) last season en route to becoming the first Wolf Pack player to be named WAC Defensive Player of the Year.
BERNARD PIERCE, RB, Temple, Soph.
Temple's athletic department has started an all-out Heisman campaign for the 6-foot, 218-pound Pierce, who last year rushed for 1,361 yards and 16 touchdowns. He could have even more running success if Temple can improve its 111th-ranked passing game.
Notre Dame WR Michael Floyd
FERNANDO MEDINA/US PRESSWIRE
TIM LARSON/ICON SMI
JOHN ALBRIGHT/ICON SMI
MARK WEBER/THE COMMERCIAL APPEAL