The Warriors have been picked by both the WAC media and coaches to win the conference this year. And the reason is senior quarterback Bryant Moniz, the only returning full-time starting quarterback in the league.
"That is a big advantage," Hawaii coach Greg McMackin said. "And he's earned the recognition he gets."
Moniz led the nation in passing last year with 5,040 yards and 39 touchdowns.
"I've coached at every level and I've ever seen a guy study as hard as he does," McMackin said. "He's an inspiration to our players."
The Warriors will be led on defense by linebacker Corey Paredes (151 tackles in 2010) as well as a pair of senior 300-pound tackles in Kaniela Tuipulotu and Vaughn Meatoga.
"Those two guys (Tuipulotu and Meatoga) are as good as anybody in the country," McMackin said.
The Warriors, though, did lose senior running back Alex Green (1,199 yards, 18 touchdowns) and receivers Greg Salas (119 catches, 14 TDs) and Kealoha Pilares (88 catches, 15 scores) off the 2010 team that finished 10-4 and earned a share of the WAC title with the Pack and Boise State at 7-1.
"We're always going to have receivers," said McMackin, referring to the Warriors' fondness for throwing the ball.
The Bulldogs will be led this year by sophomore quarterback Derek Carr, the brother of former Fresno State and NFL quarterback David Carr.
"Quarterback play is the key to any successful program," Fresno State coach Pat Hill said. "And we've had a lot of good quarterbacks here. But we need to take the step from good to great. I don't want to put that kind of pressure on Derek right now. But he has all the talents to take us to that level."
Running back Robbie Rouse (1,129 yards) returns to help Carr as do receivers Jalen Saunders (30 catches) and Rashad Evans (39).
"We have a lot of good supporting players around Derek," Hill said.
The Bulldogs will be led on defense by tackle Logan Harrell (10.5 sacks in 2010), linebacker Travis Brown (79 tackles) and defensive back Phillip Thomas (64 tackles).
"I really like my football team," said Hill, whose Bulldogs finished 8-5 last year (5-3 in the WAC). "They are very hungry."
Head coach Sonny Dykes is turning his offense over to true freshman quarterback Nick Isham.
"Nick Isham has a tremendous amount of confidence," Dykes said. "I feel Nick Isham gives us the best chance to win."
The Southern California prep product will get to hand off to running back Lennon Creer. Creer gained 1,181 yards and scored 0 touchdowns a year ago. Receivers Taulib Ikharo (50 catches), Richie Casey (42) and Lyle Fitte (25) also return.
Linebacker Adrien Cole (80 tackles) and defensive lineman Matt Broha (44 tackles, 14 tackles for a loss, nine sacks) will anchor the defense.
"We weren't very good defensively in the second half of the season," said Dykes, whose Bulldogs finished 5-7 overall and 4-4 in the WAC. "We wore down a little bit up front. We weren't as big upfront as we needed to be. I think we corrected that this year."
The Aggies are keeping their starting quarterback a mystery until they step out onto the field on Sept. 3 at Auburn.
The staff and the football team are very comfortable with our quarterback situation," coach Gary Andersen said recently. "Playing a quality opponent like Auburn, we believe it is important for us to gain every advantage we can. Announcing a starting quarterback could possibly be a disadvantage for our football team."
California junior college transfer Adam Kennedy and Texas freshman Chuckie Keeton are competing for the right to replace departed senior quarterback Diondre Borel.
Borel, one of the quickest players in the WAC in recent years, had a disappointing senior year in 2010 as Utah State finished 4-8 overall and 2-6 in the WAC. He passed for just 2,108 yards and eight touchdowns and ran for just 298 yards and seven scores.
Andersen, though, wants to change the personality of the Aggies' offense this year. "If you want to beat Nevada or Fresno State you have to line up and play smash-mouth football," Andersen said. "On 3rd-and-1 you have to be physical instead of trying to do it with smoke and mirrors and running to the edge and trying to make things happen. We have to become more physical."
Robert Turbin returns from a 2010 injury to lead the offense. Turbin ran for 1,296 yards and 13 touchdowns as a sophomore in 2009 before missing all of last year with a knee injury.
The Aggies are led on defense by linebackers Bobby Wagner and Kyle Gallagher and safety Walter McClenton. Wagner, who had a WAC-best 11 tackles a game in 2010, was named the Pre-Season WAC Defensive Player of the Year.
"The key factor for us is we need improvement defensively for us to take the next step," Andersen said.
Coach Robb Akey's Vandals failed to return to the postseason a year ago, finishing 6-7 overall and 3-5 in the WAC.
"We were a play away from going to back-to-back bowls," said Akey, whose team went 8-5 in 2009 and won the Humanitarian Bowl in dramatic fashion against Bowling Green. "So maybe we're still learning how to win a little bit."
Gone is departed senior quarterback Nathan Enderle, who passed for 3,314 yards and 22 touchdowns last year. In his place is senior Brian Reeder, who tossed five touchdowns in relief of Enderle in 2010.
"He knows what he's doing, " Akey said. "The kid's got a great way about him."
Princeton McCarty (380 yards in 2010) returns to lead the running game behind anchor offensive linemen Tyrone Novikoff and Matt Cleveland.
Tackle Mike Cosgrove (30 tackles, four sacks) and linebacker Homer Mauga (74 tackles) lead the defense. The Vandals, though, absorbed a big blow this spring when linebacker Robert Siavii suffered a season-ending knee injury.
"We need to have a chip on our shoulder and do what they say we can't do," Akey said.
SAN JOSE STATE
The Spartans were one of the most inexperienced teams in the nation last year.
"Last year 58 per cent of our players going into the year had never played a Division I football game," Coach Mike MacIntyre said.
Linebacker Keith Smith was named the WAC Freshman of the Year after a year in which he made 116 tackles and four sacks.
The Spartans, who went 1-12 overall and 0-8 in the WAC last year, should be a much improved defensive team with Smith and fellow sophomore Vince Buhagiar back at linebacker and defensive backs Ronnie Yell, Bene Benwikere, Brandon Driver and two-time All-WAC first team player Duke Ihenacho also back. Ihenacho broke his foot in the first game last year and missed the bulk of the season.
"We are much stronger, faster and there are more of us this year," MacIntyre said. "We had 85 scholarships to give this year, the most in school history."
Running back Brandon Rutley, who had 461 yards last year, is back as is wide receiver Noel Grigsby (56 catches). The quarterback position, though is unsettled with senior Matt Faulkner and freshman Blake Jurich competing along with sophomore Dasmen Stewart.
"We're a young football team but our young guys have played a lot," MacIntyre said.
NEW MEXICO STATE
The Aggies will go with Andrew Manley at quarterback this year. The 6-3 sophomore from Hawaii passed for 604 yards and one touchdown with six interceptions a year ago behind starter Matt Christian (1,372 yards, eight scores).
This year their roles are reversed.
"One of the areas we needed to improve was our passing game," head coach DeWayne Walker said. "Andrew Manley had a great spring."
Robert Clay (226 yards) takes over as the featured back for Kenny Turner (461 yards as year). Turner has been moved to wide receiver.
"The one thing I've learned about the WAC conference is you have to score points," said Walker, whose Aggies scored just 15.7 points a game last year in finishing 2-10 overall and 1-7 in league play. "Offense is an area in which we have struggled."
Their defense also had its tough times, allowing 39.5 points a game last year.
"We have to get back to playing DeWayne Walker style of defense," said Walker, a former UCLA defensive coordinator.
The Aggies haven't been to a bowl game in 51 years, since they beat Utah State 20-13 in the 1960 Sun Bowl.
"I was a little disappointed in 2010," Walker said. "I thought we would have closed the gap a little more. There was a lot of soul searching this off-season, a lot of soul searching from A to Z. I know everybody has picked us to finish last this year. But I like where we are."