In the 111-year history of the program, the Fighting Irish have finished with a losing record 12 times. The latest setback happened last season as coach Brian Kelly's team went 4-8 despite a talent-laden roster.
This time around, Kelly knows he can't afford another national embarrassment. That is why he hired new offensive, defensive and special teams coordinators, as well as a new strength and conditioning coach.
"I can tell you we're in a different place than we were," Kelly told the Indianapolis Star.
Will different be better? Early signs point to yes, although it would be tough to be much worse than 2016.
The Fighting Irish will turn to a run-pass option-spread offense under first-year coordinator Chip Long, who held the same role with the Memphis Tigers. The 34-year-old's creativity with drawing up formations and establishing game plans drew praise from Kelly, who was bothered by last season's inconsistency.
On offense, Long has plenty of weapons to find the end zone.
Junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush will take over the starter role from DeShone Kizer, who left early for the NFL Draft and was selected by the Cleveland Browns in the second round. Wimbush is a dual threat with a strong arm and terrific speed that could catch the attention of NFL scouts.
Junior running back Josh Adams provides a powerful running style behind a strong offensive line that is led by left tackle Mike McGlinchey and left guard Quenton Nelson, both of whom figure to play on Sundays. Meanwhile, junior wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown figures to be Wimbush's preferred target.
On the opposite side of the ball, Mike Elko will serve as defensive coordinator after holding the same role with Wake Forest for the past three seasons. Elko guided a Demon Deacon unit last season that finished in the top 20 in turnovers forced, sacks and scoring defense.
Senior linebacker Nyles Morgan is the unquestioned leader of the defense, which managed only 14 sacks in 2016. Morgan provided a rare bright spot on the unit with a team-leading 94 tackles.
Senior Drue Tranquill could take a step forward in a newly created "Rover" position in Elko's scheme. Meanwhile, sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes is among several Fighting Irish players who will be given a chance to make a bigger difference on the front line in 2017.
As usual, Notre Dame's schedule includes several high-profile challenges. The Fighting Irish will square off against Georgia on Sept. 9, host USC on Oct. 21, and play at Miami and Stanford in November.
MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: QB Brandon Wimbush -- No player on the Fighting Irish carries more intrigue or opportunity than the newly minted signal-caller. Wimbush, a highly touted junior, spent the past couple of seasons behind DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire on the depth chart. He has completed 3 of 5 passes for 17 yards and rushed seven times for 96 yards during his brief career. Wimbush is a versatile threat who is a nice fit for new coordinator Chip Long's run-pass option plays.
BREAKOUT STAR: WR Equanimeous St. Brown -- He has a terrific opportunity to produce as the No. 1 wideout in Notre Dame's revamped offense. New offensive coordinator Chip Long is known as an innovator despite being only 34 years old, and he could find ways to open up St. Brown in the passing game. Many experts considered the 6-foot-5, 203-pound receiver as a top-100 recruit when he committed to the Fighting Irish as a high school standout in Anaheim, Calif.
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: TE Cole Kmet -- He has impressed observers during training camp and could have an opportunity to make an impact as a freshman. The 6-foot-5, 230-pounder was heavily recruited out of St. Viator High School in the Chicago suburb of Arlington Heights. Another Fighting Irish freshman, Brock Wright of Cypress, Texas, also has a chance to carve out playing time at tight end.
--TE Alize Mack, formerly known as Alize Jones, battled a nagging hamstring injury during training camp but is expected to be ready for the season opener Sept. 2 against Temple. Mack did not play last season because of academic ineligibility.
--CB Shaun Crawford is likely to seize a starting position after he was cleared to return from a ruptured Achilles tendon that he suffered last season. Crawford, a junior, had an interception and returned a blocked point-after attempt for two points in the season opener in 2016 before he went down with the injury in Week 2.
But the degree of potential achievement seems to realistically range from another six-win regular season to as many as 10 victories and a battle for the Big Ten West title.
One thing is certain, Northwestern figures to have an explosive offensive keyed by a veteran running back and quarterback from a unit that ranked fifth last year in the Big Ten.
They'll be aided by experienced lines -- all juniors and seniors -- on both sides of the ball.
But Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald has a major hole at middle linebacker with the departure of All-American Anthony Walker, who had 105 tackles last year -- including 62 solos -- and anchored the run defense.
"I don't think you can ever replace a player like that," Fitzgerald said.
But he'll try.
"That's the neat thing about college football," he said. "Every year, 20, 25 percent of your team graduates, and now you've got to replace it from a standpoint of freshmen coming in, but then new opportunity for guys that have been in the program."
Fitzgerald is 77-62 entering his 12th season, including seven bowl games. Last year, Northwestern beat Pitt 31-24 in the Pinstripe Bowl to finish 7-6.
"Going to 2017 (we'll) try to win a bowl game in back-to-back years, first time in program history," he said. "We've got a lot of excitement when it comes to that."
Northwestern expects to have a powerhouse attack with the return of running back Justin Jackson, who rushed for 1,524 yards and 15 touchdowns while averaging 5.1 yards per carry last season. Quarterback Clayton Thorson was 280 of 478 for 3,128 yards and 22 touchdowns for a passing attack ranked fourth in the Big Ten.
No. 1 receiver Austin Carr, who topped the Big Ten in receptions (90), receiving yards (1,247) and receiving touchdowns, has moved on to the NFL.
So Flynn Nagel (40 receptions, 447 yards), Garrett Dickerson (34 catches for 318 yards and five TDs) and Jalen Brown, a graduate transfer from Oregon, are among likely targets. The speedy Brown had 19 receptions for 318 yards and three touchdowns last year as a Ducks sophomore.
Freshman Riley Lees, ranked the No. 18 high school player in Illinois last year, could also make a quick impact, not just at wide receiver but at other positions.
Safeties Godwin Igwebuike, Kyle Queiro and Jared McGee all return in the secondary.
Punter Hunter Niswander is back after averaging 41.3 yards per punt last season. But there will likely be new faces handling other kicking chores.
Northwestern went 10-3 in 2015, and the most optimistic scenarios put that kind of season -- including contention for a Big Ten championship game berth -- within reach. The schedule does not include Ohio State or Michigan, but the Wildcats play at Wisconsin, Maryland and Nebraska and host reigning Big Ten champion Penn State.
Non-conference games with Nevada, Duke and Bowling Green to open the season could help the Wildcats to a 3-0 start heading into a conference opener on Sept. 30 at Wisconsin.
MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: RB Justin Jackson -- A dependable workhorse for the past three seasons, Jackson already has 4,129 rushing yards in his Northwestern career. Another season like last year -- 1,524 yards -- would easily make him the school's all-time rushing leader. His 312 carries were among the top three in college football last season. He was named pre-season All-Big Ten.
BREAKOUT STAR: WR Flynn Nagel -- He has a chance to step out of the shadows of departed WR Austin Carr and emerge as a go-to target for quarterback Clayton Thorson. Last season, he had 40 receptions for 447 yards and two touchdowns and averaged 11.2 yards per catch.
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: WR Riley Lees -- Lees, a freshman who was ranked the No. 18 recruit in Illinois, could also have a quick breakout, not just at wide receiver but at other positions. A three-star recruit, Lees was seen as a dual-threat quarterback at Libertyville (Ill.) High School and led his team to a state championship appearance.
Penn State's coach is hoping one way they can do so is by one-upping it.
The Big Ten champions will have a shot. The Nittany Lions return nearly all of their parts from last year's 11-2 squad. Back are nine starters -- two of them Heisman Trophy candidates -- on an offense that was among the most dynamic in the country. Six started return from an athletic defense, and Penn State has an all-conference kicker.
"The success of last season everybody wants to talk about. We've talked about it enough," Franklin said. "It's not like I'm asking them to bury their head in the sand and act like that didn't happen. They earned that. So you'll recognize that, but on the other hand, those points aren't going to carry over, and those wins aren't going to carry over."
But the talent has.
After rushing for 2,572 yards with 30 total touchdowns in his first two seasons, running back Saquon Barkley looks bigger, stronger and faster than the version that helped Penn State win nine straight games and take over for long stretches in the Big Ten title game and the Rose Bowl against USC.
Barkley added 10 pounds and is up to 230. He also ran his fastest 40-yard dash in the spring and set a personal best with a 405-pound power clean. He bench-pressed 225 pounds 30 times -- which would've been among the best marks among running backs at the NFL Combine -- at a team charity event earlier this summer.
Instead of thinking about the Heisman Trophy, Barkley has concentrated on adding a dimension to his game. He wants to play a bigger role in offensive coordinator's Joe Moorhead's cerebral offense.
"I feel that, and Coach Franklin will agree, that I'm capable of being lined up in the slot, being able to run routes," Barkley said. "I do feel like I'm capable to do a lot with the ball in my hand in space, and I just want to continue to grow in that area."
Moorhead is likely to oblige. Operating without a huddle, Moorhead's offense means to stretch defenses horizontally and vertically and create mismatches with multiple personnel groupings. Barkley fits into them nicely.
So do returning receivers DaeSean Hamilton, Saeed Blacknall, tight end Mike Gesicki and a handful of young receivers whom Franklin says are raising eyebrows in camp.
Aside from Barkley, Penn State's other Heisman hopeful is the one that'll be directing them all.
Junior quarterback Trace McSorley evolved as one of the country's best deep-ball throwers last season and enters with a thorough understanding of Moorhead's offense.
"I think there's guys that, at the first sight of pressure, they want to tuck the ball and run," Moorhead said. "But with the playmakers that we have and what we do schematically, I think he understands that, if he can buy time in the pocket and keep his eyes downfield, that someone's going to open up.
MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: QB Trace McSorley -- Although Saquon Barkley's highlight reel may be the most entertaining on in the country right now, this offense can survive without an elite running back. McSorley's responsibilities -- managing the no-huddle, communicating with and reading signs from the sideline, adjusting the alignments pre-snap, reading the play and then executing -- run far deeper. McSorley has proved adept at doing it all. His toughness has endeared him to his teammates and he's looked upon as perhaps the team's most focused leader.
BREAKOUT STAR: C Connor McGovern -- The big sophomore looks to have this spot secure. McGovern played in 13 games last season with nine starts and helped a banged-up offensive line keep quarterback Trace McSorley upright and running back Saquon Barkley moving forward, even as the line developed chemistry. At 6-foot-5 and 307 pounds, McGovern has looked strong in the camp practice sessions open to reporters.
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: CB Lamont Wade -- When John Reid suffered a knee injury in the spring, not only did the Nittany Lions likely lose their best cornerback for the season, they lost the player who played the most snaps overall in 2016. But here comes Wade, who is among the fastest players on the team. He caught Franklin's eye back in spring practice, and the coach has made a habit of playing talented true freshmen in the secondary. Reid, Grant Haley, Marcus Allen, Troy Apke and Christian Campbell all played big roles during their true freshman seasons. Minus Reid's injury, all of them are back to help Wade assimilate.
The Wolverines won 10 games in each of Harbaugh's first two seasons as coach and the players mainly responsible for those records are off to the NFL or out of eligibility.
The defensive line was hit hard, the secondary was wiped out, the receivers and tight end were gutted and the offensive line was decimated.
Yet Harbaugh doesn't show a single sign of despair.
"It feels more exciting," Harbaugh said at the Big Ten media day festivities. "To see them hungry and excited about the opportunity, that's fun to coach.
"And they're talented, too. I don't want to deviate from that. Young and untalented: bad. Young and talented: good."
Michigan opens the season with a neutral-site game against Florida on Sept. 2 and that is when Harbaugh can start gauging exactly who is both young and talented.
Even with the abundance of talent over the past two years, the Wolverines were unable to win a Big Ten title and end a championship drought dating back to 2004.
Rising sophomore defensive end Rashan Gary hears that fact and can only shake his head.
"In the defense room, we got a chain and every team that wins a Big Ten title signs off on the chain," Gary said. "It's been a long time. Every time you walk into the meeting room, you look to your left and that's something you look at. That's something that always makes us hungry."
Michigan has a returning starting quarterback in junior Wilton Speight and even he's not guaranteed to keep his job despite passing for 2,538 yards, 18 touchdowns and seven interceptions last season.
Senior John O'Korn is pushing Speight for the starting role in competition that should unearth a winner by the end of next week.
O'Korn was Speight's backup last season but was a starter at Houston earlier in his career.
"John O'Korn really played consistently good," Harbaugh said of the quarterback's camp performance. "And Wilton really had some impressive moments as well."
Michigan is auditioning young receivers and running backs and the one player who appears assured of a starting gig is sophomore back Chris Evans, who averaged 7 yards per carry while rushing for 614 yards as a freshman.
Defensively, big things are expected of Gary as a thin line goes under a revamping needed for Michigan to compete for the Big Ten crown.
Senior outside linebacker Mike McCray is back after a solid season in which he had 76 tackles and two interceptions.
MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: DT Maurice Hurst -- The fifth-year senior didn't start a single game last season but he is now being counted on to solidify and lead a young defensive line. Hurst posted 34 tackles and 4.5 sacks last season in his backup role and is motivated to take care of what he terms unfinished business. "For me the biggest thing was just wanting to be a starter," Hurst said at Big Ten Media Day festivities. "I wanted to be a leader on our team and improve my draft stock. It's been a long time, waiting for this. I'm really looking forward to this year and appreciate the opportunity to be a leader."
BREAKOUT STAR: DE Rashan Gary -- The sophomore was a ballyhooed recruit who had 27 tackles and one sack last season while being brought along slowly on a deep defensive line. Now he is being counted on to be one of the stalwarts of the defense and coach Jim Harbaugh feels he's ready. "He's had a lot of hype, he's had a lot of adulation, and there's some people that that's what they live for," Harbaugh said. "They live for approval of others and to be recognized as a hyped-up player. There's some people that are just aspiring for greater things than just the adulation of somebody. And I think Rashan is that type of guy. He just works, and I really think competing is his favorite thing to do."
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: WR Donovan Peoples-Jones -- The 6-foot-2 freshman could open the campaign as a starter with Michigan reloading at receiver. Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson have departed, and the Wolverines lack a go-to threat, which leaves opportunity for Peoples-Jones to emerge. He was ranked as the nation's top receiver recruit and figures to pay immediate dividends.
--WR Grant Perry, a junior, was reinstated to the team despite being sentenced to 12 months probation for assault. The sentence was a plea deal in which Perry had two counts of fourth-degree felony sexual misconduct dropped in exchange for misdemeanor assault and battery and felony resisting arrest.
If the pollsters and pundits are right, Ohio State fans and players won't be disappointed this season after the team finished 11-2 a year ago, losing in a CFP semifinal and to Penn State during the regular season.
"Obviously, we weren't at the top a year ago," Meyer said. "We were near the top. And Ohio State is always going to be there. I mean, it should be one of the top schools in our conference. And other than that, I think (preseason rankings), that's just respect for our players, respect that we recruited some good players and means no consequence at all in how we do our business."
As the Buckeyes prepare for their Aug. 31 opener on the road against Indiana, they are considered one of the most talented teams in the country, a favorite along with Penn State to win the tough Big Ten East Division and a candidate to make it back to the CFP, where they were embarrassed by Clemson last year in a 31-0 loss.
The talent that Meyer has continued to stockpile through highly-ranked recruiting classes is bearing fruit. Even though the Buckeyes keep losing first-round NFL draft picks each year, they're replacing them with gifted athletes who also are destined to play in the pros.
Everywhere you look this year, the Buckeyes again have either a returning starter or a pro-caliber player. One of those position groups is the defensive line.
Defensive coordinator Greg Schiano turned some heads earlier this summer when asked if Ohio State's defensive line was the best he has coached in his career, which includes two years as head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFL.
"It is, and that's not a joke," Schiano said. "We had a great player in Tampa by the name of Gerald McCoy, a tremendous player, but that was one guy. I go back to my days at Miami (as defensive coordinator) in '99 and 2000, this is clearly a better group than those guys, so that's saying something."
That might not be an exaggeration. The line is so loaded that sophomore defensive end Nick Bosa, the younger brother of former Ohio State standout Joey Bosa, is a NFL prospect but not projected as a starter for Ohio State.
Senior defensive end Tyquan Lewis and junior defensive end Sam Hubbard are possible first-round draft picks in 2018. Lewis had eight sacks last year.
Dre'Mont Jones, Jalyn Holmes, Michael Hill and Robert Landers are also potential future draft picks. And freshman defensive end Chase Young has been one of the most impressive players in preseason camp.
The linebackers also have plenty of experience and ability. Quick and athletic Jerome Baker is another possible first-round draft pick and Dante Booker is ready for a breakout year coming off a season-ending knee injury.
Most teams would have trouble absorbing the loss of two defensive backs and a safety who were picked in the first round of the 2017 NFL draft, but others are ready to step in. Cornerbacks Damon Arnette and Denzel Ward and safety Damon Webb saw playing time last year, and five-star cornerbacks Jeffrey Okudah and Shaun Wade and four-star safety Isaiah Pryor are ready to go.
But the biggest topic of conservation around Columbus is the quarterback position. Despite J.T. Barrett's success during the past four years, there are critics who believe he could be better, particularly after the disappointing loss to Clemson in the CFP semifinal in January.
Meyer went out and hired offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson, the former Indiana head coach, and Ryan Day to give the offense a reset. As a result, the Buckeyes expect to be more explosive this year and utilize Barrett more as a passer than a runner.
"We'd rather not use (Barrett) as much (to run the ball)," Meyer said. "That's not an indication things are going well. Sometimes you need to do it. But that's also a get-out-of-jail-free card when things aren't going as well. So, right now the receivers are playing at a fairly high level. At times when we use (the quarterback run) too much, that's when things aren't clicking at other spots."
The receivers were underwhelming last year, Meyer said, but that's expected to improve with a rotation that includes K.J. Hill, Binjimen Victor, Johnnie Dixon, Austin Mack, Terry McLaurin and Parris Campbell.
At running back, Mike Weber is back after rushing for 1,096 yards as a redshirt freshman last year and the offensive line, led by center Billy Price, is solid and experienced.
As for the schedule, the marquee non-conference matchup is against Oklahoma on Sept. 9. In the Big Ten, the Buckeyes play Penn State at home on Oct. 28 and travel to Michigan for the annual finale on Nov. 25.
MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: QB J.T. Barrett -- Barrett is the unquestioned leader of the Ohio State offense as a senior beginning his fourth year. Barrett is 26-4 as a starter during his career. Last year, he was the Big Ten Player of the Year while setting an Ohio State record with 233 pass completions. The Texas native holds numerous school records and a Big Ten record of 45 touchdowns responsible for in a season. But as well as Barrett has played during his career, he could be improved this year and that's a scary thought for opposing defenses. New co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Ryan Day has worked with Barrett on his accuracy and he should excel in new coordinator Brian Wilson's offense. Barrett should remain one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation. Last year, he accounted for 3,275 yards of total offense (2,428 passing, 847 rushing). Head coach Urban Meyer has been impressed in preseason camp. "His accuracy and his energy level is incredible," Meyer said. "He's got complete ownership of everything going on in that offense. He's a very accurate player."
BREAKOUT STAR: LB Dante Booker -- Last season, Booker was poised to emerge as one of Ohio State's great linebackers until he went down with a knee injury in the season opener against Bowling Green. He had waited his turn behind Joshua Perry for two years and suddenly the season was taken away from him. But he rehabbed the knee and rejoins a talented linebacking group that includes NFL first-round prospect Jerome Baker. Booker could be ready to do something similar to S Malik Hooker, who waited his turn at safety and was rewarded as a first-round pick in the 2017 NFL draft after one standout season. It remains to be seen whether Booker plays himself into a high draft pick, but at 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds he certainly has the physical tools. "He's a big explosive athlete and he's out in space," linebackers coach Bill Davis said. "So, if you want to put a receiver on him, he can run good enough to cover. If you want to block him with a receiver, it's a long day. When you have the combination of size and speed like he has, you can take advantage of it."
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: RB J.K. Dobbins -- Ohio State has a wealth of talented freshmen this year and Dobbins is near the top of the list. The Texas native has impressed coaches so much since enrolling in January and in the preseason that he has moved up to No. 2 behind returning starter Mike Weber on the depth chart alongside Demario McCall. Head coach Urban Meyer hasn't hidden the fact that he expects Dobbins to contribute to the offense right away. "He's going to play," Meyer said. The 5-foot-10, 208-pound Dobbins missed his senior season in high school after breaking a bone in a leg, but rushed for 5,149 yards and 74 touchdowns in his first three years.
After the Gophers defeated Washington State in a bowl game despite dealing with the distractions of 10 players being suspended and a two-day, player-led boycott prior to the game, Minnesota enters the season with high expectations.
Of course, Fleck's leading the parade with his high-energy, boat-steering, non-stop attitude. It's a refreshing and welcome change after the turmoil that led to the firing of coach Tracy Claeys and the surprise hiring of Fleck.
"I'm trying to change the culture at Minnesota," Fleck said.
On the field, the Gophers will have a tough task duplicating or topping last season's 9-4 record, mostly because of the situation at quarterback and tough regular-season ending five-game stretch that will test the new coaching staff. The Gophers close out the regular season with road games against Iowa, Michigan, host Nebraska, at Northwestern and entertain Wisconsin.
Quarterback is the biggest question mark for the offense -- and the program due to the stability for the past three-plus years.
Mitch Leidner played in 47 games, starting 41 and winning 24 games, so his departure is a huge void for the offense and the program. Through the first two weeks, Fleck has yet to name a starting quarterback, with Demry Croft and Conor Rhoda splitting the duties in fall camp. Fleck would prefer to have a starter named before the opener against Buffalo. but he indicated he might play both quarterbacks.
"If we think we are going to have one quarterback or need one quarterback through this entire season, I would be crazy to think that," Fleck said. "As we go forward, I have to start looking at some options."
The Gophers do have a plethora of quality running backs, led by Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks. The loss of talented wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky will be filled by a number of players, with Tyler Johnson impressing the coaching staff. The offensive line is in influx, mostly because of a large turnover. How the O-line meshes together and several new players adjust to playing heavy reps is essential for the offense, particularly with the situation at quarterback.
MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: DT Steven Richardson -- The Chicago-area product has evolved into one of the top players in the conference. The 6-foot, 300-pounder plugs the middle and anchors the defense. Coach P.J. Fleck has demanded that the quiet and reserved Richardson be more vocal and assertive this season. With the defensive line somewhat thin, Richardson must remain healthy.
BREAKOUT STAR: LB Jonathan Celestin -- Celestin has dedicated his senior season to his father, Frederick, who died in the spring in a car accident. After ranking second on the team with 80 tackles last season, Celestein is set to be one of the leaders on defense for the Gophers. The linebackers are one of the deepest groups on the team, with Celestin's big-play ability and steadiness a strength for a defense seeking more playmakers.
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: OT Blaise Andries -- Due to a rash of injuries and departures, Andries is slated to receive significant playing time. The top-ranked player in Minnesota's recruiting Class of 2017, the 6-foot-6, 310-pounder is smart, big and athletic.
--LB Jack Cichy tore his ACL early in fall camp and will be sidelined for the entire season. Cichy tallied 60 tackles last season, and was slated to be one of the players expected to help offset the losses of T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel.
--RB Taiwan Deal is hampered by a right leg injury and remains questionable to play in the Badgers' opener against Utah State on Sept. 1.
--LB Ryan Connelly missed several practices early in fall camps due to a left leg injury, but is expected to return well before the opener.
--CB Madison Cone is dealing with a left leg injury that caused him to miss practices.
The Badgers, who won the Big Ten West Division and defeated Western Michigan in the Cotton Bowl last season, are looking to take it a step further this year by landing a spot in the College Football Playoff.
The good news, for the Badgers, is the schedule is much softer this season. After playing LSU in the opener and enduring a brutal three-game stretch against Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State last season, the Badgers have a much easier slate with non-conference games against Utah State, Florida Atlantic and BYU.
Wisconsin avoids Ohio State and Michigan State and hosts Michigan, though the easier slate leaves lesser margin for error for its playoff hopes.
New defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard has reason to smile by inheriting the bulk of last season's top-ranked defense. The Badgers return 27 of the 33 players who lettered for the team, but will miss the leadership and big-play ability of T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel. The Badgers' defense allowed only 15.6 points per game last season, ranking fourth in the FBS.
Less than two weeks into fall camp, the Badgers suffered a major blow when starting linebacker Jack Cichy tore his ACL in practice. The season-ending injury hurts Wisconsin's depth, particularly added with some key subtractions in the offseason.
"It's a big loss for us, but it gives others an opportunity to play," Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said.
One of the areas of concern is quarterback. Sophomore Alex Hornibrook is coming off a productive freshman season, but displayed bouts of inconsistency with his accuracy. Freshman Jack Coan had a stellar spring and had not missed a beat in the fall camp, as he will push Hornibrook for playing time if he falters.
Coming off an 11-3 season, the Badgers will rely on running back Bradrick Shaw to offset the loss of standout Corey Clement. Shaw rushed for 457 yards and five touchdowns last season, while receiver Jazz Peavy and tight end Troy Fumagalli are set to be Hornibrook's main targets.
Unlike past seasons, the Badgers should roll into conference play. Outside a tough matchup at BYU, the Badgers' offensive line will have some time to mesh, while Shaw should benefit from the added carries and responsibilities. The defense is strong, though will endure a brief period of adjustment with a new coordinator and the loss of Biegel.
MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: RB Bradrick Shaw -- He averaged 5.2 yards per carry in limited duty last season. With Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale gone, the Badgers' offense will lean on Shaw to ease the pressure off quarterback Alex Hornibrook. The Badgers have always been known as a running team, so the importance of Shaw developing into a go-to back is essential to the offense, in particular with a developing offensive line and the lack of a multitude of weapons at wide receiver.
BREAKOUT STAR: LB T.J. Edwards -- Despite leading the team with 89 tackles last season, Edwards has flown under the radar in his career. With linebackers T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel exhausting their eligibility and Jack Cichy, who had 60 tackles last season, suffering a season-ending injury in fall camp, Edwards will take on a bigger role, both in production and leadership. How he adapts to a new defensive coordinator and expanded position will be instrumental in Wisconsin's success.
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: CB Nick Nelson -- The Hawaii transfer has already shown he will be a big-time contributor this fall. The junior is set to take over for four-year starter Sojourn Shelton, and will be helped by his experience working with Leonhard while redshirting last season. Nelson is set to team up with UW cornerback Derrick Tindal, with the pair having the potential to form one of the better tandems in the conference. Nelson also will help out in the punt return department after serving as Hawaii's punt returner.
The two inexperienced quarterbacks are competing during preseason camp to replace starter C.J. Beathard, now with the San Francisco 49ers.
Iowa decided not to redshirt Stanley as a true freshman last year and he backed up Beathard, completing 5 of 9 passes for 62 yards in seven games while burning a season of eligibility.
Wiegers has been in the program for a while now while waiting his turn behind Beathard and Jake Rudock to see some playing time.
Based on their performances during an early scrimmage, Stanley looks to be the front-runner. But Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz expects this week's scrimmage to be more of a defining moment.
"Hopefully we'll make a lot of strides," Ferentz said. "Maybe the thing will be a little more clear then. But we'd like to let this thing run out a little bit."
Quarterback is the most visible and potentially impactful position battle for the Hawkeyes, who are coming off an 8-5 season that was disappointing in many respects after they fell short of expectations to win the Big Ten West Division.
Expectations are considerably lower this year. Iowa is picked to finish somewhere in the middle of the division.
The Hawkeyes face a rugged Big Ten schedule with crossover games against Penn State, Ohio State and Michigan State, and play division opponents Northwestern, Wisconsin Nebraska on the road.
In addition to the quarterback situation, Iowa has question marks at wide receiver and in the defensive secondary.
"I think if you just look at our team in a nutshell, our inexperience is really on the perimeter both offensively and defensively, including the quarterback position," Ferentz said. "If you want to talk about strengths, the closer we are to the football, that's probably where we're a little more experienced. So it's all how the team comes together."
At wide receiver, the Hawkeyes welcome back Matt VandeBerg, who went down with a broken foot during the fourth game last season and was granted a medical redshirt. He was the team's top pass catcher at the time of the injury.
The other wideouts are more in doubt. The Hawkeyes traditionally struggle to find speed guys who can play the position and get open. Whether anyone emerges this season -- sophomore Devonte Young has looked good in preseason camp -- could be one of the keys to the offense's success.
The rest of the offense appears to be set with an experienced and typically tough line and emerging young tight ends.
Talented senior Akrum Wadley, an All-Big Ten candidate, returns at running back after rushing for 1,081 yards and 10 touchdowns on 168 carries and catches 36 passes for 315 yards and three TDs.
Wadley will be joined by Nevada graduate transfer running back James Butler, who ran for 1,336 yards and 12 touchdowns for the Wolfpack last year. Butler's arrival could be a real gift for the Iowa offense.
"We're going to complement each other," Wadley said. "James is a great back. He's explosive, he's versatile, he could catch out the backfield, and we just got to find ways (to get him the ball)."
The defense, like the offense, is the most solid in the front end. The Hawkeyes will be anchored by three returning starters at linebacker and two defensive linemen plus the addition of stud recruit A.J. Epenesa at defensive end. Led by senior Josey Jewell, the linebacking unit could be the best in the Big Ten this year.
The back end of the defense was hardest hit by personnel losses and consequently the most suspect group as the Hawkeyes prepare for their Sept. 2 opener against Wyoming and Josh Allen, the Cowboys' ballyhooed quarterback.
The biggest loss in the secondary is former Thorpe Award winner Desmond King at cornerback. Projected starting safety Brandon Snyder sustained a knee injury during the spring and likely won't be available all season.
That leaves sophomore Manny Rugamba, who made some big plays as a freshman last year, and Joshua Jackson are the likely cornerbacks with sophomore Jake Gervase taking over for Snyder and strong safety Miles Taylor returning.
MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: RB Akrum Wadley -- A dual-threat back, Wadley ran for 1,081 yards and 10 touchdowns on 168 carries and caught 36 passes for 315 yards and three TDs a year ago despite sharing time in the backfield with LeShun Daniels Jr. If Wadley stays healthy, he could be poised for a big season in 2017. Daniels used up his eligibility, but Nevada graduate transfer James Butler joined the Iowa program this summer and gives the Hawkeyes a capable and experienced complement to Wadley. With an inexperienced quarterback and wide receivers, the Hawkeyes will need Wadley to make plays to be successful. Iowa ranked 121st of 128 FBS teams last year in total offense.
BREAKOUT STAR: C James Daniels -- Coach Kirk Ferentz has developed some outstanding offensive linemen during his time as a head coach and assistant at Iowa, but Daniels could end up being ranked with some of the best. Athletic and skilled, Daniels is a returning two-year starter who will be in the middle of a veteran group that returns largely intact after being named college football's top offensive line a year ago. The Ohio native is the brother of LeShun Daniels Jr., who completed his eligibility last year, and the son of former Ohio State offensive lineman LeShun Daniels Sr. James Daniels was named to the Rimington Award preseason watch list.
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: DE A.J. Epenesa could be one of the top players that Kirk Ferentz has signed during his 18 seasons as Iowa coach. The five-star recruit has looked impressive in preseason camp, flashing his talent at a kids' day scrimmage with what would have been four sacks in a regular game. He's strong enough and quick enough to make an impact right away at a deep positon for the Hawkeyes. His emergence could allow Iowa to move defensive ends Matt Nelson and Parker Hesse inside to play tackle and help offset the loss of NFL draft pick Jaleel Johnson. Epenesa has the size and strength to play right away, but he's still learning the defense. "He's impressed us," Ferentz said. "He definitely belongs on the varsity."
Tom Allen replaced Kevin Wilson, who resigned over philosophical differences with athletic director Fred Glass following the regular season. Allen was promoted prior to the Hoosiers' loss to Utah in the Foster Farms Bowl. Wilson is now the offensive coordinator at Ohio State.
So, as fate would have it, the Hoosiers open the season by hosting the Buckeyes on Aug. 31.
Allen, who joined the Hoosiers in 2016 as defensive coordinator, oversaw a much improved defense last season. Indiana has finished 6-7 in each of the past two seasons following bowl losses.
"I think we're in a good spot and I feel good about our team," Allen said.
"Nobody at this stage really knows for sure until you get somebody else, but in terms of attitude and execution, I'm encouraged by the situational things we've worked on in practice. We've been able to simulate situations on special teams, offense and defense, and we're getting some good execution at critical times."
The defense's strength is its deep secondary, which includes defensive back Rashard Fant (the school career leader with 48 passes defended and 44 pass breakups) and hybrid safety/linebacker Marcelino Ball. Senior Tegray Scales, the Big Ten's leading tackler last season, will help guide the linebacker crew.
The offense returns seven starters, including fifth-year senior quarterback Richard Lagow. Allen said Lagow has grown as a leader and is holding his teammates accountable.
"It's hard to stand up and tell your peers they're doing something wrong or getting them back in line or whatever, whether it's on the field or off the field."
The Hoosiers boast great depth at wide receiver where Nick Westbrook returns following a 54-catch season. Simmie Cobbs Jr. caught 60 passes in 2015, but played in just one game last season before suffering a season-ending ankle injury.
J-Shun Harris is back after sitting out the last two seasons after suffering ACL injuries in each knee. Harris had 18 catches as a freshman, earning IU Offensive Newcomer of the Year in 2014.
In new offensive coordinator Mike DeBord's system, the tight end is expected to be more prominent. DeBord spent the past two seasons as the offensive coordinator at Tennessee, which averaged more than 35 points per game.
That bodes well for 6-foot-5 tight end Ian Thomas.
"Any time where you are in a position with a guy of his size, he weighs 250 pounds, and his speed is matched up with linebackers and safeties, that is a tough deal (for defenders)," Allen said.
The 6-5, 305-pound Coy Cronk became the first true freshman to start all 13 games at left tackle last season and will anchor the offensive line along with left guard Wes Martin. The Hoosiers will miss guard Dan Feeney, a third-round pick of the Los Angles Chargers.
One of the biggest questions offensively is who will emerge as the main running back after Devine Redding declared for the NFL Draft one year early after two consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. The two leading rushers are Tyler Natee (237 yards) and Mike Majette (180). Freshman Morgan Ellison has been practicing with the first two units as well.
Another pressing question is which Griffin Oakes will show up for his senior season. As a sophomore, Oakes earned first-team All-Big Ten honors, making 24 of 29 field goal attempts. Last season, his production fell off as he made only 16 of 26.
MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: LB Tegray Scales -- He led the nation with 93 solo tackles and 23.5 tackles for loss. He led the Big Ten with 126 tackles, 10th nationally. Coach Tom Allen persuaded Scales to be more of a leader last season. "So he embraced it," Allen said. "He bought into everything I was telling him. He believed in it, and he lived it out."
BREAKOUT STAR: QB Richard Lagow -- He is seeking to improve on last season's output of 19 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. Coach Tom Allen said Lagow, who completed 57.8 percent of his passes last season, has made strides in the offseason in terms of confidence and leadership. "He throws the ball extremely well," Allen said. "He's got to protect it better and he knows it."
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: DB Bryant Fitzgerald -- He has made an impact in practice and coaches expect he has a chance to contribute as a hybrid linebacker/safety. Coach Tom Allen said Fitzgerald is special. "In terms of offense, defense and special teams, I thought he was the best (prep) player in Indiana last year," Allen said.
North Carolina transfer Caleb Henderson, who got some work in an offense similar to Maryland offensive coordinator Walt Bell's attack, seemed to be the frontrunner for the job. But Henderson broke his foot last spring and is just "85-90 percent" at practices, although he's getting his full share of reps as coaches split time among the quartet with the first and second units.
Sophomore Tyrell Pigrome appeared in 11 games last year and was a running sensation, but he didn't make enough plays in the passing game to automatically earn the job this season. He looks more poised and a more proven passer so far. Sophomore Max Bortenschlager is big and strong, but he completed just 48 percent of his throws in his two 2016 appearances. He still throws the prettiest balls among the group.
Finally, four-star freshman Kasim Hill out of Washington, D.C., has impressed with his maturity and skill level, and second-year coach DJ Durkin proved last year he wasn't afraid to play freshmen. Stay tuned.
Junior Ty Johnson, he of the 1,004 rushing yards and school-record 9.1-yard average per carry, and sophomore LoLo Harrison, who had a freshman record 7.2 yards per rush, anchor a strong running game that churned out 199.5 yards per game. Wideout D.J. Moore has caught a pass in 21 straight games and has nine scoring catches in his career, equaling the most ever for a Terrapin rising junior.
The offense did the heavy lifting for a rebuilding defense that allowed 29.5 points per game but hopes to be much improved with more experience in Durkin's multiple schemes.
Two years of recruiting for Durkin and his staff -- and two years in Rick Court's strength program -- have made Maryland bigger on both sides of the ball, a point of emphasis, particularly on defense, where the Terps essentially had sand kicked in their faces. In one late-season stretch, Big Ten foes Michigan, Ohio State and Nebraska pounded Maryland by a combined score of 149-13.
The Terrapins should know in a hurry if their defense is improved. Maryland opens on the road at Texas on Sept. 2. The home opener is the following week against Towson and then a big Sept. 23 home clash with Central Florida looms large on the Terrapins' way to bowl eligibility.
The conference schedule is typically rugged with road dates at Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan State. Late-season showdowns with Michigan and Penn State at home won't be any picnic either.
MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: MLB Jermaine Carter, Jr. -- He's the leader of a defense that has to be better (80th in total defense, allowing 434 yards per last year). He has started a team-high 25 consecutive games, has two All-Big Ten honorable mention awards, is on the Dick Butkus watch list and has led the team in tackles in each of the past two seasons. He's leaner and is eying being more of a factor in coverage. The hope is that he also has more help in front of him to cut down on that 4.8 yards per rush the team allowed last season, when seven foes went for more than 200 yards rushing.
BREAKOUT STAR: DE Jesse Aniebonam -- Aniebonam burst on the scene last year with a team-high 14 tackles for loss. His nine sacks ranked fifth in the Big Ten, not bad for a part-time starter. Aniebonam, who checks in at 260 pounds, looks noticeably bigger and stronger in camp, all the better to terrorize quarterbacks and be more of a factor in the running game, moving to true defensive end, instead of the hybrid "Buck" end. He said he's faster than ever, too, which would be saying something.
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: S Markquese Bell -- He has been a head-turning standout in preseason camp, not just by observers, but by receivers crossing the middle. A consensus four-star recruit out of Bridgeton, N.J., he'll play on defense in many of Maryland's multiple schemes. Early enrolled last spring, he's part of a Top 20 recruiting class, Maryland's best ever, and he's at a position of need in a secondary that is rebuilding. Freshman Buck end Bryce Brand has also been impressive in early camp. And we never had this discussion if impressive freshman Kasim Hill wins the QB job.
--WLB Shane Cockerille, who was suspended from the team before last year's Quick Lane Bowl appearance, has been reinstated academically and is eligible to play against Texas, pending certain undisclosed protocols set forth by coach DJ Durkin. Cockerille, a senior who began his career at quarterback, was honorable mention All-Big Ten last year with 108 tackles, including nine for loss.
--S Denzel Conyers received a hardship waiver from the NCAA to play a sixth season following his ACL injury in the third game of last year. He had a career-high eight tackles against UCF in that game. His return is key, a true vet playing among a bunch of youngsters in the secondary, but he's still not full speed, held out every few days to rest.
That's what second-year Rutgers coach Chris Ash is looking for from his Scarlet Knights.
"I really like our football team right now," Ash said at the team's August 13 media day. "We talk a lot about these players are like our sons and we treat them like our sons. And we all love our sons, but sometimes you don't necessarily like being around your son. We really like being around these guys.
"They have a great attitude. They are committed; they are invested. We not only love them, but we really like being around them every single day that we get that opportunity here in training camp. And when you can say that about your team, it's a good spot to be in."
The Knights won two of their first three games in 2016. But they then lost multi-threat Janarion Grant in the fourth game and things went downhill from there.
They lost their final three games by a combined score of 119-13. They lost back-to-back games to Michigan and Ohio State, 58-0 and 78-0.
Grant, back for his redshirt senior year, will again flash his return and offensive skills that saw him score six touchdowns in four games, returning both a kick and a punt for touchdowns. He is tied for the FBS career record with eight return TDs.
While Grant is set to be a major factor, the Knights still hadn't named a starting quarterback by mid camp. New coordinator Jerry Kill had hoped to have one well in advance of the Sept. 1 opener -- at home -- against No. 4 Washington.
"We're getting closer to naming a quarterback," Ash said. "We're not going to go all the way up until game week at all. We'll get it done."
Graduate transfer Kyle Bolin, holdover Giovanni Rescigno and freshman Johnathan Lewis were the candidates.
Ash liked the way his running back situation was coming along, and having healthy defensive end Kemoko Turay to anchor the defense also has to make this team better in 2017.
MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: WR/RET Janarion Grant -- He already has tied the FBS record for return touchdowns with eight and also helps the offense in all areas. He went down with a leg injury in the fourth game of last season and is back for another shot at his senior year. He is first in school history with 2,606 return yards and fourth in all-purpose yardage with 4,251. Asked what it's like to be mentioned with Rutgers names like Ray Rice, he said this spring, "It's a lot. It can be overwhelming if you let it be overwhelming. You just have to stay positive and don't let that get to you. Don't get the big head. Just stay level and grounded, and work to be the best and be the first one they talk about."
BREAKOUT STAR: DE Kemoko Turay -- He had 7.5 sacks and three blocked kicks in 2014 but has had only four sacks the past two seasons. If he gets back to form, he will be Rutgers' best defensive player. "I'm the new Kemoko," he said. "So I'm not worried about the old Kemoko. I'm ready to grind and show off. That's my mentality." Said coach Chris Ash: "Kemoko has really matured and really focused on being a good teammate. He's really focused on being the best player that he can be. He wants to be an all-around good player, an every-down player. Early on in his career, he was satisfied with just being a third-down guy; go out there and rush the passer. And that would be great if that's all did he and he did it well. But we want and need him to be an every-down player, and that's what he wants, also."
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: RB Raheem Blackshear -- The freshman chose Rutgers over Michigan State and enters what should be a deep position for the Scarlet Knights. "I think it's a very competitive group and it's a group that will be improved from last season," coach Chris Ash said. Asked which freshmen were jumping out at the coaches in camp, Ash said, "Raheem Blackshear at running back has really stood out. He's going to be a guy that's going play for us."
--QB Tommy Wyatt, a transfer from Temple, was working out at wide receiver.
--P Ryan Anderson, a graduate transfer from Division III, was leading the race to be the team's starter.
--WR Amir Mitchell is returning from an ACL tear in the spring. Coach Chris Ash said the team hopes to have him back "sometime in the middle of the season."
--K Andrew Harte, a transfer from Minnesota, can compete immediately because he comes in as a walk-on. "I feel a lot better about our kicking situation right now," coach Chris Ash said, "with who's on campus and the competition that's been created."
--K David Bonagura was 10 of 14 on field goal attempts last season, but only 1 of 4 from 40 yards or longer. Rutgers averaged just 55.3 yards per kickoff -- six yards less than its opponents -- and recorded a Big Ten-low four touchbacks. "Based on what I've seen in practice, I like where our kickers and punters are at right now," coach Chris Ash said. "I've mentioned a lot about our special teams ineptness last year. We have to make sure that our kickers and punters are obviously improved, but our coverage people have to be better. We have to get down the field, we have to get off blocks, we have to eliminate space. We have to make tackles. That's what makes you a good kicking (coverage) team or not, it's not just the kickers."
--WR Damon Mitchell, a graduate transfer from Arkansas, has joined his brother, Ahmir, in Piscataway. "He's going to have a huge role in our football team," said coach Chris Ash. "He's been a great addition to our roster as a graduate transfer coming in from Arkansas. He's big, physical. Where it really shows up is on special teams. His history at Arkansas is he was an outstanding special teams player, and in practice, he has shown that he's going to do that for us, also."
Lee, a big-armed transfer from Tulane, has been touted to be exactly what third-year coach Mike Riley wants in a quarterback and for the Nebraska passing game. Nothing through the first couple of weeks of camp changed the notion that greatly improved quarterback play is expected out of Lincoln.
"It's been going great," Lee said after a recent practice.
Lee, who sat out last season, won the starting job in the spring, allowing him to take a leadership role that has continued into camp for a team that went 9-4 last season, mostly with dual-threat Tommy Armstrong Jr. under center.
Lee gives Riley the kind of pro-style thrower he put to good use during his tenure at Oregon State. But will improved quarterback play be enough to offset a talented, but rapidly dissipating receiving unit and a running game still searching for the dynamic back to replace Ameer Abdullah? Freshman wideout Jaevon McQuitty is out for the season because of a knee injury, while two others receivers were out during parts of camp due to injuries.
As for the defense, there is an abundance of talented but mostly unrealized potential, being molded by a new defensive coordinator deploying a drastically different scheme.
Ex-defensive coordinator Mark Banker did a nice job of improving the defense in his second year, but there was a growing feeling that his conservative scheme wasn't going to fire up the engine responsible for charging Nebraska defense back to the Blackshirt days.
Enter 44-year-old Bob Diaco.
Despite the abysmal head coaching record he posted at the University of Connecticut -- 11-26 in three seasons before being fired in December -- there is little doubt that the fiery coordinator is one of the better signal callers in the business.
"Everything is positive," Diaco said.
"Every coach is improving. Every player on defense is getting better. We're a work in progress. We have a whole bunch of players that have never participated in the games but they're getting ready. They're working, they're giving everything they possibly have to give. They are really embracing that and coming to work. No one is disappointed."
On paper, Nebraska's defensive personnel appears to be a good fit for Daico's 3-4 scheme.
Much of the defense's success will be predicated off nose tackle Mick Stoltenberg's ability to take up blocks. Flanking Stoltenberg will be Freedom Akinmoladun and Carlos Davis. Akinmoladun is Nebraska's leading returning pass rusher while Davis is the most intriguing second-year lineman on the team.
At linebacker, it's anyone's guess. Dedrick Young flashed major potential early in his career, but it remains to be seen whether he can make that next step. The rest of the linebacker unit is comprised of youth and some heady, yet not-super-talented players.
Even with the loss of cornerback Chris Jones, who suffered a meniscus tear in his left knee in July, the secondary appears to be the strength of the defense. Husker fans are familiar with the ability of safeties Joshua Kalu and Kieron Williams, but the coaching staff seems confident that highly rated corners like the long and angular Lamar Jackson are ready to emerge as capable Big Ten starters.
The Big Ten media picked Nebraska to finish third in the West division in a preseason poll. There are no easy predictions to make for this largely unproven Nebraska roster, but the talent on this team generally seems capable. But with an improved recruiting approach and the steady molding of a roster more in the making of a traditional Mike Riley attack, Nebraska should sustain a hint of optimism about the program's long-term direction.
MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: QB Tanner Lee -- Sure, there is a lot of buzzing around Lee, but he wasn't the picture of dynamic efficiency during his two seasons at Tulane, completing 53.6 percent of his passes with 23 touchdowns and 21 interceptions. Nonetheless, Lee looks the part. In a big way. His strong arm, accuracy and his pocket fluidity screams out next-level talent.
BREAKOUT STAR: S Joshua Kalu -- With cornerback Chris Jones likely done for the season, Kalu is the unquestioned best defensive player on the team and a possible All-America candidate. Kalu will man centerfield while playing in the box from time to time. Kalu, a senior who started at cornerback the past two seasons, has 168 career tackles and five interceptions.
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: WR Tyjon Lindsey -- If QB Tanner Lee has a breakout season, it will likely be partially attributed to Lindsey living up to being the vertical threat he was hyped as coming out of high school. Lindsey, at 5-foot-9, 160 pounds, moves differently than the other players on the roster, and the hope is he can become a John Ross-type player.
--DE Freedom Akinmoladun, the best pass rusher on the team, has displayed an ability to get to the quarterback but needs to stay healthy. Yet all the tools are all there, including the frame, explosion and size to be one of the Big Ten's better pass rushers.
--RB Devine Ozigbo is not really a breakaway threat, but he's a more-than-competent back who brings something of a power style with his 230 pounds. Halfway through camp, Ozigbo -- who has 621 career yards on 135 carries -- was in a three-way race to be the starting running back.
--LB Dedrick Young is most accomplished of Nebraska's returning linebackers. New coordinator Bob Diaco needs Young to take the next step and develop into a playmaker capable of forcing turnovers and tackles for loss while continuing to contribute even more tackles.
--WR Jaevon McQuitty, a four-star freshman, suffered a season-ending knee injury in camp. Early impressions were that he would have been a help this season in the rotation.
Smith's second year will be marked, at least initially, by fresh faces and renewed hope. A whopping 54 freshmen and redshirt freshmen dot this roster. Just 25 upperclassmen, including a paltry nine seniors, will be there to show all the callow youngsters the ropes.
Some would call this rebuilding, but considering what this program has been since it fired Ron Zook following the 2011 season, can you really call it rebuilding when the past five years have more resembled a house of cards going one-on-one with Hurricane Katrina circa 2005?
Simply put, this is more like a total reconstruction.
Smith has athletic director Josh Whitman on his side. He has plenty of experienced assistants on his staff, and he should have a better handle on things than he did last year, when players wore their names in tape on the front of their helmets during fall camp so he could identify them.
"What a difference a year makes," Smith said. "A year to work with the players off the field to establish how we're going to win football games ... pretty important. We've seen marked improvements, strength and conditioning-wise, which should help us an awful lot."
It would also help if Chayce Crouch can take control of the offense. Crouch will start at quarterback after the graduation of Wes Lunt. Crouch won his only start last year in a game at Rutgers after Lunt went down with an injury, but Crouch missed the final six games with an injury of his own.
Illinois appears to have capable running backs and receivers, particularly with the return of wide receiver Mike Dudek (knee) from a two-year absence. A healthy Dudek could pair with Malik Turner to form one of the Big Ten's top receiving duos, although Crouch has yet to prove he can carve up college secondaries.
Kendrick Foster and Reggie Corbin could also form a solid duo at running back. But can a largely inexperienced offensive line, aside from tackle Christian DiLauro and guard Nick Allegretti, create creases in the run game and keep Crouch upright in the pocket?
The questions continue defensively, where the Illini are tasked with replacing five senior linemen who combined for 37 starts. Smith liberally mixed in youngsters on the back seven down the stretch last year, so that area should be able to hold its own, particularly with senior Jaylen Dunlap back to anchor the secondary at cornerback.
The schedule isn't horrible. Illinois doesn't have to play Michigan or Penn State, and could realistically win five games if it plays well, even with its inexperience. But there will be growing pains, and plenty of them.
"We're in a place right now in our program where we recruited guys that will get an opportunity to play early," Smith said. "We can't wait to see how many of these guys can really step up."
MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: QB Chayce Crouch -- This is his team, for better or for worse, at least as long as his offensive line and judgment can keep him upright. Crouch is your classic dual-threat quarterback, capable of running for more than 100 yards in a game and -- the coaches are hoping -- equally capable of making use of a good receiving corps. The caveat is that he's started exactly one college game against last year's Rutgers, which wasn't exactly like butting heads with Michigan or Ohio State, so three words are going to apply for a bit: Jury still out.
BREAKOUT STAR: WR Mike Dudek -- This also comes with a qualifier -- his health. As a freshman in 2014, Dudek caught 76 passes for 1,038 yards and six TDs, playing a big role in the only bowl appearance of the Tim Beckman era. But Dudek's knee exploded brutally during 2015 spring practice and it cost him not one, but two seasons. So there is rust of sorts to chip off, but coach Lovie Smith says Dudek has regained the speed he had three years ago. If that's the case, the Illinois offense got a whole lot better.
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: OT Larry Boyd -- The 6-foot-5, 310-pound true freshman was handed a starting spot upon arrival at preseason camp. But he missed more than a week of workouts after sustaining a concussion and is now a backup to another freshman, Alex Palczewski. However, Boyd figures to play sooner instead of later because he's a guy who has the body to hold his own right away and possibly help the offense control the ball on the ground. Boyd also represents an important coup for the program from the St. Louis area that coach Lovie Smith wants to recruit more successfully.
--WR Sam Mays (leg) has missed some of training camp and could find himself losing ground in the battle to be the third receiver. Mays caught 13 passes for 158 yards last year, including the game-winner on Nov. 5 against Michigan State.
--DE James Crawford (hamstring) missed practice on August 15, but coach Lovie Smith isn't reading much into it, saying it's just a byproduct of camp. Crawford started four games at linebacker last year but was moved to end as the coaching staff looks for an edge rusher to pressure the quarterback.
--OT Christian DiLauro (leg) missed some practices early in camp, but has returned to action and appears to be 100 percent. DiLauro, who has started 31 straight games dating to the middle of his freshman year, figures to be a leader for the offensive line..
--WR Carmoni Green has made a nice impression on the coaching staff with his ability to make tough catches. The true freshman from Miami was one of four signees who went through spring practice and it has apparently accelerated his development.
The Boilermakers endured 3 1/2 mediocre seasons from Darrell Hazell before letting him go at the midway point of the 2016 season, bringing in Jeff Brohm to replace him. Brohm led Western Kentucky to three bowl games in his three seasons in charge of the Hilltoppers.
He was the first big hire for new athletic director Mike Bobinski, who had been on the job for just a few months before filling the vacancy. Brohm was one of the bigger names on the market during the offseason, in part because his Hilltopper teams never seemed to have a problem moving the football and finding the end zone.
"I think we do want to play an exciting brand of football," Brohm said at the Big Ten's media days. "We do want to have some fun with it and try to score points."
He may find that a tougher go at Purdue, at least in 2017.
Purdue's biggest question marks on offense concern the passing game. Quarterback David Blough moved the ball well last year but suffered from untimely turnovers and countless hits. He entered the final weeks of camp battling with Elijah Sindelar to retain the starting spot. The receiving corps lacks depth, and Brohm's still looking to see if he has the necessary playmakers to stretch opposing defenses.
Things aren't all bad. The backfield, for example, has some intriguing players led by Markell Jones, Tario Fuller and D.J. Knox. The first-team defense impressed in preseason, and Danny Ezechukwu could be one of the breakout players of the Big Ten at linebacker.
Of course, Brohm inherited several talent gaps on the roster, so he emphasized the graduate transfer market once he arrived, adding several experienced players to the roster.
Offensive linemen Shane Evans and Dave Steinmetz, defensive backs Josh Okonye and T.J. McCollum, kicker Spencer Evans and wide receiver Corey Holmes all could see the starting lineup in September. Brohm also mined the junior college ranks for defensive end Kai Higgins, wide receivers Isaac Zico and Terry Wright, offensive lineman Ethan Smart, defensive tackle Raymond Ellis and safety T.J. Jallow.
Brohm doesn't start 2017 with great expectations, part of why he got a six-year contract to turn the program around. Whether that happens in year one depends largely on how well the younger players grasp the new system, and how much of an impact the first-year veterans on the Boilermakers can make right away.
MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: QB David Blough -- Jeff Brohm is going to try to bring the electric offense from Western Kentucky to Purdue. For that to happen, the Boilermaker quarterback -- likely Blough to start the season -- will have to be strong in the pocket and run the offense effectively. Blough wasn't great at standing in the pocket last season, and it was the same story during the first August scrimmage. Brohm will need Blough to take a major step forward in 2017.
BREAKOUT STAR: LB Danny Ezechukwu -- The Boilermakers have a strong linebacker corps, with Ja'Whaun Bentley and Markus Bailey leading the stat sheet. But Ezechukwu was the standout of the summer and could be poised for an All-Big Ten season if he can stay healthy.
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: WR Isaac Zico -- Notre Dame transfer Corey Holmes is the biggest name among the new receivers, but he got banged up early in camp. Terry Wright, a junior college transfer like Zico, was reportedly the fastest man in summer workouts. But it was Zico who impressed the most in early workouts and the initial August scrimmage. He's a good bet to start the season opener against Louisville and could quickly emerge as one of David Blough's favorite targets.
--WR Corey Holmes was expected to make an instant impact after transferring from Notre Dame. However, the graduate student injured his hamstring early in camp, hampering his quest to begin the season in the starting lineup.
--K Spencer Evans transferred into the program in late July and is immediately eligible. Purdue's kicking game was atrocious in 2016, and Evans' big leg means he'll be the kickoff specialist for certain, while challenging J.D. Dellinger for place-kicking duties.
Instead, the Spartans coach was facing questions about his team's dismal 3-9 record in 2016 and the miserable off-season that followed.
The on-field issues were tough enough as the Spartans tumbled from a spot in the playoffs to one of the worst seasons in more than a decade while criminal charges and problems in the locker room led to hits to the roster and the team's public image.
But just as Dantonio has done in the past, he made it clear that counting out Michigan State on the football field might not be the wisest choice.
"Are you a betting man?" Dantonio asked a reporter who wondered why anyone should believe the coach entering his 11th season could turn his program around.
"Why should I believe?" Dantonio continued. "Because I'm their coach. Because Spartans will ... look beyond last year. Look back. Next question."
While the question was legitimate, Dantonio has a point, too. Entering last season, the Spartans had won two of the previous three Big Ten titles, won 11 games five times while winning a Rose Bowl and reaching two straight New Year's Day bowl games in the new era of playoff football.
However, it's also easy to wonder if that time has passed.
Experience and depth are lacking on both sides of the ball, with running back and linebacker the only spots that seem solidified entering the season. The dismissal of wide receiver Donnie Corley and defensive ends Josh King and Auston Robertson loom large as each was expected to have breakout sophomore seasons in 2017; meanwhile, linebacker Jon Reschke left the program after missing most of 2016 because of an ankle injury.
The Spartans are counting on sophomore quarterback Brian Lewerke to lead the offense after starting just two games last season while first-time starters litter the lineup at wide receiver, tight end and at both tackle spots.
On the other side of the ball, finding a pass rush after recording just 11 sacks last season is priority No. 1; solidifying a secondary that was picked apart in 2016 is also vital.
But the Spartans feel like they at least have the right mindset and team chemistry, something that was lacking last season.
"It's not about wins, it's just getting back that mentality we had and that mindset," senior center Brian Allen said. "I feel like we're in a pretty good spot going into camp and that will take care of a lot of the problems."
The Spartans will get tested early with a visit from Notre Dame to close out non-conference play and will travel to Michigan two weeks later.
Getting to a bowl will be the goal, but inside the building, the Spartans are shooting for more. They know few believe Michigan State will be a factor in the Big Ten East, however. That's just fine, they say.
"Just tune it out," senior linebacker Chris Frey said. "It doesn't bother us. We know what to do and we know there is doubt behind us. We know what we have to do to be able to win games and prove the Spartans are back."
MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: QB Brian Lewerke -- He saw action in four games as a redshirt freshman and started twice, showing flashes, including helping the Spartans rally late in the loss to Michigan. However, he also broke his leg in that game and missed valuable experience late in the season. That didn't stop coach Mark Dantonio from naming the former four-star recruit as his starter entering the spring, and it will up to Lewerke to prove his coach right after completing 31 of 57 passes for 381 yards and two touchdowns last season. The MSU offense has plenty of questions, and if Lewerke struggles, it could be a long season.
BREAKOUT STAR: WR Trishton Jackson -- The speedy sophomore played nine games as a true freshman in 2016 and had five catches for 89 yards and a touchdown, but it was his performance in the spring that has people buzzing. The former high school quarterback is at a position that is desperate for a playmaker to break through; Jackson just might be that player who becomes the favorite target of Lewerke.
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: CB Josiah Scott -- Just a three-star recruit, Scott enrolled early at Michigan State in January and had eight tackles and an interception in the spring game. The 5-foot-10, 175-pounder has the inside track at a starting spot heading into the season-opener and has drawn rave reviews from the coaching staff, even being compared on several occasions by coach Mark Dantonio to former Spartan Darqueze Dennard. The former Jim Thorpe Award winner was the leader of MSU's top-ranked defense in 2013 and became a first-round draft pick in the NFL.
--TE Matt Sokol, a junior who has been primarily a backup, will try to emerge from the shadow of the graduated Josiah Price, who is MSU's all-time leader in touchdown catches for a tight end. He'll likely start and have the chance to lock down the job, but keep an eye on redshirt freshman Noah Jones and true freshman Matt Dotson, a highly rated recruit who is having a solid preseason camp.
--LB Joe Bachie saw limited action as a true freshman but had seven tackles against Maryland as he stepped in for Riley Bullough, who was ejected for targeting. Bachie will be the starter now and will be directing the defense, but he will have the benefit of being flanked on the outside by senior Chris Frey and junior Andrew Dowell.
--LB Antjuan Simmons was one of Michigan State's top recruits and is already running with the second team in preseason camp. He'll see limited action behind Dowell, but he's the type of dynamic athlete that will be hard to keep on the bench.
--DE Brandon Randle, who redshirted last season as an outside linebacker, is also working at end as MSU attempts to create a spark in the pass rush. He's still raw with his hand in the dirt, but he's been described as a "freak" of an athlete who could be a household name by the end of the season.
--There's a long list of departures for Michigan State as WR Donnie Corley, DE Josh King, DE Auston Robertson and S Demetric Vance were all dismissed after being charged in separate sexual assault cases. LB Jon Reschke is also gone after an off-field incident while S Kenney Lyke and DB Kaleel Gaines transferred.
--DE Demetrius Cooper was taken off scholarship after an off-field incident but is working his way back. Barring any issues, he should be a starter by the opener.
The Tigers return 10 offensive starters and get some welcome returnees on a defense that sorely needs a boost with the return from injury of defensive end Terry Beckner Jr. The Tigers allowed nearly 247 yards a game to opposing rushers and gave up over 50 points in two different games last year, one of which was a 63-37 loss at Tennessee that came between wins over Vanderbilt and Arkansas to close the season.
Brian Odom, the head coach's younger brother, takes over the linebackers. Brick Haley, who spent the last two years at Texas and has SEC experience after a stint a LSU, comes in to coach the defensive line.
He expressed confidence in the group he inherited.
"My confidence on the defensive end is high," Haley said after a recent scrimmage. "We've got enough bodies to find a few guys to get us some help, maybe some younger guys.
One of the younger guys is sophomore Franklin Agbasimere, who is moving to end.
"Frank had a good week last week, then had a great scrimmage on Saturday," Haley said. "I tell the guys all the time, I don't make the depth chart every week, they do. It's all based on performance."
Offensively, Damarea Crockett and Ish Witter give the Tigers a one-two punch at running back, and quarterback Drew Lock is entering his third year as the starter. Lock has been inconsistent at times, especially in some of the bigger games, but he still ranked first in the SEC at the end of the regular season in passing yards with 3,339.
He is enjoying a solid fall and earned Odom's praise after the scrimmage along with Beckner and linebacker Cale Garrett.
"I thought Drew Lock did a really nice job of getting guys in the right position a couple of times," Odom said. "He took control of that, which was really nice to see.
"Beckner did a couple of really nice things defensively, Cale Garrett did some nice things also, defensively. We've got a lot of playmakers and they consistently caught the football, which was really fun to see."
Missouri gets a break to start the season with four consecutive home games in September. The Tigers open against Missouri State, then get South Carolina in an SEC East matchup followed by Purdue and Auburn.
Their first road game comes after an open date, Oct. 7 at Kentucky.
MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: RB Damarea Crockett -- Crockett got only two carries in the opener and missed the finale while serving a one-game suspension, but in between he set a program freshman rushing record with 1,062 yards, which included a single-game freshman record 225 yards against Tennessee along with 10 rushing touchdowns. His four rushing touchdowns against Middle Tennessee tied a school record. He has the power to run inside and the speed to capitalize once he breaks through. Crockett credits running backs coach Cornell Ford with his development. "Coach Ford and the rest of the staff deserves the rest of the credit," he said. "They kept my head into it mentally and showed me all the little things it takes to take my game to the next level."
BREAKOUT STAR: WR J'Mon Moore -- Moore is the only returning 1,000-yard receiver in the SEC, and he has the opportunity to increase his numbers (62 receptions, 1,012 yards) if he can overcome the drops that seem to plague him from time to time. He earned a starting job as a junior and finished No. 1 in catches and yards, though with only 29 for 250 yards. He has 103 receptions for 1,395 yards in his career.
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: DT Rashad Brandon -- Brandon finally got to practice after a 10-wait for clearance over issues on his transcript from junior college. He was a second team junior college All-American at ASA College in Brooklyn, New York, and was a standout in the spring after enrolling early. He should provide valuable depth if not compete for a starting position this fall.
--Suspended DE Nate Howard was already facing a felony drug charge when he was arrested in Columbia on an out of county warrant. Howard failed to pay a speeding ticket in Montgomery County, Missouri, and subsequently failed to appear in court. His court date on the drug case is Aug. 24. He is not currently on the roster with his suspension.
--C Jonah Dubinski, who started two games after walking on, is now on scholarship.
--RB Nate Strong is competing for a backup spot behind Damarea Crockett and Ish Witter in the backfield after serving a suspension that cost him some days in the spring.
--DT A.J. Logan, a returning starter, has missed time after sustaining a concussion in early camp.
--DT Terry Beckner Jr., who 2016 season was cut short by a knee injury, looks to lock down a starting spot after his standout performance in the first major scrimmage.
--DE Marcell Frazier, who finished the 2016 season strong (6.5 sacks over the final three games) and looks to be recovered from the broken forearm he sustained in the spring.
That might change in 2017.
After fielding one of the worst offenses in America during the first half of the 2016 season, the light came on. In Vandy's last six games, the Commodores averaged 443 yards and 28 points.
Left tackle Will Holden, a fifth-round pick of the Arizona Cardinals, is gone, and so is starting center Barrett Gouger. But practically everyone else of significance returns.
That includes junior quarterback Kyle Shurmur. As coaches gained confidence in his ability to grasp the offense last season, the playbook expanded.
The 'Dores return three quality wide receivers in seniors in Trent Sherfield -- coach Derek Mason called him the offense's most improved player in August -- Caleb Scott and C.J. Duncan. Also watch for talented sophomore Kalija Lipscomb, probably the most explosive of the bunch.
Vanderbilt also has capable down-field threats in Sam Dobbs and Jared Pinkney.
As for the ground game, senior running back Ralph Webb amassed 1,449 yards from scrimmage last year despite battling injuries, and may wind up as the Southeastern Conference's No. 2 all-time rusher.
Behind him, Khari Blasingame scored 10 touchdowns, and the coaches and players rave about the potential of redshirt freshman Jamauri Wakefield.
The Commodores' offensive line improved markedly under first-year offensive line coach Cameron Norcross in 2016 and now has good depth. A fierce battle has ensued in camp, with seven linemen battling for five starting spots. Norcross and Mason aim to play the best five, and sort out the positions along the way.
No, this group isn't vintage Southern California or Ohio State. But for SEC fans used to seeing an impotent Vandy offense, this year could be an eye-opener.
With the offense seemingly ahead of the defense, there seem to be more key questions on that side of the ball.
Among them, who can create a pass rush? The most obvious answer seems to be outside linebacker Charles Wright, but the junior has just one career sack.
Creating sacks and interceptions have been a deficiency throughout Mason's tenure. Vanderbilt had just 15 sacks and five interceptions last season.
MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: QB Kyle Shurmur -- He may not be Vandy's best player -- that would be running back Ralph Webb -- but an injury to Shurmur would send the Commodores scrambling to Deuce Wallace or Sean Stankavage, neither of whom has taken a college snap. Shurmur's numbers -- a 53.3 percent completion percentage, 2,486 yards and nine touchdowns to 11 interceptions -- weren't great last year, but he was a different quarterback in the second half once he had command of the playbook and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig loosened the reins. Shurmur has been sharp in practice, which is a big reason why coach Derek Mason recently assigned the passing game a grade of "A-minus to B-plus" for what it had done in fall camp.
BREAKOUT STAR: CB JoeJuan Williams -- The Nashville native played more often as a true freshman as last season progressed; toward the end of the year, he seemed to play as many snaps as the starter (graduated Torren McGaster) ahead of him. Williams was a top 100 recruit until he was ruled ineligible for his senior year after transferring high schools, although programs such as LSU and Alabama pursued him right up until Signing Day in 2016. Williams, a physical corner who is listed at 6-foot-3 and 208 pounds, had 19 stops and two breakups last year. He has the physical attributes to be an NFL player.
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: OT Devin Cochran -- The 6-foot-7, 315-pound Cochran drew late recruiting interest from big schools before signing with VU in 2016, and he looked the part of an SEC offensive tackle the minute he reported to campus. He was listed as the backup left tackle all last year, but wasn't quite ready mentally and the 'Dores were able to preserve his redshirt year. Cochran entered fall camp as a backup but seems to have played his way into the conversation as a starter at right tackle.
--FB Bailey McElwain, a projected starter, has missed fall camp with a boot on his right foot. McElwain is a devastating blocker who started to see more use (six catches, two TDs) in the passing game at the end of 2016.
--DL Drew Birchmaier, who projected as a second-team end exiting spring practice, has missed all of fall camp with an undisclosed injury.
--LB Kenny Hebert, a potential second-teamer at outside linebacker, hasn't participated in the scrimmage portion of fall camp.
--WR Donaven Tennyson, a third-string receiver, is the team's fastest player and could be used in the return game. However, Tennyson had missed much of fall camp as of mid-August.
--OL Bruno Reagan, a starter at right guard last year, is getting an audition at center in fall camp.
Last year the Bulldogs ranked 11th in the SEC in scoring (24.4 points per game) and total offense (384.7 yards per game), subpar numbers that led to Georgia finishing 8-5, tying for its fewest wins in a season since 2013.
Between a freshman quarterback in Jacob Eason, inconsistencies on the offensive line and the lack of big-play receivers, Georgia scored only 30 or more points four times in 13 games. On four other occasions, they tallied fewer than 17.
"Offensively, obviously throwing the ball more efficiently is a big goal of ours, because I think if you throw the ball efficiently, you'll be able to run ball with the backs we've got," Smart said. "When you can't throw the ball, it makes it hard. It doesn't matter who your backs are."
With Georgia's stable of backs, if the passing game can take a step forward -- watch out.
Now two years removed from a devastating knee injury suffered at Tennessee, senior Nick Chubb is primed for a huge year. With Chubb and Sony Michel, Georgia's backfield should be one of the best duos in the country.
Defensively, there's a lot of optimism in Athens as Georgia returns 10 starters from a unit that finished fourth in the SEC in total defense and features junior defensive tackle Trenton Thompson and junior linebacker Roquan Smith, a pair of preseason All-SEC selections.
But Smart still has concerns.
"We've got to improve in the red area," said Smart, whose team finished next-to-last in the SEC in red zone defense. "That was probably statistically the worst thing we did on defense last year."
With another tough SEC schedule, plus a highly anticipated game Sept. 9 at Notre Dame, the Bulldogs will have to be ready if they are to do as predicted at SEC Media Days -- win the SEC East.
"I think the big demand for us is what can we do to do a better job helping our players be successful," Smart said. "To pinpoint one of those, the No. 1 goal for me is to reach our goals."
MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: QB Jacob Eason -- Statistically, Eason did not have a bad freshman year, completing 204 of 370 passes for 2,430 yards and 16 touchdowns with just eight interceptions, but his lack of efficiency was a big problem for the Bulldogs as it stifled numerous drives and kept Georgia from reaching its full offensive potential as a team. Assuming Eason can iron out those issues and do a better job getting the ball into the hands of his playmakers -- which are abundant -- the Bulldogs could be a much different animal and, as a result, might find themselves playing for higher stakes come season's end.
BREAKOUT STAR: WR Mecole Hardman -- A former five-star performer in high school, Hardman played cornerback as a freshman last fall, seeing little action, before moving back to offense in the spring. At 5-foot-11 and 183 pounds, Hardman is one of the fastest players on the team and is back where he's more comfortable -- on offense -- where he figures to be one of the team's better deep threats, as well as seeing action in the "Wild Dawg" where he will take direct snaps in Georgia's version of the option. Hardman is also expected to return kicks.
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: OL Isaiah Wilson -- Georgia has several key newcomers, but we'll offer Wilson, a five-star performer from Brooklyn, N.Y. The freshman blocks out the sun at 6-foot-7 and 350 pounds and is currently working at right tackle for the Bulldogs. Although he might not start to begin the season, Wilson is expected to become an anchor on the offensive line for Georgia sooner rather than later.
--WR Riley Ridley and RB Elijah Holyfield, both sophomores, are expected to miss the season-opener against Appalachian State on Sept. 2 following their respective offseason arrests for misdemeanor possession of marijuana.
--DT Trenton Thompson, a junior, is healthy following offseason shoulder surgery.
--PKs Rodrigo Blankenship and David Marvin, a graduate transfer from Wofford, are battling to be the team's starting kicker.
--S Dominick Sanders, a senior, has 12 career interceptions and needs four more to tie Jake Scott for first on Georgia's career list.
--RB Nick Chubb needs 1,835 yards to tie Herschel Walker for the most career rushing yards. Walker holds the Bulldogs record with 5,259, which he accomplished in three seasons at UGA.
However, given the trend of Texas A&M's recent seasons, Aggie fans likely wish the sweltering summer heat would hang around until mid-January.
Since 2014, Texas A&M has developed a habit of racing out of the blocks, destroying everyone in its path and climbing the national rankings. The Aggies reached No. 6 in the Associated Press poll in 2014, No. 9 in 2015 and No. 6 in 2016, posting perfect records through the early stages of all three campaigns.
But each time things began to fall apart beginning in October. All three seasons culminated in 8-5 records, which were respectable but ultimately disappointing, given the early-season promises.
To be fair, a huge percentage of teams would struggle through a portion of the season that featured a barrage of SEC West opponents. Even so, the feast-or-famine routine has seen the Aggies go 8-15 after the October tipping point. Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin responded to the habitual downturn by hiring new strength and conditioning coach Mark Hocke from Florida State, specifically to bolster the team's endurance through October and November.
The Aggies will find out quickly if the change makes a difference, because the 2017 schedule sets up similarly to recent years.
Texas A&M opens the season at the UCLA Bruins, whom the Aggies edged in overtime in 2016, then continues with home dates vs. Nicholls State and Louisiana-Lafayette. Texas A&M travels to Dallas for its traditional neutral-site contest against Arkansas, then is back home to host South Carolina.
Although the first month of the season presents its challenges, the schedule once again ramps up beginning in October. The Aggies face Alabama and Florida on the first two Saturdays in October and continue with Mississippi State, Mississippi, Auburn and LSU all in the second half of the campaign.
However, before Sumlin has to answer the same old questions starting in October, he'll grapple with the more pressing issues of who to lineup where.
The Aggies most important position battle, as per usual, is at quarterback.
Senior Jake Hubenak has starting experience, while redshirt freshman Nick Starkel posted an impressive spring. True freshman Kellen Mond makes it a three-headed battle to start at quarterback. Sumlin indicated in early August that he might not make a decision until the final scrimmage a couple of weeks before the season-opener.
MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: WR Christian Kirk -- Kirk is by far the most dynamic and consistent offensive weapon returning for the Aggies. He caught a team-leading 83 passes in 2016, converting those catches into 928 yards and nine touchdowns. Furthermore, he's the only returning Texas A&M player to have caught more than 20 passes last season. Whoever emerges as the Aggies' starting quarterback will lean heavily on Kirk, who will need to adjust to the role as he won't have fellow star Josh Reynolds to dilute the opposing defense's attention.
BREAKOUT STAR: RB Keith Ford -- Although Ford was second on the team in rushing yards last season, well behind fellow returner Trayveon Williams -- Williams rushed for 1,057 yards to Ford's 669 -- Ford averaged 5.3 per carry and finished the season stronger. The Aggies are likely to deploy Ford and Williams with a healthy amount of carries as a new starting quarterback finds his legs. They will also be running behind an improved offensive line. Bigger holes could allow Ford to get going downhill and accentuate his bruising running style.
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: DE Michael Clemons -- Clemons enrolled in Cisco Junior College as a relative unknown a year ago. Since then, the 6-foot-5, 255-pounder ascended to become one of the nation's top 20 junior college prospects and an intriguing new member of an Aggie defensive line that needs him. He took some time to fulfill his junior college academic requirements and joined the Aggies during the second summer school session. He was behind in conditioning when practice started, but quickly caught up. Texas A&M coaches are closely monitoring his progress, likely because they know they're going to need production from the raw talent.
--WR Jhamon Ausbon will be counted on during his freshman season as the Aggies attempt to refill their receiving corps. Ausbon was a top 100 national prospect, much like new teammate Christian Kirk was out of high school. Texas A&M is hoping Ausbon takes to college football as quickly as Kirk did two seasons ago.
--LT Koda Martin married former Texas A&M volleyball player Jazzmin Babers, the daughter of Syracuse coach Dino Babers, in late July. Along with entering married life, Martin will be counted on to anchor the Aggies' offensive line as one of three returning starters.
Tennessee is talented once again -- the Vols are 24th in the preseason coaches' poll -- but the notion around Knoxville is that life titles won't cut it much longer. It might be time for the Vols to finally produce a championship of the SEC East variety.
The 49-year-old Jones will have to accomplish that feat -- one that's eluded Tennessee since 2007 when Erik Ainge and Arian Foster manned the offense -- with a roster that boasts as much skill and firepower as it does question marks.
The Volunteers will have a starkly different look from its past two squads that each finished 9-4.
Off to test their mettle in the NFL are a slew of leaders that leave enormous cleats to fill, including quarterback Josh Dobbs, running back Alvin Kamara, defensive end Derek Barnett and cornerback Cam Sutton.
Those stepping in will do so under the tutelage of a revamped coaching staff.
Larry Scott, who takes over at offensive coordinator for Mike DeBord, and new quarterbacks coach Mike Canales are tasked with replacing Dobbs, whose 7,138 career yards and 53 touchdowns made him the highest-drafted Tennessee quarterback since Peyton Manning.
Junior Quinten Dormady and redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano impressed through a couple of weeks of camp, with Dormady drawing comparisons to Philip Rivers, a former Canales disciple. That said, Jones hasn't set a timetable for announcing a starter and hasn't ruled out going with a two-quarterback system.
Whoever gets the nod is going to be tested immediately.
A treacherous opening month awaits Tennessee with trips to Atlanta to play Georgia Tech and a home tilt against Florida within the first 13 days of the season. The Volunteers close out September with a visit to a Georgia team that eagerly awaits a chance to exact revenge on the Vols for last year's Hail Mary thriller.
The Vols' squad from last year ended up suffering a lot of injuries, which, in turn, provided plenty of young players the chance to gain valuable game experience. And while the Tennessee roster might be deep, getting the parts to come together in 2017 won't be easy.
"We're nowhere near where we need to be, in terms of being ready to play a football game," said Jones, who is 30-21 in four seasons at Tennessee.
"Every practice has to count; every rep will be valuable. I thought where our football team was at this point and time, we still need to focus on the fundamentals -- the execution and being able to focus."
MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: LB Darrin Kirkland Jr. -- The Tennessee defense is deep with experienced upperclassmen, but the unit is in search of a leader. Now that he's fully recovered from an ankle injury that affected him throughout most of the 2016 season, Kirkland is poised to take charge of the Vols, on and off the field. The junior has 111 tackles in 21 career games, including 11.5 tackles for a loss.
BREAKOUT STAR: RB John Kelly -- The Volunteers entered 2016 with two horses in the backfield in Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara. But it was John Kelly who led all Tennessee running backs with 630 yards, to go along with five TDs. Kelly made the most of Hurd's implosion and subsequent transfer, while Kamara was derailed by injuries. Kelly rushed for 515 yards in the final six games and his 6.43 yards per carry ranked ninth in the SEC. Tennessee will lean heavily on Kelly, who will get an opportunity to play a full season as the starter. "John Kelly is an individual who waited for his opportunity in our program, and when his opportunity came, obviously he made the most of it," coach Butch Jones said.
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: RG Trey Smith -- Trey Smith is earning the hype that made him a five-star recruit and No. 13 overall prospect in the 2017 class. The 6-6, 320-pound freshman is making a case for playing time along an offensive line that returns four starters. As impressive as Smith has been, coach Butch Jones is not going to rush the first-year player. "Trey's settled in at guard, and I think we all have to be careful," Jones said. "He's never played one down of college football. Even us as coaches, we have to step back. He's still a true freshman, and make sure that we don't put too many expectations on him early."
--CB Shaq Wiggins is a potential impact newcomer. The Louisville graduate transfer intercepted four passes and broke up another 14 during 21 games in a Cardinals uniform. He provides versatility and depth to a Volunteers secondary that is looking to improve upon the 230.7 passing yards per game that the unit yielded in 2016.
--OT K'Rojhn Calbert is the latest to suffer from an injury bug that has plagued the offensive line. He joins RT Chance Hall with season-ending knee injuries. Other tackles nursing ailments include Marcus Tatum (foot) and Brett Kendrick (undisclosed).
--Former Michigan head coach Brady Hoke will make his SEC debut this year as Tennessee's associate head coach and defensive line coach. Hoke arrives after a one-year stint as Oregon's defensive coordinator, where he wasn't retained after Willie Taggart took over for Mark Helfrich.
Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham will be the guy going into the Sept. 2 opener against Georgia Southern, beating out incumbent starter Sean White and talented freshman Malik Willis for the job. A big date at defending national champion Clemson awaits the second week.
"He has done a lot of good things," Malzahn said of Stidham after the Tigers' second major scrimmage of camp. "He's a talented young man."
In a bow to modern-day mores, Malzahn announced his decision in a tweet:
"Just told team Jarrett Stidham will be the starting QB. The team is excited for Jarrett and ready for the season."
Malzahn said Stidham earned the job because of his leadership, talent and work ethic.
"He's performed very well the last two weeks," the coach said. "He performed very well in the spring, too. We're excited about that. I know the team's excited about that when we announced it. He had a different step out there in practice today."
The decision gives the offense the down-the-field threat in the passing game it lacked a year ago. Although White completed 63.9 completion percent of his passes, he averaged only 153 yards a game. In 2015 at Baylor, Stidham averaged more than 311 yards in three starts after taking over for injured starter Seth Russell before going down with a broken ankle.
The receivers look capable of giving the Tigers more of a threat as well. Malzahn praised their play in the second scrimmage.
Junior Ryan Davis, the leading returning receiver with 25 catches last year, leads an inexperienced but promising group as the Tigers look to take some of the pressure off what should be another strong running game. The only senior among the receiving corps is now gone. That would be John Franklin III, who was transitioning from quarterback. He announced he was leaving the team Tuesday as a graduate transfer.
Sophomores Eli Stove, Darius Slayton, and Kyle Davis were in double figures in catches last year,.
"I thought the young receivers really responded well," Malzahn said following the scrimmage. "A couple of them made something happen after they caught the ball, broke some tackles. It's just a matter of that group taking that next step."
MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: RB Kamryn Pettway -- Pettway has a very specific target for 2017. "My individual goal is to break the school rushing record," he said, "but whatever I can do to help my team." Pettway rushed for 1,224 yards last year, which is well short of Tre Mason's school record 1,816, but he missed three games to injury. The one thing that could keep him from an even more productive season is Auburn's depth at running back, where fellow junior Kerryon Johnson rushed for 895 yards in 2016.
BREAKOUT STAR: DE Marlon Davidson -- Davidson was All-Freshman SEC after starting all 13 games for the Tigers last year and recording 38 tackles (2.5 sacks). He was the first true freshman to start on Auburn's defensive line in the opener in 30 years. He has been out with an undisclosed injury in camp, but that is not thought to be a long-term problem. "He has a chance to be an impact player," coach Gus Malzahn said. "I can't say enough good things about Marlon."
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: QB Jarrett Stidham -- Stidham had the spring mostly to himself but had to fend off a challenge from returning starter Sean White before earning the starting job. The Baylor transfer gives the Tigers' passing game a major boost. Stidham was 75 of 109 passing for 1,265 yards and 12 touchdowns as a true freshman for the Bears in 2015. He was a backup early in the season, then started three games before going out with an injury. "I haven't played since Nov. 21 of 2015," Stidham said. "I know exactly when my last snap was. I'm itching to get back out there."
--WR John Franklin III, who picked up his degree at Auburn's recent graduation ceremony, announced he was transferring Tuesday. The converted quarterback -- he started one game last season as an injury replacement -- is eligible immediately. Coach Gus Malzahn said in a statement that Franklin wants to play closer to his Fort Lauderdale, Fla., home. "John has been an outstanding young man during his time here and leaves Auburn with a degree," Malzahn said in the statement. "We wish John nothing but the best and thank him for his time at Auburn."
--C Austin Golson, a returning starter, is getting some time at guard in fall camp. The senior started on the offensive line the last two years after transferring from Ole Miss in 2014.
The Gamecocks, who closed fast to finish with a 6-7 record following a 2-4 start, open the season against North Carolina State in Charlotte, N.C., on Sept. 2, then dive right into SEC play with a trip to Missouri and a home game against Kentucky in the next two weeks.
With 16 starters back, 10 of them on offense, and the return of linebacker Skai Moore, who led the team in tackles for three consecutive seasons before a neck injury sidelined him for 2016, the Gamecocks are in much better shape to handle the challenge than they were a year ago.
Among those returning starters is sophomore quarterback Jake Bentley. Bentley was the key to last season's turnaround and has a firm grasp on the position going into the fall. Michael Scarnecchia, a junior coming off a shoulder injury that sidelined him last year, backs him up.
"Those guys have made a lot of progress," Muschamp said. "I see a lot of progress with those two young men, and I've been pleased with their work ethic."
Despite the number of returning starters, Muschamp sees lots of competition for playing time for other spots on offense -- at running back, tight end, receiver and the offensive line.
Sophomore Rico Dowdle, who started the last six games of 2016, North Carolina transfer Ty'Son Williams and A.J. Turner provide depth and variety at running back.
"Ty'Son and Rico are very similar running style, and A.J. gives us a little different style," Muschamp said. "We need to get the ball into A.J.'s hands as well."
Deebo Samuel, who shared the team's MVP award with Bentley, is a versatile receiver who had 59 catches in just 10 games. He also had 15 rushes -- six that went for touchdowns -- and stood out in the return game. He also has had a "great camp" so far, Muschamp said.
"Deebo is extremely bright. He's extremely intelligent," Muschamp said. "He can play inside, he can play outside, he can play running back. He can do a lot of different things for us."
There are some concerns on defense from a depth standpoint.
"I do like our first group that we roll out there, but we've got to have some guys continue to step up and be more consistent," Muschamp said. "I don't think it's ability. I think it's consistency and a lot of that goes to youth. We're sort of working through that right now."
MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: WR Deebo Samuel -- Samuel has been hobbled by nagging injuries in the past two years, with a hamstring problem sidelining him for three games last season and the first seven the year before. Despite that, he led the team in catches in 2016 with 59 for 783 yards, 14 of them in the Birmingham Bowl. He gives the Gamecocks a big-play threat not only as a receiver but in the return game. He even threw a 33-yard touchdown pass last year. He should get plenty of opportunities as he moves into his junior season. "The more you put him in different spots, the harder it is to defend," coach Will Muschamp said.
BREAKOUT STAR: FS D.J. Smith -- Smith backed up a solid junior season in 2016 (a team-high 80 tackles, an interception and two fumble recoveries) with an outstanding performance in the spring. Smith's 62 solo stops were the third-highest in the SEC. As a senior, he looks to take over more of a leadership role as the "quarterback" of the Gamecocks' defense. "He needs to continue that going forward," coach Will Muschamp said.
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: DT Javon Kinlaw -- Kinlaw is one of several first-year Gamecocks who are being counted on to step up on defense. Kinlaw spent last season at Jones County Community College in Mississippi, where he recorded 4.5 sacks among his 26 tackles. At 6-6, 326, the sophomore could be a huge factor in a run defense that often was shredded for big yards last fall.
--CB Korey Banks is moving to the secondary after spending his freshman campaign at wide receiver last year. He saw limited action in six games and had one reception in the bowl loss to USF.
--OL Zack Bailey is at right tackle after spending last year as the starter at left guard.
--TE Evan Hinson missed last spring because he was a member of the Gamecocks basketball team that made a run to the NCAA tourney's Final Four. A redshirt freshman, he is competing for time at a crowded position that includes returning starter Hayden Hurst.
--DB Chris Lammons, a senior, will play all the positions in the secondary -- corner, nickel, dime, and safety. "He'll be able to handle that," coach Will Muschamp said.
--DB Jaylin Dickerson will miss the season after requiring shoulder surgery. He a true freshman who enrolled early to go through spring drills and was expected to be a contributor this fall.
But he also comes into this fall with some work to do to get his team back into the postseason. And not just on his passing accuracy, which was a mere 54.7 percent last year (10th in the SEC).
Johnson also was responsible for six of Kentucky's 16 lost fumbles in 2016; fixing that is a major goal.
"I think we could have won a couple more games if we don't turn the ball over," coach Mark Stoops said. "So, everybody's well aware of that."
Johnson and Barker, who is competing to get his starting job back, have gotten the message.
Though the offense lost one fumble near the goal line in Kentucky's first scrimmage of fall camp -- it was a closed scrimmage so the culprit is unknown -- Stoops noted how the quarterbacks took care of the ball.
"I saw both guys really do a good job protecting the football, first and foremost," Stoops said. "I thought both guys really showed up with some impressive throws and threw it in some really tight windows.
"I liked seeing that. I liked seeing the competitive plays when it's good defense, good offense and somebody making a play. And you saw that at times today."
Stoops rated the overall scrimmage as just "OK" and gave thanks that the Wildcats have more time to get ready for the Sept. 2 opener at Southern Mississippi. But one of the few players who did "show up" -- offensive coordinator Eddie Gran's words -- was freshman Lynn Bowden. Rated the team's top recruit, Bowden is making up for lost time after reporting late to clear up some issues with the NCAA Clearinghouse.
"Lynn is really coming on," Stoops said after the scrimmage. "He's just a good football player. It's hard to force-feed them. There's so much learning involved. He just got here. The other day he had a really good practice. He showed up today with a couple nice catches. I believe he's got a really good future.
"I love his attitude. The kid comes in and is what I expected. He's a great kid. He's a competitor. He doesn't want anything handed to him."
MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: RB Benny Snell -- Snell set six program freshman records in rushing for 13 touchdowns and 1,091 yards last year despite not logging a carry until the third game of the season. With Stanley "Boom" Williams (1,170 yards) and Jojo Kemp not around anymore, Snell becomes the primary ball-carrier this time around. "He goes hard in practice, every snap, every day," coach Mark Stoops said. "And if he keeps that mentality, he'll continue to be successful like he has. But he has a good, tough competitive mentality about him."
BREAKOUT STAR: LB Josh Allen -- Allen had nine starts as a sophomore last year and recorded a team-high seven sacks among his 62 tackles. Coach Mike Stoops expects him to make "a very big jump this year" as he continues to fine-tune his game. "He's a guy that when he puts the fine strokes on things, he's going to be a very good football player," Stoops said. Allen recorded seven or more tackles in four games and a tackle for loss in nine of his 13 appearances.
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: WR Lynn Bowden -- The much-heralded signee out of Youngstown, Ohio, missed a week of fall camp to clear up some academic issues and was being eased into practice. Playing quarterback last fall, he rushed for 2,277 yards, passed for 1,366 yards and accounted for 57 touchdowns. He is fitting in at receiver, where he can use his open-field running ability. He also likely will get a look as a returner.
--LT Cole Mosier, who had 13 starts among his 32 appearances, is lost for the season after tearing his ACL in a scrimmage. The senior, a former walk-on, had been slated as a starter in his final year. "Coming here as a walk-on and then earning a scholarship was a dream come true," he said.
--DB Mike Edwards made second-team All-SEC last year at safety but is slated for time at nickel back this season. He had three interceptions last year to tie for team honors in the category.
--RG Nick Haynes is coping with Type 1 diabetes as he tries to maintain the 300 pounds listed on is 6-foot-3 frame. He is down to 260, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader. Haynes started at left guard last year and is flipping to the other side this fall.
--DT Tymere Dubose is back with the team after sitting out the spring. He played in 11 games as a sophomore last year. "He needed to get focused, and he needed to put all of his attention on academics," coach Mark Stoops said. "I'm proud to say that he did that."
--DB Davonte Robinson moved back to his old position in high school at safety in the spring after getting a look at corner as a redshirt freshman last year.
--P Grant McKinniss is getting a challenge from Matthew Panton, a graduate transfer from Columbia. McKinniss averaged just 39.2 yards as a freshman last year with only 10 of his 58 punts downed inside the opponent's 20-yard line.
--LB Jaylin Bannerman, a redshirt freshman, is getting a look at tight end after spending last season on the scout team at linebacker, although he could also move into the defensive line. "We're just trying to find the right position for him," coach Mark Stoops said.
The Tide has stars all over the field -- including defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick, who headlines 10 Alabama players ranked among the preseason national top 100 by NFLDraftScout.com -- but it's the backfield depth that is particularly stunning.
Running Back U. -- stretching in the Nick Saban era from Glen Coffee to Mark Ingram Jr. to Trent Richardson to Eddie Lacy to T.J. Yeldon to Derrick Henry -- will be in full effect when Alabama plays Florida State in an epic college football season-opener on Sept. 2 in Atlanta.
Pick a headliner: Is it powerful Bo Scarbrough, healthy again after suffering a broken leg in the national title game? Is it Damien Harris, who rushed for 1,037 yards on 146 carries last season? Is it five-star freshman Najee Harris?
Don't forget that Josh Jacobs ran for 567 yards as a true freshman last season. And true freshman Brian Robinson Jr., a top 100 recruit, might yet find a way to factor into the mix as a versatile, big back.
Coach Nick Saban says Harris can be a "dominant player," but it was the oft-injured Scarbrough who stole the spotlight late last season in a brief window of full health. He rushed 63 times for 454 yards and six touchdowns in the final four games against the stout defenses of Auburn, Florida, Washington and Clemson.
Good news for the Tide is the burly Scarbrough (6-foot-2 and 235 pounds) has been fine in camp, recovering from his injury against Clemson.
"I'm feeling pretty good. My legs feel good," he said after the first week of camp. "I'm feeling pretty great right now."
He's ready to turn the page from the loss in the national title game.
"That's something that I can't go back and speak on," he said. "That book is closed. So, I'm only focused on what's going on now and not the past."
How the coaching staff will juggle all these running backs is something of a mystery as first-year offensive coordinator Brian Daboll puts a new spin on the offense while Alabama moves on from the play-calling of Lane Kiffin. In Daboll's preseason media availability, he talked about installing a variety of new plays.
Maybe that means more downfield passing with improving quarterback Jalen Hurts and star wide receiver Calvin Ridley. Perhaps it means a stop-me-if-you-can ground game. The Tide can't go wrong leaning on its running backs and a talented offensive line, led by center Bradley Bozeman, guard Ross Pierschbacher and sophomore Jonah Williams, emerging as the Tide's next great left tackle.
"I don't call it competition. I call it creation," Scarbrough said of the running back depth chart. "We're all on the same team and trying to help each other out."
MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: QB Jalen Hurts -- He took Alabama to the national title game as a true freshman, winning SEC Offensive Player of the Year honors, which are huge accomplishments. But his room to grow was evident at the end of the season, when he completed only 31 of 65 passes for 326 yards in the final three games. "The goal was stated many times before that we wanted to improve his ability to be more efficient, effective, confident passer," coach Nick Saban said at the start of fall camp. Hurts has been in control in camp, showing better leadership and confidence as a passer as he works on his mid-range accuracy and deep throws. Not only will that improvement help unlock the full potential of the Tide's offense, but Hurts' value is further seen when noting that Alabama has two true freshmen behind him on the depth chart.
BREAKOUT STAR: LB Rashaan Evans -- The senior didn't make his first career start until last season's College Football Playoff, subbing in nicely for the injured Shaun Dion Hamilton. Evans made seven tackles against Washington and 11 stops vs. Clemson, giving him enough confidence that in February he tweeted, "I'll win the Butkus Award." Becoming the nation's best linebacker is a big goal, but he does appear poised for a huge season lining up next to Hamilton at inside linebacker. Alabama's first scrimmage was closed to the media, but reports were that Evans was dominant.
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: WR Jerry Jeudy -- So much to choose from, as Alabama had the nation's top-ranked class, but the 'Bama buzz started particularly early with Jeudy, who was MVP of the A-Day spring game, when he caught five passes for 134 yards and two touchdowns. The five-star recruit already reminds many of teammate Calvin Ridley. Jeudy (6-1, 187) might not be in the starting lineup -- look for Ridley, Robert Foster and Cam Sims -- but he'll be a big-play option in Alabama's attack.
--DB Minkah Fitzpatrick, a returning consensus All-American, has practiced at every spot in the Alabama secondary during camp. He has lined up at corner, safety, star (nickel back) and money (a sixth defensive back who replaces the middle linebacker in some formations). Where he ends up in the starting lineup likely depends on where he is needed most after the coaches see how other defensive backs are stepping up at their respective positions.
--OL Alex Leatherwood, a five-star true freshman, has been working as a backup at right and left tackle in camp. Another true freshman tackle, Jedrick Wills, has been getting reps as a backup right tackle, with coach Nick Saban saying, "We think both of those guys have potential to help us."
--RB B.J. Emmons left a crowded backfield and transferred to Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College in the summer.
--RB Josh Jacobs was dealing with a hamstring injury midway through camp that kept him out of the first scrimmage.
This sentiment was reinforced a year ago via the NFL Draft as 12 former SEC players were among the first 32 players selected, tying a national conference record last met in 2013 by -- you guessed it -- the SEC. Last year was the sixth out of the past seven years in which the SEC led all conferences in producing first-round picks.
As such, perhaps it is not surprising that the SEC -- and specifically the West division -- once again is loaded with prospective NFL talent, with a national-best nine players currently among NFLDraftScout.com's initial Top 32 entering the 2017 season. This list includes four players inside the top 15, starting off with LSU junior edge rusher Arden Key at No. 6 overall.
But as Clemson of the ACC Atlantic division proved in the national championship game in each of the past two years, the gap between Alabama and LSU of the SEC West and the rest of the country appears to be closing.
Florida State redshirt sophomore safety Derwin James checks in at No. 4 overall (highest among any defenders) and is one of eight players from the ACC Atlantic among NFLDraftScout.com's top 32, just one less than the mighty SEC West.
James joins reigning Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Lamar Jackson (No. 8) from Louisville and Clemson defensive tackle Christian Wilkins (No. 15) among the top 15.
Four ACC Atlantic teams -- Florida State (James, CB Tarvarus McFadden, No. 16 overall), Louisville (Jackson, CB Jaire Alexander, No. 20), Clemson (Wilkins, DE Clelin Ferrell, No. 17) and North Carolina State (DE Bradley Chubb, No. 24) have at least one player among NFLDraftScout.com's top 25, the most impressive distribution of burgeoning pro talent in the country.
As has been the case for the past several years, Alabama and LSU dominate the SEC West's list of top-ranked prospects, with an eye-popping six members of the Crimson Tide checking in among the top 32 and two Bayou Bengals (Key, RB Derrius Guice) among NFLDraftScout.com's top 12.
The SEC West is deep as well as talented. The division leads with 22 players among NFLDraftScout.com's initial Top 100, with the ACC Atlantic coming in second with 15, one more than the Big Ten East.
The Tide's assembly line of future early draft picks from the secondary is in good hands with junior defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick (No. 9 overall), safety Ronnie Harrison (No. 28) and cornerback Anthony Averett (No. 32) earning top marks. Wideout Calvin Ridley (No. 13) and defensive lineman Da'Shawn Hand (No. 19) and Da'Ron Payne (No. 31) round out Alabama's top prospects.
Playmaking Texas A&M wideout/returner Christian Kirk (No. 18) is the only other player from the SEC West to earn a preseason first-round stamp. Florida offensive tackle Martez Ivey is the lone representative from the SEC East, though Georgia running back Nick Chubb just missed the cut at No. 35 overall.
Skill-position stars were the early storyline of the 2017 draft -- seven were selected among the top 10 picks -- and history appears likely to repeat itself next spring.
The top three spots on NFLDraftScout.com's board are reserved for playmakers, beginning with a pair of Pac-12 South quarterbacks in Southern California's redshirt sophomore Sam Darnold and UCLA junior Josh Rosen, with Penn State's dynamic junior running back Saquon Barkley coming in at No. 3 overall.
Toolsy Wyoming redshirt junior quarterback Josh Allen is the top prospect outside of the so-called power conferences; the Mountain West star joins Florida State's James to round out the top five.
Barkley is joined by Ohio State redshirt junior defensive end Sam Hubbard (No. 10 overall) as the only representatives from the Big Ten to crack the top 20. Similarly, Washington defensive tackle Vita Vea joins quarterbacks Darnold and Rosen as the only three players from the Pac-12 with preseason first-round grades.
Whereas the cupboard, at least initially, appears relatively bare in the Big Ten and Pac-12, the Big 12 looks primed for resurgence.
A year after producing just one first-round pick (Texas Tech quarterback Patrick Mahomes) and 14 overall selections (compared to 15 for the American Athletic Conference, 35 for the Big Ten, 36 for the Pac-12, 43 for the ACC and 53 for the SEC), five players from the historically strong league check in among NFLDraftScout.com's Top 32. That list starts with Oklahoma's mammoth left tackle Orlando Brown (6-7, 358) at No. 7 overall.
Things are encouraging at Texas (offensive tackle Connor Williams, No. 14 and inside linebacker Malik Jefferson, No. 29) and Oklahoma State (wide receiver James Washington, No. 26, and quarterback Mason Rudolph, No. 30). Those schools combined for just three selections in the entire 2017 draft, the earliest of which was Longhorns' running back D'Onta Foreman, the 89th overall selection.