Blue skies ahead—or maybe not When old rivals Notre Dame and Michigan meet on Sept. 12 in Ann Arbor, fans of both teams will be looking for signs of significant improvement. After reaching BCS bowls in coach Charlie Weis's first two seasons, the Irish fell to 3--9 in 2007 and 7--6 last year, including a humbling late-season home loss to 3--9 Syracuse. With a roster that for the first time is made up almost entirely of Weis recruits, the Notre Dame faithful demand a Top 25 team. Rich Rodriguez is coming off a hellish debut season as Michigan coach: The Wolverines had one of the nation's worst offenses (109th) and the most losses in school history (nine, including a 35--17 thumping in South Bend). Now Rodriguez will put a freshman quarterback—spring enrollee Tate Forcier or Denard Robinson—at the controls of his spread attack.
Pryor commitments As Ohio State's starting quarterback fresh out of high school last year, Terrelle Pryor showed an uncanny ability to scramble and throw on the run. The 6'6" 235-pounder completed 60.6% of his throws for 12 touchdowns and only four interceptions, and he also ran for 631 yards. He did all that with a limited playbook, but this year the Buckeyes are installing the pistol formation—a variation of the shotgun. In addition to keeping the offense moving through the air, Pryor will be counted on to help compensate for the loss of star running back Beanie Wells.
Running up and down the coast The Pac-10, known for its long line of prolific passers, is suddenly home to a bunch of the nation's top rushers. In a quarterback-rich Heisman race, can one of them run his way into contention? For starters, Cal junior Jahvid Best is the top returning rusher (131.7 yards per game) in Division I-A, Oregon State's Jacquizz Rodgers set a Pac-10 freshman record (1,253 yards) and Stanford's Toby Gerhart set a school record (1,136). There's also Oregon's LeGarrette Blount, who will step into a more prominent role after averaging 7.3 yards per carry as a part-timer. And the only reason USC won't produce an All-America tailback this year is because C.J. Gable, Stafon Johnson and Joe McKnight will be splitting the workload.
Inseparable Last year's most tightly contested conference was the ACC. Ten of the 12 teams finished either a conference-best 5--3 or 4--4 in league play. It won't get any easier this season. Virginia Tech, which won its second straight ACC title and got the league's first BCS bowl victory in nine years, has more weapons on offense. Georgia Tech's triple-option offense is a defensive coordinator's nightmare. North Carolina has significantly upgraded its defense. And Florida State (Christian Ponder), Miami (Jacory Harris) and North Carolina State (Russell Wilson) should get more consistent play from second-year quarterbacks.
Mountain climbing After his conference put three teams in the final AP poll—including 13--0 Utah at No. 2—Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson raised a stink about the league's outsider status in the BCS setup. His proposal for an eight-team playoff never stood a chance, but the MWC could eventually secure an automatic BCS berth if it continues to play at a high level. That's because last year the BCS began using a formula that evaluates conferences over a four-year period. This year Utah along with fellow Mountain West members TCU and BYU, as well as Boise State out of the WAC, will test the system that sets the five major bowl matchups.