As spring practice begins on non-AQ campuses from Annapolis to Honolulu, there's no shortage of burning questions to answer before the calendar turns.
But before we start diving into some of those pressing issues, a plea: Can we put the David vs. Goliath talk to rest? It makes for great television when Brent Musburger says TCU won one "for the little guys everywhere" by beating Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl, but a team from outside the six power conferences has won a BCS game in five of the last seven years. It may have been a Cinderella story when Utah beat Pitt in the 2005 Fiesta Bowl or when Boise State dropped Oklahoma two years later, but the fairytale effect has worn off. These teams have proven they belong.
That said, one more hurdle remains: breaking through the glass ceiling to claim the crystal football. Which brings us to the key spring question in each of the five non-AQ conferences this spring -- and the key question facing the king of the Independents.
Independents: Who will be Notre Dame's starting quarterback?
Experience won't be an issue for Brian Kelly's second Irish team, which returns 17 starters, including a Biletnikoff Award candidate in wide receiver Michael Floyd and an All-America candidate in linebacker Manti Te'o. But the question of who exactly will be under center come September could rage into the fall.
Senior Dayne Crist started the first nine games of 2010, throwing 15 touchdowns before suffering a season-ended knee injury. He was replaced by freshman Tommy Rees, who put up 12 touchdowns to help the Irish close on a four-game win streak. Added to the mix this spring will be redshirt freshman Andrew Hendrix and dual-threat recruit Everett Golson, an early enrollee.
Crist, a member of the Heisman Pundit's 2011 Watch List, would seem to have the edge, but he was inconsistent during his starting reign. Despite his comparatively sterling record, Rees was shaky at times too, throwing seven picks over the final five games. Given Kelly's penchant for going with more mobile passers, don't rule out a two-quarterback system that would allow Hendrix and Golson to see action. A similar approach worked for Kelly at Cincinnati in 2009.
C-USA: Will Houston find its footing defensively?
There's no denying what drives Kevin Sumlin's team. With quarterback Case Keenum returning for a sixth year after earning a medical hardship waiver and with two 1,000-yard receivers returning in Tyron Carrier and Patrick Edwards, the Cougars have an offense that could keep them in the BCS conversation.
But the defense is another story. In Sumlin's three years, the Cougars have ranked 100th, 111th and 103rd nationally in total defense. They made the switch to a 3-4 last year, but allowed an average of 40.5 points over a season-ending four-game losing streak. There's hope for progress with seven starters returning, including standout senior linebackers Sammy Brown and Marcus McGraw, but the Cougars have to overcome losing three players from the secondary. Sumlin will look to juco transfers Chevy Bennett and D.J. Hayden to step in, and the group's development this spring and fall will be the biggest key to building a D that can finally take some of the pressure off Keenum and Co.
MAC: Which of five new coaches faces the most daunting spring?
No conference saw more coaching turnover than the MAC, with Ball State (Pete Lembo), Kent State (Darrell Hazell), Miami of Ohio (Don Treadwell), Northern Illinois (Dave Doeren) and Temple (Steve Addazio) all entering the spring with new faces on the sideline.
No new coach has more work to do than Lembo, who takes over a Ball State program that won six games in two full seasons under Stan Parrish, with just one of those wins coming outside of conference play.
Lembo's main priorities this spring are changing attitudes and breathing life into an offense that ranked 106th overall in 2010 and 109th in passing. He'll do that by installing the no-huddle attack he used at FCS school Elon, but adapting to the scheme's fast pace and emphasis on the screen game will take time. It helps that Ball State returns three-fourths of its rushing attack from a year ago, but it remains to be seen if Keith Wenning, who threw 14 interceptions to 14 touchdowns as a true freshman, is the answer at quarterback. Lembo should have an interesting competition on his hands as rising junior Kelly Page looks to reclaim the starting job he lost to Wenning last season.
Mountain West: Who will be Kellen Moore's top target at Boise State?
The Broncos are in a state of transition. After dominating the WAC with 65 wins in 72 games and posting five undefeated regular seasons, Boise State joins the Mountain West. Unlike last season, when Boise was operating under the same leadership and returning 20 starters, Chris Petersen's squad enters spring needing to adjust to a new offensive coordinator and replace 11 regulars.
Most notably, Boise State must replace Austin Pettis and Titus Young, its top two receivers from a year ago who combined for 142 receptions for 2,166 yards and 19 touchdowns. Given that new offensive coordinator Brent Pease spent the last five seasons as wide receivers coach, he should have a feel for who can step into those spots. Senior Tyler Shoemaker (32 catches for 582 yards and five touchdowns last season) should take over the lead role, while Kirby Moore (brother of Kellen) could figure prominently after redshirting in 2010. Sophomores Aaron Burks and Geraldo Hiwat and freshman Troy Ware should also crack the rotation.
This will remain one of the nation's top passing attacks as long as Kellen Moore is at the controls, but it's reasonable to expect a dip after losing dynamic playmakers like Pettis and Young.
Sun Belt: Is the nation's next leading rusher lurking in Denton?
It will be a busy spring for North Texas' Dan McCarney, who gets a second chance as a head coach after an up-and-down run at Iowa State from 1995-2006. He'll be looking for a quarterback among three players with two combined starts, a No. 1 wide receiver and three offensive line starters. With that lack of experience, it's easy to envision McCarney spending spring camp preaching one simple lesson: hand off to Lance Dunbar.
Dunbar, the 5-foot-9, 203-pound rising senior, ran for 1,553 yards and 13 touchdowns on 274 carries last season. He ranked sixth nationally with 129.4 rushing yards per game and fourth nationally with 1,885 all-purpose yards on the year. With 300-plus carries within reason in 2011 and a schedule that includes nine opponents who ranked 73rd or worse in rushing defense in 2010, don't be surprised if Dunbar makes a bid for 2,000 yards and becomes the sport's next rushing king.
WAC: Will Bryant Moniz and the Hawaii offense survive a mass exodus?
In his first full season as a starter, Moniz led the nation in total passing yards (5,040), yards per game (360) and touchdown passes (39). But he's nearly all that returns for Greg McMackin's offense, with the Warriors losing top pass-catchers Greg Salas and Kealoha Pilares, leading rusher Alex Green and four offensive line starters.
With a rebuilt offensive line, McMackin's top priority this spring will be finding the right fits for the slot receiver positions, where Salas and Pilares did their damage. Juco transfer Darius Bright, who sat out last season due to the depth at the position, would seem to have the size for the job at 6-5 and 230 pounds, and senior Royce Pollard has experience as the leading returning receiver from a year ago. Miah Ostrowski, who plays point guard for the Hawaii basketball team and boasts a 45-inch vertical, is also an intriguing candidate.