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May 17, 2010

Under-the-radar difference-makers to watch

There's still a long way to go before the season kicks off, and much of the talk over the next three or so months will be about star players leading their teams to big bowls.

Well, here's a look at one player in each league who doesn't have to be a star but does have to play well for his team to reach its potential.

This is by no means a comprehensive list. Instead, it's a list of players I'm looking forward to following this fall -- and in some cases, the potential for a not-so-happy ending is why these guys are intriguing.

Nebraska DE Pierre Allen: With Ndamukong Suh gone, the Huskers' defensive line needs to find some playmakers. Allen had five sacks and 12 tackles for loss last season. Those are nice numbers, nothing more. Allen needs to at least match those figures this season without Suh taking on two blockers. Nebraska looks to have the talent to win the Big 12 North, and the defense should be a big reason. Jared Crick is expected to be a highly productive tackle, but the Huskers need Allen to help out off the edge.

Iowa DE Broderick Binns: Unlike Nebraska, Iowa returns its star lineman in E Adrian Clayborn. Binns had 6.5 sacks last season, when opposing lines were worried about Clayborn. Those linemen will be worried about Clayborn again this season -- i.e., double-teaming him -- so Binns needs to again put up solid numbers. If he can at least match his efforts from last season, the Hawkeyes are going to be in excellent shape up front.

Middle Tennessee LB Antwan Davis: Davis, a senior, is the Blue Raiders' only returning starter at linebacker. MTSU will have a strong offense, and that unit is the reason the Blue Raiders will be picked to win the Sun Belt. But there are some defensive questions, especially in the front seven. All that offense won't matter if the defense resembles a sieve. Davis needs to be productive and provide leadership to a young linebacking group. MTSU finished second in the nation in tackles for loss last season, a sign of an aggressive defense. Expect the Blue Raiders to again be aggressive, and coaches need Davis to become a playmaker.

Southern Miss TB V.J. Floyd: The Golden Eagles lost their top two rushers, who were responsible for 70 percent of their 2,358 rushing yards last season. The No. 3 rusher was QB Martevious Young, who now is a backup. In short, while the Golden Eagles' passing game looks sharp, there are questions about the rushing attack. Floyd, a senior who has rushed for 398 yards in his career, had a solid spring and will go into fall drills atop the depth chart. He has to prove he can handle the job or coaches will have to turn to some less-experienced candidates. The East Division of Conference USA is wide open, and if Southern Miss proves it can run effectively, it can win the title.

Florida LB Brandon Hicks: Hicks, a senior, has been a part-time starter the past two seasons for the Gators; he actually played more in 2008 than he did in '09. The Gators lost three linebackers, including two starters, from last season, and Hicks needs to provide a steady hand for a group that is young and inexperienced. Hicks is solid against the run and the pass, and must make some plays and provide leadership for a rebuilt Gators front seven.

Oregon WR Jeff Maehl: When Jeremiah Masoli was suspended for the season, Oregon's hopes for a national title took a huge hit. Still, the Ducks have a legitimate chance to win the Pac-10. They're expected to rely a bit more on the pass than they would've with Masoli. Senior Nate Costa looks as if he will slide into Masoli's old job, and Costa is a better passer. Maehl is the Ducks' best receiver, and he needs to come through like a No. 1 receiver should. He had 53 receptions last season, for 696 yards and six touchdowns. Even with the concern at quarterback, Maehl needs to at least match those numbers if the Ducks' offense is to be as potent as it can be.

Cincinnati RB Isaiah Pead: Cincinnati's rushing offense really scared no one last season, but it didn't matter because the passing attack was extremely dynamic. Here's betting that the passing game won't be as good this season without Tony Pike, Mardy Gilyard and Brian Kelly. That's where Pead comes in. New coach Butch Jones praised Pead for his work during spring ball, and you'd think Pead would get a few more carries this season. Pead has a nice burst and has 1,000-yard, 12-TD potential. He needs to reach his potential if the Bearcats are to legitimately contend for the Big East title again.

Boise State G Nate Potter: Potter was an All-WAC pick at left tackle last season, but coaches moved him inside this spring in an effort to get more athleticism across the line. Potter -- a 6-foot-6, 297-pound senior -- will go into fall drills at guard. If he can continue to perform well in the interior of the line, he will fix a problem and Boise's line could end up being better than it was last season. Boise was undefeated last season, which means the line did a nice job. But if the Broncos are to go unbeaten and get in the BCS title-game mix, the line will need to be even better this season. And it might be.

Temple QB Chester Stewart: Temple was atrocious throwing the ball last season, averaging 146.5 passing yards per game, with 13 touchdown and 14 interceptions. Stewart was a part-time starter, sharing time with Vaughn Charlton. But Charlton now is the starting tight end, and it's up to Stewart to make sure the passing game is at least mediocre. With RB Bernard Pierce on hand, the Owls are going to focus on running the ball. But relying on one guy can only take you so far. Pierce plus a big-time defense plus a mediocre passing attack would be enough for the Owls to win the MAC title.

TCU CB Jason Teague: The Horned Frogs lost both starting cornerbacks in their 4-2-5 alignment, and Teague -- who originally signed with LSU out of high school -- and Greg McCoy are expected to fill those vacancies. Teague has great size (6-2/197) and the potential to be a lockdown corner. TCU is known for its active and aggressive secondaries, and there actually is talk around the program that this season's group could be better than last season's. That puts the onus on Teague, a senior, to perform up to expectations in his final season on campus.

North Carolina QB T.J. Yates: North Carolina's defense could truly be something. Depending on who you listen to, as many as six Tar Heels defenders are potential first-round picks in the 2011 draft. Yet almost no one is picking the Heels to even with their division, much less the ACC title. The offense is the reason: It's just not all that strong. UNC was 108th in the nation in total offense, 102nd in pass offense and 83rd in scoring offense last season. In some respects, there is more pressure on Yates than on anyone else on this list. He's a senior whose best season, in 2008, came when he missed more than half the year with injuries. He had 11 TD passes and four picks that season. In his other two seasons, he threw a combined 28 TDs and 33 interceptions. Yates doesn't need to be Dan Marino for UNC to win the ACC. If he can throw for 2,500 or so yards but with 10 or fewer interceptions, the Heels will be fine. Cutting down on the mistakes is vital. All that defensive talent means UNC can win the ACC as long as the offense doesn't implode.

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.

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