James Starks, University of Buffalo
It's hard to get more under-appreciated than a football player for the University of Buffalo. As a freshman, Starks was slated to be the backup quarterback, but moved to running back at the beginning of the year and led the Bulls in rushing with 704 yards with 6 touchdowns. He averaged a rather pedestrian (by college standards) 4.02 yards per rush, but keep in mind, he plays for a team that has not had a 1000 yard rusher since 1996 and not averaged over 18.6 points per game in any year since their move to Division IA in 1999. Starks crossed the 100-yard barrier twice, including a superb 162 yard, 3 touchdown effort against Kent State in the Bulls 41-14 win. For good measure, he also finished second on the team in receptions (34), though he only gained 226 yards on those receptions (4th on the team). Starks has a lot of things going for him this season in his quest to rush for 1000 yards. For starters, his head coach (Turner Gill) was a Heisman finalist at Nebraska as an option-quarterback in the early 1980's. However, most importantly the Buffalo offense returns 9 starters, including 4 of 5 offensive linemen. Look for Starks to have a fine season even though the Bulls are still languishing at the bottom of the MAC.
Calvin Dawson, University of Louisiana-Monroe
Last season Dawson led the Sun Belt in rushing with 1210 yards (5.68 per rush) and tied for the league lead with 11 rushing touchdowns. He also caught 21 passes for 155 yards and averaged 22.33 yards on 12 kickoff returns. Dawson was phenomenal in the second half of the season, rushing for over 100 yards in 6 of his last 7 games (872 yards, 5.93 per rush). He also performed well against BCS schools. He rushed for over 100 yards against Alabama, Arkansas, and Kentucky. All told, against 4 BCS schools (those 3 SEC teams and Kansas), Dawson rushed for 463 yards and averaged 6.81 yards per rush. With 11! offensive starters back for the Warhawks, look for Dawson to lead the Sun Belt in rushing once again.
Yonus Davis, San Jose State University
That's Yonus, breaking out into the open field behind defenders and in front of half empty stadiums. The diminutive Davis (5 foot 7) enters his senior year fresh off a 1000 yard season (1007 yards, 6.18 per rush). He scored 6 touchdowns on the ground, and despite only hauling in 7 receptions, also added one score through the air. Davis faded down the stretch (146 yards, 3.11 yards per rush in the last 5 games), but some of that can be blamed on a nagging groin injury. If he remains healthy this season, another 1000 yard campaign should be in the cards. Unlike the other two players on this list, Davis also enjoyed success at the team level as the Spartans competed in a bowl (and won) for the first time since 1990. An encore performance will be tough with non-conference games at Arizona State, Kansas State, and Stanford and WAC games against Fresno State (road), Boise State (road), Hawaii, Nevada, and ever-improving New Mexico State. But don't put anything past Dick Tomey who we may see on this list later in the week.