It’s hard to imagine that the Big 12 South is stronger than ever, but with the emergence of Baylor and ‘Rock Star’ Robert Griffin, the South now has five bowl teams and three National Championship contenders. Oklahoma, Texas, and Oklahoma State (now complete with defense) will all enter the season ranked in the top 10 and if Oklahoma State can beat Georgia September 5th in Stillwater, then all three will be possibly Top 5 heading into conference play that will make it the toughest division in football.
On the other side, the Big 12 North has more questions than answers heading into the 2009 season. And although the North is nowhere near the South at this point, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t a few possible upsets lurking and it surely won’t take away from what should be a very competitive division.
With 9 starters on offense back and a defense that will improve on the team’s -95 yards/game average from last season, Colorado is going to be a tough win considering all of their key games will be in Boulder. Losing WR Josh Smith is going to be a killer for QB Cody Hawkins, who must show more consistency this season, but WR’s Scotty McKnight and Markques Simas will provide plenty to help with the loss. RB’s Darrell Scott, who is said to be slimmer, trimmer, and faster, and Rodney Stewart will be a formidable one-two punch behind a strong offensive line that will certainly provide more than enough help for Dan Hawkins’ infamous play-action scheme. Colorado has three LB’s in Shaun Mohler, Jeff Smart, and Jon Major that could form one of the Big 12’s best groups. Outside of two guaranteed losses on the road against Texas and Oklahoma State, the rest of the schedule is very doable and might have to be if Dan Hawkins wants to be around in 2010. The road to the Big 12 North title could be won or lost this season in Boulder for Nebraska, Kansas, and Missouri.
Iowa State will be an improved team in 2009, which won’t be hard to do when you finished 0-8 the previous season. New coach Paul Rhoads no doubt is stepping into a gloomy situation in Ames, but keep in mind he has 15 starters back including QB Austen Arnaud. Also helping out the situation will be Florida transfer Bo Williams who most expect to start at running back. The Cyclones will face Oklahoma State (home), Baylor (home), and Texas A&M (away) from the South, which means things could be much worse for Rhoads. Iowa State needs to circle four games on the schedule: Kansas State in K.C., vs. Colorado, vs. Baylor, and @ Texas A&M. One of those games is a possibility for a much needed win, but I think it’s safe to say that the overall talent just isn’t there and breaking their 10 game conference losing streak is going to be a chore under a first year coach. However, somewhere on the schedule they’ll get one.
Kansas returns 14 starters including QB Todd Reesing, WR Dezmon Briscoe (2nd Team All-Big 12), WR Kerry Meier, and S Darrell Stuckey (1st Team All-Big 12), which many point out makes them the favorites in the North. However, I’m not so quick to buy into this team that finished 4-4 in conference play last season with two of those wins coming by 2 points (Iowa State) and 3 points (Missouri.) Although Briscoe is ‘day to day’ and his eligibility for this season is up in the air, I’d be shocked to see Mangino not play him this season. The biggest question mark will come at the offensive line where only two lineman have started more than two games, which will put an ever bigger bullseye on Reesing this season. Defensively, you must keep in mind that from a unit that gave up 447 yards/game last season, three of the top four leaders in tackles are gone. Having games @ Colorado, @ Kansas State, vs. Nebraska, and vs. Missouri (in K.C.) only adds a little to the giant headache of drawing games vs. Oklahoma, @ Texas, and @ Texas Tech from the South. Brutal.
Don’t be so fast to count out Bill Snyder and a Kansas State team with 14 starters back. The Wildcats return 7 of their top 8 tacklers – top 6 overall – and Big 12 Newcomer of the Year Brandon Banks at wide receiver. If they can get consistent play from Carson Coffman at QB, who enters the fall #1 on the depth chart, then this team could give a few unanticipated problems. The problem is that consistency will rely heavily on a group of no name running backs who have a combined 462 career yards. However, with standout QB/RB/Athlete recruit Daniel Thomas, who has just finished his summer school work and will enroll soon, arriving on campus, expect to possibly see him move over to running back and make an immediate impact – that is if he doesn’t beat out Coffman. As far as their schedule looks, I’ve seen worse. Not counting Iowa State in K.C., the Wildcats have only three true road games at Oklahoma, Texas Tech, and Nebraska. Coming to Manhattan are Texas A&M, Colorado, Kansas, and Missouri, all of whom I would venture to say will not be looking forward to by the middle of the season – especially Kansas and Missouri in November.
With Chase Daniel, their top 3 WR’s, and 7 All-Big 12 defensive players gone, Missouri has plenty of holes to fill. In fact, Missouri had six players taken in the 2009 NFL draft – more than any other Big 12 school and that doesn’t count Daniel. With that said, having 2 new coordinators with only 9 returning starters might be a little much to overlook when you aren’t Oklahoma or Texas. However, with RB Derrick Washington and WR’s Danario Alexander and Jared Perry, this offense has the potential to be very explosive despite Qb Blaine Gabbert’s inexperience (5/13 for 43 yards/career.) Finding the pieces to replace 7 of their top 11 tacklers to play with All-American LB Sean Weatherspoon will be of the utmost importance for a defense that ranked #98 in total defense and #117 in passing defense last season. The Tigers schedule could be worse with only Texas and @ Oklahoma State as probably their only non-winnable games. The Tigers catch a break getting Nebraska on a nationally televised Thursday night game at home and will no question have plenty of revenge on their minds vs. Kansas to finish league play. The three game stretch (after the tough three game start) @ Colorado, vs. Baylor, and @ Kansas State are all probably going to be must wins for a chance at repeating of at least Co-North champs again. Keep in mind Gary Pinkel went 10-4 in 2008 with the most talented team in school history. Don’t forget that in 2009.
I’ve been harping on this for quite some time, but Nebraska’s -11 turnover ratio last season to go along with a difference of -323 yards in penalties is a stat you don’t want to overlook (more to come on this statistic later in the week.) It will improve and it will make a difference. Nebraska returns 12 of their top 17 tacklers from a year ago including the top four (Suh, Allen, Asante, and O’Hanion) and will have the best offensive and defensive lines in the North. The uncertainty of the newcomers – QB, WR – on offense has many of the critics skeptical. All eyes will be on new QB Zac Lee and how fast he can pick up Watson’s offense to game speed. The Huskers’ depth and talent at RB, TE, and OL will help Lee and will pave the way for a revamped and more potent rushing game in 2009 (Rich Kaipust of the OWH did a great statistical piece on the running game here.) As far as their schedule goes, it’s nothing to laugh at. Besides having to play Missouri on that Thursday night in Columbia, the Huskers must also travel to Baylor, Kansas, and Colorado – those four games will make or break this season.
1. Nebraska (5-3)
2. Colorado (4-4)
3. Kansas (4-4)
4. Missouri (4-4)
5. Kansas State (3-5)
6. Iowa State (1-7)
The November 27th showdown in Boulder between the Buffaloes and the Cornhuskers could very well be for the Big 12 North.