Big 12 Conference Preview
Oklahoma and Texas lead a competitive South division
Aug. 20, 2007
By Carolyn Braff
Carolyn is an assistant editor and writer for CSTV.com.
It doesn't get much bigger than the Big 12. On the list of toughest divisions in the nation, the Big 12 South sits just behind the SEC East, and the big games here are some of the biggest there are. With the exception of Baylor, the division is loaded with offensive talent in
As usual in these parts,
The North division is certainly the weaker of the two, but Missouri could surprise a lot of people with quarterback Chase Daniel throwing to a tight end duo that creates mismatches everywhere it steps.
Oct. 6 will be a big day in both divisions: the Red River Rivalry between
North Division --- CSTV's Big 12 North Preview
With every weapon returning from last year's unit, ranked No. 8 in the nation, and quarterback Chase Daniel still under center,
"I think it's pretty unique what we have," head coach Gary Pinkel said. "We have two of the best tight ends in the nation. They both have great speed, they can make plays, they're unselfish. We can move them around on offense, we can put them anywhere on the field."
Rucker is regarded as the better blocker, while Coffman is the better receiver, but look for more sets with both on the field, either at receiver or in the backfield. Wide receiver Will Franklin, who would have had a 1,000 yard-season if not for a late shoulder injury, completes the conference's most explosive pass-catching trio.
As the Big 12's leading returning rusher, tailback Tony Temple will help balance the spread attack. Two four-year starters anchor an experienced offensive line.
The only thing standing between
Brock Christopher is the only returning linebacker with starting experience. Freshmen Michael Keck and Luke Lambert graduated early to join spring practice, and could see playing time from the get-go. Corner Domonique Johnson left the team in the spring, leaving room for Hardy Ricks and
The Tigers' offense put them in a position to win last season, and everything looked good at the halfway point. But then the bottom fell out on the defense and a 6-0 start was followed by a 2-5 finish, the lowlight being the 39-38 Sun Bowl loss to
Partly to blame was the special teams - the Tigers' net punting average ranked 104th in the nation and their kickoff returns were 115th. Junior college transfer Jake Harry should give Missouri the punting expertise it needs to get out of the kicking doghouse, but Williams saw the defense to blame for the second half breakdown.
"Our first six games you hardly ever see anybody outside of where they're supposed to be," Williams said. "The second six games, everybody's all over the place. People try to think too much; you just gotta do what you're supposed to do."
The Tigers' schedule puts them in perfect position to win their division - the two neutral site games are closer to home games, and three of the bigger conference games -
Regular Season Prediction: 10-2 Overall, 6-2 Big 12
With the Big 12 offensive player of the year gone,
"Our players know exactly where they stand day in and day out," Callahan said. "When they go on the practice field they know what's expected of them, they know the line of communication is wide open, so that's what makes for great competition at that spot."
Senior wide receiver Maurice Purify, heralded as the team's best offensive player, will step in after he serves his one-game suspension for off-season behavior. Purify led the team in receiving yards and caught seven TD passes in only five starts. He'll be joined by Terrence Nunn in effectively running the west coast offense. Senior tight end J.B. Phillips also returns to help the receiving corps.
Marlon Lucky and Cody Glen are complementary backfield threats, but Glenn was hampered by injury throughout the spring. Recruiting has brought in a bigger, deeper offensive line than ever before, which should give ample time to the quarterback, whoever he may be.
Linebackers Corey McKeon and Bo Ruud are the strength of the Huskers' 4-3 defense, but the entire group is going to have to be better than last year's 56th best performance. Ruud moves from the weak to the strong side this season to give a boost to the pass rush. Cortney Grixby and Andre Jones return at corner, where they will be pushed by junior college transfer Armando Murillo.
The entire front four cleared out, leaving a wealth of inexperience to fill the shoes of guys like conference Defensive Lineman of the Year Adam Carriker. Three junior college defensive tackles should help bridge the gap, but the concern on defense is the line.
With Callahan coming into his fourth season in Lincoln, his own recruits now fill the roster and it's time for his program to take the next step, but tough luck in the scheduling game may slow that process.
"It's probably the most challenging schedule we've had since I've been at
Traveling to face ACC champion Wake Forest precedes a home contest against USC, but the season rides on an Oct. 6 victory at
Regular Season Prediction: 8-4, 5-3 Big 12
The hopes and dreams of the
Behind Freeman in the backfield are running backs James Johnson and Leon Patton, and senior Jordy Nelson will be a prime receiving target. After leading the team in receptions as a sophomore, he was bothered by injuries through much of last season, but should be back to full health for 2007.
The biggest offensive worry is the offensive line, where every position other than Jordan Bedore's center spot is up for grabs.
"That's not a real comforting feeling for a coach," head coach Ron Prince said.
Still, signing six linemen in the off-season, including some JUCO transfers, should help solve that puzzle.
"This is a maturing team," Prince said. "It's a team of young players and what we've tried to do in adding talent to the offensive line, not only adding talent to the wide receiver corps, will hopefully allow [Freeman] to play his very best."
Prince knows the key to competing in the Big 12 is defense, so he's taking the Wildcats from a 4-3 to a 3-4 to combat the conference's spread offense epidemic.
"We were heavy on defense in our class because we had a sense we were coming into a conference that's very good on offense," Prince said. "Everybody has a receiver that you can't cover one-on-one. Everybody has a terrific quarterback. We felt if we were going to be able to make a dent in the conference we were going to have to play some defense."
Junior linebacker Ian Campbell should thrive under the 3-4. Named the Big 12 Preseason Defensive Player of the Year,
"The way in which we integrate the team and the level at which the returning players have improved will show if this is a group with a lot of depth, or if we're going to have to scratch and claw to win games," Prince said.
The scratching and clawing will begin early, with the season opener at Auburn. The Oct. 20 matchup with
Regular Season Prediction: 7-5 Overall, 4-4 Big 12
First and foremost,
Running backs Jake Sharp and Brandon McAnderson will try to make up for the void left by the graduation of Jon Cornish, the conference's leading rusher. Junior Dexton Fields and senior Marcus Henry are expected to step up at wide receiver after losing the team's biggest receiving threat.
Anthony Collins will anchor a rebuilt line from the left tackle spot, and 315-pound junior college transfer Chet Hartley should help the rebuilding process.
Returning eight starters on defense may not be such a blessing for
The good news is that Kansas did rank 28th in the nation against the run and returns senior tackle James McClinton, who recorded 14 tackles for a loss last season. And the linebacking corps looks significantly faster, led by Arist Wright and James Holt, who started in the outside spots by the end of last season. Joe Mortensen moves to the middle linebacker spot, where junior Mike Rivera will challenge him for playing time.
"The same team coming back with a little bit more experience and repetition in games, it should be a real good season for KU this year," Talib said.
With this soft of a schedule, the Jayhawks cannot afford to pass up the opportunity to use 2007 to dig themselves out of Big 12 North mediocrity.
"I don't know if it's the year we need to make that break, but I plan on it," head coach Mark Mangino said.
"Everybody has rough seas out there," Mangino said. "There aren't many Division I programs in the last 20 years that haven't had some rough times one way or another. When you have good people that care and do the right things, it will work out."
If Kansas can get its people to do the right things by pulling out a few close games rather than dropping them like a rock (reference 42-32 loss to Oklahoma State, in which Kansas allowed 42 second-half points, or the evaporated 18-7 fourth quarter lead over Texas A&M), they have a shot at returning to bowl contention.
Regular Season Prediction: 6-6 Overall, 2-6 Big 12
"We're going to push from practice one to find a starting quarterback," Hawkins said. "I don't think we can afford to wait for first scrimmage, it needs to be a race."
Freshman Cody Hawkins, the coach's son, looks to be the leading candidate to be the opening day starter. He's competing with JUCO transfer Nick Nelson, but both are lacking in experience, so the sooner one is chosen, the better prepared the Buffs will be in Hawkins' spread attack.
The Buffs had a solid run defense in 2006, holding teams to 3.3 yards per carry, but opponents completed 67 percent of their throws against the young team. Losing the conference sack leader won't help the cause either, but the linebackers are the silver lining. Led by senior Jordan Dizon, who tallied 137 tackles last season, linebacking is the heart of the
"We couldn't get everyone on the same page, couldn't put those pieces of the puzzle together," Dizon said of last season, the first of Hawkins' tenure in
"That freshman to sophomore year is probably the largest jump in learning," Hawkins said.
Losing four games by five points or less, including a triple-overtime home loss to Baylor, ought to accelerate that learning process, which will be helpful with this year's schedule. The opening slate is rough: at Arizona State followed by a home stand against Florida State, Miami University and
Regular Season Prediction: 4-8, 2-6 Big 12
First-year head coach Gene Chizik looked to junior colleges around the country to help his floundering offense. With 12 JUCO transfers on the roster to support returning quarterback Bret Meyer and leading wide receiver Todd Blythe, Chizik has made clear that he is not interested in making 2007 a rebuilding year.
Meyer was anything but consistent last year, although he had precious little time in the pocket (and was sacked 37 times), so Chizik's first order of business will be toughening up the offensive line. Luckily, new offensive coordinator Robert McFarland has experience in that area, and he'll have work to do breaking in four new starters.
Once that's set, the Cyclones can try to pick a go-to running back between Jason Scales, Jason Harris and J.J. Bass and start to transform last year's non-existent run game.
"We feel like you've got to start running the football," Chizik said. "I'll go to my grave believing if you're going to win the Big 12 or any league, you have to be able to run the football first. And so we're going to start with a running game."
With 2,317 career yards and 26 touchdowns, Blythe leads the receiving corps, but he'll need tight end Ben Barkema and some other pass catchers to step up if he's going to get out of the constant double-team.
Chizik's experience as defensive coordinator at
The secondary needs help -
The town of
"I certainly didn't come here to lose," Chizik said. "I'm not used to it, I don't like it."
He may not like it, but the Cyclones are not yet ready for a winning season. Traveling to
Regular Season Prediction: 4-8, 1-7 Big 12
South Division --- CSTV's South Division Preview
Two words: Colt McCoy. The sophomore quarterback will be among the nation's best this season. In his rookie campaign, McCoy completed 68 percent of his passes for 2,570 yards and tied the NCAA record for touchdown tosses by a freshman (29).
He will have an array of threats at receiver this season, led by senior Limas Sweed who came down with a record-tying 12 touchdowns in 2006.
When McCoy went down with an injury late in the season,
"Right now we feel that Colt has control of this football team," head coach Mack Brown said. "He has great confidence. That's a great relief for us from this time last year."
Of less relief is the run game.
"One thing that I can do better is to make a couple of first downs with my feet," McCoy said. "That kind of throws the defense off and it moves the chains. Coach Davis feels like I have the ability to make plays with my feet that I didn't do last year."
The Longhorn defense had a split personality last season. Ranking third in the nation against the run,
Co-defensive coordinator Duane Akina should be more aggressive with blitzes this season and will have to find some answers in the secondary, where Marcus Griffin is the only returning starter. New co-defensive coordinator Larry Mac Duff (of Arizona Desert Swarm fame) will take over the linebacking woes that caused last year's defensive backs to over-commit to stop the run.
The Longhorns will have the top defensive line in the nation, led by tackle contingent Derek Lokey, Roy Miller and Frank Okam, whose last-season injury Brown called the biggest loss of the year.
November will be a tough month, with road games at
Regular Season Prediction: 11-1 Overall, 7-1 Big 12
The Sooners return nine offensive starters, including every receiver and running back Allen Patrick, and are certain to move the ball well, provided they can find a quarterback.
"The big issues that everyone wants to talk about are our quarterback situation, everyone wants to know who that guy is," head coach Bob Stoops said. "We don't have a time table. That position needs to be earned."
Stoops stressed that
The Sooners are well prepared to run the ball without Adrian Peterson. In 2006,
Junior Malcolm Kelly is one of the Big 12's best receivers, coming off of a 993-yard, 10-touchdown season. The line returns four starters with an average size of 6-feet-5, 316 pounds and boasts a 6-foot-8, 350-pound left tackle in JUCO transfer Phil Loadholt, which should give Patrick plenty of room to run.
Stoops pointed to linebacker as the biggest defensive question this season, but having sophomore Ryan Reynolds back from surgery is a boost.
"We have guys in there that can be better maybe than what we've had the last couple of years," Stoops said.
The line is another question, especially at defensive end, where the top three pass rushers were lost to graduation. Inconsistent seniors Alonzo Dotson and John Williams must step up their play this season to match the output of returning tackles Cory Bennett and Steven Coleman.
In spite of that stunning loss at the hands of
Regular Season Prediction: 10-2 Overall, 6-2 Big 12
The Aggies had the eighth-best rushing offense in the nation last season and with two powerful backs and four starters returning on the offensive line, A&M should be able to run on anyone. Hard-nosed quarterback Stephen McGee threw for 2,295 yards and 12 touchdowns last season, giving up only two interceptions in 313 pass attempts - not bad for a first-year starter.
"I'm very conscious of not turning the ball over," McGee said. "Throwing interceptions is not just a stat for the quarterback - it's great calls by the coaching staff, work by the offensive line, tail backs running the ball well and opening things up, receivers catching the ball well."
The Aggies have a powerful one-two punch at running back, with 268-pound
"Chris Alexander is really an unsung hero on our team," head coach Dennis Franchione said. "He threw some key blocks for us."
McGee should have plenty of receiving targets at his disposal in senior wide receiver Earvin Taylor and a superior tight end tandem in Martellus Bennett and Joey Thomas. The line should be one of the best in school history, anchored by seniors center Cody Wallace and guard Kirk Elder.
This is year two of the current defensive scheme and the Aggies are looking for more consistency. The front four is an experienced unit, led by tackle Red Bryant and end Chris Harrington. Bryant missed the second half of last year with a knee injury, and it showed - in the final six games, the Aggies allowed three teams to put up more than 200 yards running the ball. Sophomores Matt Featherston and Anthony Lewis are looking to make names for themselves at linebacker.
Three starters return from a secondary that went from dead last in the nation in 2005 to 44th in 2006, and the improvements should continue this year. Watch for sophomore Jordan Pugh to have a standout year after moving from cornerback to rover.
The Aggies certainly had an up-and-down season last year, as elation at beating
"That takes a degree of mental toughness and physical toughness and grit, fight, determination," Franchione said. "It's hard to go undefeated when you play the Big 12 on the road."
The Aggies will have to stand up to that challenge again this season, traveling to Texas Tech,
Regular Season Prediction: 7-5 Overall, 4-4 Big 12
The Cowboys should once again have the most balanced offense in the conference, and one of the top offenses in the nation. Seven starters return from the country's seventh-best scoring and rushing unit, which put up almost identical numbers in the pass and run game, and every one of last season's contributing receivers returns this fall. Quarterback Bobby Reid will be looking to be more consistent as a dual threat passer in his junior year.
"He's developed into a pretty good throwing quarterback, and he's dangerous when he runs the ball," head coach Mike Gundy said.
All-conference wide receiver Adarius Bowman is a stellar player, totaling 1,181 yards and 12 touchdowns on 60 catches last season. Artie Woods, Anthony Parks and Jeremy Broadway are all receiving threats as well, along with senior running back Dantrell Savage, who is a capable receiver as well as a strong rushing threat.
A deep roster of linemen will compete for the two open starting positions, and should provide adequate protection to continue creating a balanced offense.
"Obviously we're not as athletic defensively as we are on offense," Gundy said. "I don't think there's any question about that. But that doesn't mean our players won't hit and run to the football."
The Cowboys allowed 30-plus points seven times last season, losing five of those contests, but returning the defense's back seven should help bring that point total down. Senior cornerback Martel Van Zant anchors the secondary, while former quarterback Donovan Woods will continue to play a combination linebacker/safety role.
"I do think we have some maturity in the secondary to where they can make great strides early in the year and play better," Gundy said. "But there's no question, in order for us to compete for the Big 12 championship, we have to play better on defense and our offense has to carry us a little while until our defense gets going."
Linebackers Chris Collins and Patrick Lavine were freshmen all-Americans last season, and should be more competitive after a year on the gridiron. The Cowboys have to replace their entire front line, and Gundy is hoping junior college All-American Tonga Tea can step in immediately to fill the biggest void, at tackle.
The Cowboys' schedule gets going hard and fast, with the season opener at
"As everybody knows, we don't have a warm-up game," Gundy said. "Because of the opener in
Hosting Texas Tech will also be a great opportunity, as the Cowboys have beaten the Red Raiders the last two times they've hosted them. Topping Tech Sept. 22 would set a tone for the season, as the next conference games are at Texas A&M and
Regular Season Prediction: 7-5 Overall, 4-4 Big 12
Year after year, one thing Texas Tech does well is score points. The Red Raiders had the third most prolific passing offense in the nation last year, led by quarterback Graham Harrell's 4,555 yards and 38 touchdowns.
"After a point it becomes taken for granted that you're going to have a level of success throwing the ball at our place," head coach Mike Leach said. "If he's not one of the better quarterbacks in the country, I'd like to know who is."
The junior is back for his second year as a starter and will have to develop a relationship with the slew of new receivers on the roster. Senior Danny Amendola leads the group along with returning backups L.A. Reed and Eric Morris, but redshirt freshman Michael Crabtree might be the most talented pass catcher in the field.
"I think our receivers are alive and kicking, despite popular belief," Leach said. "There's going to be some faces that people aren't quite as familiar with. But they've been developing as players. As a core, I expect them to be better than our receiving core last year was."
The spread attack makes the Raiders one of the more exciting teams to watch in college football, even if their team is woefully lopsided. The Raiders ranked 112th in the nation in rushing last season, but junior running back Shannon Woods was responsible for nearly all of the team's run yardage.
Louis Vasquez will be the cornerstone on an offensive line that has to break in four new starters.
Tech's offense can bend long enough for the offense to rack up its inevitable points, as long as it doesn't break. The defensive personnel should be good enough to do just that. The tackle spot is currently up for grabs, but Jake Ratliff, Tyler Yenzer and Brandon Williams are solid on the ends. Kellen Tillman is the only returning starter at linebacker but three of four starters return from a secondary that led the Big 12 in passing yards allowed per game. Strong safety Joe Garcia teams up with free safety Darcel McBath to lead a strong defensive backfield.
"We're younger and more athletics than we were last year," Leach said of the defense. "We're a more athletic unit secondary-wise, probably one of the more solid secondaries I've been a part of."
Even with Harrell's potent arm, kicker Alex Trlica could be the team's MVP this season. Trlica has an NCAA-record 166 extra points without a miss and hit a 52-yard field goal as regulation expired in the Insight Bowl to force overtime against
The Raiders certainly don't have trouble moving the ball, but their quick-strike offense leaves the less athletic defense on the field too long (they had a time-of-possession deficit of 4:36 last season). If Tech is going to win 10 games this season, which is not out of the question, the defense is going to have to get better at stopping the run. The offense should take care of itself, especially in the capable hands of Harrell.
Consider the four non-conference games gimmes (SMU, UTEP, Rice and
Regular Season Prediction: 8-4 Overall, 4-4 Big 12
Baylor - 2006: 4-8 Overall, 3-5 Big 12
Baylor used last season to shift to a new offensive system, which explains some of the atrocious statistics (No. 119 in the nation in rushing, for example). With a year completed in the system, playmakers will need to emerge for the Bears to score some points, starting with a quarterback.
"The quarterback situation is kind of clouded rather than cleared," head coach Guy Morriss said. Senior Michael Machen, a transfer from
The chosen signal-caller will have a few options at receiver, all of whom are inexperienced as well. Ernest Smith, Thomas White and Mikail Baker lead the wide receiver ranks.
Baylor's running game was the nation's worst last year, tallying only 40 yards per game. Running back Brandon Whitaker is the team's leading returning receiver, bringing in 60 catches for 352 yards over the last two seasons. Helping the run game should be an improved offensive line. Morriss brought in sophomore J.D. Walton, an
Baylor had the 110th ranked defense in the country last season, allowing more than 50 points in three different games. The Bears' 4-2-5 scheme gave up an average of 408.2 yards per contest, including almost 200 yards on the ground and five yards per carry. Newly promoted defensive coordinator Larry Hoefer plans to make enough changes to the existing system to bring those numbers down considerably.
Senior linebacker Nick Moore will lead the group of six returning starters alongside Joe Pawelek, who earned freshman all-American honors last season after recording 86 tackles for the Bears. He also had two sacks and four broken up passes.
Cornerback is the largest area of concern after losing two starters to graduation and having Braelon Davis miss the spring trying to regain academic eligibility.
Baylor is going to be a young team this season, with as many as seven freshmen and sophomores starting on offense, five more on defense and five new assistant coaches all getting the hang of things. The veterans of the program are tired of practicing well and playing poorly.
"All the running we're doing, all the lifting we're doing doesn't amount to a hill of beans if you don't take it to the field," Morriss said. "And that's where we've got to have some results, is between the white lines this year. Just playing close is no good. We've got to find a way to win some closer games."
Hosting Rice and Texas State between road games against TCU and
From there, the road gets tough: trips to Texas A&M and Oklahoma will not help Baylor's continued quest to win more than three conference games in a season, and hosting Texas, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State will remind Baylor just how tough the Big 12 South is. Beating
Regular Season Prediction: 3-9 Overall, 0-8 Big 12