Big 12 Conference Preview

Oklahoma and Texas lead a competitive South division

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Aug. 20, 2007

By Carolyn Braff

CSTV.com

 



Carolyn Braff

Carolyn is an assistant editor and writer for CSTV.com.
E-mail here!

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 Texas, Oklahoma, Texas A&M, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech. The spread offenses in this conference are thrilling to watch, racking up huge point totals behind strong-armed quarterbacks and uncoverable wide receivers.

 


 

 

As usual in these parts, Texas and Oklahoma are the teams to beat, but neither is the invincible team of years past. Oklahoma has yet to name a quarterback and has some questions on defense, while Texas quarterback Colt McCoy's pomp and circumstance seem to have eclipsed the Longhorns' pitiful run game and defensive secondary. Texas A&M will lead the charge on the ground with a two-headed running back monster, Texas Tech will win through the air behind Graham Harrell's 4,500-plus yards throwing and Oklahoma State will run the nation's most balanced offense yet again. Look for high scores and plays the size of Texas when these teams take the field.

 

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. Nebraska will need to sort out its quarterback situation and improve its defense before taking another trip to the championship game, but it's not out of the question. Kansas State's young team should pull off another Texas-caliber upset this season, Colorado should pull itself back to respectability and Gene Chizik will whip the Cyclones into shape in his first year at Iowa State.

 

Oct. 6 will be a big day in both divisions: the Red River Rivalry between Texas and Oklahoma will be as big as always, but Nebraska's trip to Missouri will have just as many implications for the conference championship. Expect McCoy to lead Texas back to that hallowed ground, and if Missouri makes the right adjustments, the Tigers should be facing the Longhorns in San Antonio on Dec. 1.

 

North Division --- CSTV's Big 12 North Preview

 

Missouri - 2006: 8-5 Overall, 4-4 Big 12

Offense

With every weapon returning from last year's unit, ranked No. 8 in the nation, and quarterback Chase Daniel still under center, Missouri should be a potent point-scorer this season. Daniel threw for 3,906 yards last season and comes into his junior year looking for his third consecutive bowl appearance. With an All-American tight end tandem in 6-foot-6 powers Martin Rucker and Chase Coffman, he should have no trouble finding it.

 

"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.

 

Defense

The only thing standing between Missouri and a Big 12 North title is its defense. With five last season's top six tacklers gone, Pinkel enlisted the help of six JUCO transfers for immediate help. Senior nose tackle Lorenzo Williams will anchor the defense, as long as the leg problem that kept him out of spring ball stays quiet. He and defensive tackle Ziggy Hood are the best players from last year's group, but depth is a problem at every position.

 

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 Castine Bridges to fight for the remaining spot opposite Darnell Terrell, Missouri's active career leader in interceptions (3).

 

The Skinny

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 Oregon State.

 

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 - Nebraska, Texas A&M and Texas Tech - will be played in Columbia. The Oct. 6 matchup against the Cornhuskers will make or break the season for the Tigers, who will take the North as long as the defense holds.

 

Regular Season Prediction: 10-2 Overall, 6-2 Big 12

 

Nebraska - 2006: 9-5 Overall, 6-2 Big 12

Offense

With the Big 12 offensive player of the year gone, Nebraska has five players all in contention for the quarterback spot, and none will know who the man will be until the last week in August. Arizona State transfer Sam Keller is the likely candidate, passing for 2,100 yards in seven Pac-10 games in 2005. But experienced junior Joe Ganz heads up the long list of competitors, with junior college transfer Zac Lee, Patrick Witt and Beau Davis all in the mix. The uncertainty under center does not worry head coach Bill Callahan.

 

"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.

 

Defense

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.

 

The Skinny

Nebraska was plagued by turnovers last season, especially in the 17-14 Cotton Bowl loss to Auburn. Take away those two first-half turnovers, and the game could easily have gone the other way. Losing 17 fumbles again will not win this team a second trip to the Big 12 Championship Game.

 

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 Nebraska," Callahan said.

 

Traveling to face ACC champion Wake Forest precedes a home contest against USC, but the season rides on an Oct. 6 victory at Missouri. A loss to the Tigers will lock Nebraska out of the North title, unless they can work some magic and beat Texas A&M and Texas in back-to-back contests.

 

Regular Season Prediction: 8-4, 5-3 Big 12

 

Kansas State - 2006: 7-6 Overall, 4-4 Big 12

Offense

The hopes and dreams of the Kansas State faithful lie with sophomore quarterback Josh Freeman. The 6-foot-6, 255-pound true sophomore took over midway through last season, and turned a lot of heads with his 1,780 yards and six touchdowns, plus that surprise 45-42 upset win over Texas. A year of decision-making under his belt should reduce that 15-interception mark, and Freeman looks poised to lead his team to another bowl game, hopefully with a more favorable result than the 37-10 shellacking they took at the hands of Rutgers in the Texas Bowl.

 

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."

 

Defense

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, Campbell recorded 11.5 sacks and 17.5 tackles for loss last season. Senior safety Marcus Watts is a key leader in the secondary and on special teams, and he'll join top JUCO transfer Gary Chandler in trying to decrease the 58.3 completion percentage the defense allowed last season.

 

The Skinny

Kansas State was young all around last season, and will be young again this season, but JUCO transfers will give the team a chance for immediate improvement.

 

"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 Oklahoma State will be a telling game, as the Cowboys will be looking to avenge last year's loss while the Wildcats continue their quest to prove themselves. Look for Kansas to display another year of improvement, but they're not yet contenders for the North title.

 

Regular Season Prediction: 7-5 Overall, 4-4 Big 12

 

Kansas - 2006: 6-6 Overall, 3-5 Big 12

Offense

First and foremost, Kansas must pick a quarterback to its the newly simplified offense. The frontrunner is sophomore Kerry Meier, who played adequately through his eight starts last season before an injury gave sophomore Todd Reesing a chance to prove himself. Reesing has the stronger arm, but Meier is more athletic, so the competition will continue through camp.

 

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.

 

Defense

Returning eight starters on defense may not be such a blessing for Kansas. All-Big 12 cornerback Aqib Talib is one of the most dynamic cornerbacks in the nation, leading the nation in pass break-ups, but he anchors a defense that ranked dead last against the pass in 2006.

 

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.

 

The Skinny

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.

 

Kansas plays all four of its non-conference games at home to start the season, giving the Jayhawks adequate time to test out a quarterback and find players to take charge on the offensive line. Kansas is 2-18 in conference road games under Mangino, but games at Kansas State and Colorado early in the conference lineup may help that mark, and a win in Manhattan would be the Jayhawks' first since 1989.

 

"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

 

Colorado - 2006: 2-10 Overall, 2-6 Big 12

Offense

Colorado's offense was the conference's worst last season, so head coach Dan Hawkins is pushing his players to compete diligently for that spot under center.

 

"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.

 

Colorado badly needs playmakers to step up at receiver, as the team's leading pass catcher in 2006 was tight end Riar Greer, who ended the season with 24 catches. Senior running back Hugh Charles is talented and quick on his feet, and could show it if the Buffaloes can put together a strong offensive line. Having signed eight offensive linemen in the off-season, Hawkins is desperate to rebuild the run game.


Defense

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 Colorado defense. Corner Terrence Wheatley and safety Ryan Walters will anchor the secondary.

 

"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 Boulder. "The problem was we didn't only change a head coach, we changed every coach, we changed the whole staff, academic, everything. I think everyone's finally buying into the fact that if we do everything right as Coach Hawkins says, we're gonna get there."

 

The Skinny

Hawkins left Boise State in 2005 as that team was reaching its pinnacle to take the helm at Colorado, where he found a program at the polar opposite. After last season's 2-8 downward spiral, the Buffs cannot go anywhere but up, and finishing with the fewest wins in program history since 1984, they do not expect losing seasons to be a trend.

 

"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 Oklahoma. If Colorado can knock off any the Seminoles or the Sooners, it may be the catalyst this program needs to get back on track.

 

Regular Season Prediction: 4-8, 2-6 Big 12

 

Iowa State - 2006: 4-8 Overall, 1-7 Big 12

Offense

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.

 

Defense

Chizik's experience as defensive coordinator at Texas will undoubtedly improve the 102nd-ranked defense in the nation. Powerhouse linebacker Alvin Bowen certainly leads the defense, logging 155 tackles last season, but he'll be without Adam Carper, who will not make the comeback from knee surgery.

 

The secondary needs help - Iowa State allowed its opponents a 72.5 completion percentage last year. JUCO transfers will be expected to provide immediate assistance on the line and Iowa State has to find a way to force more turnovers. The Cyclones finished -5 in the turnover margin last season.

 

The Skinny

The town of Ames has already taken to Chizik, emblazoning his face on a commemorative coin that will be used for the coin toss at all Iowa State home games. The players have taken to him as well, appreciating his change-of-pace intensity (but perhaps not the 5:30 a.m. off-season workouts). Intensity is one thing, but winning is quite another.

 

"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 Nebraska and Texas Tech before hosting Texas and Oklahoma is a fate not to be wished on any team in the North, especially one attempting to find a groove with a new head coach. The Nov. 3 matchup with Kansas State will be critical - if the Cyclones can pull out a win at home against the Wildcats, they may turn another four-win season into a 6-6 step upwards.

 

Regular Season Prediction: 4-8, 1-7 Big 12

 

South Division --- CSTV's South Division Preview

 

Texas - 2006: 10-3 Overall, 6-2 Big 12

Offense

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, Texas went down with him, losing to Kansas State and Texas A&M, but with the team leader back on his feet, don't expect another late-season breakdown.

 

"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. Texas was inconsistent running the ball last season, even with three of the best linemen in school history leading the way. Junior running back Jamaal Charles hopes to return to his freshman-year 7.4 yards per game behind a rebuilt line, but he'll have some help from McCoy.

 

"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."

 

Defense

The Longhorn defense had a split personality last season. Ranking third in the nation against the run, Texas allowed a school-record low 61.2 yards per game, but the pass defense was awful. Ranked 99th in the country, the 2006 Longhorns allowed a school-record 236.2 yards per game through the air.

 

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.

 

The Skinny

Texas is the only NCAA school to win at least 10 games in the last six seasons, and 2007 will make it 11 straight. A manageable non-conference schedule with home games against Arkansas State, TCU and Rice and a road trip to UCF should give the new offensive line time to gel, which will be key to kick-starting the run game.

 

November will be a tough month, with road games at Oklahoma State and Texas A&M and a home date with Texas Tech. Although the Oct. 6 Oklahoma battle will be as big as ever, Nov. 23 at A&M will be the one to win for the Longhorns, especially after last year's 12-7 loss. If Texas can get better at running the ball and stopping the pass, they should easily take the Big 12 title and get into the BCS mix.

 

Regular Season Prediction: 11-1 Overall, 7-1 Big 12

 

Oklahoma - 2006: 11-3 Overall, 7-1 Big 12

Offense

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 Oklahoma has won four conference championships with four different quarterbacks, so uncertainty under center is nothing new for the Sooners. The candidates are a trio of inexperience - junior Joey Halzle, freshman Sam Bradford and true freshman Keith Nichol are all battling for the starting spot without ever having taken a snap at Oklahoma (although Halzle did get some snaps in during his two years in junior college).

 

The Sooners are well prepared to run the ball without Adrian Peterson. In 2006, Oklahoma averaged more rushing yards per game when Peterson was sidelined than they recorded with him healthy. Stepping into his shoes are Patrick, who delivered four 100-yard games once Peterson bid adieu, and redshirt freshman DeMarco Murray, who made waves in spring ball.

 

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.

 

Defense

Oklahoma should have the nation's top secondary, but the front seven are far shakier. Corners Reggie Smith and Marcus Walker team with free safety Nic Harris. All are playmakers, while Harris is a blitzing specialist. The Sooners need to add to the front seven and get more pressure on the passer, as they only recorded 26 sacks in 14 games last season.

 

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.

 

The Skinny

In spite of that stunning loss at the hands of Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl, and the NCAA violations stemming from the Rhett Bomar/J.D. Quinn no-show-job controversy last summer, and that blown onside call against Oregon in the beginning of 2006, Oklahoma did finish 11-3 and win the Big 12. The question at quarterback is probably the only reason why the Sooners were not picked to repeat as champions, but it is a significant question.

 

Expect Oklahoma to get over that Boise State thing faster than the rest of the country has - "One season to the other, nothing carries over, not to us," Stoops said - and the Sooners should find themselves back in the BCS scramble this season.

 

Oklahoma has been blessed with a favorable schedule, facing North Texas, Miami and Utah State all at home to start the season. Facing Missouri at home should soften the only real test against the North, and traveling to Texas Tech is Oklahoma's only tough road game. As per usual, the game of the season will be Oct. 6 against Texas, as that could be the Sooners' only loss of the season (and would mark three straight losses to the Longhorns for the first time since 1997-1999). If Oklahoma's young quarterback matures fast enough, Oklahoma can snatch the South title from Texas and avenge last year's BCS debacle.

 

Regular Season Prediction: 10-2 Overall, 6-2 Big 12

 

Texas A&M - 2006: 9-4 Overall, 5-3 Big 12

Offense

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 Jorvorskie Lane grinding through defenses and Mike Goodson using speed to his advantage. Fullback Chris Alexander is also in the mix, providing the necessary behind-the-scenes help.

 

"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.

 

Defense

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 Skinny

The Aggies certainly had an up-and-down season last year, as elation at beating Texas in Austin was tempered by the 45-10 thrashing A&M received at the hands of Cal in the Holiday Bowl. But A&M did escape the season 4-0 in road games, which is no easy feat when playing in the Big 12 South.

 

"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, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Missouri. If A&M is going to compete for a Big 12 title, the Aggies will have to beat the Red Raiders Oct. 13 and try to rebalance the scales in that battle - Tech has beaten A&M five times in the last six years. The run game will undoubtedly flourish this season, but how far the Aggies go in the Big 12 race will depend on how much more progress that developing defense can make.

 

Regular Season Prediction: 7-5 Overall, 4-4 Big 12

 

Oklahoma State - 2006: 7-6 Overall, 3-5 Big 12

Offense

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.

 

Defense

Oklahoma State's defense has major strides to make to catch up with its point-scoring offense, and Gundy knows it.

 

"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 Skinny

The Cowboys' schedule gets going hard and fast, with the season opener at Georgia.

 

"As everybody knows, we don't have a warm-up game," Gundy said. "Because of the opener in Georgia, I think they have stayed very focused. It's a great opportunity for us."

 

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 Nebraska. Assuming the defense improves, which may be a big assumption, the Cowboys can come away with eight regular season wins.

 

Regular Season Prediction: 7-5 Overall, 4-4 Big 12

 

Texas Tech - 2006: 8-5 Overall, 4-4 Big 12

Offense

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.

 

Defense

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."

 

The Skinny

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 Minnesota.

 

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 Northwestern State), along with the contests against Big 12 bottom feeders Baylor and Colorado. The Sept. 22 matchup at Oklahoma State will make or break the season for the Red Raiders - facing Texas and Oklahoma to end the regular season, they'll need this game if they're going to stay in the race for a conference title.

 

Regular Season Prediction: 8-4 Overall, 4-4 Big 12

 

Baylor - 2006: 4-8 Overall, 3-5 Big 12

Offense

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 Kent State, is the frontrunner for the job, but John David Weed is more familiar with the system, and is closing the gap on him. Sophomore Blake Szymanski is also in the mix.

 

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 Arizona State transfer, to help at center, and junior tackle Jason Smith will switch sides to try to shore things up on the left.

 

Defense

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.

 

The Skinny

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 Buffalo should allow Baylor the opportunity to begin conference play with a winning record.

 

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 Colorado Oct 6. will be essential to the Bears' plan to increase their win total for the fourth year running. Expect this to be another rebuilding year in Waco.

 

Regular Season Prediction: 3-9 Overall, 0-8 Big 12

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