Big 12 Football Preview

    
August 13th, 2009

Got quarterback? The Big 12 does

By Raphielle Johnson

 

Once again high-powered spread offenses and quarterback play are the calling cards of the Big 12, the league best suited to challenge the SEC for the “best conference in America” tag. Reigning Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford (Oklahoma), as is friend and rival Colt McCoy down on the Forty Acres and their showdown in the Cotton Bowl on October 17th will once again be the game of the season in the conference. But to jump to the conclusion that the winner has a cakewalk to the league crown would be a big mistake.

 

The winner of the Red River Rivalry may not even be assured of a trip to the Big 12 Championship Game, as we learned last season. The Sooners, despite the 45-35 loss to Texas, represented the South Division in the title game thanks to a higher BCS ranking than Texas or Texas Tech. Also, Oklahoma State takes over for the Red Raiders in the role of title chase interloper thanks to a prolific offense led by QB Zac Robinson and WR Dez Bryant.

 

But the biggest addition to the program may be new defensive coordinator Bill Young, who returns to the Big 12 after a season in the same role at Miami. Coach Young’s last Big 12 act: leading a defensive revival at Kansas that resulted in a trip to the FedEx Orange Bowl in 2007. How much of an impact that has in fall camp will be noticeable early with the Cowboys hosting Georgia in their season opener.

 

Texas Tech adds Taylor Potts to the pipeline of prolific quarterbacks, a position in which head coach Mike Leach seems to simply plug in the next guy and produce another high-powered attack. But with running back Barron Batch going down early in camp (expected to miss 3-6 weeks) with an arm injury, even more pressure could fall upon Potts’ shoulders. The Red Raiders should be 2-0 heading into their trip to Austin on September 19th, but they weren’t done many favors with the draw of both Kansas and Nebraska in their crossover games. Tech may not be in the top three of the division, but do not be surprised if they pick one of those three off.

 

Baylor mad significant strides in the first season under Art Briles, who has a rising star in QB Robert Griffin III. Griffin is a game-changer who rarely (if ever) showed up at a school like Baylor in the past, and he’s the kind of player that can get you an extra two or three wins in a given season. The Bears open with a tough pair of games, visiting Wake Forest and then hosting Connecticut. They’ll also have to replace standout left tackle Jason Smith (Danny Watkins will take over), but the defense has an all-conference candidate in LB Joe Pawelek.

 

Baylor should be able to finish ahead of rebuilding Texas A&M, which will lean upon sophomore quarterback Jerrod Johnson. Johnson has plenty of experience, filling in for the injured Stephen McGee last season. The question for Mike Sherman’s offense is whether or not they have the requisite playmakers on the outside needed to take some pressure off of Johnson. Defensively, the Aggies must improve a pass defense that was one of the nation’s worst in 2008. If you can’t defend the pass in the Big 12, you’re in serious trouble. With A&M going to a three-man defensive line, look for more of an impact from the linebackers. Can fans expect the return of the “Wrecking Crew” days? Hardly, but there will be some improvement on defense for the Aggies.

 

In the North, the favorite essentially comes down to experience at quarterback. Kansas has been the pick of many, with senior QB Todd Reesing leading an offense that is more than capable of putting points on the board. And a scare was averted in the off-season with WR Dezmon Briscoe getting the necessary grades in summer session to ensure his eligibility this season. Look for that combination to rank among the nation’s best in 2009.

 

As for the most likely challenger to the Jayhawks, that would be Nebraska. The Cornhuskers hope that Zac Lee will perform well in replacing Joe Ganz at quarterback, and they also have one of the better defensive units in the conference with defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh leading the way. Suh, who finished 2008 with a team-high 76 tackles and 16 TFLs, is thought by many to be a high-first round selection in the 2010 NFL Draft.

 

But back to the offense, which is a rather young unit overall. Young wide receivers will need to step up as well, and three new starters will be asked to protect Lee and open holes for Roy Helu Jr. and Quentin Castille up front. With enough development on offense the Huskers could make their way to the Big 12 Championship Game, but they do have to visit both Missouri and Kansas within the division.

 

Missouri undergoes the tough task of replacing three of the greatest players in the history of the program. QB Chase Daniel, WR Jeremy Maclin and TE Chase Coffman have all moved on, and head coach Gary Pinkel hands the keys to the offense to Blaine Gabbert. The Tigers also have a new offensive coordinator in David Yost, who takes over for the departed Dave Christiansen (new head coach at Wyoming). The Tigers will have a lot of players getting significant playing time for the first time in their careers this season, but while it may be tough to put them atop the division there’s still enough talent to make things interesting within the North Division.

 

The wildcard in the North has to be Colorado, and it’s anyone’s guess what could happen there. The Buffaloes lost their best playmaker in Josh Smith, who decided to transfer to USC. The running back position is in good shape with Demetrius Sumler, Rodney Stewart and Darrell Scott and tight end Riar Geer is one of the best in the Big 12, but what about the quarterback position? Cody Hawkins had a tough go of it last season, so much so that the job was in doubt for a short period. But Cody goes into the season as the starter and the Buffaloes will need to find more playmakers if they’re to improve offensively (dead last in the Big 12 in total offense in 2008).

 

The bottom two shouldn’t change, even with the return of Bill Snyder to the Kansas State sidelines. Paul Rhoads takes over for the departed Gene Chizik at Iowa State, and although he has a solid young quarterback in Austen Arnaud the Cyclones find themselves well behind the pack when it comes to Big 12-caliber talent. The Wildcats have an easy schedule to start the season, time that will be used to boost the players’ confidence while getting them better acquainted with Coach Snyder’s desires and expectations in a gameday environment, but expect a rude awakening once they hit conference play.

 

Once again the Big 12 is poised to be the nation’s most exciting conference, with the nation once again being treated to weekly primetime matchups that will have an impact on both the conference and national title races. As for the title of best overall conference, that likely won’t be decided until the bowl season, with the conference hoping to get the better of the SEC is the few head-to-head matchups they leagues have.

 

Storyline: Defense. As good as the quarterbacks and spread offenses are in the Big 12, whichever team plays the best defense will likely win the conference. Personal picks for the top three defenses (in alphabetical order): Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas.

 

Players of the Year: QB Sam Bradford (Oklahoma) and DL Ndamukong Suh (Nebraska)

 

How they’ll finish

 

North 1. Kansas                                             South   1. Texas

            2. Nebraska                                                     2. Oklahoma

            3. Missouri                                                       3. Oklahoma State

            4. Colorado                                                      4. Texas Tech

            5. Kansas State                                                5. Baylor

            6. Iowa State                                                    6. Texas A&M

 

Next: Big 12 North and South Ultimate Schedules