One of the major headlines involving the Big 12 this offseason was Nebraska’s hiring of Bo Pelini to replace Bill Callahan. The return of the “Blackshirts” was what many of the headlines read immediately following the decision. But you have to wonder if people took a look at what the conference will welcome back on the other side of the football. Only Iowa State doesn’t return its starting quarterback from a season ago, meaning that this league is well on its way to rewriting some record books.
In regards to favorites to win the conference, it would be unfair to start anywhere other than with the two schools who played for the title last December. Both Missouri and Oklahoma return enough talent on both sides of the ball to think national title in addition to the Big 12 crown. QB Chase Daniel was a finalist for the Heisman last season, and Oklahoma’s Sam Bradford was the nation’s best freshman signal caller. Bradford also led the nation in passing efficiency and set a national freshman record with his 36 touchdown passes. Both teams will also return more than enough capable defenders with the ability to get the ball back to their respective offenses quickly.
Texas is the usual suspect when talking about the South Division, and they should be right there once again with Colt McCoy back for his junior season. Unfortunately for the Longhorns, however, Jamaal Charles is gone and they return just eleven starters. But many of the players filling in those holes have game experience. And don’t look now, but Texas Tech should have their best chance in the Mike Leach era to win the South. You all know about Graham Harrell and Biletnikoff winner Michael Crabtree, but Tech also returns eight starters from a unit that despite their display at Oklahoma State was third in the conference in total defense. Oklahoma State, Texas A&M and Baylor will most likely make up the bottom half of the division, with the Pokes having the best shot at moving upward so long as they improve their defense.
Defending Orange Bowl champion Kansas will once again be the Tigers’ stiffest test in winning the North. QB Todd Reesing is back, but the Jayhawks need to replace battering ram Brandon McAnderson and two-way threat Aqib Talib. Last season’s Border War was season’s highest-rated game (TV ratings, that is), and this season could produce another high mark. If you’re looking for a darkhorse, look no further than Colorado, which returns fifteen starters and adds one of the nation’s best running back prospects in Darrell Scott (who they beat out Texas to get). Last season the Buffs went to a bowl game behind freshman Cody Hawkins, and with a year of seasoning under his belt expect him to be one of the league’s most improved players.
Nebraska should be better on the defensive side of the football with the hiring of Coach Pelini, and there isn’t really anywhere to go but up after last season’s dreadful showing. The Blackshirts gave up 76 to Kansas, 65 to Colorado and 45 to Oklahoma State in 2007, something the Husker Nation would like to see not happen again. Joe Ganz, who filled in capably for an injured Sam Keller late last season, will be back under center with Marlon Lucky lined up at tailback. Kansas State (who Nebraska hung 73 on) went the junior college route in recovering from a disappointing 2007, with head coach Ron Prince and his staff inking nineteen transfers. The offense returns seven starters, and could be more potent in the passing game despite the graduation of WR Jordy Nelson. But the defense, which ranked 69th in total defense and 99th against the pass, must improve if the Wildcats are to approach bowl eligibility.
Rounding out the division is Iowa State, with head coach Gene Chizik and his staff looking to replace QB Bret Meyer and WR Todd Blythe. However, fifteen starters will be back, and the offense struggled mightily last year (102nd nationally) with those two school record-setters. Fittingly, the schools with uncertainty at quarterback heading into this season (Blake Szymanski is no shoo-in to retain his job at Baylor, where new coach Art Briles brings in a new system) are the one expected to finish at the bottom of their respective divisions. Such is life in the Big 12, where the ability to light up the scoreboard may be just as important as keeping your opponent out of the end zone. Here are some predictions in regards to the upcoming season.
Players of the Year: WR Michael Crabtree (Texas Tech) and FS William Moore (Missouri)
Coach of the Year: Gary Pinkel (Missouri)
Newcomers of the Year: RB Darrell Scott (Colorado) and DE R.J. Washington (Oklahoma)
Three Best Non-Conference Games
1. Missouri vs. Illinois (in St. Louis, August 30th): Missouri won last year’s nail-biter, yet watched the Illini take part in the BCS.
2. Virginia Tech @ Nebraska (September 27th): No disrespect to New Mexico State (they visit on September 13th), but this is the first test of the Bo Pelini era.
3. Oklahoma @ Washington (September 13th): Hate to re-open old wounds, but funny things happen to highly-ranked non-conference teams who head into Pac-10 country.
Conference Games of the Year
North Division: Kansas vs. Missouri (in Kansas City, November 29th): The first edition of this rivalry played in KC was a classic, with Mizzou taking the North crown by a 36-28 final. Expect another close one in part two.
South Division: Oklahoma vs. Texas (in Dallas, October 11th): As much as I’d like to pick Texas Tech’s trip to Norman in November, it’s been a long time since the South was decided in any other way.
How they’ll finish
North: 1. Missouri South: 1. Oklahoma
2. Kansas 2. Texas
3. Colorado 3. Texas Tech
4. Nebraska 4. Oklahoma State
5. Kansas State 5. Texas A&M
6. Iowa State 6. Baylor