By Tony George
Well it has been a hell of an off season for the Big 12, soon to be the Big 12 minus 2. Rumors and speculation surrounded the Big 12 early in the Spring and came to a head with Colorado leaving for the PAC 10 and Nebraska bolting to the Big 10, to give them 12 teams and a conference championship game in 2012. While it is known throughout the USA that I am a Nebraska Alum and very close to the program after doing 8 years of local radio in Lincoln, at an ESPN affiliate, I was more than surprised at the acceleration of the exodus of the Huskers as events unfolded. Money talks and you know what walks, and the Big 10 sweetened the pot for AD Tom Osborne both on the sports end, as well as the academic end, and NU made the jump. It is not a secret Ozzy does not like Texas and a few other southern schools dictating policy and influence in this conference, so he cemented the deal after being leaked within 4 days. As a 30+ year Husker fan it is upsetting, but business is business.
Missouri first came out in January and leaked they were looking at the Big 10 and then ran with their tail between their legs after the fact, and events then were set in motion by Texas and other schools in the south to leave for the PAC 10. Well, at day’s end, Texas RULES the Big 12 conference and Nebraska was not going to sit on the sidelines and get left with a depleted conference and no big money conference championship game, so at day’s end, they did what was best for them, and Texas got their own TV deal and added monies they do not share with all Big 12 schools, which is unfair. I hand it to the powers that be in the Big 12 offices to hold it together, although Texas allowed them to do so, along with an overall enhanced new TV deal for the conference.
You can call it what you want, but I now call the Big 12 North schools, like Kansas State for instance, as the University of Texas in Manhattan, the University of Texas in Columbia and so on. Texas will own this conference overall in the coming future with Oklahoma running a close second. Sad but true folks. The good news is we all have one more year to enjoy the Big 12 as it stands, and my series of breakdowns will come with the North here, and then the South a week after this article.
Some new additions in coaching across the Big 12, most notably in the North as ex-Nebraska stud and coach Turner Gill takes the reins at Kansas, and should meet with some success, he is a great person and a great coach whom I have interviewed more than once while in Lincoln, not to mention a great recruiter. Lets breakdown the conference rankings in the North and enjoy 1 more year of long standing rivalries before it all fades away.
Have no illusions, the Huskers will meet with some serious distain on the road this year for opposing teams fans so they better prepare, and it will make a difference in some games, as the now hated Huskers, defectors in the North, have a national preseason rank from anywhere from #7 to #11 in most major polls and respected magazines. They were 2 seconds away from winning a BIG 12 championship last year on the back of all world defensive lineman Suh, but he is gone to the NFL. So what do the Huskers have left in the tank for Bo Pellini?
You can start with defense with 6 returning, because again that will be NU’s strength. While many have the perception that the departure of Ndamukong Suh will ruin Nebraska, take in to account the head coach and his brother Carl run this defense to perfection, and it may in fact be BETTER than last year. Jared Crick anchors the nations preseason ranked #6 defensive line overall and CB Prince Amukamara anchors the nation’s third best defensive backfield, who allowed just 10 TD passes all last year. The Huskers also have a stud at linebacker in Eric Hagg and are deep at every position. NU has bookend pass rushers in Crick and Allen and the scheme of full on attack that stymied almost everyone they played is back.. This is the Big 12’s number two defense behind Oklahoma and they will be a game changer and are serious head hunters who allow no one to pass all over them, nor break big runs against them. They will be top 5 in the country and should again dominate the Big 12 north, possibly the south.
On offense the big stickler is the QB situation as Zac Lee again will start and his abilities are limited throwing the ball, but with a year under his belt, a near Big 12 championship and a bowl win, his experience will help. This is not to say talented redshirt frosh Taylor Martinez or Cody Green will not compete or play in some capacity, if not at QB, and expect the Wildcat to come out this year for NU. Martinez is going to be a HUGE star for NU in the near future. While people knock Lee, he completed 60% of his passes and rarely throws it away and is a very heady ball player and gamer. Nebraska is LOADED at running back and you can expect to see power football from NU, who also has a huge and talented offensive line back. Being able to stretch the field vertically will be an issue early on, but with a preconference schedule that is weak other than a trip to Washington, this unit should gel. Two big studs in Hulu Jr and Burkhead at RB and a solid deep threat in WR Niles Paul, and 9 returning starters will be a huge bump up from last year’s 99th scoring offense. Bottom line, this unit will be vastly better.
Overall Nebraska is poised to make a run in their final year as Big 12 players for a Championship curtain call. They also have the Big 12 conference’s best special teams player in Alex Henery, both at punter and kicker back and first teamer all Big 12. The Huskers have a schedule that has all tough games at home with Texas, Missouri, Colorado and Kansas. October 16th will be judgment day in Lincoln as Texas comes calling, and a road trip to College Station in late November looms large, but NU should have an 11-2 season and depart the Big 12 in their final season with a Big 12 North title and a shot at a BCS Bowl.
While Missouri would like to claim they are a major player in the Big 12, every time they get on a national stage they simply cannot convert it into a win They had a horrific bowl loss to Navy last year, and while many figured them a Top 20 contender after the departure of Chase Daniel and company the previous year, they fell on tough times last year with an 8-5 record and 4-4 in conference. The good news is for Mizzou, they return 15 starters from last year, and hope to improve on the second worst passing offense in the Big 12 last year with Blaine Gabbert coming back healthy. Missouri is also deep on their roster and have some key position players that are very talented. Could this be the year they win a few big ones? Three things matter in Columbia, beating Illinois, Nebraska and Kansas, and I do think their chances are better than average for winning at least 2 of those
On offense it starts with the spread attack and QB Gabbert, who was injured in last year’s Nebraska game and was never the same. He managed 24 TD passes against only 9 picks, which is impressive, and he is a big kid who can move around. If he can remain protected, he should have plenty of talent to throw to and hand off to. Mizzou lost 67% of offensive pass yardage last year to graduation, but WR’s Kemp and Jackson are speedsters who can light it up. Running back is also deep on this team, and word is a more run oriented attack with Washington , Moore and Lawrence, all studs will show up this season. They also return 4 starters on the OL, and will again put points up in the near 30 ppg range again this season.
On defense they return 7 starters and they need some work here. The Tigers were second worst in the Big 12 at pass defense and 104th in the NCAA last year, rarely had a pass rush, and were shredded by good teams. Mizzou also gave up a ton of big plays last year that killed them in big games. DE Aldon Smith is a talented rush end and player and was Big 12 Frosh of the year in 2009 and should be a major force for them. The problem is depth on the line for Mizzou. They are deep at linebacker and should be pretty salty against the run. The secondary returns everyone, but that is not promising as this unit collected just 2 interceptions all last year. The defense will be improved but still a huge question mark.
Overall Mizzou has some challenges especially against teams with a wide open attack, where they have to trade punches on offense to stay in the game. They have a great and talented kicker in Ressel, but special teams are also a work in progress. The Tigers have road trips to Nebraska, Texas Tech and Kansas in Arrowhead again. They do not play one game away from home in pre conference action and have a weak schedule there (Illinois in St. Louis again to open), but a date in Columbia with OU is a glaring one in late October. 9-3 overall for the Tigers would be an awesome year, and if they beat Nebraska in Lincoln, they could win the Big 12 North.
3. Colorado (My Sleeper Team)
Last year’s 3-9 season had coach Dan Hawkins on the hot seat, but he survived and has some serious experience and talent returning for the Buff this year. I predict a 6-6 record, and a better attack on offense for the Buffs this season. The improvement needs to be made in penalties and special teams for sure. The Buffs have also not won a road game in their last 12 attempts and have a brutal road run this year as well. All in all, I think their offense will surprise some people this year now that the head coach has rumored to finally benched his son as starter at QB.
On offense the talented Junior Tyler Hansen will start over Cody Hawkins at QB for now according to my spring report, and if he doesn’t, the locals in Boulder, who are notorious for being bad sportsmen, may burn Dan Hawkins house down. Hansen is a breakaway runner and has a decent arm out of the spread attack and is elusive, he simply makes plays. The offense returns all players at skill positions and will improve as they ranked dead last in the Big 12 in yards gained in 2009. They have a veteran OL and have stud RB Stewart back and both top WR’s from last year as well. The Buffs need to find the right combination on offense and run it better than the 2.8 yards they managed last season per rush. I am certain they will.
On defense the Buffs had a respectable unit in 2009 and return 7. They were very tough against the pass last year and have a solid pass rush and line intact. Smith and Brown are great cover corners and the DL unit is above average. Linebacker is an issue and they will have to bring up people from the secondary to support the run this year which leaves man on man coverage against some pretty good throwing teams as the season wears on. They gave up 28 ppg last year, I see them improving slightly.
If the Buffs can get some offense, and catch some breaks, they could be a .500 team this year. Doubt that saves Hawkins job at season’s end, but you can expect an improved Buffs team with lots of experience on this squad who will play hard. Road games are an issue playing at California, Mizzou, Oklahoma and Nebraska not to mention Georgia at home in non conference game as well. They will compete, and I lean to experience to get them in 3rd place over KU this season, somewhat of a sleeper team here.
Mark Magino was ran out of town on a railcar for abusing players (he said, she said) and the KU nation was granted a wish by getting in my opinion, one of the best available coaches around in Turner Gill. A star player at Nebraska, and 13 year assistant coach under Tom Osborne in Lincoln, and turning around a Buffalo program who won a conference title in 2008, he is poised for success at Kansas, although it might not come early. He also brought in a stud assistant coach staff with 2 former NCAA head coaches on offense and defense. The order is a tall one out of the gate with a tough non conference schedule and an entire new scheme on both sides of the ball, but there is talent here and Gill gets the most out of his players.
On offense Kansas has to first replace stud QB Todd Reesing, who was a record setter for KU and made the entire system go the past 3 years. Gill is looking at both Kale Pick a Sophomore and Jordan Webb, a freshman to play QB this year. Neither has much experience and are raw out of the gate. That is not good news against some of the nation’s strongest defenses in this conference. KU lost tons of studs at WR to graduation and have to replace them with inexperience as well. While Turner Gill is an offensive minded coach, he has a huge learning curve here and the offense will struggle in the interim.
On defense the Jayhawks hope to have some hope, especially in the secondary, where they are deep and talented. Kansas has a ton of undecided positions here, but defense end is strong with Laptad and Woods, and the middle is soft but showed promise in the spring game I saw with Dudley and Springer both looking very good, with great speed to the ball rusher. They have their hands full on the line here but if they can get a push in the middle, they can contain some attacks that want to pass on them. Only 5 return, but they have experience and raw talent here.
The end game is the sum of the parts here, and with such a huge transition and losing their team leader in Reesing, the learning curve at KU is going to be steep and clouded with numerous big games and a tough schedule ahead of them. Gill’s first game with his old team Nebraska is in Lincoln, and the welcome will be warm until kickoff. KU is a few years away, but Gill will build on this year and plan for a future without Nebraska on the radar. Look for KU to point to the season ending with Mizzou as their bowl game and build from there.
5. Kansas State
The Bill Synder experiment continues with some rays of light and glimmer of hope in 2010. After a surprising 2009 season where the Wildcats went 6-6, I see them declining in this season. With 10 returning starters overall, and a bunch of young players it will not be easy to duplicate. Working on the passing game which was ranked dead last in the Big 12 last year is first and foremost. They have a decent running game, and a favorable schedule should vault them into possibly 6 wins again this season. The Wildcats rise from the ashes continues, but not without struggles.
On offense the passing game needs to improve, just over 160 yards per game last year. Daniel Thomas at running back was a stud last year and returns with over 1200 yards under his belt in 2009, and I look for K State to run him 25 times a game. That will be their strength. They are undecided at QB which is never good heading into fall camp, with 3 players competing but it looks like Carson Coffman will get the start over Collin Klein, a talented but raw Sophomore. K State will start 3 new receivers , 1 a transfer from Oregon and 1 a transfer from Minnesota. They return 4 starters on the OL and look to be a rushing team first and pass second, not an explosive offense at all.
On defense they return 5 starters from one of the most improved defenses in the Big 12 last year, problem is they lost some studs. The K State secondary is one of the best with big hitters and speedsters Hartman and Lamur. They lost their best cover corner to graduation and have a new cast of players who are young and inexperienced. Brandon Harold is back after injury and should anchor a DL which lost 3 players last year, this they will have issues stopping the run up front. They also will give opposing QB’s some time to throw. The linebackers are totally unknown and new, so any team with big OL that can run may move the chains at will here. They ranked 5th in the Big 12 last year, I see them slipping this year on defense.
Again, Bill Synder may pull a rabbit out the hat for Wildcat nation, but it will be tough to compete in big time games this year. K State opens up against a good UCLA team at home, and have Nebraska at home early in October but play at Kansas and Missouri as well as Colorado and then end the season at North Texas, which they should win. Another 6-6 season would be coaching on display once again.
6. Iowa State
Well someone has to be last, and Iowa State looks to another dismal year, where their highlight in 2009 was upsetting Nebraska in Lincoln 9-7 after Nebraska had 8 turnovers in the game, 5 of them inside the 20 yard line. I doubt the Huskers forgot that and repay the favor this season. Iowa State has some offense, but they will be like a funnel on defense and that is a huge concern in Ames this season. Only 4 starters return from a defense that was second to last in the Big 12 last year, and they look to be worse. Paul Rhodes did a respectable job last year with a 7-6 record, but winning 5 games this year would be a win for him, because they simply do not have the horses to match up against the Big 12 elite teams.
On offense they are stacked. QB Arnaud is a stud, and the second year out of the spread attack should give him more confidence. He has a great RB in Robinson who returns after 1400+ yards last year and they are loaded at WR, and have a veteran OL. The Cyclones ranked dead last in the Big 12 in scoring at 20 ppg last season, which was shocking considering their talent level, but I see that improving by 7 points this season, which should keep them in some games.
On defense they are a mess. The OL line is gone, all their linebackers are gone and it is all young talent filling in the spots, with little depth. The front line is a huge concern as they gave up 170 yards rushing last year and 250 yards passing per game, and that was with veteran talent. See my point here? A good balanced attack will eat up ISU , and early on it could get ugly for them. The secondary is decent but with opposing QB’s having all day to throw, how long can they cover?
Iowa State has a good year in 2009, but will fall from grace in 2010. They have only one true road game until October 16th when they travel to Oklahoma for a woodshed beating, and a neutral site game at Arrowhead against K State before that, which they might be able to win on offense. The week after Oklahoma they travel to Texas and then get Kansas and Nebraska back to back at home. This will be an ugly stretch for the Clones. They also have Iowa at home in an in state rivalry and Iowa is loaded this year. Going to be a long season for Cyclone fans.
THE BIG 12 SOUTH REPORT OUT NEXT WEEK.
Tony George is widely known as a Big 12 Specialist and has went 62% ATS or better in each of the last 8 seasons in the Big 12. Check him out this season for all his winning plays at www.pregamepros.com