The Big 12 North Season Preview
By Tony George
The balance has shifted in the North from the old days of Nebraska and then everyone else, to the rise of Kansas State in late 90's and then a myriad of teams rising and falling like Colorado. The power the past few years has centered on the border war between Missouri and Kansas, both of whom were consistent in the top 10 the past couple of years, with Mizzou having huge expectations last year only to get embarrassed on more than 1 occasion in the national limelight.
There is no doubt the North will provide some big time parity in 2009, with Nebraska and 2nd year head man Bo Pellini bringing the Huskers back to national power status again, and Kansas having another explosive offense, while Mizzou will try to replace all American talent and reload, and many think Colorado will come on strong. Kansas State is trying to resurrect a program nearly ruined by Ron Prince by bringing back their savior Bill Snyder. Did I mention Iowa State still has a program and a new head coach? Here is how they stack up for 2009. The difference between #1 and #2 is simply the fact that Kansas gets Nebraska at home, and with some serious revenge after a serious beat down NU gave them in Lincoln last year. Look for Colorado to surprise some people this season as well. It should be noted that the difference between the top 4 teams here is a touchdown or less. This is not as strong as the South division who will dominate this conference and the national rankings, but it will be fiercely competitive all year.
Although they struggled with almost every good team they played last year, you cannot discount the Jayhawks powerful offense led by QB Todd Reesing and a nationally ranked top 5 receiving unit with Meir, Wilson and all world Dezmon Briscoe. They return 15 starters from last year and a host of backups with experience. They will need to outscore their opponents and cannot overcome teams like Texas on their schedule on the road playing little or no defense, and they lost all 3 starting linebackers from last years team. The play of the defense in big games will determine their fate. Kansas's special teams are solid, especially their punter, but they are looking for a return specialist, and Briscoe may fill that role nicely with his moves and speed. The offensive line has 1 starter back which is a concern, but Reesing is mobile enough to buy time and although a pass oriented offense, RB Jake Sharp returns with 860 yards under his belt last year. Having one of the worst pass defenses in the NCAA last year must be improved on, and good teams that throw will give KU fits. They have enough offense to win plenty of games this year and contend for the title in the North. The home game against Nebraska will be a KEY for them to win the division.. The health of QB Todd Reesing is KEY to their success. Mark Mangino is a great coach and the Jayhawk faithful are filling the stands, and KU is on the map. Road games at Texas and Texas Tech loom large, plus 2 road games in advance of Nebraska coming to town November 8th followed by a road trip to Austin the following week has Jayhawk fans nervous. With only 1 starter back on the OL, protecting the talented Todd Reesing is the main focus. As season ending game at Arrowhead in KC against Mizzou, who they beat by 3 last year will be part of the key to who shares or wins the Big 12 North as well.
Husker nation is fired up this season after a 9-4 campaign in 2008 and a Gator Bowl win, with Bo Pellini pulling the strings, and Tom Osborne at AD. There is a sense of direction and motivation in Lincoln Nebraska, and that is bad news for the Big 12 North, possibly this year. Nebraska ranked 12th in total offense in the nation last year, but QB Joe Ganz is gone and an inexperienced junior Zac Lee takes the reigns. He has a gun for an arm is very mobile but lacks a talented WR unit which is a huge concern. All world freshman and prized recruit Cody Green awaits if Lee fails to produce. Nebraska has a potentially great back in Roy Helu Jr. who looked great at seasons end and spring camp, along with a great tight end in McNeil. The WR unit is inexperienced and a work in progress, and although the OL returns 3 players, the offense has only 4 returning starters. On defense, Bo Pellini was legendary at LSU for having great defenses, and his previous stint at NU as an assistant was successful as well. This year Nebraska has one of the best nose guards in the nation in Suh, along with a fast, young, and big hitting LB unit, and they have some experience in the secondary, with Larry Assante an all Big 12 safety and CB West returning who led the team in pass breakups last year. The pass rush needs to be addressed but expect NU to be tough against the run again this year. The Huskers have the best kicker in the Big 12 in Alex Henry and has a host of young and talented players. The Black Shirts will return to their old form, but they are a year away from being highly potent. Nebraska has a road game at Virginia Tech in Mid September that looks like a loss with VT's defense being strong, but they get Texas Tech and Oklahoma at home. Road trips to Missouri, whom NU has had circled since last years blowout home loss on national TV, and Colorado at seasons end are crucial games for Nebraska to prove their worth. With a small upset at Kansas, which is a huge game for both teams, Nebraska could win the North, but rest assured Nebraska is back.
The days of Chase Daniel and Jeremy Macklin are gone, but I have a feeling here that Mizzou has plenty in the cabinet to compete again this season. Head Coach Gary Pinkel not only lost some players last season to the NFL, but he also lost some key coaches. That is hard rebound from unless you are Oklahoma or Texas, and last year both those opponents for the Tigers proved they were not ready for prime time. That being said only 2 teams, Oklahoma (who has owned Mizzou) and USC have had more wins than the Tigers in the past 2 seasons. The job of replacing such vast talent on offense is daunting, but the Tiger faithful have plenty of bright spots. Returning RB Derrick Washington is a stud and is explosive and a game breaker, but who hands the ball off to him is iffy. It looks to be Sophomore Blaine Gabbert at the moment with Jim Costello competing for the job as well. Look for the offensive scheme to change somewhat to take advantage of RN Washington?s ability, as they lost their top 3 WR?s last year including all world TE Coffman. They return receivers Perry and Alexander and 3 OL players, but only 5 full time starters return on offense. This is will take some time to gel as a unit. Mizzou?s defense returns 4 players from last year?s unit which was shredded through the air and on the ground in big games. Sean Whitherspoon returns at LB, and is an all Big 12 player. Another stud at LB is Luke Lambert, moving to the middle spot this year after playing strong side last year. With Baston the only returning starter on the line, and a weak pass rush, along with a all new secondary, the chore is tall for the Tigers to stop people and rely on a young offense to carry them. Missouri ranked 117th in pass defense last year and return only 1 starter in the secondary. This biog issue is opening up against a good Illinois team in St. Louis, a potential loss and then they play a weak non conference schedule as they gear up for a big game October 8th at home against a revenge minded Husker team. This is a rebuilding year for Pinkel and as time goes along; Mizzou will get better but are looking at a 5 loss season minimum.
There is a hot seat alert in Boulder Colorado. Dan Hawkins has really struggled to fit in with his high powered offense that made him famous at Boise State. He replaced his son at QB last year to no avail. Colorado competed in some games last year but failed to close the deal, as their defense really carried them in 2008. When your offense is ranked 86th nationally and your defense ranked 100th, you have issues in the Big 12. There also is potential for a 2 headed QB scenario here, which rarely works out, and they lost 8 starters on defense. This team only has 13 scholarship seniors on it, and inexperience is an issue. Offensively they need to produce this year and with QB?s Hawkins and Hansen trading blows; it is uncertain how it will pan out. They return 7 on offense and RB?s Scott and Stewart are both big time backs and will carry the bulk of the load this season. I expect the no huddle offense to go away for a more conventional approach utilizing a deep and talent backfield. The WR unit is depleted and lacks depth, but if the running game gets going, expect junior WR Scotty McKnight to have some big days. The offensive line is their strength so running the ball should prove their best angle with some decent pass protection. On defense they have some studs, especially at linebacker, and they are switching to a 3-4 to emphasize that. The Buffs are better than average in the secondary and return 3 players with experience, but they are young on the line and at end but they are physical and well coached. The defense should prove tough to run on and not easy to pass on provided they mount a rush. The special teams are a mess at kicker and at punter so they need to shore that up, as well as finding a return specialist. There are allot of ?what ifs? with this team, but if they come together they will compete. Back to back games at West Vriginia followed by Texas are brutal early on, and Nebraska at home to end the season may be for a minor bowl bid. For Dan Hawkins sake, it better be.
5. Iowa State
I think the fans of the Cyclones wish they has Bill McCartney back, he was the best coach they have had in 20 years, and last year saw the departure of the head coach to Auburn of all places. Paul Rhodes takes over and brings in Rice offensive coordinator Tom Herman to make sure the Cyclones stay on track. The strength of this team is their offense, but the weakness was one of the absolute worst defenses in the nation last year. They were tied with Colorado overall and ranked second to last in pass defense. The offense is led by little known, but highly talented QB Austen Arnuad, a solid QB and accurate passer. He has a stable of WR?s and a great RB in Alexander Robinson. The line is above average and I can promise you Iowa State will put up some points. This is a solid unit overall and one that opposing teams better not take lightly. They may spread it out this season to take advantage of skill players, but no matter what they do, they have talent. On defense they could not stop a high school team last year. They need a complete revamp of everything and return 5 players, two of them linebacker?s led by Jessie Smith, who is solid. The front four is pretty decent but the secondary is a mess with 1 starter back, and they look to incoming freshman and JUCO players to fill roster spots in the fall. Teams will be able to throw on ISU this year, so until things settle down, they need to rely on their offense to keep them in games. They have an easy schedule which helps and have 5 winnable games and I think they can surprise in 2 more along the way. They lost 10 straight last season, that will not happen again.
6. Kansas State
The return of Bill Snyder was surprising and yet welcomed in Manhattan last year. There is no doubt with the departure of QB Josh Freeman things are scary at best at K State this season. Many think the game has passed Snyder by, but I expect him to set this team up for the next 3 years or so and pass the torch, and he has proven effective in the past with great success. He has a mess on his hands. It appears that Carson Coffman will be the QB to start the season, but a late camp arrival of JUCO stud QB Daniel Thomas has raised eyebrows, a running and throwing QB with speed and talent and a good resume. The good new is that the WR unit is solid, and WR Banks, although small in size, is elusive and a game breaker. They have a good TE and a stable of mediocre RB?s that have to step up, with Keithen Valentine tabbed as the starter, behind a good offensive line. This is a work in progress at best. On defense they return 4 starters from a unit that was one of the worst in the country last year ranked 110th overall. This is going to be a problem. A new scheme, and two new coordinators, and this unit is young and inexperienced. They have a strong front four, but the LB position is weak and the secondary returns no one that made anything happen last year. Anything is an improvement here and with some new coaches from Clemson and Maryland in house, expect them to improve, but not be dominant. The good news is their first 5 games, they can actually win 3 or 4 of them, but a road test at UCLA looms large early on. They are at Oklahoma, Texas Tech and end their season at Nebraska. If somehow Bill Snyder could find 6 wins here, he would be called miracle worker once again.
Tony George has won 63% ATS or better in the Big 12 in each of the past 6 seasons and his weekly Big 12 Feature is a must for sports bettors to have in their Saturday arsenal. Check his weekly Big 12 report out and all his selections at www.pregamepros.com THE BIG 12 SOUTH REPORT OUT NEXT WEEK!