2009 Big 12 Football Preview
The Big XII had an excellent 2008 season, highlighted by and incredible league-wide offensive explosion. Six teams averaged over 35 points per game! Another major story was the emergence of the Big XII South as one of the country’s premier divisions. In fact, the controversy which surrounded the tiebreaking process between Texas, Texas Tech and Oklahoma atop the division standings brought a huge amount of publicity to the league. After a controversial rule earned them a berth in the Big XII Championship Game, the Oklahoma Sooners took advantage and beat Missouri to claim a berth in the National Title game. While the Sooners fell short in their 5 th consecutive BCS bowl, the league finished with a 4-3 record in bowl games and earned my rating as the #1 conference in the country last season as I listed six Big XII teams in my final ranking!
This year, the league is expected to be as competitive as ever. The North hasn’t won the Big XII Title game in five years but there are three major contenders lying in wait as Kansas, Colorado and Nebraska should all have a legitimate chance to play for the Championship. While two-time defending division winner Missouri might take a step back this year after losing so much talent, the top three teams should battle to the final day of the regular season to determine a champion.
In the South, Texas Tech isn’t expected to challenge the traditional big two after finishing 2008 as divisional co-champions, However, Oklahoma State enters the season ranked in the top 10 and is a legitimate threat to break Oklahoma and Texas’ ten year choke hold on the South division title. Speaking of Texas and Oklahoma, they have a little bit of a score to settle after Texas beat the Sooners head to head last year but was left out of the Big XII Championship and subsequent National Title game despite finishing with the same record. Furthermore, don’t ignore Baylor, who is more talented than any point in the last decade! The Big XII South will once more be one of the country’s most competitive divisions.
The last two seasons have been surprisingly strong for Kansas, reviving the football program at a school best known for basketball success. This success is largely a byproduct of a very strong offensive attack and the Jayhawks’ 20-6 record over the past two seasons is one of the conference’s best. In 2008, Kansas played one of the toughest schedules in the country and finished the year with an 8-5 record while spending about half of the season ranked nationally. With a ton of talent back from last year’s gauntlet, can Kansas finally break through and play in the Big XII Championship game for the first time in school history?
Everything begins on offense with diminutive senior quarterback Todd Reesing, who has thrown for over 7,000 yards and 65 touchdowns in the past two seasons! Kansas scored a very respectable 33 points per game last fall but Reesing and company actually fell off of 2007’s pace by 10 points, thanks in large part due to a tougher schedule. However, with all of his weapons back at the skill positions, Reesing could power his strongest offense yet. Senior Kerry Meier and junior Dezmon Briscoe are two of the Big XII’s best receivers and they both had over 90 catches and 1,000 yards last year! Briscoe was a 2nd team All-Big XII choice after accumulating 1,400 yards and 15 touchdown catches and this is one of the league’s best pairings. Expect Reesing to continue feeding both the football in 2009.
The Jayhawks aren’t all about the pass attack either as senior tailback Jake Sharp is a solid contributor who ran for over 800 yards and 12 touchdowns last fall despite missing three games. He should be an effective runner behind a rebuilding line this season. The line is a bit of a concern as only two starters return and both are only sophomores. However, Kansas actually has a lot more talent back at the position this season compared to entering 2008, when both departed tackles were NFL caliber players, and I think that this unit will take advantage of a light opening run to come together. Overall, Kansas is going to field an extremely strong offense this fall and I expect the Jayhawks to light up the scoreboard all year long.
Defensively, there was a major step back in 2008. Kansas gave up 29 points per game compared to only 16 in 2007! Up front, three starters return on the defensive line and all are upperclassmen. Junior end Jake Laptad had seven sacks last year and I expect a strong effort at the point of attack and an improved pass rush. That will definitely help the secondary, which returns intact from 2008. Senior safety Darrell Stuckey had 98 tackles and 5 interceptions last year to earn 1 st team All-Big XII honors and will be the leader of a very strong pass defense. I expect a much improved effort against the aerial assault this season.
However, there is one glaring concern on defense: Linebacker. All three starters are gone from last season and the depth was such a concern that last year’s 2nd leading rusher switched sides in the spring! The three departed ‘backers combined for 288 tackles and 14 sacks last season! The performance of the replacements could honestly define Kansas’ 2009 season. If the Jayhawks get solid but unspectacular production and can field a decent unit against the run then they can compete with anyone in the conference. Stay tuned to camp to watch the position battle because it will be the key development leading into the season. Overall, Kansas has a very good secondary and a solid line. Regardless of how the linebackers shake out, I think that there will be some improvement defensively but the fate of this defense will ultimately be decided by the new faces in the middle.
The non-conference schedule is a blessing for the Jayhawks, whose only BCS opponent is lowly Duke! While a matchup with Southern Mississippi is dangerous, the first two games are nothing much more than warm up affairs and getting a whole month to break in new starters at key positions will be a huge advantage. Things get even better as their first Big XII opponent is a homecoming date with lowly Iowa State! Unfortunately, the season’s second half is going to be very difficult as Kansas only has two home division games and has to face both Oklahoma and Texas, making them the only North team unfortunate enough to meet the conference’s two titans in 2009. Their annual grudge match against Missouri will cap off the season in Kansas City.
Overall, I think that Kansas is the class of the Big XII North. The Jayhawks have an easy enough early schedule to settle their O-Line and linebacker questions and I would be surprised if they didn’t start 5-0 and build some serious confidence. Kansas has the division’s strongest offense and their pass defense should match up well with the conference’s theme of throwing the ball all over the field. A ten win season is a very realistic proposition. Despite playing both Texas and Oklahoma, I’m picking Kansas to win the Big XII North and earn their first appearance in the Big XII Championship game. Don’t count the Jayhawks out either, as they’ll very likely have already played the South champion and will know what to expect with a BCS berth on the line.
Biggest Games: Oct. 17th @ Colorado, Oct. 24th vs. Oklahoma, Oct. 31st @ Texas Tech, Nov. 7th @ KSU, Nov. 14th vs. Nebraska, Nov. 21st vs. Texas, Nov. 28th vs. Mizzou (Kansas City)
The first year of the Bo Pelini era was a rousing success at Nebraska, producing the school’s best record since 2003 with a 9-4 finish, capped off by a Gator Bowl victory over Clemson. The extremely popular Pelini re-established the strong running game beloved in Corn Country but also sprinkled in a high percentage passing attack to augment it. Furthermore, Pelini was a defensive captain at Ohio State in his playing days and was also very successful as LSU’s defensive coordinator in their 2007 National Title season. His defensive achievements were a departure from former coach Bill Callahan, who practically ignored the defense during his tenure, and Pelini’s first season produced a defense which allowed 10 points less per game than in 2007! After losing out via tiebreaker to Missouri for a berth in the Big XII Championship game, is this the year that Nebraska breaks through?
Pelini’s first offense was actually more successful than any during the offensively acclaimed Callahan’s tenure, putting up over 35 points per game! However, the Huskers will have to replace their starting quarterback and their two leading receivers so the high percentage passing game could be less effective this fall. Junior Zach Lee appeared to take the starting reigns in spring practice and he is very talented despite having little playing time. Lee will be supported by a strong running game, spearheaded by junior Roy Helu, who led the team in rushing and touchdowns last season, though fellow junior Quan Castille will also provide some thunder after scoring six touchdowns himself. Nebraska had four players finish with more than 90 carries last fall and I won’t be surprised if the committee approach is used with success once more in 2009.
The fleet of tailbacks will run behind a strong offensive line which returns three starters from last season. Despite losing two late round NFL draft picks, I think that another year in the system could help a very talented line improve even further. Expect a strong running attack this fall as the line will be counted on to give Lee a chance to gain some confidence. Lee also needs some receivers, which is a big concern as junior tight end Mike McNeill is by far the top returning target after catching 6 touchdown passes in 2008. The passing game is going to be a concern going into the year thanks to a lack of proven wideouts. Overall, I think Nebraska is going to pound the football on the ground, which will delight their old school faithful. Furthermore, Lee looked ready to step in during the spring and I think that he should play well in his first year under center. While I don’t expect the Huskers to be as prolific as last season, Nebraska will still field a very strong offense in 2009.
The Cornhusker defense is going to be very good this season. It all starts up front with senior defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who led the team in tackles, sacks, tackles for loss and interceptions in 2008! Suh is a virtual lock to be a top ten pick in the 2010 NFL draft and the 2008 1st team All-Big XII selection is the best player on the team. He is a throwback to the famed Blackshirt days under legendary coach and current athletic director Tom Osborne. Junior end Pierre Allen is also a pass rushing threat and should contribute heavily to a strong run defense. Keep an eye on redshirt freshman Baker Steinkuhler, who was the #1 O-Line recruit in the country two years ago and could be a dominant force next to Suh this fall. The defensive line at Nebraska might be the first in nearly a decade to truly live up the Blackshirt legend.
Unfortunately, the linebackers are a question. The Huskers played most of last season in a nickel set and the top linebacker was only 5th on the team in tackles, so you have to wonder what the impact of an inexperienced group will really be. However, odds are in favor of Pelini plugging in a couple of highly talented youngsters behind the huge line and they could be feast or famine in the early going. Luckily, the Huskers’ safeties are awesome in run support as seniors Larry Asante and Matt O’Hanlon combined for 119 tackles last fall and each had more tackles than any linebacker! The starting corners are also back and I expect that another season together will produce a strong unit which, unlike last year, shouldn’t find themselves competing with a nose tackle for the team lead in interceptions. Nebraska should have another solid defense after so much improvement a year ago. Expect a strong run defense and an improved pass defense, making the Men of Corn one of the Big XII’s toughest.
The schedule is going to be interesting. The non-conference portion is highlighted by a trip to highly ranked Virginia Tech and a win would give the Huskers some serious clout and confidence early. In conference, the schedule is not easy as Nebraska only has two home division games. However, they only draw Oklahoma from the South’s big three teams and the Sooners have to travel to Lincoln so things are in place for the Huskers to make some serious noise in conference play.
Overall, I think that Nebraska is really moving in the right direction under Bo Pelini. The defense will always be good and this year’s group could be exceptional. Pelini has embraced the school’s traditions and heritage and enjoys near-universal popularity in the state. This fall, I think Pelini will try and establish a strong running game to give the mobile Lee the opportunity to gain some confidence and that should be a successful formula in conjunction with Nebraska’s strong defense. The Huskers posted an excellent 6-2 home mark last season and if they can improve their 2-2 road record from a year ago then I could definitely see Nebraska winning ten games and the division crown! However, I think that eight or nine wins and falling just short of the North Division crown is the most likely scenario thanks to all the road games but keep an eye on the Huskers all year because this is a program on the rise.
Biggest Games: Sept. 19th @ Virginia Tech, Oct. 8th @ Mizzou, Oct. 17th vs. Texas Tech, Nov. 7th vs. Oklahoma, Nov. 14th @ Kansas, Nov. 27th @ Colorado
Last season was a sorely disappointing year for the Buffalo faithful as their team regressed to 5-7 in Dan Hawkins’ third season. The Buffs finished the year on a 1-4 skid and their offense regressed by more than a touchdown. Now entering his 4th season, Hawkins will have to hope that his tireless recruiting finally pays off. Earlier this year he was quoted as saying that nothing less than a ten win season would be acceptable in 2009 and he was widely ridiculed for it. However, with most of the offense back and a ton of talent on hand, I wouldn’t be shocked if his players made him look smart. Can the Buffs finally begin to aspire to the success that Hawkins enjoyed at Boise State?
For a coach brought in because of his creative offensive attack, Hawkins sure has struggled to produce points. Last season’s offense only averaged 20 points per game, which was the worst in the Big XII! Hawkins’ son Cody is expected to start for the 3rd consecutive season under center and I really think he will be a much improved passer this fall after throwing 27 picks in the last two seasons. He is also mobile and should contribute on the ground as well. What should really help him is establishing a strong running game and Colorado has two very talented young backs ready to make it happen. Sophomores Rodney Stewart and Darrell Scott (the #1 tailback recruit in the country!) both struggled with injuries last season and I think a return to health should produce the best rushing game by far in the Hawkins era.
It also helps that Colorado returns four starters on the offensive line after being hit hard with injuries last fall. Sophomore guard Ryan Miller redshirted due to injury after earning freshman All-American honors in 2007 and the Buffalo line could start 4 underclassmen this year. That’s normally not a good sign but all had extensive playing time last season and all were highly recruited coming out of high school. This has to be the first decent line that Hawkins has fielded since coming to Boulder. The receivers are also experienced, led by juniors Scotty McKnight and John Smith, who combined for 8 touchdown catches last fall. With so much young talent back across the board, I think that Colorado is ready for a breakout season. After being racked with injuries last fall, I expect a healthier season to produce a much stronger line and a much stronger running attack, which should give Hawkins plenty of time to move the ball through the air. I expect a big leap forward for the Buffs on offense this season.
Defensively, Colorado has struggled the past two years, allowing over 29 points per game in each campaign. Last season’s big problem was that opposing teams averaged nearly 4.5 yards per carry and that kept the defense of the field way too much. This fall, their defense could have similar problems as all four starters are gone from last year’s line. The most experienced returnee is junior end Marquez Herrod, who had 4 sacks last fall in a backup role and the defensive tackles are especially green. However, I like the potential for an improved pass rush with stud freshman Nick Kasa lining up opposite Herrod. However, I don’t expect the run defense to suffer terribly because the linebackers behind the big guys in the middle are expected to be very good in 2009. Seniors Jeff Smart and Shaun Mohler return after combining for 215 stops as the team’s top two tacklers last season. Even better news is that superstar freshman Jon Major, who was one of the best high school players in the country two years ago and had to redshirt due to injury last season, is now fully healthy and should immediately contribute at the other linebacker position. I think that with these three patrolling behind the new line, the run game might actually be improved because this is the North’s best group of linebackers.
The pass defense was also troublesome last season, allowing opponents to complete nearly 65 percent of their attempts. However, both cornerbacks return and senior Cha’pelle Brown has been one of the conference’s most consistent performers the last two seasons. Hawkins’ theme of talented underclassmen will likely continue at the safety position as sophomore Anthony Perkins was very solid last fall as he actually started a few games and made 40 tackles! All of the candidates to start at the other spot are young as well. I think that Hawkins might have more talent on the field this season in the secondary and the pass defense should at least be solid. Overall, the Buffaloes have a ton of young talent that is expected to take on a bigger role this season but I think that Colorado will field an improved defense thanks to a great corps of linebackers and a solid secondary.
The schedule is going to be very interesting. The non-conference schedule includes a visit from rival Colorado State and weeknight trips to Toledo and West Virginia! Talk about pitfalls…… In conference, things aren’t much friendlier as Colorado’s first two games are against Texas and Kansas! The draw from the south includes trips to visit the Longhorns AND the Oklahoma State Cowboys, giving them one of the toughest draws in the North. The good news is that the Buffs have three home division games and host most of their rivals in Boulder.
Honestly, I’ve been using Hawkins’ struggles to establish Colorado as a power in the Big XII as a case study in the past two years as to why Boise State wouldn’t be a contender in a BCS conference. Hawkins has recruited a ton of talent to Boulder in the past three years and even upset Oklahoma two years ago (sound familiar, Boise?) when the Sooners were unbeaten! However, the high speed grindstone of Big XII play has prevented Hawkins from fully implementing his offense and has only produced 13 wins in three years. Meanwhile, Boise State runs the same system with less talent and they’ve produced 35 wins in the same time span! What’s the difference? Hawkins actually has to play big boy competition (unlike Boise State) and he needs the horses to run in the Big XII.
Well, I think that this is the year that thoroughbreds run wild in Boulder. An experienced quarterback playing behind an improved line is a good start and the expected strong rushing attack should make the Buffs multidimensional and dangerous. The back seven looks very strong on defense and the front four has some very talented young players. While I’m concerned about the new D-Line holding the point of attack, Colorado has the pieces in place to make a run at the Big XII North. However, a tough schedule draw featuring trips to Oklahoma State and Texas will probably prevent them from winning the division. Hawkins is on the hot seat but I honestly think that he’s doing a great job. He’s recruited a ton of talent and needs time to see all of these young stars develop. The university administration needs to be very careful not to ruin what could be the start of an extended run of success. That said, I expect Colorado to win seven or eight games this season and stop the discussions about Hawkins’ job security. Watch out for the Buffs in 2010 because this team could be loaded.
Biggest Games: Sept. 5th vs. Colorado St, Oct. 1st @ WVU, Oct. 10th @ Texas, Oct. 17th vs. Kansas, Oct. 31st vs. Mizzou, Nov. 19th @ Ok St, Nov. 27th vs. Nebraska
Welcome back, Bill Snyder. The patriarch of the Kansas State renaissance is coming out of retirement to try and return the Wildcats to national prominence. He’s going to have a tough time however, as KSU is embroiled in a financial scandal off the field and is bereft of elite talent on it after finishing 5-7 for the 2nd consecutive season in 2008. After three years of mediocrity under former coach Ron Prince, the Wildcats have a lot of holes that Snyder will have trouble filling immediately. On top of that, he’s nearly seventy years old, so how much time is actually there for him to rebuild this once proud program?
The Wildcats’ problem has certainly not been their offense the past two seasons. Led by quarterback Josh Freeman, the Cats averaged 35 points per game in each of the last two seasons! Unfortunately, Freeman turned pro a year early and was a 1 st round draft pick in April, so KSU has a gaping void under center. That’s not good news as Freeman accounted for over 70 percent of the team’s total offense last year! Generally when a team has to replace a star quarterback, they lean on the running game early and often. Unfortunately for KSU, their top returning rusher, junior LaMark Brown, barely broke 400 yards last year and has since been moved to wide receiver. That leaves the running game in the hands of sophomore Logan Dodd, who was solid as a freshman backup. I’m not very high on the line either despite three returning starters, the best of which is senior tackle Nick Stringer, who was an honorable mention All-Big XII selection last year.
Luckily, it isn’t all gloom and doom on offense as senior wide receiver Brandon Banks, who caught 67 passes for over 1,000 yards and 9 touchdowns last year, is back for his second and final season after transferring in from a junior college last fall. He was the Big XII Newcomer of the Year in 2008 and is a good example of the commitment KSU has to the junior colleges in the state of Kansas. Many of Snyder’s best players came to KSU after going the JUCO route and he will be looking to find a few more diamonds in the rough like Banks this fall. However, even with the potential of JUCO help, I’m not very bullish on the Kansas State offense and I hope they have a good punter. Without Freeman, who accounted for 34 touchdowns last season, I see some big steps back for Kansas State on the scoreboard.
Like I said before, the defense was largely to blame for the Wildcats’ losing records in each of the past two seasons. However, their defense might be their saving grace this fall. Eight starters are back from last year’s unit, which tied with Iowa State as the league’s 2nd worst! However, I think that KSU has the potential to field a solid defense in 2009. Up front, three starters are back, led by sophomore end Brandon Harold, who was a Freshman All-American last season. Along with three seniors, I expect Harold to be a key part of a much improved run defense after the Cats were beaten badly on the ground last season. Another reason for optimism is that both starting linebacker spots will be filled by returning starters after KSU switched to a 4-2-5 when Snyder took over. All three starters from last year’s 4-3 system are back and I expect the Wildcats to receive especially solid play from sophomore Alex Hrebec, who was 2nd on last year’s team with 68 tackles. Expect a much improved Kansas State run defense.
The secondary also could be strong this season as three starters return. The best player on the entire defense is junior cornerback Josh Moore, who led the team in tackles and interceptions last fall and was one of the conference leaders in passes defended. He will be the pillar around which the secondary will be built. I expect that Kansas State will be much stronger against the pass this fall. Overall, expect an improved defense in 2009 for Coach Snyder.
The schedule will be an interesting mix, as the only BCS opponent in the non-conference season is UCLA as the Wildcats head to the Rose Bowl in September. A trip to Louisiana is a possible pitfall the week before but KSU looks to have a very tenable slate outside of the Big XII. In conference, KSU only has three true road games as they face ISU in Kansas City. Unfortunately, their road trips are to Oklahoma, Texas Tech and Nebraska, so playing well at home will be a must if the Wildcats aspire to play in the postseason.
The first season of the second era in Bill Snyder’s coaching career at Kansas State will be very interesting to watch unfold. Watching K-State the last two seasons kept giving me the nagging feeling that we they were just missing something necessary to field a winning team. For example, two years ago they beat Texas but lost to Iowa State and Fresno State when either game would have clinched a bowl berth! Last fall, they lost two games to teams that finished with losing records and that cost them a postseason berth despite a high octane offense! I think that K-State’s underachievement can be attributed to a lack of focus and I expect Snyder’s legendary deft touch to help guide the Wildcats to a more level season. This year, the offense won’t be high octane but the defense should be much improved. On top of that, their conference schedule definitely will give them a chance at a strong showing. Overall, I think that Snyder has inherited a less talented team than the last two editions but I think he has a good chance at guiding the Wildcats to a bowl game, especially if they beat UCLA in September. Just don’t expect any more than six or seven wins in 2009.
Biggest Games: Sept. 19th @ UCLA, Oct. 3rd vs. ISU (Kansas City), Oct. 10th @ Texas Tech, Oct. 24th vs. Colorado, Nov. 7th vs. Kansas, Nov. 14th vs. Mizzou, Nov. 21 st @ Nebraska
2008 capped off a massively successful run for the Tigers under the guidance of former star quarterback Chase Daniels. A bowl win propelled the Tigers to a 10-4 year and Daniels’ final three seasons at the helm culminated with a 30-11 record! The Tigers are the two-time defending Big XII North Champions but they have the lowest number of returning starters in the entire conference and must replace a four year starting quarterback’s enormous production. Can Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel effectively reload in his 9 th season or will Missouri find themselves in rebuilding mode?
The offense was extremely powerful the past two seasons and the Tigers averaged over 42 points per game last fall! Unfortunately, all of this production centered on Daniels and there will be some serious growing pains without him. However, sophomore Blaine Gabbert was one of the country’s highest rated recruits two years ago and is expected to take over. Gabbert is very talented but he will also have to deal with developing a rapport with a largely inexperienced group of receivers after last season’s top three targets have moved on. Senior Jared Perry is the top returnee after catching 41 passes for 567 yards and 4 touchdowns and he will likely be Gabbert’s top target. However, the top three receivers last fall combined for 264 catches, 3080 yards and 30 touchdown catches! That means that there is an enormous amount of production that has been lost.
The good news is that Missouri should still be effective offensively thanks to a stellar offensive line, which returns three starters. Senior guard Kurtis Gregory was a 2nd team All-Big XII selection and sophomore tackle Elvis Fisher was a 1st team Freshman All-American, so there should be plenty of protection for Gabbert. The running game should also be solid as junior tailback Derrick Washington returns after rushing for over 1,000 yards and 17 touchdowns last season. While he’ll have to be a much larger focus after performing primarily as a change of pace to Daniels’ air raid attack last year, Washington should be capable of racking up some yards. Overall, Missouri’s offense won’t be nearly as productive as last season, especially through the air, but I expect Gabbert to have the passing game going during the second half of the year. Expect some growing pains early but the pieces are in place for a solid offensive attack by November.
Defensively, I have a ton of concerns. After getting murdered through the air last season for a conference-worst 287 yards per game, the Tigers have to rebuild their secondary practically from scratch. Junior cornerback Carl Gettis is the only returning starter and he is a good one, having made 78 tackles last season. There is some experience returning in senior safety Hardy Ricks, who started two seasons ago, and sophomore Kenji Jackson, who was solid last season in a nickel role. However, I’m concerned how well this unit will perform after losing star safety William Moore to the NFL and while I don’t expect the Tigers to have the conference’s worst pass defense once more, I also don’t expect them to break out of the bottom tier either.
The news isn’t much better up front. The front seven lost three NFL draft picks, including both defensive tackles. The Tigers had a solid run defense in 2008 but the loss of two NFL tackles, especially 1 st round pick Ziggy Hood who is an absolute load, will severely hamper their ability to stop the run. Senior linebacker Sean Witherspoon was a 2nd team All-American after leading the team in tackles (155), tackles for loss (13.5), passes defended (7) and interceptions (3) while finishing second in sacks with five on the year! However, Witherspoon’s numbers should suffer as well without the big bodies in front of him occupying space and blockers. Missouri could instead start three sophomores this year on the line! While Witherspoon is definitely one of the best defensive players in the Big XII, I think that the Tigers are going to take a step back in run defense and I expect Missouri to field one of the more porous defenses in the Pinkel era.
The schedule doesn’t cut the Tigers any breaks either. Illinois’ powerful passing attack awaits them on opening day after scoring 76 points in their last two meetings and Mizzou has to travel cross-country to play a very dangerous Nevada team before the end of September! The Tigers also draw Oklahoma State, Texas and Baylor from the South and will be lucky to win one of those games. Finally, they continue to play archrival Kansas at a neutral site so there will be no home field advantage against the more talented Jayhawks.
Overall, Missouri has been massively successful in the past two seasons by outscoring their opponents. In their two games with Illinois, the average score was 46-38! However, I don’t expect the Tigers to be able to score at will this season and their defense, which only really struggled against elite offenses, also appears depleted. Keep in mind that this year’s team lost six NFL draft picks from 2008 on top of their all-time leading passer. Simply put, Missouri’s defense will have trouble keeping opponents off the field because of a weakened run defense and their offense is no longer a juggernaut whenever it gets out there. That is not a formula for success. I expect Missouri to take a step back this season and miss a bowl game for the first time in five years.
Biggest Games: Sept. 5th vs. Illinois (St. Louis), Oct. 8th vs. Nebraska, Oct. 17th @ Ok St, Oct. 31st @ Colorado, Nov. 14th @ KSU, Nov. 28th vs. Kansas (Kansas City)
The last three seasons haven’t been pretty in Cyclone country. ISU has only won nine games during that time span and they enter this fall with their 3 rd different head coach! Former boss Gene Chizik was lured away to Auburn despite a two year record of 5-19 and the Cyclones had to scramble to hire former Auburn assistant Paul Rhoads in his stead. Rhoads has proven to be an excellent defensive coordinator in stops at Pitt and Auburn and will look to turn around Iowa State in his first opportunity as a head coach. He steps into a decent situation despite the Cyclones’ 2-10 record in 2008 and I would expect some quick improvement.
The offense is where most Cyclone fans hold their hopes for a successful season. After a strong performance in 2008 compared to their usual standards, ISU returns nine starters, including junior quarterback Austen Arnaud. Arnaud threw for nearly 2,800 yards, 15 touchdowns and 10 interceptions last season while also contributing 400 rush yards and 5 touchdowns! While ISU must replace 2008’s top receiver, they are lucky to have sophomore Darius Darks, who was impressive as a true freshman last year and caught 49 passes for 477 yards and a touchdown. Expect a big year from him in 2009.
At tailback, senior Alex Robinson was the top rusher in 2008, with over 700 yards and 6 touchdowns. He should see the majority of the carries, though sophomore Florida transfer Bo Williams should also contribute. They’ll run behind a veteran offensive line which brings back four starters and should be fairly productive. I think that Iowa State has the potential to produce improved numbers on offense and Arnaud is a solid quarterback. However, in a league full of powerful offenses, the Cyclones remain confined in the bottom half.
The biggest need for improvement is on defense, where ISU tied as the conference’s 2nd most porous in 2008 with Kansas State. Rhoads’ defensive acumen will be needed to turn around this group after they allowed nearly 280 yards per game through the air. Up front, senior tackle Nate Frere is a solid contributor who made 26 tackles, including three sacks, in 2008. Unfortunately, he’s the best player on a line which allowed nearly 180 years per game on the ground last season and that just won’t cut it in the Big XII. At linebacker, seniors Jesse Smith and Fred Garrin were the team’s second and third leading tacklers in 2008, combining for 147 stops. Both should once more provide steady production but playing behind a weak line won’t help and I think that the Cyclones will struggle against the run once more.
In the secondary, senior James Smith was the team’s top tackler last fall and will be counted on to continue his strong play. Sophomore cornerback Leonard Johnson made 47 tackles and picked off two passes as a true freshman and has the potential to be a star. I think that the Cyclones could be improved against the pass with these two anchoring their secondary this season. However, this is still one of the conference’s weakest defenses and I wouldn’t be surprised if they allowed the most points in the conference for the 2nd consecutive season.
The schedule is also going to make things tough as a neutral site game against KSU gives the Cyclones only three home conference games! Considering that ISU has lost every road game since late 2005, that’s a daunting task. To make matters worse, Oklahoma State, improved Baylor and rising Colorado are their three home dates! The non-conference schedule is nowhere near as tough, highlighted as usual by their bitter grudge match against Iowa. Despite the difficult conference path, the non-conference portion should provide the Cyclones with a legitimate opportunity to rack up some wins.
Overall, it will be tough for Iowa State to turn things around immediately in Big XII play. While I think that ISU has a good offensive unit, they do play in the country’s most powerful offensive league and I’m afraid that the Cyclones don’t measure up to most of the league’s elite units. I also think that their defense will have a lot of trouble slowing down the run and that means opposing teams will score a lot of points. However, I think that Rhoads will definitely produce an improved team in his first season. Remember, Chizik lost some really bad games to teams like Toledo, Kent State, UNLV and Northern Iowa in his two years and I really think that Rhoads will at least start to take care of business against weaker teams. While I don’t expect much from this team in Big XII play, I think that Iowa State could easily double their win total from last season and that would be a great start to Rhoads’ tenure in Ames.
Biggest Games: Sept. 12th vs. Iowa, Oct. 3rd vs. KSU (Kansas City), Oct. 17th vs. Baylor, Oct. 31st @ Texas A&M, Nov. 14th vs. Colorado, Nov. 21st @ Mizzou
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There might not be an angrier team in the country entering the 2009 season. Texas beat archrival Oklahoma by ten points on a neutral field but were passed by the Sooners in the standings due to a very controversial tiebreaker and had to watch as Oklahoma was given the chance to play for the National Title. Even worse, star quarterback Colt McCoy finished 2 nd in the balloting for the Heisman Trophy to OU’s Sam Bradford! Anyone think that the Longhorns won’t be playing with a chip the size of Texas on their shoulder this season?
The Longhorn offense scored over 42 points per game last fall and McCoy was the biggest reason for their success. He threw for over 3,800 yards and 34 touchdowns while also leading the team in rushing with over 550 yards and 11 scores! Personally, I would have voted for McCoy in the Heisman race as he played a much bigger role in his offense than Bradford. McCoy also returns his favorite target, senior roommate Jordan Shipley, who caught 89 passes for 1,060 yards and 11 touchdowns last year. Expect McCoy to have plenty of options in the passing game this season.
The big difference this fall will be in the running game. As impressive as it was for McCoy to lead the team in rushing, the tailbacks need to step up in a big way. Junior Vondrell McGee and sophomore Foswhitt Whittaker will get a lot more opportunities to rush the football and both should take a lot of the load off of McCoy’s shoulders. They’ll be running behind a very veteran offensive line which returns four starters from last fall! Senior tackle Adam Ulatoski was a 1 st team All-Big XII pick last year and should be the anchor of the group. With the vast majority of their offense returning, I expect another strong effort from the Longhorns and this should be one of the country’s best offenses.
Defensively, there is a ton of talent returning from the #1 defense in the conference a year ago. The Longhorns return four senior starters in the front seven after posting the league’s best run defense. However, there is some work to be done replacing three high NFL draft picks on the line and Texas might be a little bit more vulnerable against the run. However, the Horns are stacked with talent up front and should still be quite stout. The pass rush will come from hybrid linebacker Sergio Kindle, whose 10 sacks earned him 1st team All-Big XII honors last fall. Expect a senior-laden group of linebackers to help Texas field their typically tough run defense.
The secondary is also a bright spot as three starters return. Sophomores Earl Thomas and Blake Gideon started the whole year as freshmen last fall and both should be vastly improved after acquitting themselves well in 2008. After their defensive backs had trouble picking off passes last fall, I expect this much more experienced group to cut down on opposing yardage allowed while causing more turnovers. The only defense in the entire league that stacks up to the Longhorns is archrival Oklahoma’s and Texas should have one of the best units in America this year.
The schedule is very disappointing as they don’t have a single BCS opponent in their non-conference schedule! Didn’t Texas just play one of the biggest non-conference series in recent memory against Ohio State? The Longhorns only have three home conference games and many of their toughest tests are away from Austin. They also draw visits from Colorado and Kansas out of the North. On top of that, they have to travel to rival Texas A&M and extremely dangerous Oklahoma State! Of course, the game of the year is with Oklahoma in Dallas and the Red River Shootout could decide both teams’ fates in the Big XII and National Title chases. Oklahoma’s October schedule begins in Austin against Colorado before they have three tough games away from home and that stretch will likely decide their season.
Texas is a very talented team that features a very strong offense and a great defense. However, they’re perhaps the country’s most dangerous team because all of that talent will be playing with an attitude this season after getting the short end of the stick in the polls last fall. Frankly, I’m not sure how people could legitimately vote Oklahoma ahead of the Longhorns but OU’s video game offense impressed enough voters to give Texas the shaft. Don’t expect the Longhorns to get screwed again this season because I think that they have a great shot at going undefeated and I am picking them to beat the Sooners and win the Big XII South.
Biggest Games: Oct. 10th vs. Colorado, Oct. 17th vs. Oklahoma( Dallas), Oct. 31st @ Ok St, Nov. 21st vs. Kansas, Nov. 26th @ Texas A&M
Bob Stoops has to be going nuts right now. The Sooners posted a 12-1 mark to earn a berth in the BCS Championship game in 2008 but their vaunted offense was stopped inside the ten yard line twice and OU lost their 5 th consecutive BCS game by the score of 24-14 to Florida. If I were Stoops, I’d be very anxious to get my super high powered offense led by the defending Heisman Trophy winner back out on the field and get to work after having to hear all offseason how I’ve lost my touch in big games. Can Oklahoma win their 4th consecutive Big XII Title this season?
The Oklahoma offense was the country’s best last fall, averaging over 51 points per game! Junior quarterback Sam Bradford threw for 4,700 yards and 50 touchdowns en route to winning the Heisman Trophy. Bradford turned down the NFL for one more chance at a National Title and should have a huge year. However, OU wasn’t all about the passing game last fall as senior Chris Brown and junior DeMarco Murray both were thousand yard rushers, combining for over 2,200 yards and 34 rushing touchdowns! Their exploits led Oklahoma to average 200 yards per game on the ground and both will be very dangerous once again this fall.
That said, there are some big concerns for the Sooners. Two of their top three receivers moved on to NFL careers and they accounted for nearly 1,900 yards and 19 touchdowns last fall. The good news is that senior tight end Jermaine Gresham was a 1st team All-Big XII choice last fall and sophomore receiver Ryan Broyles added 46 catches and 6 touchdowns, so expect Bradford to have plenty of targets to throw to. The real concern is the offensive line, where only one starter is back after four multiyear starters graduated last season. Bradford had what seemed like a decade to throw thanks to great protection and retooling the line could be an issue. However, OU recruits as well as anyone and should have plenty of talent available to step in. Expect a solid line but it won’t match up to last year’s exceptional unit. While I’m concerned about Bradford having time to throw, Oklahoma could score two less touchdowns per game and still field an extremely prolific offense! Expect another strong season from the defending Heisman Trophy winner and his offense should be one of the best in the country.
While the Sooners lost a lot of key parts on offense, the vast majority of the 2nd toughest defense in the Big XII returns intact, including the entire front seven! Everything will start up front with junior tackle Gerald McCoy, who was a 2 nd team All-American and turned down a shot at being drafted in the top 10 this past April. McCoy should anchor a powerful run defense and he also combined with fellow tackle Adrian Taylor for 11 sacks last season. OU’s ends are also exceptional as senior Austin English was a 1st team All-Big XII selection in 2007 before fighting through injuries last fall and junior Jeremy Beal earned 2nd team All-Big XII honors in 2008 thanks to his 61 tackles and 8.5 sacks! This is the best defensive line in the entire conference and they’ll be vicious against both pass and run.
The linebackers have a ton of experience thanks to major injury issues in 2008. Senior Ryan Reynolds’ importance to the team became very clear after he hurt his knee against Texas, leading OU to turn an 8 point lead into a 10 point loss in a quarter and a half! Reynolds’ health is a major concern because he’s already had 2 ACL injuries during his time at OU and keeping him on the field will be paramount. Luckily, senior Keenan Clayton was great last year with 82 tackles, 4.5 sacks and a pick and sophomore Travis Lewis led the team in tackles with 144 while adding 3.5 sacks and 4 interceptions! That earned Lewis Big XII Freshman Defensive Player of the Year honors. Expect Oklahoma to field a great group of linebackers. The secondary is the only part of the team that has any losses as both safeties must be replaced. Junior Quinton Carter was solid in a reserve role last fall but OU will miss Lendy Holmes’ playmaking abilities. However, with both cornerbacks returning and a ton of talent waiting in the wings, I expect another solid year in pass defense. Overall, Oklahoma could easily field the toughest defense in the conference this fall thanks to their powerful presence up front.
Their schedule is a very tough slate, beginning with three big non-conference games. OU opens up in Arlington against BYU before hosting upstart Tulsa two weeks later. Their only BCS matchup comes as they travel to Miami to take on the vastly improved Hurricanes, giving them the Big XII’s toughest out of conference lineup. In Big XII play, OU only has three true road games, though they do have to travel to Kansas, Nebraska and Texas Tech. As always, the Red River Shootout will be in Dallas and that should be one of the biggest games in college football this year.
Overall, it is really hard to not like the Sooners. They have the returning Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback, two 1,000 yard rushers and the league’s best tight end on offense. Their defense is big, fast and nasty and should be much healthier this fall. Their offensive line is a concern but Oklahoma always fields strong units no matter how many starters they lose. The Sooners have a tough schedule, drawing the two favorites out of the North and a trip to Texas Tech. OU will probably play six ranked teams this season! Along with the two neutral site games and the trip to Miami, that means that six of the Sooners’ seven biggest games will take place away from Norman! That’s big because Oklahoma has only lost one home game since 2001! However, I expect Bradford to lead a powerful offense that will be only slightly less explosive than last year’s record-setting edition. Furthermore, Oklahoma has a great defense that will shut down the majority of opponents. The only reason I’m not picking them to win the South is that there is a very angry Texas team who beat them last fall but was passed over for a chance to play at for the National Title waiting for them in Dallas and I think that the Longhorns match up better with OU. However, if the Sooners knock off Texas, they’re immediately the favorite to win the South Division and Oklahoma is definitely a National Title contender in 2009.
Biggest Games: Sept. 5th vs. BYU ( Arlington), Oct. 3rd @ Miami, Oct. 17th vs. Texas (Dallas), Oct. 24th @ Kansas, Nov. 7th @ Nebraska, Nov. 21st @ Texas Tech, Nov. 28th vs. Ok St
A lot of people’s eyes were opened by Oklahoma State’s enormously successful season in 2008, as the Cowboys finished with their first winning Big XII record since 2003. Among the memorable moments from last fall was a shocking upset of #3 Missouri en route to a 7-0 start that vaunted Okie State as high as 7th in the national polls! Unfortunately, the Cowpokes lost road games at #1 Texas and #2 Texas Tech and couldn’t overcome eventual National Runner Up Oklahoma on the season’s final day. The Cowboys were the only team in America to play four teams that were ranked in the top 3 at game time! Their #16 final ranking was the best since head coach Mike Gundy was the school’s starting quarterback in the 1980s! With a large portion of last year’s high-powered attack back, can the team that I ranked 4th in the country after spring practice defeat one of the South’s twin towers and earn a berth in the Big XII Championship Game?
Their powerful offense featured two 2008 1st team All-Americans: junior tailback Kendall Hunter, who rushed for 1,555 yards and 16 touchdowns, and junior receiver Dez Bryant, who caught 87 passes for 1,480 yards and 19 touchdowns! They’re not the only wealth of experience returning for the Pokes either, as senior quarterback Zach Robinson passed for 3,000 yards and 25 touchdowns while rushing for over 550 yards and 8 scores! The Okie State offense was so good that senior backup tailback Keith Toston is an afterthought and he ran for 680 yards and 9 touchdowns! Assuming that another receiver steps up next to the supremely talented Bryant, Oklahoma State is going to be vicious through the air and on the ground.
Of course, none of this would be possible without a strong O-Line and Gundy’s troops have three returning senior starters. Led by 1st team All-Big XII selection and likely 1st round NFL draft pick Russell Okung, the line should be one of the best in the Big XII, making this offense downright scary. In summary: 250 rush yards and 41 points per game last fall, three returning 1 st team All-Big XII selections, two of which were 1st team All-Americans, a powerful offensive line and a very talented senior quarterback. There is no question that Oklahoma State is going to have one of the best offenses in the entire country this fall.
Defensively, the Pokes were strong against the run last year but had a ton of trouble stopping the pass, especially late in the year. Respected defensive guru Bill Young is the new coordinator and will have virtual autonomy on defense as Gundy spends most of the defense’s time on the field working on his offense with his back to the field. The 2009 edition returns two starters on the line after fielding a stout run defense last fall. Unfortunately, Okie State never developed much of a pass rush, only getting to the quarterback 15 times all year! I expect a little bit more of a pass rush from the line this season only because I’m not sure how it can get any worse. At linebacker, the Cowboys return three senior starters who combined for 260 tackles last fall and Andre Sexton was a 2nd team All-Big XII choice. Expect another very strong run defense but the pass rush is going to be a concern.
The pass rush is an even bigger issue as the only returning starter in the secondary is senior Perrish Cox. Young will have to rush an extra man much more often because the secondary was a liability last fall and was the primary reason that Oklahoma State lost their three conference games. Young will have to do a lot of work quickly with this massively inexperienced unit that is the team’s only true liability. I like the front seven to produce a very solid rush defense but replacing most of the secondary in this league will be very difficult and for that reason alone I can’t say that this will be any better than an average Big XII defense.
The schedule is going to be very interesting this fall. Oklahoma State has eight home games but their first two are against SEC power Georgia to open the year and C-USA powerhouse Houston. Those are two really tough teams to debut a new secondary against! The conference schedule features visits from Missouri and Colorado from the North along with a trip to ISU so the Cowboys avoid the top two teams. However, the all-important games against Texas and Oklahoma take place during the season’s second half and the Pokes have to travel to Norman to play the archrival Sooners.
Frankly, I was all set to pick the Cowboys to win the Big XII South as I absolutely love their offense. I also really like their front seven’s strength and this could be the best run defense Gundy has fielded. However, I couldn’t justify picking the Cowboys to beat either Texas or Oklahoma when both teams have Heisman Trophy-caliber quarterbacks and the Pokes have a brand new secondary and an underwhelming pass rush. However, since the secondary is such an unknown, the opening two games against Georgia and Houston will be very telling since both teams have great passing games. If Oklahoma State can play well against both, I will be much more bullish on their chances in the division. That said, this is a loaded team at almost every other position. They have eight home games and will enter the season as a top ten team in virtually every poll. There will be games where their secondary won’t matter because their offense will simply steamroll teams and I can’t see Oklahoma State winning any less than nine games this fall. If the secondary can play well early against Georgia then the Cowboys will be a legitimate threat to win the Big XII and they’re a very sneaky pick in the National Title scene.
Biggest Games: Sept. 5th vs. Georgia, Sept. 12th vs. Houston, Oct. 10th @ Texas A&M, Oct. 31st vs. Texas, Nov. 14th vs. Texas Tech, Nov. 19th vs. Colorado, Nov. 28th @ Oklahoma
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Matt Baxendell is collegesports-fans.com’s football writer. Keep an eye out all fall for his multiple weekly articles discussing everything college football. If you want to get in touch with him, email him at Matt.Baxendell@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @MattBaxendell
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