August 11, 2010

Big 12 braces for the end of an era

MORE: All-conference team | Unit rankings | Expert predictions

With South Division teams having won six consecutive Big 12 Conference championships, it often seemed they would dominate until the end of time.

Actually, it may just be until the end of the conference as we know it.

This is the last year for the Big 12 as it has existed since the Big Eight and four Texas schools merged in 1996. Nebraska will be joining the Big Ten and Colorado is headed to the Pac-10.

Nebraska is exiting much like it entered the Big 12. Back in '96, the Huskers were projected as one of the best teams in the country and the favorite to win the conference championship. And although there were some trying seasons under Frank Solich and Bill Callahan earlier this century, the Huskers have returned to prominence and want to show they're back among the elite.

Of course, there is one similarity they hope to avoid.

In '96, the heavily favored Huskers lost to Texas in the first Big 12 championship game. They sure don't want to come up short in what may be the last Big 12 title game.

THE PLAYERS

BEST OFFENSIVE PLAYER: Oklahoma WR Ryan Broyles. In two seasons, Broyles has more than 1,800 receiving yards, 1,120 of them coming last season. He's a big-play threat -- 21 receiving touchdowns in his career -- and is among the nation's best punt returners. Last season, he scored seven touchdowns via rush, reception or return that covered at least 25 yards.

BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER: Texas A&M LB Von Miller. Last season, he earned All-American recognition while establishing himself as one of the nation's elite pass rushers. He led the nation with 17 sacks. A&M was ranked 106th in the country in pass defense, so those weren't coverage sacks. He also was fifth in the nation with 21 tackles for loss.

OFFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Baylor QB Robert Griffin. No team relies more on one individual than Baylor does Griffin. With Griffin two years ago, Baylor made a run at its first bowl since 1994. A postseason appearance seemed possible in '09 until an injury knocked Griffin out for the year early in the season. Now, Griffin has returned and so has hope for Baylor to reach a bowl game. But Griffin will have to carry the Bears most of the way.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Nebraska T Jared Crick. He's hailed as an All-America candidate and is expected to be the anchor of the Huskers' defense after posting 9.5 sacks and 15 tackles for loss last season. But five of those sacks and seven tackles for loss came in one game, against Baylor. He also benefited from playing next to Ndamukong Suh, who was the second player selected in the NFL draft. Crick has to show he can be just as dominant without Suh next to him.

BREAKOUT OFFENSIVE STAR: Missouri WR Jerrell Jackson. He had 37 catches for 458 yards in '09, and it would come as no surprise at all if those stats at least doubled this season. Missouri will throw the ball, and he's the Tigers' most productive returning receiver. Further, Mizzou has had a 1,000-yard receiver in each of the past three seasons. Jackson could keep that trend going.

BREAKOUT DEFENSIVE STAR: Oklahoma State LB Orie Lemon. Technically, Lemon broke out in '08 when he was second among Cowboys with 90 tackles. But a knee injury forced him to miss the'09 season. Now, that he's back, he's the leader of a rebuilt defense. He's drawn raves from coordinator Bill Young, who thinks he'll be one of the best in the country at his position.

BEST OFFENSIVE NEWCOMER: Kansas State WR Chris Harper. A converted quarterback with big-play ability, Harper sat out last season after transferring from Oregon. As a true freshman in '08, he was the Ducks' first player in eight years to score via run, pass and reception. That season, he moved to receiver after five games and caught nine passes for 122 yards, including a 62-yard touchdown. With a year to focus on playing receiver, he should be much more effective for a team that needs playmakers.

BEST DEFENSIVE NEWCOMER: Oklahoma LB Tom Wort. Wort, a redshirt freshman, was going to play last season before a torn anterior cruciate ligament knocked him out of action. He's recovered now and played well in the spring. He's projected to be the starter at middle linebacker.

MOST OVERRATED PLAYER: Missouri QB Blaine Gabbert. Yes, he threw for more than 3,500 yards and 24 touchdowns, but he did most of his damage against lightweight defenses. Against four top-35 defenses (Nebraska, Texas, Oklahoma State and Navy) Gabbert completed just 46.3 percent of his attempts for an average of 208.5 yards. The Tigers lost all those games. He needs to raise his performance against good teams to truly be among the nation's elite quarterbacks.

THE COACHES

COACH ON THE HOTTEST SEAT: Colorado's Dan Hawkins. He is a great guy in a tough spot. The Buffaloes haven't managed a winning record in any of his four seasons in Boulder, and last season was a 3-9 disaster. Speculation was Hawkins would have been dismissed if the financially strapped athletic department could've afforded his buyout. If the Buffs don't win this season, he won't get another year. Remember, his predecessor was fired despite winning the North Division four times in five seasons.

BEST COACHING STAFF: Oklahoma. Flip a coin between Texas and Oklahoma. For now, we'll take OU based on a half-dozen Big 12 championships the Sooners have won under Bob Stoops and with Brent Venables working with the defense.

BEST OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Oklahoma's Kevin Wilson. The Sooners have won three Big 12 titles in Wilson's four seasons as offensive coordinator. He's also supervised four offenses that ranked among the nation's top 29 in scoring, including the '08 unit that led the nation and the '07 offense that was fifth. He has worked with three starting quarterbacks in that span (Paul Thompson, Sam Bradford and Landry Jones).

BEST DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Texas' Will Muschamp. Three years ago, Texas ranked 45th in the nation in scoring defense and posted 28 sacks. Then, Muschamp took over the unit. In two seasons under his guidance, opponents have averaged fewer than 19 points per game and the Longhorns have posted 91 sacks. This season's defense could be Muschamp's best yet in Austin.

THE OTHER STUFF

Florida State at Oklahoma, Sept. 11

Nebraska at Washington, Sept. 18

Texas at Texas Tech, Sept. 18

Oklahoma at Cincinnati, Sept. 25

Oklahoma vs. Texas at Dallas, Oct. 2

Arkansas vs. Texas A&M at Arlington, Texas, Oct. 9

Texas at Nebraska, Oct. 16

Missouri at Nebraska, Oct. 30

Nebraska at Texas A&M, Nov. 20

Texas A&M at Texas, Nov. 25

TEAM THAT WILL SURPRISE: Baylor. With Griffin back at quarterback, the Bears aren't the patsies they are most seasons. In fact, with an advantageous schedule, Baylor could be bowl eligible before Halloween. Six of the Bears' first eight opponents did not post winning records last season and four of them travel to Waco. Baylor won't challenge for a championship, but the Bears may not be in the South Division cellar, either.

TEAM THAT WILL DISAPPOINT: Oklahoma State. The Cowboys posted back-to-back nine-win seasons in '08 and '09, but maintaining that standard won't be easy. Four starters were lost on the offensive line, including All-America T Russell Okung, Brandon Weeden is entering his first year as starting quarterback, the linebacker corps and secondary must be rebuilt and starting DE Jamie Blatnick's status is uncertain after a recent arrest for assault. Unless RB Kendall Hunter, who is back from injury, has a big year, the Cowboys could struggle to become bowl eligible.

GAME OF THE YEAR: Texas at Nebraska, Oct. 16. Usually, the Red River Rivalry matchup between Texas and Oklahoma is an obvious choice. But this game in Lincoln may upstage the annual grudge match. Huskers faithful are aching to end a five-game losing streak to Texas. Of course, that streak includes the Longhorns' 13-12 victory in the 2009 Big 12 title game.

TOUGHEST SCHEDULE: Iowa State. The Cyclones' schedule has numerous potential top-10 teams. The Cyclones are the only North Division team that has to play both Texas and Oklahoma -- and both games are on the road, too. Also looming are games with North Division rival Nebraska and non-conference clashes against state-rival Iowa and MWC heavyweight Utah. Texas Tech, Northern Illinois and Missouri visit Ames. Overall, the Cyclones face eight teams that played in bowl games last season.

EASIEST SCHEDULE: Kansas. Turner Gill gets a break of sorts in his first season as Kansas coach. The Jayhawks don't play Oklahoma, Texas or Texas Tech from the South Division. Two of their league road games are against Baylor and Iowa State. A matchup with Georgia Tech is formidable, but Kansas' other three non-Big 12 foes were a combined 13-24 in '09.

FIRST TEAM OFFENSE
QBJerrod Johnson, Texas A&M (6-5/243, Sr.)
RBKendall Hunter, Oklahoma State (5-8/197, Sr.)
RBDaniel Thomas, Kansas State (6-2/228, Sr.)
WRRyan Broyles, Oklahoma (5-11/183, Sr.)
WRJerrell Jackson, Missouri (6-1/190, Jr.)
WRDetron Lewis, Texas Tech (6-0/205, Sr.)
TTanner Hawkinson, Kansas (6-6/293, Soph.)
TNate Solder, Colorado (6-9/300, Sr.)
GMichael Huey, Texas (6-5/310, Sr.)
GPatrick Lewis, Texas A&M (6-2/312, Soph.)
CBen Habern, Oklahoma (6-3/292, Soph.)
FIRST TEAM DEFENSE
EJeremy Beal, Oklahoma (6-3/267, Sr.)
TJared Crick, Nebraska (6-6/285, Jr.)
TKheeston Randall, Texas (6-5/295, Jr.)
EAldon Smith, Missouri (6-5/260, Soph.)
LBTravis Lewis, Oklahoma (6-2/232, Jr.)
LBVon Miller, Texas A&M (6-3/240, Sr.)
LBKeenan Robinson, Texas (6-3/239, Jr.)
CBPrince Amukamara, Nebraska (6-1/205, Sr.)
CBAaron Williams, Texas (6-1/195, Jr.)
FSQuinton Carter, Oklahoma (6-1/200, Sr.)
SSTrent Hunter, Texas A&M (5-10/187, Jr.)
FIRST TEAM SPECIALISTS
KAlex Henery, Nebraska (6-2/175, Sr.)
PTress Way, Oklahoma (6-1/220, Soph.)
KRD.J. Monroe, Texas (5-9/171, Soph.)
PRRyan Broyles, Oklahoma (5-11/183, Sr.)

OFFENSIVE BACKFIELD

1. Texas A&M: Jerrod Johnson passed for more than 3,500 yards and two running backs ran for more than 750 last season.

2. Oklahoma: Coach Bob Stoops predicts a big year for RB DeMarco Murray.

3. Missouri: Blaine Gabbert and Derrick Washington provide passing and rushing threats, respectively.

4. Texas Tech: There are two good passers and three capable running backs.

5. Nebraska: RBs Roy Helu and Rex Burkhead are good, but quarterback play must get better.

6. Iowa State: Dual-threat QB Austen Arnaud is better than most realize.

7. Texas: The Longhorns have to boost a lackluster running game while breaking in a new quarterback.

8. Oklahoma State: Look for RB Kendall Hunter to come back strong from injury.

9. Baylor: Robert Griffin is the fastest quarterback in the country.

10. Colorado: RB Rodney Stewart is solid, but quarterback play has been mediocre.

11. Kansas State: Fingers crossed that RB Daniel Thomas can make up for poor quarterback play.

12. Kansas: The Jayhawks have a so-so running game and also are breaking in a new quarterback.

RECEIVERS

1. Texas A&M: Three returning receivers had more than 40 catches in '09 and they combined for 17 touchdown catches.

2. Texas Tech: Red Raiders receivers will put up big numbers. So what else is new?

3. Oklahoma: WR Ryan Broyles is a big play waiting to happen, but the Sooners need a reliable alternative target.

4. Texas: The Longhorns have great speed and some heralded freshmen coming in.

5. Missouri: WR Jerrell Jackson may be on the brink of a breakout season. The same goes for Rolandis Woodland.

6. Nebraska: The tight end position is solid. WR Niles Paul must be more consistent.

7. Colorado: Dependable WR Scotty McKnight is close to setting the school career receptions record.

8. Baylor: WR Kendall Wright had 66 catches in '09.

9. Iowa State: The Cyclones' receivers corps is solid but unspectacular.

10. Oklahoma State: As with Iowa State, this receivers corps is solid but unspectacular.

11. Kansas: The top two receivers are gone.

12. Kansas State: Transfers Chris Harper and Brodrick Smith must give the Wildcats a boost.

OFFENSIVE LINE

1. Nebraska: Coaches hope the addition of junior college transfer Jermarcus Hardrick at tackle helps this Huskers line resemble the powerful ones of old.

2. Oklahoma: Finally over injuries, the Sooners should be solid.

3. Texas: G Michael Huey and T Kyle Hix have All-Big 12 potential.

4. Missouri: C Tim Barnes heads a list of four returning starters up front.

5. Kansas State: The Wildcats had a 1,000-yard rusher last season and four line starters are back.

6. Kansas: T Tanner Hawkinson is the best of an experienced group.

7. Iowa State: Allowed only 16 sacks last season and blocked for a 1,000-yard rusher.

8. Colorado: Injuries were an issue in '09, when the Buffs ranked 113th in rushing and 117th in sacks allowed. T Nate Solder is a legit star.

9. Texas Tech: The Red Raiders are huge up front, but only two starters return from a group that allowed 31 sacks in '09.

10. Texas A&M: The Aggies have new starters at both tackle spots, including a true freshman.

11. Oklahoma State: The Cowboys have to replace four starters, including All-America T Russell Okung.

12. Baylor: The bigger Bears have to prove they're better Bears.

DEFENSIVE LINE

1. Nebraska: T Jared Crick and E Pierre Allen anchor what should be one of the country's best front fours.

2. Texas: Look for Sam Acho and Alex Okafor to lead a pass rush that is among the nation's fiercest.

3. Oklahoma: Excellence at ends, but questions at tackle.

4. Kansas State: Brandon Harold's return from injury gives immediate improvement.

5. Missouri: E Aldon Smith has all-conference ability. The tackles are unproven.

6. Oklahoma State: There is potential at end, but there are questions about the tackles.

7. Colorado: A lot of experience up front should foster improvement against the run.

8. Texas Tech: No lineman had more than three sacks a year ago.

9. Kansas: E Jake Laptad is coming off a strong season in '09.

10. Texas A&M: Already mediocre against the run, the Aggies now are going to a three-man front.

11. Iowa State: The Cyclones are soft vs. the run and lack a pass rush.

12. Baylor: T Phil Taylor has been a major disappointment since transferring from Penn State.

LINEBACKERS

1. Oklahoma: The Lewises (Travis and Ronnell, no relation) are beasts.

2. Texas: Keenan Robinson is an emerging star on the outside, and Emmanuel Acho is solid, too.

3. Nebraska: Sean Fisher and Will Compton were good as redshirt freshmen and should be even better as sophomores.

4. Texas A&M: Von Miller gives the Aggies perhaps the country's best pass rusher coming off the edge.

5. Missouri: Even without the departed Sean Weatherspoon, the Tigers are solid here.

6. Kansas State: The Wildcats were solid against the run in '09, but Troy Butler is only returning full-time starter at linebacker.

7. Kansas: Drew Dudley aims to build on an 88-tackle output.

8. Oklahoma State: Orie Lemon is back from injury, but everyone else is unproven.

9. Texas Tech: The Red Raiders are counting on Brian Duncan to excel in a switch to the 3-4.

10. Baylor: Despite losing two starters, the Bears could be solid here.

11. Colorado: Former backups have to distinguish themselves as starters.

12. Iowa State: There will be new starters at all three positions.

SECONDARY

1. Texas: Elite CB Aaron Williams and two other starters are back from a top-20 pass defense.

2. Nebraska: CBs Prince Amukamara and Alfonzo Dennard have pro potential. Both safeties will be new starters.

3. Oklahoma: The safeties are strong, especially FS Quinton Carter, but there are two new starters at corner.

4. Texas Tech: The Red Raiders allowed only 12 TD passes last season and three starters return.

5. Colorado: CBs Jimmy Smith and Jalil Brown each were credited with at least 10 pass breakups.

6. Kansas State: Although there are holes in the secondary, FS Tysyn Hartman will contend for postseason honors.

7. Iowa State: SS David Sims and CB Leonard Johnson are trying to build on solid seasons, but a pass rush would help.

8. Missouri: A switch to a 4-2-5 figures to boost the Tigers' pass defense.

9. Baylor: Freshmen Prince Kent and Ahmad Dixon need to make immediate contributions.

10. Kansas: The Jayhawks managed a league-low seven interceptions last season.

11. Oklahoma State: The Cowboys are counting on newcomers to improve a struggling secondary.

12. Texas A&M: The Aggies were last in the Big 12 in pass defense last season.

SPECIAL TEAMS

1. Nebraska: Alex Henery is an elite kicker and punter, and Niles Paul is dangerous on returns.

2. Oklahoma: The kicker is a concern, but punt returner Ryan Broyles and P Tress Way are tremendous.

3. Missouri: K Grant Ressel has great accuracy and the return teams are strong.

4. Oklahoma State: P Quinn Sharp is exceptional and K Dan Bailey is accurate inside 40 yards.

5. Texas: The return teams are dynamic, but the Longhorns have a new kicker.

6. Texas Tech: Eric Stephens set a school record with 823 yards on kickoff returns last season.

7. Kansas State: Kicking and punting are set, and the Wildcats always seem to find a dangerous return man.

8. Baylor: P Derek Epperson is a Ray Guy Award contender.

9. Kansas: K Jacob Bransteter has a strong leg, but he needs to improve his accuracy.

10. Iowa State: The kick coverage is good. Nothing else really is.

11. Colorado: K Aric Goodman is woefully unreliable.

12. Texas A&M: Did you see the Independence Bowl? Yikes.

COACHING STAFFS

1. Oklahoma: Six conference championships under Bob Stoops says it all.

2. Texas: Mack Brown consistently produces 10-win teams, DC Will Muschamp is elite and OC Greg Davis is under-appreciated.

3. Nebraska: In three years, Bo Pelini and Co. have transformed the Huskers from losers to title contenders.

4. Kansas State: Bill Snyder has 142 wins as Kansas State coach. Enough said.

5. Texas Tech: Tommy Tuberville won at Ole Miss and won big at Auburn.

6. Missouri: Gary Pinkel has led Missouri to the most successful five-year stretch in school history.

7. Oklahoma State: Dana Holgorsen on offense and Bill Young on defense form an impressive set of coordinators.

8. Texas A&M: The addition of new DC Tim DeRuyter offers hope.

9. Iowa State: In one year under Paul Rhoads, the Cyclones won a bowl game and beat Nebraska.

10. Baylor: Under Art Briles, the Bears no longer are a pushover.

11. Kansas: Though Turner Gill won a MAC championship at Buffalo, his record still is just 20-30.

12. Colorado: The Buffs have no winning records in four seasons under Dan Hawkins.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.




 

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