It will be a three team race to determine this year's sacrificial lamb for the Big 12 Championship game in Arlington. Assuming nothing of significance occurs on the injury front or that Cody Hawkins doesn't grow three inches from hanging on monkey bars, the contenders and non-contenders break out pretty cleanly and, affirming my South-o-centric view, each North contender's Big 12 South draw will be the primary determinant of who gets to receive blunt head trauma from Oklahoma or Texas in early December, 2009. Join us as we travel to the land of diminutive QBs and second tier Texas high school talent...
First, the non-contenders:
Missouri faces a clear rebuilding year: no Maclin, no Coffman, no Daniel, and the loss of three NFL draft picks (Hood, Sulak, Moore) off of a defense that never played that well together to begin with. Daniel is a guy that Missouri will miss less than the media believes, but Blaine Gabbert will experience some first year growing pains without any tools at WR/TE. This is a tough year to break in a new secondary, a new DL, and a new QB and though Missouri is becoming a nice program, it's not one that reloads. Hard to find more than three Big 12 wins here.
Iowa State is still Iowa State and though losing Gene Chizik will prove to be a blessing, the cupboard is bare. Though they do draw the more favorable South slate (A&M, Baylor, OSU) they'd be fortunate to win two Big 12 games.
Kansas State ended the Ron Prince sideshow, brought back the great, emotionally constipated Bill Snyder, and even has Phil Steele's heart aflutter -he's predicting a third place finish and a bowl game. I'm not sure I'm seeing that. Defensively, DE Brandon Harold and CB Joshua Moore are two of the best players you've never heard of and WR Brandon Banks is a dangerous micro-flanker but they haven't played defense in two years and have a lot of uncertainty at QB. From a macro standpoint, KSU has also been badly hurt by the recruiting success of OSU, KU, Utah, Arkansas, and TCU in locking up under-the-radar Texas talent, signing various academic buffoons, and hitting the JUCOS.
Of the three pretenders, KSU has the best chance of inflicting a loss on the CU, KU, NU triad.
The pretenders cast aside like a child standing before Mark Mangino at a pizza buffet, let's talk about the contenders. The winner of the Big 12 North will almost assuredly sport a 5-3 conference record and rely on a tie-breaker to advance. Nor do I discount the possibility of a three way tie at 4-4 atop the North standings. As with any analysis of parity, the race will be described throughout the year as "spirited" and "competitive."
Of the three, Kansas is the best team on a neutral field. But this year schedule is destiny. Reesing is a very good college QB with arguably the best WR corps in the league: Briscoe, Meier, Wilson. All three are 6-3 and between 190-220 with flypaper hands and the word mismatch emblazoned in paranthesis on their jerseys. The entire secondary returns and they get back 3 of their 4 DL, including Jake Laptad. S Darrell Stuckey is fantastic. The losses at LB hurt and I don't like that they lost DC Bill Young, but the Jayhawks should play better D than last year.
However, their schedule is almost prohibitive (brutal Big 12 South draw: @ Texas Tech, Oklahoma, @ Texas) and if one pencils in a 1-2 or 0-3 vs. South result there, they must have head-to-head wins over CU and NU to assure themselves of a favorable tie-breaker status. Their non-con with Southern Mississippi will be interesting.
Colorado is the worst team of the three contenders, but they have a better South schedule draw than Kansas (Texas, Oklahoma St, A&M) and crucially get both Nebraska and Kansas at home. If they can hold serve against the scrubs, and win only two of five games against the South/Nebraska/Kansas, they will sport a 5-3 conference record and...potentially claim the right to lose by 35 in Dallas via some algorithm of Byzantine tie-breakers.
Offensively, Colorado finally has some seasoning on their young OL talent and when you consider their stable of backs, this is an offense that can be productive with Cody Hawkins at QB in the play action game. They've got just enough at WR and TE to keep fronts honest.
Defensively, they did lose quite a bit but I lo've CB Cha'pelle Brown.
Colorado is not without talent - the question is whether Hawkins can get it together. We're talking about a team that lost last year to Texas A&M for God's sake.
Give the Huskers Joe Ganz back at QB and I'd make them the favorites to win the North as Nebraska has a reasonable Big 12 South schedule (OU, @ BU, Tech) but their North schedule is tricky - they face Colorado and Kansas on the road. This just isn't that easy is it?
I love Nebraska's OL from C to LT (Hickman, Williams, Smith) and they have some quality RBs, but QB Zac Lee is a complete question mark and I have no regard for their WRs. This team will live and die with its defense and they've got the talent in the DL (Suh - monster, DE Allen, DE Turner) and experience in the secondary (return 7 players with 55 combined starts) to get it done. Pelini can't be very happy to have coached a defense that gave up 28+ per game in '08 and if he can get those digits to 2006 numbers (18.3 per game), Nebraska is your Big 12 North Champion.
In summary, we have the best team - Kansas - with the most brutal schedule, the most favorable schedule paired with the least reliable team - Colorado, and Nebraska counting on winning the North with the division's best defense paired with arguably its worst offense in a league known for scoring more than Antonio Banderas at a Puerto Rican prom.
What are your thoughts?