Tuesday, August 26, 2008

2008 College Football Conference Predictions: Big 12

In the past few years, the Big 12 has been in the process of transforming itself onto the college football landscape as the clear #2 football conference in America, behind the mighty SEC. The emergence of Missouri and Kansas in 2007 only cemented that further. This year looks to be another competitive season of Big 12 football, with more of the usual suspects showing up in the BCS race. Oklahoma, Missouri, Texas, Kansas, and Texas Tech are all poised to have very good seasons and with a few breaks here or there, any of them could find themselves representing the Big 12 in a BCS bowl game, either as the conference champion or as an at-large. There really isn't much difference between any of these teams. Oklahoma has National Championship aspirations and a favorable regular season schedule, getting Texas Tech at home and not having to play Missouri. But the Sooners can't avoid the Tigers in the Big 12 Championship, and that is where I expect to see Missouri win the Big 12 Conference. OU beat Missouri by 3 touchdowns in the game last year, but I expect to see Chase Daniel and the Tigers take the Sooners this December.

There is clear separation between the top 5 teams named above, and the next 5 - Nebraska, Texas A&M, Oklahoma State, Kansas State, and Colorado. Iowa State and Baylor should hover around the bottom all season.

One observation: the quarterbacks in this conference are ridiculous. Chase Daniel of Missouri, Graham Harrell of Texas, Sam Bradford of Oklahoma, Colt McCoy of Texas, Zac Robinson of Oklahoma State, Todd Reesing of Kansas and Josh Freeman of Kansas State, are all among the best in the entire nation.

Projections
North Division
1. Missouri Tigers (Projected Regular Season Overall Record: 12-1, Projected Regular Season Conference Record: 8-1)
Key Non-Conference Game: vs Illinois 8/30 (in St. Louis)
Key Conference Game: at Texas 10/18
Key Players: QB Chase Daniel, WR Jeremy Maclin, LB Sean Witherspoon, S William Moore
Daniel and Maclin are the top QB/WR combo in the conference (although Mike Leach probably would disagree), and should put up monster numbers in their 2nd season together. The offense gets all the hype with this team, but the defense may actually be their strength this season. They were one of the top turnover producing groups in the land last year and return 8 starters. The Tigers avoid Oklahoma and Texas Tech in the regular season, and get Kansas at home.

2. Kansas Jayhawks (9-3, 6-2)
Key Non-Conference Game: at South Florida 9/12
Key Conference Game: vs Missouri 11/29 (Kansas City)
Key Players: RB Jake Sharp, QB Todd Reesing, LB Joe Mortensen, LB Mike Rivera
Alot of folks out there are expecting a drop off from the Jayhawks this year. While I certainly don't expect to see them back in a BCS Bowl again, I don't think it is out of the question that they could end up near the top of the Big 12. The defense flew under the radar in 2007 but was one of the best in the country. 9 starters return from that side of the ball. The offense returns 6 players not even counting Sharp, who ran for over 800 yards and 7 touchdowns. The non-conference schedule is light with the exception of the trip to Tampa, but the Big 12 schedule isn't kind at all. A trip to Norman and home visits from Texas Tech and Texas, along with the neutral site meeting with Missouri, will be very tough to get through.

3. Nebraska Cornhuskers (7-5, 4-4)
Key Non-Conference Game: vs Virginia Tech 9/27
Key Conference Game: vs Kansas 11/8
Key Players: RB Marlon Lucky, OG Matt Slauson, S Larry Asante, DE Zach Potter
Expectations have returned again to Lincoln thanks to first year head coach and former LSU defensive coordinator Bo Pelini. Not only will he try to instill a more defensive-minded program than the Husker fans were used to under Bill Callahan, but he'll also be running the ball alot more, much to the delight of the Nebraska-faithful. Lucky is a workhorse back, and should be asked to do a great deal of work this season. Quarterback is somewhat of a question mark, although senior Joe Ganz got significant work last season. The defense will probably struggle at times, but Pelini's aggressive style should work well eventually.

4. Colorado Buffaloes (5-7, 3-5)
Key Non-Conference Game: at Florida State 9/27 (Jacksonville)
Key Conference Game: vs Oklahoma State 11/15
Key Players: RB Darrell Scott, OT Ryan Miller, DT George Hypolite, S Ryan Walters
The upset of Oklahoma last year bought coach Dan Hawkins some mileage, but this year the folks in Boulder will be looking for better results. Unfortunately the Buffs don't have quite the firepower on either side of the ball this year to expect much more than we've seen under Hawkins, at least not this year. Scott is the top recruit of the Hawkins era and should be the starter, if not right away certainly later this season. Hawkins' son Cody is the starter at quarterback, and has been solid if not spectacular. There are issues along the offensive line. Defense returns 8 starters, but gave up a ton of points in some big games last year. The schedule is brutal, with a home date against West Virginia, the trip to FSU, and in-conference trips to Kansas, Missouri, Texas A&M and Nebraska.

5. Kansas State Wildcats (4-8, 1-7)
Key Non-Conference Game: at Louisville 9/17
Key Conference Game: vs Nebraska 11/15
Key Players: QB Josh Freeman, WR/PR Deon Murphy, DE Ian Campbell, PK Brooks Rossman
Some prognosticators see Freeman as a potential 1st round draft pick in 2009. He has terrific size and has put up solid numbers during action as the Wildcats' starting quarterback. He gets a good bit of his offense back this season, although the Cats need to find a go-to running back. Campbell is the only returning starter on the defensive line, and this entire unit was just flat-out bad in the second half of 2007. It is tough to imagine KSU with a winning record in 2008, but Freeman is certainly good enough to surprise me.

6. Iowa State Cyclones (3-9, 1-7)
Key Non-Conference Game: at UNLV 9/20
Key Conference Game: at Baylor 10/11
Key Players: OG Reggie Stephens, DE Kurtis Taylor, CB Allen Bell, S James Smith
The Cyclones were more competitive in 2007 than the 3-9 record would indicate, especially playing in Ames. They lost by 10 to Oklahoma, and actually beat Iowa, Kansas State and Colorado. Unfortunately they were drilled in pretty much every other game they played in the conference. 14 starters return, but this group was generally bad last year and they shouldn't be as lucky at home this year, with Missouri and Kansas coming in town.

South Division
1. Oklahoma Sooners (12-1, 8-1)
Key Non-Conference Game: at Washington 9/13
Key Conference Game: vs Texas 10/11 (Dallas)
Key Players: RB DeMarco Murray, OG Duke Robinson, DT DeMarcus Granger, DE Auston English
There isn't much more you could look for from an offense. The Sooners have a top-flight quarterback, a stud tailback, go-to reciever, stud tight end and return 5 starters on the offensive line. And this is a team that averaged 42 points per game last year. They lost their top 4 tacklers from last year's team, but still return a great deal of talent and should be plenty good. It is hard to find a loss on the regular season schedule, but a matchup with Missouri in the Big 12 Championship might be too hard to overcome.

2. Texas Tech Red Raiders (10-2, 6-2)
Key Non-Conference Game: at Nevada 9/6
Key Conference Game: vs Texas 11/1
Key Players: QB Graham Harrell, WR Michael Crabtree, CB Jamar Wall, DE Jake Ratliff
Mike Leach's best team yet returns 18 starters, including 10 on offense. This team may put up numbers that we've never seen in Division 1 college football. Harrell will make a run at 6,000 yards passing and 50 touchdowns, and Crabtree will shoot for 2,000 yards receiving. Tech has gotten better on defense in recent years, and should continue that trend this year. The 2nd half of the schedule will be very tough, and will be the difference between the typical 2nd tier bowl that we find the Red Raiders in, and a potential BCS bowl.

3. Texas Longhorns (9-3, 5-3)
Key Non-Conference Game: at UTEP 9/6
Key Conference Game: vs Oklahoma 10/11 (Dallas)
Key Players: QB Colt McCoy, OG Cedric Dockery, LB Jared Norton, CB Ryan Palmer
Texas is the "forgotten" team in the Big 12, but I actually believe this group has a great chance to be very good. They have to replace alot of talent, especially on defense, but this program always has talent to burn, and this year is no different. McCoy had a terrible year by his standards in 2007, but should be better this year with 2 good WRs (Jordan Shipley and Quan Cosby) and an experienced offensive line. The defense will bring in a number of new starters but will fill those spots with experience. The schedule is tough but manageable. Expect the Longhorns to challenge once again in the Big 12.

4. Texas A&M Aggies (8-4, 4-4)
Key Non-Conference Game: vs Miami FL 9/20
Key Conference Game: vs Texas Tech 10/18
Key Players: RB Mike Goodson, FB Javorskie Lane, P Justin Brantley, CB Jordan Pugh
Former Green Bay Packers head coach Mike Sherman inherits as good a set of running backs as you'll find in the Big 12, but not much else on offense. QB Stephen McGee struggled through a shoulder injury in 2007, and may struggle through a new offense in 2008. Little production returns at wide receiver, and the offensive line has to replace 4 starters. Things won't be much better on defense for a group that gave up about 400 yards per game in 2007. A pretty favorable schedule should get the Aggies to a pretty good bowl, but this program has a ways to go to get where its fans want to see it.

5. Oklahoma State Cowboys (7-5, 3-5)
Key Non-Conference Game: at Washington State (Seattle)
Key Conference Game: at Colorado 11/15
Key Players: C David Washington, WR Dez Bryant, CB Perrish Cox, LB Andre Sexton
This team was terrible at times last year, pretty good at other times. This year should bring more inconsistency, but head coach Mike Gundy is moving things on the right track. QB Zac Robinson had a great season, rushing for almost 850 yards and throwing for almost 3,000. He gets 4 offensive linemen back, and one of the better tight ends in the conference in Brandon Pettigrew. The defense should be much improved but still is in the lower half of this conference.

6. Baylor Bears (1-11, 0-8)
Key Non-Conference Game: vs Washington State 9/13
Key Conference Game: vs Iowa State 10/11
Key Players: WR David Gettis, OT Jason Smith, LB Joe Pawelek, S Jordan Lake
The Bears have averaged 1 conference win per season in the last 3, and this year could be a struggle to get even that. This team was fairly lousy in all facets last season, and will probably experience more of the same. Their identity last year was as a passing team, and new head coach Art Briles will look to do the same going forward. He'll do so with either last year's starting quarterback in Blake Szymanski, true freshman Robert Griffin, or Miami FL transfer Kirby Freeman. As of today he still hasn't name the starter yet. If they get consistent play from whoever runs the show, they'll likely improve on their 18 points per game. Defense is likely to be the biggest problem, with just 6 starters returning from a group that gave up 37 points a game last season. Wake Forest and Washington State come to Waco, and the Bears travel to Connecticut. The conference slate looks brutal.

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