Last year, despite NU looking like Ed Norton in the prison shower scene from American History X, the Big 12 managed to pull itself from the doldrums and raise it's national image significantly. For the past few years, with the exception of a couple of 11 win seasons by Kansas State and the Husker's 10-win season in 2003, the North division had been pulling down the conference, the starting point being Miami's beatdown of NU in the Rose Bowl to cap of the 2001 season. The South (OK, basically Texas and Oklahoma) made it seem that the scales had permanently shifted away from what had once been dominant KSU and NU squads. However, with the unexpected rise of Kansas and Mizzou (I know, I still have to look at articles from last year to remind myself that it actually happened), the North finally began to establish some parity in the conference and let the nation know that the SEC wasn't the only powerhouse on the block anymore. Today I'm going to look at the South division and predict what the standings will show at the end of the year, along with naming one player to watch for each team. Tomorrow I'll finish up with the North.
A real shocker here. The Sooners, loaded with a bevy of talent at tailback and a proven QB, will do their usual stomping of the Big 12, as they simply reload when they lose key players. DeMarco Murray will deliver on the promise he showed as a freshmen (which sounds dumb to say, considering he scored 15 touchdowns last year), and Sam Bradford has another year in the system. Granted, word is OU will try to implement more no-huddle offense this year, but I don't think that'll affect Bradford's accuracy and decision-making at all. If anything, that'll only give him more plays, which translates to more potential stats. What gives many pause about OU's national title hopes is the defense, where it will be hard to replace playmakers like Reggie Smith and Curtis Lofton (both in the NFL this season). Ryan Reynolds will be a stud at linebacker, but the defensive line looks to be the real strength of the unit. Of course, with Bob Stoops in charge, I'm sure they'll do just fine.
Player to watch: DeMarco Murray. When Stoops said that he has a chance to be BETTER than Adrian Petersen, defensive coordinators league-wide pooped their pants. Better? How the hell is that possible? Also look for frosh Jermie Calhoun, an especially talented recruit who has been getting a lot of buzz through fall camp.
2) Texas Tech
This is THE year for Tech football, at least if you believe everything you read. They have the best system QB in the history of Tech system QBs, and a jaw-dropping collection of receivers led by Biletnikoff winner Michael Crabtree, who is simply put, a f***ing freak. You know what, he's so good, I'm just going to retype that sentence without censorship. He's a fucking freak. But it's never been a shortage of offense that has held back the perennial 7/8/9-win Raiders. The Tech defense, long the blame of Tech's shortcomings during Mike Leach's tenure, returns 8 starters, and the buzz is that this is the year they make a run at the South division title. It's not that I think they can't handle OU, they proved that the Sooners are vulnerable last year (as did CU, obviously). The question is, can TT get up for the games that it's SUPPOSED to win? I could see someone catching them sleeping in conference play, and that's what will prevent them from getting over the hump.
Player to watch: Michael Crabtree. Playstation stats, only it's actually happening.
We all know about Colt McCoy's struggles last year (shocking, since he's such a gunslinger), but what really gives me pause about UT is their defense. The burnt orange was burnt last year to the tune of nearly 24 points per game, and the bad news is that they only return 4 starters on that side of the ball. Also, they have to replace stud Jamaal Charles, no easy task. UT had a good run there for a while, but I think this year they'll really struggle and settle in the 8-win range.
Player to watch: McCoy. How he rebounds from a sophomore slump will determine how far the Longhorns go this year.
4) Oklahoma State
Zac Robinson returns to quarterback what was the #7 offense in the country, but unfortunately for him, there are some holes to fill if that kind of success is going to continue. RB Dantrell Savage and WR Adarius Bowman are both gone, as is O-coordinator Larry Fedora. The Cowboys have to hope that sophomore WR Dez Bryant can build on his big bowl game (117 yards, 2 TDs) and replace Bowman. Robinson gives them a chance to compete in every game, as he was one of two (Tim Tebow being the other) QBs to run for over 800 yards and pass for over 2,800. While OSU may talk up it's defense, it's going to be hard to just replace half of it with JUCO players, which is apparently a big part of the plan. Three starters must be replaced on the line, two more in the linebacking corps. If this D is going to gel and keep them competitive, it'll be on the secondary, which returns intact. And don't forget, Mike Gundy is a man. And he's 41. So if they suck, make sure to go after him.
Player to watch: It may seem lame to keep stating the obvious players (and believe me, I tried to find more compelling choices), but anytime a QB puts up the numbers Robinson did, you have to take notice. The question is, can he do it with a new group of skill players?
Poor Bears. The team parity seems to have forgotten, Baylor once again faces a daunting league schedule with little hope for a bowl berth (OK, no hope). There is reason for some optimism though. 17 starters return, 9 of them from an offense that gained over 350 yards a game. That might not be a good indicator of things to come, however, as new coach Art Briles brings a new system to Waco. They have to find a new tailback now that Brandon Whitaker graduated and took his.......40 rushing yards per game? with him......you have to wonder if having someone else carry the rock will make a difference or not. The defense might be improved. I know, that's a really strong endorsement. They return their two top tacklers from last year in safety Jordan Lake and LB Joe Pawelek, though it might not matter, because they have a new d-coordinator who is switching them from a 4-2-5 to a standard 4-3.........anyways, I'm not sure why I'm working so hard on the Baylor entry......they've got some speed, but that can't do it all for them.
Player to watch: Whichever QB emerges from a 3 man battle to lead the Bad News Bears. Kirby Freeman, a former Miami player, should come out on top.
6) Texas A&M
Sure, Stephen McGee and Fat Alber.....um, Javorskie Lane return, but that might not matter as the Aggies transition to a pro-style offense under Mike Sherman. And to make it worse, those two make up 1/5th of their returning starters.....that's right, only 10 of them return to College Station, making the rebuilding all that more of a daunting task. Their best returning receiver, Pierre Brown, caught only 19 balls last year.......Looking at their schedule, not one game can be inked in as a win right now. The state of this team makes last year's manhandling of NU (which I saw in person) all the harder to stomach. But at least under Sherman the Aggies won't go for two when they're up 3 touchdowns......of course, they might not ever be up by 3 touchdowns this season, so that may be a moot point.
Player to watch: Lane, if only because I'm wondering if he'll fit in his jersey this season.
Back tomorrow for the North preview.