I always thought that the Big 12 North would return to relevance, unfortunately none of the teams that contributed to that wore Scarlet and Cream. Missouri, a long-middling program under Gary Pinkel, exploded onto the national stage thanks to Chase Daniel and Jeremy Maclin. Then Kansas went out and won the Orange Bowl, leap-frogging a MU squad they lost to and into the BCS. Colorado showed signs of improvement, even shocking Oklahoma, and Iowa State actually played decent football the last month of the season. Now the North has to prove that last season wasn't a fluke, and they are in good position to do so, as both Missouri and Kansas return a large percentage of their starters and CU brings in the top-rated running back recruit in the country to help out Cody Hawkins. Here's how I see the division (and the conference title game) shaking out.
The offense, with the exception of TE Martin Rucker and RB Tony Temple, returns essentially intact. Chase Daniel is a returning Heisman finalist and a front-runner this year. And why wouldn't he be? He has a bevy of weapons at his disposal, the chief one being Maclin, an all-purpose guy who is a threat to score every time he touches the ball. Also coming back is TE Chase Coffman and receivers Danario Alexander and Tommy Saunders, all reliable targets who work well within the offense. The big question is how they replace Temple, who fit into the MU's spread attack perfectly. They will most likely work several backs in and out, starting with senior Jimmy Jackson and sophomore Derrick Washington. I don't see much stopping this unit, unless there are adverse affects from eating boogers, in which case all bets are off, given Daniels' appetite for snot.
The Mizzou defense suffered a few injuries this spring, something that could hurt them given their lack of depth at linebacker after starter Van Alexander tore his ACL in spring ball. William Moore and Justing Garrett are one of the better safety combinations in the conference, and Ziggy Hood is a pretty good player up front. If the defense holds up and stays healthy, the Tigers could challenge for a national title....that is, if they can get by OU.
Player to Watch: Maclin, a Reggie Bush-type player who is fun to watch as long as it's not against your team. A sure-fire first rounder in the draft if he stays healthy.
Will they be as successful as last year? No, I really don't think so. Their schedule gets significantly tougher, with Oklahoma, Texas Tech and UT replacing Okie State, Baylor, and Texas A&M (and South Florida on the non-conference slate). With Reesing still leading the offense, they should do well, but they still have to find a back to partner with Jake Sharp in the backfield, something that very well could fall to JUCO transfer Jocques Crawford. The defense returns 9 starters last year's strong squad, led by LB Joe Mortensen. They do have a new coordinator in Clint Bowen, and if this unit slips, the blame will fall on him. Replacing stud (except against Maurice Purify) CB Aqib Talib is a priority, but the Jayhawks think they have their guy for that in Kendrick Harper.
Player to Watch: Reesing. There's a lot of pressure to prove that last year wasn't a fluke, and this team's success depends on the right arm of their diminutive QB. If he goes down, it could be a long season in Lawrence.
I'll explain my rationale for this choice on Friday in my season prediction. Yes, I know that we aren't expected to finish this high. But I have faith.
I knew that when the Buffs hired Dan Hawkins that it spelled trouble for the rest of the conference, particularly the Big Red. Kids like his type of football, and their recruiting success as of late has reflected that, landing RB Darrell Scott over every other program in the country was one of the biggest surprises of the recruiting season. He won't start right away, as that job will go to Demetrius Sumler. Cody Hawkins will continue to progress in the offense, though he doesn't have any real game breakers at receiver, something that will definitely hurt his development. Also, depth on the 0-line is a legitimate concern. The offense definitely has some holes to fill, but the defense is in the same boat. Stud LB Jordan Dizon is gone, as is CB Terrence Wheatley. The tackles and safeties are good, but the lack of an outside pass rush is going to really hurt this team, a problem exacerbated by the slew of good quarterbacks in the Big 12 this season. A tough non-conference slate, with both West Virginia and Florida State, will keep CU from getting the hot start they need going into conference play. The Buffs are still a year away from making a move in the Big 12 in my opinion.
Player to watch: Darrell Scott, RB. Could be the starter by mid-season, but he needs his line to develop along with him if he's going to be as productive as the Buffs need him to be. Still, a special talent, which blows, because we gotta deal with this kid for at least the next 3 years.
Josh Freeman returns, but stud WR Jordy Nelson and RB James Johnson are gone. Everyone knows that Prince brought in 20 JUCOs to bolster his team for a run while Freeman is still there, so it's tough to call how it'll play out when a solid chunk of the team is thrown into the Big 12. The switch to a 3-4 last year didn't pay off for the defense, which was a mess by the end of the season (remember that 73 point outburst by NU?). Switching back to a 4-3, along with putting Ian Campbell back at D-end from linebacker, should go a long ways in making improvements. Also, getting CB Joshua Moore back at corner after academic issues last year should be a big help with the pass defense. Really, the success of this team this year depends on how good all those transfers really are.
Player to Watch: Freeman. It's weird to think about what it would be like if he had stayed a Husker, but having him in Purple makes it that much easier to hate the Wildcats.
6) Iowa State
The Chizik era didn't start like many Cyclones had hoped, but hey, at least he did better than Tim Brewster, am I right? All Gopher bashing aside, this team made strides at the end of last season, though it's tough to guage how that will affect this year's team, now that Bret Meyer and Todd Blythe, who both seemed to be 28 last year, are gone. The QB job will be manned by Austen Arnaud and former Husker recruit Phillip Bates, who was a wide receiver. They have a strong running back trio in Alexander Robinson, Jason Scales, and J.J. Bass, but the real question is whether they can find some people to catch the ball, as there is a lack of proven receivers. On defense, they have to replace both outside backers, but their D-line looks decent. Still, the Cyclones have a long way to go.
Player to watch: Arnaud/ Bates. Who wins the QB battle? It seemed like Bret Meyer played in Ames for a decade, but it's a new era for the 'Clones, and one of these two is going to have to step up and lead a very green offensive unit if ISU is going to top last year's win total.