Like taxes and death, it feels like Big 12 North bashing is one of the certainties in life. It's hard to think of more oft-maligned group of teams, mainly because even when the division isn't that bad, the South is so good that it makes the North look like terrible in comparison. The thing is, it really is warranted, particularly if you look at the conference in this decade. Sure, there was Colorado's defeat of Texas in 2001 and K-State's upset of OU in 2003, but those aren't the games the nation remembers. They think of the fact that the South has won the Big XII title game 5 years in a row, and by a combined score of 233-51 at that (thanks in large part to Colorado's 42-3 and 70-3 losses in 2004 and 2005).
When you put up stinkbombs of Hindenburg-ian proportions, people are going to be skeptical any time you claim that the North is rebounding. The thing is, I really do think that the next two seasons will go a long way in rehabilitating the division's image. Kansas and Mizzou have put together a couple of good years now, and Nebraska's continued improvement may finally balance out the conference to a certain extent. Today I'm going to look at the other five Big 12 North teams and make my predictions for their respective 2009 campaigns.
What sets the Jayhawks apart from the other main contenders for the North crown (Nebraska, Mizzou) is that they have an established and proven trigger man coming back in Todd Reesing, who by the end of his career (barring injury), will own every passing record that KU has. 20-6 as a starter, including two bowl victories (albeit one of them was over Minnesota, so nothing special there), Reesing will have a bevy of weapons to pick from this year.
He returns one of the best receivers in the country in Dezmon Briscoe, who put up a jaw-dropping season last year when he hauled in 92 catches for just over 1,400 yards and 15 touchdowns. In addition to Briscoe, Kerry Meier, the former backup QB who turned into a more-than-serviceable receiver, is back and now can focus solely on honing his ball-catching skills. To top it off, Jonathan Wilson (43 catches) and Jake Sharp (860 yards rushing/12 TD's) return as well. So barring Briscoe getting suspended or Reesing getting injured, this offense has the potential to be pretty powerful.
The KU defense, like much of the Big 12, is adapting to deal with the proliferation of the spread offense. Formerly a predominately 4-3 defense, most of the time you'll only see two linebackers on the field with an additional safety subbed in to deal with all the receivers. The secondary and defensive line returns a great deal of depth, led by safety Darrell Stuckey in the back and Caleb Blakesley at defensive tackle. The only downside for the Jayhawks is that they lost all three of their starting linebackers, including leading tackler James Holt.
Despite having 18 starters back, expectations are likely being tempered by a schedule that is downright brutal in the second half of the season. KU could very well start 6-0, but then has to face OU, Texas Tech, Nebraska, Texas, and Missouri in 5 of the last 6 games, and that's not counting if they make it to the Big 12 title game. Maybe I've been drinking too much Husker Kool-Aid, but I see the Jayhawks finishing 9-3 with losses to Oklahoma, the Huskers, and Texas.
While Mizzou's ascension the past few years has been difficult for me (and all Husker fans) to deal with, the one upside is that now there is a palpable hatred between these teams, something that was absent before due to NU's one-sided dominance. Now that Mizzou has had their day in the sun (22 wins the over the past 2 years), the question is, can they maintain it? Losing Chase Daniel, Jeremy Maclin, and Chase Coffman will test this team, even if it does have talented players to step in. Blaine Gabbert, the much-ballyhooed former Husker commit, will take the reins of the offense this year, and it will be interesting to see how he'll respond. He certainly has all the physical tools, but high school accolades don't always mean assured stardom in the college ranks.
Losing the top 2 receiving threats is painful, but capable players remain in the form of WRs Brandon Gerau (who stepped up in spring practice), Jared Perry, and Danario Alexander. Notice, I said capable. There's a big difference between capable and electric, which is what Maclin was. The good thing for the Tigers is that they return RB Derrick Washington, who established himself as one of the best all-around backs in the conference last year (17 TD's).
While the offense may still be serviceable, the defense is, shall we say, um....screwed. Only 3 teams in all of Division I (and yes, I still call it that, I'm not going to cave just because the I-AA had it's panties in a bunch) had worse pass defenses than Mizzou, and that doesn't bode well in the most pass-happy league in the country. To top it off, not only was the secondary horrible, it lost 3 starters...which, if you think about it, might not be a bad thing. I mean, it's not like there can be that much of a drop off, right?
The defensive line only returns one starter (NT Jaron Baston), but at least the linebacking corps is solid, anchored by Butkus candidate Sean Witherspoon, who has 1st-round talent. Unfortunately, one defensive stalwart can't save a defense that laid a season-long B.M. last year. Sadly, I can't really say much because they mopped the floor with Nebraska. In Lincoln.
That said, this year doesn't look promising. They are looking at a potential 3-4 start due to their season opener against Illinois and then playing NU, Okie State, and Texas in consecutive weeks, and it could be even worse than that considering they have to play OK teams Nevada and Bowling Green in their non-conference slate. Due to what should be a porous defense, I'm predicting a 6-6 record, not counting whatever garbage bowl game they make.
"Ten wins and no excuses." That's the gauntlet that coach Dan Hawkins laid down at the awards banquet after last year's 5-7 season, which ended in spectacular fashion with Cody Hawkins on the turf courtesy of one Ndamukong Suh. Few things are better than keeping the Buffs out of a bowl game, especially since I watched them do it to us twice during the Callahan era. Anyways, with that warm memory out of the way, back to this year. Colorado fans are getting restless, as Hawkins' team has yet to finish above .500 in any of his three seasons at the helm. Those aren't the kind of results fans or pundits expected when Hawkins arrived from Boise State, and if he wants to stay off the hot seat he'll have to at least get back to a bowl this year.
One thing I will say for the Buffs is that they were decimated by injuries last year, as the final two-deep featured 27 sophomores and freshmen. Then again, this is FOOTBALL! IT'S THE BIG 12! And as such, those excuses ring hollow. If CU is going to turn it around, they have to get more consistent play from the QB position. Hawkins has some competition from Tyler Hansen for the starting QB job, though Hansen's spring practice injury set him back a few weeks.
In addition to the play of the quarterbacks, the Buffs also need former #1 overall recruit Darrell Scott to live up to the hype and have a big year running the ball, it's the only way they are going to take some pressure off of Hawkins/Hansen. Scott had a huge spring game, and also has Rodney Stewart to help him carry the rock, so the running game should be much-improved. In addition to a solid running back tandem, the Buffaloes also have a dangerous weapon in Josh Smith, who racked up nearly 2,000 all-purpose yards last year playing WR and returning kicks.
While the defense lost a couple of key players, they return a solid back seven, including standout linebackers in Jeff Smart and Shaun Mohler, as well as (according to Colorado promoters, anyways) Thorpe award candidate Cha'pelle Brown at corner. Looking at the schedule though, I don't see the 10 wins that Hawkins promised. I think they will finish 6-6, though I have a gut feeling that even that may be a stretch. It all depends on the QB position developing, because without that, a promising running game won't have a chance and this team will be too predictable for opposing defenses.
KANSAS STATE WILDCATS
20 years ago, Kansas State was awful, a running joke in college football. Then a guy named Bill Snyder was hired to coach the Wildcats. We all know the rest of the details about the Manhattan Miracle. The question is, can lightning strike twice? The game has changed a lot since then, and it'll be interesting to see if Snyder can even get K-State back to respectability, let alone to the level they were at in the mid-to-late 90's. The team is largely devoid of high-end talent, thanks in large part to Ron Prince's habit of assembling JUCO-only recruiting classes, and compounding the problem is that the offensive tackle who was playing QB last year is gone. Yeah, I just busted out a Josh Freeman-is-fat joke. I mean, c'mon, it's almost too easy.
Taking Freeman's place is Carson Coffman, who actually was a pretty good player in high school. The younger brother of former Missouri TE Chase, Coffman steps in behind a thin offensive line and has few weapons to distribute the ball to. The best he has is most likely WR Brandon Banks, a diminutive-but-speedy player who averaged over 15 yards a catch last year in addition to being the primary kick returner. Also look for TE Jeron Mastrud to have a decent year, considering Coffman will probably be looking to get rid of the ball in a hurry.
The defense has a few decent players, among them DE Brandon Harold (10.5 sacks as a true frosh last year) and CB Joshua Moore, who was among the leaders in pass breakups in the Big 12 last year. Unfortunately for Snyder, the schedule is devoid of the non-conference patsies he enjoyed pounding during his first go-round. Surely in the coming years we'll see St. Mary's School for the Blind and a few D-II teams, but this season they have UCLA to deal with. While my gut is telling me that the Wildcats are in for a 4-8 season, I'll predict they match last year's 5-7 season. What will be more telling than the record, however, is to see if this team starts to right the ship under Snyder after Prince's reign came to an ugly end.
IOWA STATE CYCLONES
For those of you outside of Ames wondering what that awful stench is, that would be your football team. ISU, who in the past three years has gone a combined 9-27 (topped off by a 2-10 mark last year), once again have a new coach after Gene Chizik got the hell out of Dodge and headed to greener pastures at Auburn. Enter former Auburn defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads, an Ankeny native and former ISU assistant coach. While that may sound sweet and nostalgic, that doesn't matter when your playing in the best football conference in the country (and yes, that's what the Big 12 was last year).
Just how far has Iowa State fallen? An unidentified Big 12 South player, being polled on the best and worst mascots in the conference at this year's media day, gave this answer for worst mascot: "The worst mascot is the Iowa State Tornadoes, or whatever they're called." Any time that an opposing player doesn't even know what you're called, that's a bad sign.
While he has an uphill battle, Rhoads is a very good coach who directed some great defensive units at Pitt before going to Auburn for last season. He's going to need it too, considering the Cyclones gave up 42 points per game in conference play last season. The secondary has a lot of experience, though I'm not really sure if that matters or not. Returning starters, in my opinion, can be a misleading factor, because sometimes those starters weren't that good to begin with. Safety James Smith is a decent presence at safety, and Jesse Smith (no relation) has been a consistent presence at linebacker, though he's no game-changer.
The offense, led by the capable Austen Arnaud, will be switching to the spread this year, and he'll be joined in the backfield by Florida transfer Bo Williams at running back. 8 other starters return on offense with Arnaud, and Rhoads brought in highly-regarded offensive coordinator Tom Herman from Rice. The thing is, as much as I've ripped on ISU here, they played well at times last year. They were up 20 on Kansas at halftime last year before collapsing, and they lost to UNLV in overtime. In addition to those games, they played a few other teams really tough. But playing teams tough doesn't keep coaches employed, winning does. A soft schedule could get them off to a 3-1 start in non-conference play, but after that they have their work cut out for them. I'm going to predict that they'll steal at least one game they shouldn't and finish with a 5-7 record.