The final week of the offseason is here. Starting next week we'll be immersed in game preparations across the college football landscape. In fact, Kansas State is already getting ready to hammer California this weekend in the season's opening "classic."
Our long, national nightmare is over. There is light at the end of the tunnel. Hope has been kept alive.
Football season is back.
As the Cyclones get ready to name their new starting quarterback, Nebraska gets ready to see if its found the cure for what ailed it last season, Texas gets ready to promise victory over Oklahoma again, and the media gets its panties all in a bunch about Missouri, it's time for this humble scribe to embarrass himself yet again with his 2003 Big 12 Conference predictions.
Ascending—Oklahoma State and Texas A&M
The Cowboys are in the midst of a Reagan-era military buildup inside their football program, and are handing out contract extensions like their placebos. Massive facility upgrades are continuing in Stillwater, plus a new deal for Coach Les Miles. Heck, even two of OSU's assistants make $250,000 a year and every full-time member of the coaching staff works with a three-year contract. So far that's money well spent with the school coming off its first bowl win since Barry Sanders was running wild and a second straight vanquishing of the hated Sooners. With Rashaun Woods, Tatum Bell, and Josh Fields returning the Cowboys' have the Big 12's version of the triplets.
Meanwhile, the Aggies have hired college football's favorite coaching mercenary in Dennis Franchione. With the top of the line facilities already in place in College Station, plus the bevy of top-shelf in-state high school talent to recruit, it's hard to imagine one of the game's top cerebral taskmasters won't be immensely successful. This season he's got a quarterback quandary to settle with record-setting Dustin Long returning along with Reggie McNeal, who has scary potential and flashed it in the upset of #1 Oklahoma last season. Chances are Franchione will play both because he's no stranger to quarterback platoons.
The Buffaloes enter 2003 with the fewest returning starters in the league and without a quarterback on their roster that has ever taken a snap in a Division I-A game, and the players vying for the position weren't exactly recruiting gems. However, given Colorado's penchant for running the ball down an opponent's throat that may not be an issue. But that could be a question mark as well. The talent in the backfield is still solid with Bobby Purify and Brian Calhoun, but they'll run behind an offensive line returning just one starter. The schedule is treacherous with nine games against teams that went bowling in 2002, including away games with Colorado State, Florida State, Kansas State, and Iowa State. Lead pipe lock: Colorado will not win a third straight Big 12 North Division title.
Coach on the hot seat—Frank Solich, Nebraska
The Big Red snapped several streaks last season, and that has the Husker Nation seeing red. To wit, traditions like 348 straight weeks of being ranked in the AP poll top 25, 33 consecutive season with at least nine wins, 26-game home winning streak, 40 consecutive winning seasons all went by the wayside during 2002's 7-7 debacle. In fact, Nebraska is now working on another streak with seven straight losses to ranked foes. With a new athletic director in place and the natives restless, Solich better hope his upheaval of the coaching staff produces at least eight wins otherwise he'll be working on a resume.
The bottom line is that if Seneca Wallace was back at quarterback for the Cyclones they wouldn't be pegged for fifth in the Big 12 North Division by the preseason pundits. There is experience and depth just about everywhere else on the ISU roster, except where it counts most and that's why the Cyclones aren't getting any respect…again.
Most underrated player—Lance Mitchell, Oklahoma
Fellow linebacker Teddy Lehman – an outstanding player in his own right – gets all the publicity, but it's Mitchell who's the glue in the middle of that outstanding Sooner defense. After a slow start, he emerged as the Big 12 Newcomer of the Year with 124 tackles, 19 tackles-for-losses, and six pass breakups. Lehman may get the headlines again this season, but Mitchell's reward will arrive next April at the NFL draft.
Most overrated player—Tommie Harris, Oklahoma
There's no question that Harris is a physical specimen, and that he did play with nagging injuries last season after a stellar freshman campaign. However, every preseason magazine has anointed Harris an All-American and Outland Trophy favorite after posting just 25 tackles and one sack in 2002.
Best coaching staff—Oklahoma
They broke in as a brash, enthusiastic coaching staff promising a new direction in Norman with a spread passing attack and aggressive, blitzing defense back in 1999. Four years later they've won two Big 12 titles, a national championship, and last season a staff of Big Ten alumni even won a Rose Bowl. With the recruiting gains they've made the last three years don't expect Bob Stoops and Company to drop off anytime soon.
Redshirts to keep an eye on
Obviously, ISU's Flynn is one to watch since he's got a solid shot of winning the starting quarterback job and will be flanked by plenty of talent and experience at the skill positions. Fellow redshirt Stevie Hicks is set to take over the starting tailback job after the demotion of senior Hiawatha Rutland for disciplinary reasons. Colorado could also go with a redshirt freshman at quarterback in James Cox. Texas may eventually turn to highly touted Vincent Young at quarterback if Chance Mock doesn't work out. Another name to remember is running back Courtney Lewis at Texas A&M, who starred during spring practice. Defensively, they're very excited at Missouri about wide receiver-turned-safety Dedrick Harrington, who is a 225-pounder with great speed.
Offensive newcomer of the year—Stevie Hicks, Iowa State
The demotion of Rutland, who was coming off an excellent spring, probably just delayed the inevitable anyway. The backfield baton has been passed to Nebraska native Hicks, who generated a lot of buzz while redshirting last season. Behind what's expected to be an improved offensive line, look for Hicks to make headlines on gamedays this fall.
Defensive newcomers of the year—Xavier Lawson-Kennedy, Oklahoma State
Donte Nicholson, Oklahoma
Lawson-Kennedy – a true freshman – is a 305-pound behemoth with a 400-pound bench press that the OSU coaches hope will fill the void on the defensive line left by NFL first round pick Kevin Williams.
Nicholson, a junior college transfer, is already drawing comparisons to Roy Williams in Norman and should combine with returning standout Brandon Everage to give the Sooners the top safety combo in college football.
Offensive player of the year—Roy Williams, Texas
The single most physically gifted athlete in the Big 12 is 100 percent healthy this season and passed up NFL riches for a big senior year. That will include not only Big 12 and All-American honors but the Heisman Trophy as well.
Defensive player of the year—Derrick Johnson, Texas
Oklahoma has so many standouts they sort of cancel each other out. So we'll go with Johnson, who was the Big 12 defensive newcomer of the year in 2001 and followed that up with 120 tackles, 13 tackles-for-losses, and 10 pass breakups as a sophomore in 2002.
Coach of the year—Dan McCarney, Iowa State
Mac will defy the odds-makers and Cyclone player-haters yet again by leading ISU to a fourth straight bowl bid and sixth straight win over Iowa.
Game of the year—Oklahoma vs. Texas, Oct. 11th.
This isn't just the conference game of the year, but the biggest game on the nation's itinerary as well. Will Mack Brown soil himself before the game again this year? Can Texas cut it down to three interceptions now that Chris Simms is in the NFL? Will Oklahoma need an offensive touchdown to win? Call it a hunch, but all kidding aside this is the year the Longhorns break through.
Upset of the year—Nebraska over Kansas State, Nov. 15th
The Wildcats are the class of the Big 12 North and will win the division title. However, they just don't win in Lincoln under any circumstances. Their national title hopes are dashed and Frank Solich gets a one-year reprieve.
Predicted Order of Finish
North Division South Division
1. Kansas State 1. Texas
2. Nebraska 2. Oklahoma
3. Iowa State 3. Oklahoma State
4. Missouri 4. Texas A&M
5. Colorado 5. Texas Tech
6. Kansas 6. Baylor
Texas beats Kansas State in Big 12 Championship game.
BCS bound—Texas & Oklahoma.
Bowl bound—Kansas State, Oklahoma State, Nebraska, Texas A&M, and Iowa State.
On the bubble—Missouri & Texas Tech.
Next week we'll conclude our preview series by playing 20 questions with the 2003 Iowa State football team.
(Steve Deace can be heard on the radio in Central Iowa each weekday from 4-7 p.m. on 1460 KXNO, the flagship of the Cyclone Radio Network)