Monday Musings

In his final bi-weekly column of 2004, our publisher presents part two of his college football season preview. This time the focus is squarely on the Big 12 Conference. Please note that starting August 3rd, this again becomes a weekly feature through the end of next basketball season.

With the season almost upon us, it's time to play 20 questions. Consider this everything you ever wanted to know about the state of Big 12 football in the year 2004, but were afraid to ask.

1. Is Bill Callahan the right man to usher in a new era of Nebraska football?

In the short-term he'll do just fine, thanks to a solid defense the previous regime left behind following a 10-3 swan song. Despite the disjointed, 40-day coaching search that followed the controversial firing of Frank Solich, Callahan is highly regarded in coaching circles. That includes our very own Dan McCarney, whom he served with as an assistant at Wisconsin. However, his leadership abilities have to be questioned given the way his stint ended with the Oakland Raiders of the NFL. After leading the team to a Super Bowl as a rookie head coach, things fell completely apart in year two, which led to his dismissal. In the long run, he'll likely struggle to make the transition to a contemporary, pro-style offense.

2. Which Big 12 head coach is most likely to be replaced after this season?

Colorado coach Gary Barnett barely survived the seedy recruiting scandal that engulfed his campus throughout the offseason. In fact, Barnett sat out spring practice while being forced to take a paid leave of absence while the matter was being investigated. While nobody indicated Barnett had direct knowledge of the circumstances, his rather insensitive comments about one of the alleged rape victims almost did him in. It's never a good time to have an embarrassment of this magnitude, but it's especially poor form coming off a 5-7 season. A repeat performance could bring down the hammer in Boulder.

3. Will Oklahoma's Jason White become only the second player in NCAA football history to win two Heisman Trophies?

White is the first returning Heisman Trophy winner since Ty Detmer in 1991. He had a stellar statistical season in 2003, leading the conference in passing efficiency while compiling a sparkling 40-to-10 touchdown-to-interception ratio. However, his struggles against Kansas State and LSU during the postseason exposed this once versatile athlete cut down by two severe knee injuries as a product of the system. Not that there's anything wrong with that, considering the Sooners' system and talent, but when you're unable to put your team on its back when it counts most, you're unlikely to join Archie Griffin's elite company.

4. Which Big 12 assistant coach will be the hottest head coaching candidate next offseason?

The chic pick is Oklahoma offensive coordinator Chuck Long, who finished the closest runner-up in Heisman history while being named a consensus All-American at the University of Iowa in 1985. Long had shared the coordinator duties with Mark Mangino, before the round mound of coaching rebound left for Kansas. He took over the play-calling duties in 2003 and the offense – which was a question mark given a gimpy-kneed quarterback and the loss of stud tailback Quentin Griffin – exploded to average 42.9 points per game, just missing the school record set in 1956. Another name to keep an eye on is Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Mike Gundy, who gets to tutor a true freshman quarterback this fall.

5. Which Big 12 player has the biggest shoes to fill?

Kansas State quarterback Ell Roberson was a weapon for the past two seasons, and was probably the best multi-purpose signal-caller in the nation not named Brad Smith. Bill Snyder and his offensive scheme are demanding, so new K-State quarterback Dylan Meier certainly has his work cut out for him; particularly after a less than stellar performance during spring football. First year starters usually struggle in Snyder's system, Roberson himself completed just 37 percent of his passes in 2001. Of course, if all goes wrong, Meier could always just hand the ball to Darren Sproles.

6. Who is the most overrated player in the Big 12?

Texas A&M quarterback Reggie McNeal arrived in College Station with lots of recruiting hype, and delivered the school's only victory ever over a No. 1-ranked squad by beating Oklahoma as a freshman. However, since then his career can best be described as unrealized potential. He certainly passes the eye test, but was outplayed by Dustin Long the past two years. Now Long has transferred, so it's up to McNeal to emerge.

7. Who is the most underrated player in the Big 12?

Throughout last season's 2-10 sleepwalk, there was one Iowa State upperclassmen that brought his A-game week in, week out, regardless of the score. That player was cornerback Ellis Hobbs. One of the fastest defensive backs in the league, Hobbs makes up for his small stature with aggressive play and great hops. He's also a team leader. There wasn't a more courageous, open-field play last season than the one Hobbs made against Iowa's Fred Russell, going through the mammoth Robert Gallery on his way there.

8. Who will be the comeback player of the year in the Big 12?

Oklahoma's Lance Mitchell was a preseason All-American in 2003, but his season ended in an early season blowout of Fresno State due to a torn ACL. With Butkus and Bednarik Award winner Teddy Lehman now off to the NFL, Mitchell's injury could be a blessing disguise because he likely would also be preparing to play on Sundays instead of for the Sooners had he stayed healthy.

9. Who will be the first Big 12 player selected in the 2005 NFL draft?

Texas linebacker Derrick Johnson has Lawrence Taylor-like athleticism and speed, and may have been a top-10 pick this year had he turned pro. If he duplicates the 20 tackles-for-loss he posted as a junior, his could be the first name called next April.

10. Which Big 12 newcomers will have the biggest impact on offense and defense?

Coming off its first New Year's Day bowl game in 58 years, Oklahoma State is down to its third quarterback option. The best-case scenario would've been senior Josh Fields bypassing baseball, instead he bypassed the Cowboys. That left freshmen Bobby Reid and Donovan Woods to battle for the position. But an injury to Reid passes the mantle to Woods, younger brother of former standout receiver Rashaun Woods, who redshirted a year ago. Defensively, junior college cornerback Chijioke Onyenegecha is expected to step right in for departed All-American Derrick Strait at Oklahoma. He combines blazing speed with a 6-foot, 3-inch frame.

11. Which two players will be named Big 12 Player of the Year on their respective side of the ball?

The aforementioned Derrick Johnson is a good bet on defense, especially with the addition of Greg Robinson as his new coordinator. The Chiefs ran Robinson out of Kansas City, but he also coordinated two defenses that won Super Bowls while in Denver. As a fourth-year junior, Missouri's Brad Smith should be ready to take the next step and become a great quarterback who is an athlete as opposed to a great athlete playing quarterback.

  1. Is this finally the year that Texas defeats Oklahoma?

Here's one of the best stats of the preseason: the past four years Texas is 42-6 against the rest of college football, but 0-4 against the Sooners with an average margin of defeat of 28.5 points per game. The Longhorns have had the talent to compete in the Red River Shootout, they've just lacked the fortitude. The prospects are dim for this season, too, since the burnt orange seems unwilling to settle on one quarterback—again. If super nice guy Mack Brown fails to make the BCS again, don't be surprised if somebody in Austin makes a long-distance phone call to Steve Spurrier.

13. What is the biggest Big 12 game not involving Texas and Oklahoma?

Kansas State may be the defending conference champ and the media's preseason favorite to repeat in the North Division, but look for Missouri's October 30th visit to Nebraska to determine who goes to Kansas City. The Huskers will try to avenge their first loss to Mizzou since 1978. That was also the last time the Tigers won in Lincoln. From 1968-78, Missouri was 4-2 at Memorial Stadium. Since then they're 0-13 with an average margin of defeat of 27.6 points per loss. Brad Smith lit up the Black Shirts last season. If he can do it again, he'll likely lift his team to unprecedented heights.

14. Which Big 12 program is on the rise?

No question the answer is Missouri, which is coming off just its second eight-win season since 1981. For a generation, folks like Beano Cook wondered aloud why a program with a strong, in-state talent base to recruit from, no Missouri State to compete with, and a past tradition of winning struggled to compete on a year-to-year basis. Under Gary Pinkel, it appears the Tigers are poised to finally return to a status they haven't enjoyed since Dan Devine and Warren Powers were patrolling the sidelines.

15. Which Big 12 program is on the decline?

Staying in the Big 12 North Division, it appears the University of Colorado has peaked for the time being as a perennial powerhouse. Under Bill McCartney, the Buffaloes competed for national titles, including a co-national championship in 1990. Rick Neuheisel sustained that success when McCartney retired, before Gary Barnett returned to Boulder to take over. Barnett led Colorado to consecutive Big 12 title games, including winning the 2001 league championship. He followed that up with a losing campaign in 2003, and the much-publicized recruiting sex scandal that resulted in numerous player transfers. Given the tumultuous offseason, and an unforgiving schedule that includes eight bowl teams from a year ago, it appears a quick turnaround is unlikely.

16. Who will win the Big 12 North Division?

Several preseason publications predict this is the year Missouri takes the next step. Those that disagree believe K-State will overcome abundant personnel losses to ride Darren Sproles back to Kansas City. It appears the team that is being overlooked is Nebraska, which is a scary proposition considering its rarely matched tradition. Prognosticators seem to be forgetting these Huskers won 10 games last season with a questionable offense, and instead seem to be focusing on their bumbling athletic director. However, in a wide-open year in the North Division with no dominant team go with the one that has the best defense and kicking game. That is Nebraska. Bill Callahan gets a first-year honeymoon.

17. Who will win the Big 12 South Division?

It's awful tempting to pick Texas, because one of these years they'll stop rolling snake eyes when Oklahoma comes to the Cotton Bowl. And maybe this is the year, since there is absolutely no expectations on the Longhorns to break the streak. Yet when a respected analyst like Phil Steele says the 2004 Sooners are the most talented squad he's ever evaluated, that seals the deal. Here's guessing Oklahoma plays with a chip on its shoulder after the way 2003 ended.

18. Who will win the Big 12 Championship Game?

Old school is certainly fashionable, with Nebraska versus Oklahoma for all the marbles. The Huskers will likely have the vengeance factor, since it's doubtful they can win the regular season matchup in Norman on November 13th. But the Sooners will let lightning strike twice at Arrowhead Stadium. They'll take care of business and advance to the BCS championship game with a win.

19. Which Big 12 teams will go bowling?

Oklahoma and Texas are BCS bound, with the Sooners headed to the Orange Bowl to play for the national championship, while the Longhorns are tabbed by the Fiesta Bowl for an at-large berth. Nebraska makes it back to a January bowl game for the first time in three years with a Cotton Bowl bid. Missouri is Holiday Bowl bound. Texas A&M, Texas Tech, and Kansas State will round out the Big 12 postseason roster.

20. What will be the surprise story of the year?

Here's a shocker: Bob Stoops steps down as Oklahoma's coach after the Orange Bowl to go home to Ohio and take over the NFL's Cleveland Browns. Just call this a hunch.

Big 12 Media Days Coverage Advisory

Beginning Tuesday, Bill and I will both be in Kansas City to cover the annual Big 12 preseason media days. Bill will have plenty of material up on the website this week from the meetings for subscribers, plus I'll provide free reports live on KXNO during Cotlar & Company and Deace in the Afternoon.

If that doesn't wet your appetite for the upcoming season, I don't know what will. J

 (Steve Deace can be heard on the radio each weekday from 3-6 p.m. on 1460-KXNO, the flagship of the Cyclone Radio Network. His next column will be published on August 2nd.)

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