ColoradoThe Buffaloes have faced their share of adversity over the last several years. Recruiting scandals that alleged the football program attempted to lure blue chip recruits with sex parties, drugs and alcohol ultimately caused or contributed to the resignations of head coach Gary Barnett, Athletic Director Dick Tharp and university President Elizabeth Hoffman.
Colorado has seemingly stopped the bleeding and begun the healing process. The Buffs hired Dan Hawkins, the immensely successful Boise State coach who brings a 53-10 coaching record and a squeaky clean reputation to Boulder. Hawkins won't exactly have to start over. Lost in the furor over the recruiting scandal is the fact that Colorado has won the Big 12 North Division four out of the last five years. And the cupboard is far from bare. Forty-seven of sixty-seven lettermen return from last year's 7-6 team, including five starters on offense and seven on defense.
The uncertainty caused by the recruiting scandals has negatively affected Colorado's recruiting. Colorado's recruiting classes have fallen from a Scout.com ranked No. 19 in 2003 to No. 50 last year. While this would seem to foretell years of struggles for Hawkins and his staff, one should keep in mind that Hawkins, while at Boise State, showed himself to be the master of doing more with less. The best recruiting class that Hawkins brought into Boise State was the No. 72 rated class in 2004. Despite these seemingly mediocre classes, Hawkins consistently posted double-digit win seasons, and his teams showed themselves capable of competing with such nationally recognized programs as Fresno State and TCU.
Colorado will need to replace quarterback Joel Klatt and get healthy on the offensive line to have any hope of competing for the Big 12 North title. Two candidates have emerged at quarterback and Hawkins may well use their complementary styles to cause game-planning nightmares for defensive coordinators. Brian White is a drop back passer, and Bernard Jackson is a speedy dual-threat quarterback. They will have returning wide receivers Dusty Sprague and Patrick Williams to throw to. Diminutive running back Hugh Charles gained 842 yards behind an abysmal offensive line. If the line improves, look for him to have a very good year.
The Buffs look solid defensively with the return of four impact players on defense, defensive end Abraham Wright, linebackers Thaddeus Washington and Jordan Dizon and safety J.J. Billingsley, though questions at defensive tackle could prove problematic. Notre Dame transfer, Brandon Nicolas, hopes to be part of that solution. The kicking game looks solid with place kicker Mason Crosby returning. He will also be handling the punting duties.
For Colorado to have a chance at the Big 12 North title, they must buy into and adapt to Hawkins' system very quickly. It remains to be seen whether the magic he worked at Boise State against WAC opponents can be duplicated at Colorado against the much more formidable Big 12.
I think Hawkins wins many Big 12 North titles, but not this year. Speculation: Third
Iowa StateHump 2, Iowa State 0
For the last two years, the Cyclones have missed a berth in the Big 12 championship game on the last play of the season. Still, the job done there by head coach Dan McCarney represents nothing short of a miracle as he has revived the once moribund Cyclone program. Iowa State has won seven games in five of the last six years and has gone to a bowl game in each of those seven win years.
Iowa State has emerged as a consistently successful program despite landing relatively low-ranked recruiting classes. From 2002 to 2006 Iowa State's classes have been ranked by Scout.com between 50 and 69. Their starting line-up is dotted with players who have been converted to new positions, in some cases from as disparate positions as wide receiver to middle linebacker. Clearly, the Iowa State coaching staff knows its system and can capably fill their roster with players able to play within that system.
Offensively, there's good news and bad news. The good news is that Iowa State returns ten starters on the offensive side of the ball. The bad news is that many of them experienced injury-riddled and sub-par years in 2005. Quarterback Bret Meyer and receivers Austin Flynn and Todd Blythe should be the stars of the offense. Running back Stevie Hicks hopes to return to his 2004 form when he gained 1,062 yards. The offensive line, though experienced, needs vast improvement over last year's 39 sacks allowed and 111 rushing yards per game effort.
Defensively, Iowa State returns only two full-time starters though they have four others who saw some starting action. The defense must build around defensive tackle Brent Curvey and rush end Shawn Moorhead. Adam Carper, a converted wide receiver will move from the Sam linebacker to the Mike and is the key to an effective Cyclone defense.
Iowa State should feature one of the best offenses in the Big 12 North, but I still believe the old adage that defense wins championships, and Iowa State just doesn't have enough defense to win.
Hump 3, Iowa State 0
KansasMark Mangino's Kansas teams have gone bowling two of the last three years. Another bowl berth wouldn't seem like a huge accomplishment until one considers that the Jayhawks have never, that's right I said never, gone to bowls in consecutive years. Last year's team won three of its final four regular season games to earn that bowl berth. One of those wins, a 40-15 pasting of Nebraska, was the Jayhawks' first victory of the Huskers since 1968. Kansas capped its season with a 42-13 rout of Houston in the Fort Worth Bowl.
Kansas's recruiting has shown steady improvement in the five years that Mangino has been at the helm. Scout.com rated the Jayhawk's 2002 class a lowly 78. Each year has seen incremental improvement and last year's class checked in at 47.
In order to break the back-to-back bowl curse, redshirt freshman quarterback Kerry Meier must develop quickly. He should have help. Kansas returns receivers Brian Murph and Marcus Henry and nearly all of its offensive line. If Jon Cornish (780 yards rushing) breaks out this year, as many think, then the offense could be effective enough to capture those six necessary wins for bowl eligibility.
While the defense carried the team last year, this year's Jayhawk squad may well need to rely upon the offense. The top four playmakers from the 2005 squad have left, including the entire linebacking corps. Only three starters return, though all of them, cornerback Aqib Talib, strong safety Jerome Kemp and free safety Darrell Stuckey, should compete for all-conference honors.
Kansas faces a fairly easy preseason schedule with home games against Northwestern State, Louisiana-Monroe and South Florida and a road game at Toledo. They could easily enter the conference season 4-0, at worst 3-1. If that's the case, look for them to break that back-to-back bowl curse and go bowling in 2006.