Big 12 North Preview

This article, the third in the series of five articles previewing the Big 12, will examine the last three teams in the Big 12 North and speculate on their order of finish. Can the Huskers regain control over the Big 12 North?

Kansas State

New Kansas State head coach Ron Prince is following a legend. Bill Snyder retired at the conclusion of the 2005 season and Kansas State promptly renamed their stadium Bill Snyder Family Stadium. Prince, the former K-State offensive coordinator, will inherit a team with twenty returning starters but that only finished 5-6 in 2005 and last in the Big 12 North each of the last two seasons. Not since the Big 12 was the Big 8 has that happened.

Though the Wildcats' football fortunes have fallen dramatically since their 2003 victory over Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship game, their recruiting classes have not. For the last five years Scout.com has consistently rated Kansas State's recruiting classes in the forties. While the talent level has seemingly changed little, its production has. In order to return to the top of the conference, Prince will need to restore the Kansas State formula of tough ball control offense and aggressive hard-hitting defense.

The Wildcats have one-upped those programs that feature two quarterbacks by utilizing no less than three. Dylan Meier, Allen Webb and Allan Everidge have combined for twenty-two starts in their careers. Though no one definitively emerged from the spring game, Meier seemed to take the lead for the starting job. He will have his top two receivers, Jordy Nelson and Jermaine Moreira, his leading running back, Thomas Clayton, and four offensive line starters returning.

The defense returns tremendous experience though not much depth. What the defense lacked last year and hopes to find this year are playmakers. It seemed all year that the Wildcat defense just could not get the big stop or the turnover when it needed it. Two players who could step up are cornerback Bryan Baldwin and defensive tackle Quinton Echols. Both impressed in the spring game, Baldwin with an interception and Echols with three tackles and a sack, but even more importantly, both appear to be in shape for the first time in his career.

Kansas State could well be improved this season but so is everyone else and their improvement will not show up in wins and losses. In their case having three starters at quarterback is like having none.

Speculation: Sixth

Missouri

For me, Missouri is the home team. I have lived my whole life in Missouri, and next to Notre Dame, they are the team I root for the hardest. I thought I would get that up front. And while I am trying mightily to be objective, I really do think that this is Mizzou's breakout year. In last year's Independence Bowl, Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel, who critics praised and criticized with the same statement, ‘good on Sunday through Friday', broke an unenviable streak in which his Missouri teams had never won a game after trailing at halftime. Not only did Mizzou rally from a halftime deficit, but they did it against one of the finest coaches in college football, South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier.

Missouri's recruiting has been up and down, peaking with the Scout.com thirty-sixth best class in 2004. Like most schools in the Big 12 North, they recruit much less well than their South counterparts. Still, coach Pinkel and his staff have done a good job of wrapping up most of the best players in Missouri, Munir Prince and Paddy Mullen being two notable exceptions.

Missouri returns most of its offense intact with one huge exception, Brad Smith. Smith holds virtually every quarterback record at Missouri and was the first player in college football history to pass for 8,000 yards and rush for 4,000. Many believe that the Tigers will turn this into a positive by creating a much more diversified attack. Missouri's biggest weapons on offense are their two freshman All-American tight ends (different years) Martin Rucker and Chase Coffman. Each or both could contend for all-conference honors. Mizzou returns its top four tailbacks, though no one has actually emerged as the leader. The offensive line replaces only one starter. The real question mark for Missouri on offense is whether the lost production of Brad Smith can be found elsewhere.

On defense, Missouri returns some dynamic playmakers including defensive end Brian Smith (9 sacks), linebacker Marcus Bacon (85 tackles) and safety David Overstreeet (100 tackles and two interceptions). Three secondary positions must be filled and with pass-happy teams like Nebraska and Iowa State in the Big 12 North, any weakness here could be fatal to a championship.

Objectivity be damned. I think this is the year that Pinkel and his Tigers break through and win the Big 12 North.

Speculation: First

Nebraska

Can Bill Callahan's Cornhuskers finally regain the glory that was Nebraska football? Last season's 8-4 finish featured a late-season winning streak and a bowl victory over Michigan. The Big Red return sixteen starters, and Callahan's had two complete years to recruit players to run his West Coast offense. There are high expectations this year and Nebraska is notoriously impatient with coaches who fail to meet them.

The key to this years' offense will be the return of Zac Taylor, the first Husker quarterback since Eric Crouch to start two consecutive years. His familiarity with the offense along with the return of receivers Nate Swift and Terrrence Nunn should enable him to improve upon his school-record 2,653 yards passing in 2005. Highly touted running backs Marlon Lucky and Cody Glenn should provide firepower in the running game. All of this skill on offense may be moot point if the offensive line doesn't improve its performance from last year. More than anything else, the line's poor play contributed to Nebraska's 107th place finish in rushing offense and 96th place finish in total offense.

The defense should be strong in 2006, if not dominant. Three of four starters return in the secondary and the front seven should be strong if two new starters can be found at defensive tackle. Defensive ends Jay Moore and Adam Carriker should be genuine playmakers, and linebackers Corey McKeon and Steve Octavien should be outstanding as well.

Nebraska appears to have all the pieces in place but Bill Callahan and his staff has yet to prove that they can form those pieces into a complete puzzle. With an early non-conference game against USC, the Huskers should find out quickly just how good they are. I say they're not going to be quite good enough.

Speculation: Second

The next article in the series will look at the first three teams, in alphabetical order, of the Big 12 South.

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