Athlon Sports Big 12 Predictions

Missouri coach Gary Pinkel offered a succinct explanation as to why Oklahoma's defense was so strong last season. "Great players," he said. Nearly all return, including linebacker Teddy Lehman, tackle Tommie Harris and defensive backs Brandon Everage and Derrick Strait.

Projected Finish - North

1. Kansas State
2. Missouri
3. Colorado
4. Nebraska
5. Iowa State
6. Kansas

Projected Finish - South

1. Oklahoma
2. Texas
3. Oklahoma St.
4. Texas A&M
5. Texas Tech
6. Baylor

The Sooners lost only two defensive starters, Andre Woolfolk and Jimmy Wilkerson, who opted for the NFL draft with eligibility remaining, and all but one of the top back-ups return.

Add to that the return of quarterback Jason White, operating behind a line built around Jammal Brown, Wes Sims and Vince Carter, and Oklahoma has the look of a national title contender.

Then again, so does Texas, bolstered by the return of wide receiver Roy Williams, and possibly even Kansas State, which continues to prove the strength of coach Bill Snyder's program. The Longhorns and Wildcats both have solid defenses and big-play potential on offense. Whether or not Texas is a title contender will be determined by mid-October. The Longhorns get Kansas State in Austin on Oct. 4, a week before playing Oklahoma in Dallas.

Because of the Big 12's inter-division scheduling, Oklahoma and Kansas State can only meet in the conference title game at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City on Dec. 6. In any case, the road to the national championship could well go through the Big 12 with one of those three teams — most likely Oklahoma — emerging as a participant in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 4.

New Faces in Charge

The Big 12 has two new head coaches in Dennis Franchione at Texas A&M and Guy Morriss at Baylor. Both spent the last two seasons in the Southeastern Conference. Franchione, whose move from Alabama created considerable controversy, is the nation's eighth-winningest active coach by percentage, with a record of 155–73–2 (.678). He ranks seventh among active coaches in victories. Morriss spent the past six seasons at Kentucky, including the last two as head coach.

Modest, Too

Texas wide receiver Roy Williams would have been a first-round NFL draft pick had he decided to leave early. But much to the delight of the Longhorns, he announced he was coming back well in advance of their Cotton Bowl victory against LSU and held firm, indicating that he still had things to prove. He was chosen as the Cotton Bowl's Offensive MVP but said he didn't deserve the award.

Tough Road Ahead

Colorado can't be accused of scheduling a good record. The Buffaloes, who went 2–2 in non-conference play a year ago, have a non-league slate that includes Colorado State in Denver, UCLA and Washington State in Boulder and a trip to Florida State to finish off the year. Colorado's 2002 schedule was rated the nation's 13th most difficult, with nine bowl teams on it. The Buffaloes' 2001 schedule was rated the nation's second-toughest, and their 2000 schedule was rated the fourth-toughest.

Losses on the Line

Kansas State had to replace not only three starters on its offensive line but also line coach and running game coordinator Paul Dunn, who left to be an assistant at Kentucky, as did Ron Hudson, who had been Kansas State's offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.

House Cleaning

Nebraska, long noted for staff stability, will have a new look in 2003. In the wake of a 7–7 season, the Cornhuskers' worst since 1961, coach Frank Solich replaced six assistants and gave up responsibilities of offensive coordinator. In addition to replacing himself with Barney Cotton, he hired Bo Pelini to coordinate the defense and promoted Turner Gill to assistant head coach.

Shoring Up the Defense

Texas Tech led the conference in total offense, on the arm of the departed Kliff Kingsbury, but the Red Raiders struggled defensively, allowing over 400 yards and 31 points per game. In hopes of rectifying the problem, coach Mike Leach hired Lyle Setencich from California to coordinate the defense. He also hired Charlie Sadler as a defensive assistant and promoted linebackers coach Ruffin McNeill to assistant head coach. In 1987, when he was the head coach at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Setencich gave Leach his first collegiate coaching job.

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