Who? There are bigger names and more obvious choices, like Oklahoma running back Adrian Peterson and Texas running back Jamaal Charles, but no one is primed for a bigger season than the Iowa State quarterback. Meyer passed for 2,876 yards and 19 TDs as only a sophomore and led last season's surprisingly potent Cyclone offense. Iowa State won 7 games last season, but could have had ten in the win column if not for three frustrating overtime losses. Meyer will also get plenty of help from his teammates as the Whirly-birds bring back all eleven starters on offense. They're a team on the cusp, but will likely remain on the cusp, as they lost seven starters from an already undersized and overmatched defense.
Defensive MVP - Michael Griffin, Sr. S, Texas
This one was much harder for me to pick. There are a lot of great defensive players in the Big 12, and indeed on Griffin's own team. Tim Crowder and Brian Robison will be impressive coming off the edge, but the Longhorn who I really mulled over giving this distinction was monster defensive tackle Frank Okam. Okam is switching from nose tackle to the three-technique, will be facing more one-on-one match-ups and will be able to focus much more on pinning his ears back and rushing opposing quarterbacks. But Griffin had a monster year last season (team-leading 124 tackles) and will get more opportunities for tackles, picks and sacks as he is moving into Michael Huff's vacated SS position, which moves him all over the field, occasionally even stepping up into essentially a fourth linebacker spot. Also, just like Huff, Griffin was not the most highly-touted recruit, but has improved by leaps and bounds each year he's been on the 40 Acres due to his impressive work ethic. If he improves only half as much as he has the past couple of years, expect another Longhorn to be holding the Thorpe award at the end of this season. I also strongly considered Texas A&M LB Justin Warren and Oklahoma LB Rufus Alexander, but you can't beat everything Griffin brings to the table.
Comeback Player – Larry Birdine, Sr. DE, Oklahoma
Birdine had seven sacks in 2004 and was primed for a big junior campaign in 2005, but suffered a torn biceps in the preseason. Now 100% healthy and hopefully a little more humble (Birdine infamously called out Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush before the 2005 National Championship game), the motoring defensive end should put up double-digit sacks this season.
Breakout Player - Stephen McGee, Soph. QB, Texas A&M
This award could very well go to McGee's former teammate Jordan Shipley (the Longhorn receiver might get the award for just finally stepping onto the field), but McGee is setting himself up for an amazing year. Running was not the Aggie QB's forte in high school, but he looked like he'd been trained for the option all his life over the last five games of 2005. Now that Texas A&M is switching to a three-wide, primarily passing, shotgun offense and they're getting all of their receivers back from injury, McGee will have the second best season of any quarterback in the Big XII, behind Offensive MVP Bret Meyer. Another Longhorn was also nipping at his heels for this award. Tight end Jermichael Finley will make life a whole lot easier for Texas' freshmen quarterbacks, but McGee gets the nod.
True Freshman Standout (offense) - Jevan Snead, QB, Texas
My gut feeling, combined with what I've been hearing when I put my ear to the rail, makes me believe that Snead will eventually win the starting quarterback job at Texas. If so, the Stephenville product will be a shoe-in for Freshman of the Year honors, given the weapons at his disposal on the Texas offense.
True Freshman Standout (defense) - Eddie Jones, DE, Texas
Most Longhorn fans will bring up Sergio Kindle when asked who would get this award. Indeed, the huge linebacker is considered by some experts to be the best athlete to come out of the Dallas area since Jesse Armstead. But when watching film on the Horns' 2006 recruits, I saw some amazing players and some amazing plays, but the only one who made my jaw, quite literally, drop was former Kilgore defensive end Eddie Jones. True, the Longhorns will be stacked at DE, but Jones is a monster who is surprisingly agile for a player of his size. He may also win freshman of the year baseball, as the 6'3", 240-pound Jones plans on being the designated hitter for Augie Garrido's squad in the 06-07 season.
Bill Frisbie – Jul 12, 2006
By now, we're familiar with the pre-season hyperbole of Texas potentially fielding its finest defense in a quarter-century. It's a not a stretch to expect the unit to improve considerably from last year's No. 10 national ranking (302.9 ypg). For the seniors, it's the first time they won't be learning a new defense. There is such a familiarity with Gene Chizik's scheme, terminology, expectations and M.O. that many upper-classmen have said their approach is more instinctual than it has ever been during their stint at the Forty Acres. The defense returns seven starters, but that doesn't take into account the fact that WLB Drew Kelson started three games in 2005 and that CB Aaron Ross is like a seasoned veteran with 38 career games and two starts last season. There is little reason to believe that this year's defense won't be Texas' best since the 1983 crew not only set the standard for the past quarter-century but also consistently compensated for an inept offense on the way to an 11-0 regular season.
Chizik is content to leave this type of speculation to fans and media. Here's what Chizik wants to see in 2006: a more consistent rush defense from the down lineman, a considerable upgrade at linebacker and a secondary that must lead the way toward improving upon last year's pedestrian 11 INTs. The rest is just details, but are here a few of the details:
There were significant strides in the run defense in 2005, but there were notable lapses. You can forgive the 209 rushing yards surrendered against USC, but 277 at Texas A&M and 250 at Oklahoma State? Chizik called on his secondary to provide more run support last season, but now wants the front four to carry more of the load. And there's reason to believe that they can even though Texas sent a pair of DTs (Rod Wright, Larry Dibbles) to the NFL. Recall that coaches moved pre-season All-American Frank Okam from NT to DT during the spring. Coach Mack Brown said it will be much more difficult to block Okam now that he's aligned off-guard in the three-technique.
"A lot of time the nose guard gets double-teamed," Brown said shortly after the transition. "In the three-technique, it's a single block from the guard".
In other words: the beast is unleashed.
Meanwhile, Brown believes junior Derek Lokey and sophomore Roy Miller have the perfect body-size for NT. Both are listed at 6-2, and Brown believes that taller O-lineman will find it difficult to "dig them out."
Texas is more loaded at DE than it has ever been during Brown's nine-year tenure. Remember three years ago when Inside Texas said the one place where Texas could not sustain attrition was at DE (and then we lose Mike Williams, Bryan Pickryl and Kalen Thornton is just a shell of his former self)? These days, Brian Robison and Tim Crowder have combined for 50 starts while Brian Orakpo (the Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year) is Crowder's backup. Sophomore Aaron Lewis enjoyed a solid spring as Robison's understudy. Then again, sophomore Chris Brown generated considerable buzz this past spring and there is no way Five- Star DE Eddie Jones fails to crack the rotation.
Not only will the linebackers be better in 2006, they already are better in 2006. Chizik believes he saw sufficient strides among his backers during the spring. It may be premature to call them championship-caliber, but the group will no longer be considered the team's weakest link. Last year, undersized WLB Rashad Bobino (at times) played out of position; slightly undersized MLB Aaron Harris (at times) played like his give-a-damn was busted, prototypically-sized SLB Robert Killebrew (at times) played without the discipline expected from Chizik (hence, Killebrew's early-season benching and mid-season flurry of personal fouls).
Killebrew is one of the guys that Chizik has taken aside to impress upon him the importance of representing on-and-off the field. The junior genuinely seems to have taken his coach's counsel to heart. Killebrew also knows that he has Sergio Kindle breathing down his neck for playing time, and the same goes for Roddrick Muckelroy pushing Bobino for First Team honors. These two understudies are bigger, and may be more talented, than the guys they're backing. What they don't have, obviously, is game-day experience. But they'll get it in a hurry. We all know that Chizik crosstrains his linebackers. He spent the last week of spring drills doing just that, but Texas will virtually have five starting linebackers by the conference opener. I'm saving Kelson for last because I think this will be a breakthrough year for him. The journeyman is finally getting consecutive seasons at the same spot (although he took his snaps at SAM in 2005) and may be the smartest kid on the team. He's also one of the most explosive and hardest-hitting.
I also think Kelson's progress at WILL, plus the experienced depth at DE, will result in Chizik dialing-up the zone blitz more than he did in 2005. Chizik, of course, is a Monte Kiffen disciple but we didn't see as much of the Tampa Bay defense at Texas last year as many expected. Chizik relied more of the zone blitz and the Cover Two during his final year at Auburn (where he had better linebackers in 2004 than he did at Texas in 2005). The zone blitz, at its inception, was designed to combat the West Coast offense. It stands to reason that Chizik will concoct a steady dose of the scheme when Texas travels to Nebraska (although I still don't think the Cornhuskers have the experienced personnel to effectively run third-year coach Bill Callahan's game plan against Tier One defenses). I also look for Chizik to lean heavily on the zone blitz against a team like Texas Tech, or against any program that will try to quick-hit the middle with slants.
It's often considered a liability when your FS leads the team in tackles as Michael Griffin did in 2005 (124 stops). But Chizik not only wants his D-backs to continue to provide run support, he also wants them to prioritize producing more INTs this season. Chizik figures his DBs got their hands on 23 footballs during games last year and literally dropped half of them. They were in position; they just didn't always seal the deal. So, the DBs saw drill, after drill, after drill last spring intended to perfect their receiving skills as well as to impress their muscle-memory the simple directive: Focus! Get the pick! Shorten the field for the offense.
The DBs played more 'man' last season than many expected, but Mack Brown had a high comfort level with that considering he had three First-Team All-Big 12 standouts (including the Thorpe Award winner). Brown has said, for a couple of seasons, that he wants to mix and/or disguise coverages more. I think coaches will have enough confidence in FS Marcus Griffin (now that his twin Michael has slid over to SS) as well as in their underneath coverage among the linebackers, that we'll see more Cover Two in 2006.
All in all, I am looking for the 2006 defense to dominate in the way that the offense racked up record-setting numbers in 2005. Texas may not 'hang 50' on half the teams it will face this season (as it did on seven occasions in 2005). But the defense gives Texas a chance to win every game on the slate, or at least snag a third straight BCS bowl, if the offense can 'hang 20' and not shoot itself in the foot with turnovers.
In short, Chizik can be to the 2006 Longhorns what Vince Young was to the 2005 Longhorns.
Ross Lucksinger - Jul 10, 2006
The Texas Longhorns are going to the Fiesta Bowl…just not the one you think.
The BCS will debut a fifth game this upcoming season and rather than adding a fifth location, they're going to turn around and play a second game for the national championship in one of the existing locations. Here's the schedule for the January 2007 BCS games:
Jan. 1st – Fiesta Bowl
Jan. 1st – Rose Bowl
Jan. 2nd – Orange Bowl
Jan. 3rd – Sugar Bowl
Jan. 8th – National Championship in Phoenix
The addition of the fifth game allows the four bowls to more easily maintain their conference tie-ins, meaning this season's Big 12 champion will not be displaced from the Fiesta Bowl, assuming they are not ranked No. 1 or 2 at season's end. On January 1st, Texas will be playing in Fiesta Bowl Part 1.
To better understand why this will come to pass, let's have a look at the key match-ups for the Longhorns in the 2006 season.
Ohio State is coming to Austin with an explosive offense and a chip on their shoulder. By the end of the 2005 season, Troy Smith had established himself as a leader and a dangerous weapon, scoring 27 touchdowns last season (16 passing and 11 rushing). Smith is now 13-2 as a starting quarterback and will likely be the best QB, if not player, the Longhorns will face in the '06 campaign. The Buckeyes also return the 1331 yards and 7 touchdowns of tailback Antonio Pittman from last season. Like the Longhorns, Ohio State returns three starters to the offensive line. Expect a lot of runs to the right behind senior guard T.J. Downing and junior tackle Kirk Barton.
The offense will be the strength for Ohio State in 2006, which is basically the exact opposite of 2005. Major question marks exist on the defensive side of the ball for the Buckeyes, where they have lost a crippling nine starters. While the athletes replacing the departed nine are by no means scrubs, six of the starters will be sophomores and the inexperience may be costly early in the season.
While the Longhorns' defense may be the best in the last 20 years, the inexperience for Texas lies in the quarterback position. I say "20 years" because I'm not quite ready to say they're going to be as good as the 1983 unit, but we are talking on that level, especially because of the sheer depth in the front seven. This game will be strength-on-strength, weakness-on-weakness. Ohio State's talented and deep offense will face Texas' talented and deep defense, while the Longhorn's inexperienced QB will face the Buckeye's inexperienced defense.
So who wins the game? Well, two of the most important factors in college football are defense and home field advantage and Texas has both. Of course, Ohio State had both last year…but Ohio State didn't have Vince Young and Troy Smith is not Vince Young.
Texas wins: 23-21
The Red River Shootout is upon us. One team is coming off an undefeated national championship season, the other is mired in doubt after a disappointing year where they began ranked amongst the elite and ended with a trip to the Holiday Bowl. The latter is downtrodden and frustrated by having their offensive line called "soft," but there is hope. Although they return a great deal of talent on both sides of the ball, the quarterback who led the champions to their victory is gone and a couple of inexperienced signal callers will be in a rotation, giving the underdogs a shot.
Did I mention it's 2001?
The annual Thanksgiving weekend match-up against the Aggies is only included on this list because Texas' in-state rival will always be up for the game, just as they were last season, proving to be a rather nasty speed bump on the Longhorns' national championship road. That's not going to be the case this season. Texas A&M no longer has the element of surprise with quarterback Stephen McGee running the option and the game will not be in the deafening confines of Kyle Field. Of course, the I-form option isn't even going to be the Aggies primary offense this season. Texas A&M is switching back to a shotgun, three-wide offense that they were unable to run effectively last year due to a lack of depth at wide receiver. But with senior wideout Chad Schroeder returning to the line-up, A&M will be running an offense that better suits McGee's throwing ability (his senior year at Burnet, McGee threw an astounding 33 touchdowns and no interceptions during the regular season. Interestingly enough, a vast majority of those touchdowns were to current Longhorn wide receiver Jordan Shipley).
But it will be all for naught, as the Aggies will show little improvement to a defense that finished 94th in the nation in scoring last season. Passing was the biggest issue for the no-so-aptly-named "wrecking crew," giving up 304.6 ypg (ranked 117th), and with the loss of Jaxon Appel to the NFL, an experienced core of Texas receivers and a quarterback who will essentially have a year under his belt, the Aggies will be unable to stop the Texas offense.
Texas Wins: 56-20
So, if the Longhorns manage to beat all three of these teams, shouldn't they be undefeated when the season ends?
With the talent on this team, the strength on this defense, the experience on the offensive line and the question mark at quarterback, my prediction for this season is that Texas beats Ohio State. Texas beats OU. Texas beats A&M. They beat every team that's there's a question mark on and lose to a team they're not supposed to.
The trap will snap when Texas fans least expect it.
In Big 12 play, Texas must travel to Lincoln, Lubbock and Manhattan this season. Be it the Cornhuskers and their revamped offense, the Red Raiders and the stifling hole of nothingness that is Lubbock or the Wildcats and new head coach Ron Prince, one of these teams will beat Texas.
Furthermore, those three teams are not the only potential quagmires on the schedule. What if the Oklahoma State game begins just as the previous two have…only this time there's no Vince Young heroics to bring the Horns back from the brink of defeat? What if Iowa State's Bret Meyer pulls off a miracle performance in Austin? Meyer passed for 2,876 yards and 19 TDs as only a sophomore and may be the best quarterback in the conference.
What if Sam Houston State…ok, that's just ridiculous, but still, the Longhorns schedule is full of potential landmines.
In the end, this is how the season will shake out: Texas will fall to one, post W's over the question marks on the schedule, beat whomever the Big 12 North places in front of them in the title game and wholup a vastly overrated Notre Dame team 38-27. Sunrise, sunset.