Scouting the Big 12 Conference

VandyMania's Howell Peiser continues with his expert look at the football conferences. Today we will take a look at the Big 12 Conference.

Big 12 Conference Preview

By

Howell Peiser

 

If you want to know how the Big 12 race will shape up this year, go read Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities.  To paraphrase ole Charlie, the two divisions can be summed up thusly:  It was the best of teams; it was the worst of teams.  It was the division of strength; it was the division of weakness.  One division was all going to bowl games; one division was going the other way.

 

Well, that last statement is a bit off, but this conference can definitely be called "A tale of two divisions."

 

In the tough South Division, four teams could compete for Top 10 honors, with three having legitimate shots at the Rose Bowl.  In the weak North, where 4-4 won the division's spot in the Big 12 Title game, all six teams could finish around 4-4 again this year (my ratings show differently to start the season), and no team has much chance to even play in a New Year's Day bowl game.

 

In the official preseason poll, Texas was picked to end Oklahoma's dominance in the South.  Oklahoma was picked second, followed by Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma State, and Baylor.  In the North, Colorado narrowly edges out Iowa State, with Nebraska, Missouri, Kansas State, and Kansas following in that order.

 

My ratings agree with the official poll's predicted division winners.  They actually show Texas within a few points of Southern Cal. 

 

Only Baylor receives the minimum three-point home field advantage this year.  Colorado, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, and Texas A&M get the maximum five points, while the rest get four.

 

North Division

 

1. Colorado                            PiRate: 112                  HFA: 5

 

The soap opera known as "As the Buffs Turn" gets renewed for another season.  Gary Barnett keeps his job as coach as long as he continues to win eight games and get to a bowl.  The minute he goes 5-6, the university will let him go for every reason but his losing season.  Barnett looks safe for this season, as the Buffaloes look to be the class of the North, even with three tough injuries to starters.

 

The Buffalo defense should improve quite a bit over last year, when they allowed 25.5 points and 421 yards per game.  They had 10 starters returning, but two have suffered injuries.  Cornerback Terrence Wheatley is out for the season with a wrist injury, while safety Dominique Brooks has a high ankle sprain and will miss at least four weeks.

 

The secondary should still be stronger this year.  Tyrone Henderson will replace Brooks until he can return in October.  Last year, Henderson got in on 72 tackles and blocked two kicks.  Free Safety J. J. Billingsley was a key secondary defender in 2003, but he missed last year due to academics.  Cornerbacks Lorenzo Sims and Gerett Burl combined for 22 passes broken up last year, with Sims stealing five enemy passes.

 

All three linebackers return.  Thaddeus Washington, Jordon Dizon, and Brian Iwuh were the three leading tacklers last year, teaming for 295 stops with 24 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks.  The group collectively broke up 12 passes.  Backup Akarika Dawn will get plenty of playing time as a fourth backer.

 

Three starters return to the front four, and the fourth player became a starter by season's end.  End Alex Ligon recorded five sacks and eight tackles for loss.  He will force opponents to double team him.  Abraham Wright has loads of potential to develop at the other end spot.  Tackles James Garee and Vaka Manupuna give CU two above-average run and pass defenders.

 

Look for the Buffs to give up about 20 points and 380 yards per game this year.  Last year's offense scored just 23.4 points and totaled 340 yards per game, so those numbers will have to improve for CU to win the North.

 

With seven starters returning, CU should score close to 28 points per game.  Quarterback Joel Klatt returns for his senior season after completing 58.9% of his passes for nearly 2,400 yards.  His TD/INT ratio was a weak 11/15.  If he fails to improve upon those numbers, possibly by the second quarter of the opening game, Barnett could bench him in favor of James Cox.  Cox can run out of the pocket and pick up a first down, and he has a strong arm.

 

The receiving corps took a big hit when top deep threat Blake Mackey sustained a season-ending knee injury.  Replacing him in the lineup is Evan Judge.  Judge caught 31 passes for 386 yards last year.  Dusty Sprague starts at the other wide out.  He has the guts to catch the ball just before he gets smacked by one or more defenders.  Tight end Joe Klopfenstein was the star of the Houston Bowl last year with 134 yards in receptions.  He scored five touchdowns for the season and provided solid run blocking.  He has NFL potential.

 

The running game loses 1,000-yard rusher Bobby Purify and has no single person capable of producing similar results.  Lawrence Vickers, Hugh Charles, and Maurice Greer will split most of the rushing attempts with Vickers also playing fullback.

 

The offensive line features a bunch of hard-working blockers who will not make 1st team All-Big 12.  Center Mark Fenton and guard Brian Daniels are the best of this group.  Tyler Polumbus and Clint O'Neal are a rarity among BCS starting tackles; neither weighs 300 pounds.

 

CU almost always has the leading punter in the conference.  With Folsom Field sitting at 5,400 feet above sea level, John Torp has an unfair advantage.  Last year, he booted 72 punts for a 46.5 yard average.  Kicker Marion Crosby hit 23 of 29 field goals, including six from 50 yards or better.

 

2. Iowa State                        PiRate: 107                  HFA: 4

 

ISU Kicker Bret Culbertson joined the Scott Norwood/Every Florida State Kicker Club last year.  Having missed only one kick all season, all he needed to do was drill a gimme 24-yard field goal in the regular season finale against Missouri to give Iowa State the North Division title.  He missed it!  ISU lost in overtime. 

 

Coach Dan McCarney's Cyclones have a chance to get over that disappointment and make it to the title game this year, but they won't be the favorite.  Iowa State's top 22 players can compete with Colorado, but the next 22 players are not as talented as the Buffs' backups.

 

On offense, all the skill player starters return in 2005.  Quarterback Bret Meyer was one of the top freshmen signal callers in the nation last year.  He showed he could run and pass the ball much like Seneca Wallace.  Give him three more years, and that comparison could be even more accurate.

 

Stevie Hicks returns to his tailback slot after racing for 1,062 yards last year.  His running style is more like the fullback in the old straight-t formation.  He won't go 75 yards around the end.  Ryan Kick and Greg Coleman should vie for time at fullback.

 

The top two receivers return this year.  Wide outs Todd Blythe and Jon Davis teamed for 87 receptions.  Blythe is the deep ball threat, averaging 21.4 yards per catch and scoring nine times.  Tight end Ben Barkema is a better receiver than blocker, whereas Brandon Tinlin is a better blocker than receiver. 

 

The offensive line improved as the season wore on last year.  They gave up 22 sacks in the first half of the year and only 12 in the second half.  Tackle Aaron Brant is the best of this bunch; he can also play guard.  Center Seth Zehr and guards Kory Pence and Fabian Dodd will open inside holes for Hicks.

 

Iowa State's defense made them a winning team last year, giving up 21.6 points and 329 yards per game.  While the depth is not there, the starters are capable of matching last year's performance or even better it.

 

There are four good defensive linemen on board.  Nick Leaders is a preseason 1st team All-Big 12 pick.  He recorded eight tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks last year from his nose guard position.  Teams won't run the ball up the middle with much success.  Tackle Brent Curvey tips the scales at 300+ pounds.  He has a shot at making the All-Big 12 team.

 

The linebacker position is the one weak spot on this team.  Tim Dobbins was selected Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year after registering 61 tackles last year.  Two new starters join him at backer.  Nick Frere and Matt Robertson have the talent, but lack the experience. 

 

The safeties are the strength of the secondary.  Nik Moser and Steve Paris finished one-two in tackles last year with 168 with 10 going for losses.  They intercepted four passes and broke up seven others.  Cornerback DeAndre Jackson broke up 10 passes.  The other corner slot goes to LaMarcus Hicks, who comes over from safety.

 

Iowa State should win six or seven games and return to a bowl.  If the ball bounces right, and they stay injury-free, they could compete for the North title.

 

3. Nebraska                           PiRate: 105                  HFA: 5

 

Coach Bill Callahan came to Lincoln to implement a pro passing game.  Having Joe Dailey as quarterback of a passing offense is like having Tim Wakefield and telling him to rely on his fastball.  It didn't work last year, as the Cornhuskers suffered their first losing season in more than four decades.

 

Junior college star Zac Taylor inherits the QB job almost by default.  He excelled in the spring game, completing 20 of 27 passes for 357 yards and three touchdowns in just one half, as his team won 42-14.  He should produce much better stats than Joe Dailey, who left the team. 

 

Nebraska still has some semblance of their old running game.  Cory Ross returns after rushing for 1,102 yards at a 5.3 average.  When the Huskers use a fullback, Dane Todd is an excellent backfield blocker.

 

No Nebraska receiver emerged as a real star last year, so this area could see a couple newcomers getting a chance to play as freshmen.  Frantz Hardy should get a chance to see significant action in his first year.  Terrence Nunn started half the games last year, catching just 13 passes.  Tight end Matt Herian caught 24 passes, while Ross caught 21 out of the backfield.  This area must improve for Nebraska to finish above .500.

 

The offensive line no longer has five colossal marauders leveling the opposition with their precision zone blocking schemes.  Center Kurt Mann, guards Brandon Koch and Greg Austin, and tackles Cornealius Thomas-Fuamatu and Seppo Evwayaye average 310 pounds and have the potential to be a good group once they learn the nuances of the passing offense.

 

Last year's defense held no resemblance to any of the past "black shirt" defenses in Lincoln.  NU surrendered a pedestrian 27.1 points (70 to Texas Tech) and 372 yards per game.  Some of the scoring must be blamed on an offense that turned the ball over several times on their side of the 50 yard line.

 

The defensive line should be improved this year after yielding 4.7 yards per rush last season.  Nose tackle Le Kevin Smith stopped enemy runners behind the line nine times last year.  Tackle Titus Adams and ends Jay Moore and Adam Carriker are better pass rushers than run defenders.

 

The linebacker spot took a beating with the departure of Husker all-time leading tackler Barrett Ruud.  Trying to pick up the slack this year will be Stewart Bradley, who finished second in tackles last year with 67, 11 going for losses.  Lance Brandenburgh, Steve Octavien, and Dontrell Moore will share time at the other positions.

 

The secondary gave up 268 passing yards per game last year.  It lost two NFL draft picks, so things won't improve much if any this year.  Safety Daniel Bullocks intercepted five passes and broke up nine others.  He'll play alongside three new starters.

 

This Cornhusker edition won't remind anybody of the Tom Osborne years, but they should win seven or eight games and return to a bowl.

 

4. Kansas State                     PiRate: 101                  HFA: 4

 

Until Coach Bill Snyder arrived in "The Little Apple," the 4-7 record turned in by Kansas State last year would have been considered a decent year.  The Wildcats lost a lot of talent last year, so reversing that record may not be possible.

 

Last year's primary offensive threat, Darren Sproles, has graduated and taken his 1,318 yards rushing to the pros.  This year, Carlos Alsup and Thomas Clayton will share the load.  Clayton is the speedster, while Alsup is the power back.  Fullback Victor Mann is a 6-02/255-pound bulldozer.  He will open holes for whoever runs the ball.  Look for K-State to approach or surpass 200 rushing yards per game this year.

 

Kansas State will probably rely on two quarterbacks this year.  Dylan Meier will be the starters, but Allen Webb will see significant action.  Meier sustained multiple injuries last year, and Webb filled in admirably in his absence.  If the offensive line gives them an average amount of time to locate receivers, this duo could throw for 2,000 to 2,500 yards.

 

None of the receivers will remind KSU fans of Kevin Lockett, but Yamon Figurs and Jermaine Moreira catch the balls that are on target and pick up a few extra yards afterwards.  Tight ends Rashaad Norwood and Brett Alstatt are sub-standard for the Big 12.

 

The offensive line must be rebuilt from scratch this year.  Only tackle Jeromey Clary returns.  Clary made the 2nd team All-Big 12 list last year.  Guards John Hafferty and Greg Wafford have shown good run blocking skills.

 

The Wildcats' defense was a major frustration for Coach Snyder in 2004.  KSU surrendered 30.6 points per game.  Even with just five starters returning, those numbers should improve. 

 

The defensive line recorded just 21 QB sacks and allowed 4.1 yards per rush.  End Scott Edmonds picked up seven of those sacks and will likely see double teams this year.  End Tearrius George is a better run defender.  Tackles Derek Marso and Quintin Echols are a couple of tractors in the middle.

 

Ted Sims returns to his middle linebacker spot after missing 2004.  In 2003, he made 79 tackles and four sacks.  Joining him are returning starters Brandon Archer and Marvin Simmons, who combined for 130 tackles.

 

The secondary gave up more than 200 passing yards per game last year and graduated three starters.  Free safety Jesse Tetuan broke up six passes and made 58 tackles.  Cornerback Byron Garvin moves up from nickel back to a regular spot, while cornerback Maurice Porter saw enough action last year to be considered experienced.

 

With too many holes to fill, it looks like a second consecutive losing season in Manhattan. 

 

5. Kansas                               PiRate: 100                  HFA: 4

 

The Jayhawks took a small step backward last year after getting to a bowl in 2003, but they put a scare into a few big-time opponents.  They just missed against Texas Tech, losing 31-30.  They took Texas to the wire, losing 27-23.  Altogether, KU lost five different games by less than a touchdown and finished 4-7.  Only Oklahoma manhandled them.

 

This year, Coach Mark Mangino's charges have an improved team, but it may be hard to move up in the conference standings, as they must play Texas, Oklahoma, and Texas Tech from the South once again.

 

Quarterback Adam Barmann returns to pilot the offense.  Brian Luke backs him up.  The two combined for almost 1,900 yards and 15 touchdowns a year ago.

 

Clark Green is the new tailback.  He rushed for 309 yards last year as a backup and should top 700 this year.  The Jayhawks only averaged 94 yards per game last year, so this area should improve even with the loss of their top runner from 2004.  Fullback Brandon McAnderson will be used more as an H-back type this year.

 

The receiving corps was hit hard by graduation, but Mangino has recruited well at this position.  Wide outs Mark Simmons, Marcus Henry, and Brian Murph compliment each other well.  Tight end Derek Fine isn't in the class of the wide receivers, but he has the build and talent to develop into a threat.  KU could easily exceed 250 yards through the air this year.

 

The offensive line returns four starters.  While failing to open many holes for the backs, they protected their QBs quite well. Tackles Matt Thompson and Cesar Rodriguez join guards David Ochoa and Bob Whitaker.  Todd Haselhorst must replace All-Big 12 center Joe Vaughn.

 

The Jayhawk defense returns some fine talent and should shave a few more points off an already decent 21.4 average allowed in 2004.  Last year's front seven held opponents to just 118 yards rushing, and a repeat performance is likely.  None of the D-line will make All-Big 12, but they team together to form a nice blockade.  Ends Jermail Ashley and Charlton Keith also showed excellent pass blocking skills knocking away 10 balls.

 

The line backing unit is the definite strength of this team.  Nick Reid and Kevin Kane just might be the best inside linebacker duo in the conference.  They teamed for 178 stops, 19 of those for loss, while dumping QBs five times and batting away five passes.  Reid should play for pay next year.

 

The secondary has four speedy defenders who can hit hard.  Cornerback Charles Gordon is a 1st team All-Big 12 performer.  In 2004, he intercepted seven passes and broke up eight more.   

 

6. Missouri                    PiRate: 97                    HFA: 4

 

The Tigers have to qualify as one of the biggest disappointments of 2004.  When Coach Gary Pinkel's troops ventured to Alabama and lost to Troy on national television, the team's confidence took a jolt and never returned, as they finished 5-6 after being picked to contend for the North Division title.

 

Missouri lost more starters than any other North Division team.  Only 10 out of the top 22 return, so the losing should continue.  One more losing season may be enough to place Pinkel on an uncomfortably hot seat in Columbia.

 

Quarterback Brad Smith was listed as possible Heisman Trophy candidate last year, and he didn't even win All-Big 12 honors.  His passing percentage went south, almost dropping below 50%.  Look for him to run more this year as the Tigers return to more of a rushing game like they did in 2003. 

 

Smith will have a legitimate deep threat at split end in Sean Coffey.  Coffey caught 39 passes for 648 yards and 10 scores last year.  Coffey's best asset is his ability to run after the catch.  Joining him are possession receiver Brad Ekwerekwu and speedy William Franklin, who caught just six passes, but averaged an eye-popping 29 yards per catch.  Martin Rucker returns to his tight end location.

 

Pinkel will call on multiple backs to fuel his running game.  Marcus Woods and Tony Temple will get most of the carries, but redshirt freshmen Earl Goldsmith and Jimmy Jackson should get chances to shine.

 

The offensive line is a question mark with three starters lost.  There is one bona fide star in guard Tony Palmer who is a preseason All-Big 12 choice. 

 

Only four starters return to a defense that yielded just 300 total yards a game and gave up less than 20 points per game.  Five of those lost starters came from the front seven.  Defensive end Xzavier Jackson is the only front line starter back this year.  His strength is against the run, as he recorded only 2.5 sacks.  End Brian Smith made 22 tackles as a reserve last year, but seven of those were QB sacks!

 

Middle linebacker Dedrick Harrington has the tools to be a star.  He better live up to the praise, because there are no other stars in this unit.

 

The secondary will be the defense's strong point.  Safety Jason Simpson registered 98 tackles, with 13 going for loss.  He broke up six passes and picked off another.  When he comes on the safety blitz, he gets his man. Cornerbacks A.J. Kincaide, Calvin Washington, and Marcus King will share the load.  All three have starting experience.  The one worry with the pass defense is that the Tigers won't have much of a pass rush, making the secondary members' jobs much harder.

 

Missouri has too many holes to win more than four or five games.

 

South Division

 

1. Texas                                 PiRate: 122                  HFA: 5

 

The knock against Texas coach Mack Brown has been that he cannot win the big game.  After being shut out against Oklahoma last year 12-0, his troops won out in the regular season advancing to the Rose Bowl.  There, they defeated Michigan in the most exciting bowl of the season.  That counts as one big win for the coach.  2005 could be the year the Longhorns take a back seat to nobody.  This team is loaded with talent and has ample depth to withstand the injury bug.

 

Let's start with a devastating offense that just missed rushing for 300 yards per game while scoring points at a 35+ clip.

 

Quarterback Vince Young fashions himself after his mentor Steve McNair.  Young topped 1,000 yards rushing last year and scored 14 running touchdowns.  He threw for 1,840 yards and 12 more scores, while completing nearly 60% of his passes.  Just a junior, if he stays for two more years, he could become the first quarterback in NCAA history to rush for 4,000 yards and pass for 6,000 yards!  If he stays healthy, he will definitely be one of the Heisman Trophy finalists.

               

The Longhorns lost their other major running weapon when Cedric Benson took his 1,800+ rushing yards to Soldier Field.  Replacing him will be Selvin Young, and he should top 1,000 yards if he stays healthy.  Young once returned a punt and kickoff back for touchdowns in the same game.

 

The Longhorns have the best tight end in the conference in David Thomas.  Last year, he caught 25 passes for 430 yards and five scores.  He is also one of the best blocking tight ends in the nation.  The rest of the receiving corps possesses great speed and hands, even if they are a bit green.  Limas Sweed, Nate Jones, Jordan Shipley, and Myron Hardy will all contribute.

 

The offensive line returns four starters to a unit that opened holes for 5.8 yards per run and gave up only 11 sacks.  Tackles Justin Blalock and Jonathan Scott both made 1st team All-Big 12 last year.  This year, they should both make All-American and possibly both become 1st teamers!  There hasn't been this good of a blocking duo in college football in many years.

 

The Longhorn defense is going to be first rate this year, as it returns nine starters and is loaded with depth.  It wasn't shabby last year, when they gave up 17.9 points and 320 yards per game.  With the talent on hand, this UT edition could be stingy enough to give up less than 15 points and 275 yards per game.  Of course, having to play Texas Tech raises every defense's averages.

 

The Longhorn defensive line is definitely one of the three best in the nation.  Tackles Rod Wright and Larry Dibbles both dealt with lingering injuries last year.  They should stuff inside running plays this year.  Ends Brian Robison and Tim Crowder combined for 19 tackles for loss and six sacks last year, along with 40 QB hurries.

 

The only position where the Longhorns won't be better this year is at linebacker.  They lose All-American Butkus and Nagurski award-winner Derrick Johnson.  Still, two starters return.  Aaron Harris is a potential All-American.  He made 118 tackles with eight for loss and broke up nine passes.

 

Three starters return to the secondary.  This unit had some problems last year, especially against spread passing teams like Texas Tech and Kansas.  Cornerbacks Cedric Griffin and Michael Huff broke up 20 passes between them, while Safeties Michael Griffin and Tarell Brown broke up seven more.  Expect vast improvement this year.

 

This is the year for the ‘Horns to hook every Big 12 opponent, including Oklahoma.  Wouldn't you know it!  They must go on the road on the second week of the season and face another top five team.  Ohio State figures to have the advantage in that one, so Texas is looking at another one loss season. 

 

2 (tie). Oklahoma                 PiRate: 116                  HFA: 5

 

What a five year run!  Coach Bob Stoops' Sooners have gone an incredible 60-7 since 2000!  2005 will be a year the win total drops by a few games.  Oklahoma was brutally by graduation, losing 13 starters including a former Heisman Trophy winner.  OU is still the second best team in the Big 12, but they have fallen a few points behind Texas and more than likely won't be playing on December 3rd.

 

There are two candidates competing to replace Jason White at quarterback.  Neither will throw 35 touchdown pass this year.  Junior Paul Thompson will open the season as the starter, but redshirt freshman Rhett Bomar figures to play and could eventually overtake Thompson for the job.

 

Thompson's major task this year will be making crisp handoffs to Adrian Peterson.  As a freshman, Peterson finished runner-up in the Heisman Trophy vote, after rushing for 1,925 yards and 15 touchdowns.  He didn't start five games, so with an entire season as a starter, he could make a run at the all-time single season rushing record (2,628 by Barry Sanders in 1988).

 

The receiving corps lost three players to the NFL draft.  Mark Clayton, Brandon Jones, and Mark Bradley caught a collective 116 passes for 18 touchdowns.  Wide out Travis Wilson is the only starter left.  He caught 50 passes for 660 yards and 11 scores.  There is some raw talent waiting in the wings, but expect OU to run the ball for more yards than they pass it this year.

 

The offensive line returns just two starters.  Guards Kelvin Chaisson and Davin Joseph could both make one of the All-Big 12 teams.

 

Coach Stoops is noted as an offensive wizard, but every one of his Sooner teams have held the opposition under 20 points per game, and after his first season in 1999, they have held to under 17 points per game.

 

That record could be in serious jeopardy this year.  The trouble starts in the secondary.  The Sooners lost three starters from a unit that had trouble stopping an all-out passing attack.  USC burned them for 332 yards in the Orange Bowl, but Texas Tech and Texas A&M did even more damage.  Lone returnee Chijioke Onyenegecha continues to be the hardest name to pronounce in college football, as he can run 40 yards faster than it takes to say his full name correctly.  His 4.3 speed should produce better stats than six passes broken up and no interceptions.

 

Losing Lance Mitchell from the linebacker unit won't be easy to overcome.  Mitchell recorded 10 tackles for loss and earned 1st team All-Big 12 honors.  Clint Ingram leads this year's trio.  Zach Latimer and Rufus Alexander make this a good but not great unit.

 

The defensive line returns just one former starter.  Tackle Dusty Dvoracek has NFL potential, but he missed almost the entire 2004 season with off-the-field issues.  Don't expect this unit to hold opponents under 100 yards rushing per game this year.

 

Even with the major rebuilding project this year, Oklahoma should win nine ball games.  And, if Texas proves that it really cannot win the big game, who knows?  Maybe the Sooners surprise everyone, including my ratings.

 

2 (tie). Texas A&M               PiRate: 116                  HFA: 5

 

As he has with every program he has coached, Dennis Franchione enjoyed a winning season in his second year at Texas A&M.  The 7-5 record looked even better when you factor in they played nine bowl teams plus Clemson which was bowl eligible.  The Aggies are ready to stake their claim as one of the nation's elites, but the 2005 schedule is no picnic either.  Four tough road games plus the finale against Texas mean seven wins again would be an accomplishment.  A&M could easily pull off a few upsets and challenge for both conference and national honors.

 

17 starters return to the fold.  Nine of those are on offense.  The Aggies moved the ball successfully their first 10 games before running into trouble against the UTs. 

 

Returning to captain the ship is quarterback Reggie McNeal.  Last year, McNeal burst onto the scene as a possible all-star, completing 58.1% of his passes for 2,791 yards with a superb TD/INT ratio of 14/4.  He also rushed for 718 yards and eight scores.  Remove the QB sacks, and you get a runner with an average of better than seven yards per carry.

 

McNeal has a decent receiving crew this year, although he lost last season's top pass catcher.  Split end Earvin Taylor caught 22 passes at 13 yards per catch and scored two touchdowns.  Flanker DeQawn Mobley is another deep threat; he averaged 18.4 yards on 16 receptions and scored three times.  L'Tydrick Riley and Jason Carter will split time at the slot/wing back, which is used more as a possession position.  They teamed for 56 catches.  Tight ends Boone Stutz and Joey Thomas provide big, but mobile targets.

 

Courtney Lewis returns to his running back position after rushing for 742 yards and nine touchdowns.  When the Aggies employ a fullback, Chris Alexander will get the nod.  He is a hard-nosed blocker who will occasionally get the ball on a trap or inside counter.

 

TAMU has excellent depth in its offensive line.  Last year's starting center, Chris Yoder, lost his job to punishing blocker Cody Wallace; Yoder was a freshman All-American.  Guards Aldo De La Garza and Kirk Elder get the job done without drawing attention.  Tackle Jami Hightower was an honorable mention All-Big 12.

 

With a multitude of talent, look for the Aggies to do better than 28.4 points, 167 yards rushing, and 261 yards passing per game.  Pencil in about 30-35 points, 180 yards rushing, and 275 yards passing.

 

The offensive expectation should guarantee A&M several wins, because their defense will be stronger this year too.  Eight starters return from a unit that surrendered 24.3 points and 387 yards per game. 

 

Three starters return to a defensive line that was better against the run than against the pass.  End Jason Jack has two first names and stops runs to his side like he is two people.  Tackles Johnny Jolly and Joseph "Red" Bryant both weigh more than 300 pounds.  They can stuff most runs inside, but their pass rushing skills need to improve.

 

Four linebackers who started more than five games return from a year ago.  Justin Warren, Archie McDaniel, and Renuel Greene and Lee Foliaki combine for 202 tackles and 5.5 sacks.

 

The secondary is strong at safety and lacking at cornerback.  Strong safety Japhus Brown is just a sophomore; as a freshman, he intercepted three passes.  Free safety Jaxson Appel earned 1st team All-Big 12 honors last year after leading A&M with 85 tackles.  Broderick Newton and Danny Gorrer are young and still learning on the job. 

 

Kicker Todd Pegram missed five extra points last year, but he hit 12 of 13 field goal attempts.  He missed only his final field goal attempt of the year, after hitting 16 straight going back to 2003.

 

4. Texas Tech                       PiRate: 113                  HFA: 4

 

In ancient Greece, the best philosophers were those that hailed from Athens.  First, there was Socrates.  Then came Plato, who learned from Socrates.  Aristotle followed, learning from Plato.

 

In Lubbock, Texas, the greatest passing quarterbacks are teaching college football fans about a new philosophy called "Passocratic Thought."  First came Cliff Kingsbury, who threw for 5,000+ yards in 2002.  Then came B.J. Symons, who learned from Kingsbury.  In 2003, he broke the all-time single season passing yardage mark with 5,833.  Following him in 2004, Sonny Cumbie learned well from watching Symons.  He threw for 4,742 yards and 32 touchdowns, as Tech averaged an even 400 yards through the air.

 

Who will be Coach Mike Leach's next pigskin philosopher?  Cody Hodges, who possibly has a stronger arm than his immediate three predecessors.  Unlike the last three passing stars, Hodges can scramble quite well.

 

When you pass the ball 650 times a year, receivers tend to flock to your campus in droves.  TTU has seven or eight excellent options, and most of them will play this year.  Best among the group is Jarrett Hicks, who caught 76 passes for 1,177 yards and 13 scores.  Look for Joel Filani to get more looks after averaging 17.2 yards per catch on 18 receptions.  True freshman Todd Walker could possibly see action this year.  He has sub-4.3 speed.

 

Tech ran the ball less than 25 times per game last year.  About 15 of those carries each game went to Taurean Henderson.  Henderson rushed for 840 yards, averaging 5.2 yards per carry.  He caught 60 passes out of the backfield, but he averaged almost a half yard less than his rushing average with those catches.

 

Whether Texas Tech challenges as a dark horse for the South title will depend on the progress of a rebuilt offensive line.  Guard Manuel Ramirez weighs 333 pounds.  When The Red Raiders run the ball, they will run behind Ramirez a majority of the time.  E. J. Whitley starts at right tackle, but he can play anywhere on the line.  He is the team's best pass protector.

 

Texas Tech should gain around 500 total yards per game once again and score somewhere between 35 and 40 points per game.

 

Last year, Coach Leach's defense began to look quite good.  They trimmed nearly eight points and almost 100 total yards off their 2003 averages.  With eight starters returning, these stats will continue to improve. 

 

None of the defensive linemen will make any all-league teams, but there is ample depth here.  End Seth Nitschmann (five tackles for loss) and nose tackle Chris Hudler is tough against the run, while end Keyunta Dawson (6.5 sacks) and tackle Dek Blake are strong against the pass. 

 

John Saldi, Brock Stratton, and Fletcher Session make a formidable trio of linebackers.  Together, they made 149 tackles with 14 for loss.  Sylvester Brinkley supplies excellent depth.

 

The Red Raider secondary gave up 181 yards passing last year after yielding 256 yards in 2003.  Cornerbacks Antonio Huffman and Khalid Naziruddin broke up 12 passes and made 162 tackles.  Vincent Meeks broke up 10 passes from his strong safety spot.

 

Danny Amendola has been selected as the preseason All-Big 12 punt returner.  Last year, he returned a punt the distance and averaged 12.8 yards per return.

 

The excitement in Lubbock has led to 40,000+ season tickets being sold.  With a favorable schedule, this team could approach the results of the 1973 and 1976 tech squads. 

 

5. Oklahoma State                PiRate: 100                  HFA: 4

 

The Cowboys played last year like it was still the 1970's.  They averaged 237 yards rushing against only 144 yards passing.  They ran the ball 75% of the time.

 

New coach Mike Gundy takes over for Les Myles, who went to LSU.    Gundy is OSU's all-time leader in passing yards (he set this record even though his career coincided with Barry Sanders).

 

Oklahoma State plans to change to three and four-wide offensive formations and throw the ball more than 50% of the time.  As happened with Nebraska last year, expect this new offense to be ineffective in its first year.  The Pokes will suffer a losing record because of it.

 

Redshirt freshman Bobby Reid will give returning starter Donovan Woods a run for his money this year.  Woods is more geared toward last year's offense, while Reid has a better and more accurate arm.  Reid was named the starter last year but a shoulder injury shelved him for the season.  Third stringer Al Pena could see action this year.  He is a pure passer.

 

Tailback Mike Hamilton is a redshirt freshman.  He will be asked to replace Vernand Morency, who rushed for 1,474 yards last year. Of course, OSU will not run the ball 50 times a game like last year.

 

For a team that is planning to pass the ball 30 to 40 times, there are not enough quality receivers on hand.  D'Juan Woods led the Cowboys with 33 receptions last year, and he could easily catch 70-80 passes this year.   Tevin Williams, Tommy Devereaux and Luke Frazier will get their share of receptions, but none measure up to Woods.  Tight end Brandon Pettigrew is a better blocker than receiver, but he will be asked to be a receiver first and blocker second.

 

The hardest adjustment will come with the offensive line.  When a group of run blockers try to become pass blockers, the results are usually disastrous.  The change will help guard Corey Hilliard, who has pro potential.

 

Expect the OSU defense to suffer a little with the offense's change.  Chances are they will be on the field more than 70 plays a game.  Additionally, the alignment will change from a 4-2-5 to a 4-3.  The new emphasis will be on placing constant pressure rather than containing. 

 

The defensive line will have two new starters in nose tackle Ryan McBean and tackle Xavier Lawson-Kennedy.  Lawson-Kennedy has been injured for most of his career, and he starts the season healthy for a change.  Ends Victor DeGrate and Nathan Peterson should love the new, aggressive defense.  Their sack totals and tackles for loss should go up quite a bit.  They combined for 5.5 sacks last year.

 

The line backing corps returns four players with starting experience.  While experienced, this group is rather run of the mill.  Lawrence Pinson, Rodrick Johnson, Paul Duren, and Pagitte McGee will team with Jamar Ranson to form a decent and deep unit.

 

Two starters return to the secondary.  Cornerback Daniel McLemore and safety Jamie Thompson are both quick and strong.  Neither is big, and tall receivers could cause problems.  The rest of the secondary is does not meet Big 12 standards, so expect the Cowboys to struggle against the better quarterbacks.

 

This will be a learning year for Oklahoma State.  Five wins would be an achievement.  At least Baylor is in their division.  

 

6. Baylor                                PiRate: 91                    HFA: 3

 

The Big 12 has played nine football seasons.  Baylor has won just six conference games in that time frame.  When 10 seasons are in the book, chances are high they will still have six conference wins.

 

If not for the death penalty crushing SMU in the 1980's, the Mustangs would probably be in the Big 12, while Baylor played in C-USA today.  The Bears have won three games a year for four consecutive seasons.  Prior to that, they had won just five games in three seasons.

 

Coach Guy Morriss has 14 starters back this year, but there aren't enough Big 12-caliber players on the roster.  To make matters worse, a freak strep throat epidemic has hit the football squad at the wrong time, sidelining 18 players just before the first game of the season.

 

Quarterback Shawn Bell is the least talented signal caller of any Big 12 starter, but he could be the most intelligent.  He makes smart decisions on the field, and that allows him to achieve a modicum of success. 

 

Two fairly talented receivers return to make Bell's job a little easier.  Dominique Ziegler and Trent Shelton combined for 93 receptions and 962 yards with nine touchdowns.  Tight end Mike Miller is a fairly good run blocker but offers little as a pass receiver.

 

Paul Mosely is more of a Larry Csonka/Jerome Bettis runner than a speed burner.  The tailback scampered for 582 on consistent three to seven yard gains.  Damon Dotson and Jonathan Sisk will split the fullback duties.

 

The offensive line is a team strength.  Guard Lequalan McDonald can clear a lot of acreage with his 350-pound frame.  Yancy Boatner weighs only 336 and mans the other guard position.  Tulane transfer Will Blaylock starts at center.  Travis Farst is a good pass blocker from his tackle position. 

 

Baylor should score about 17 to 21 points per game and gain about 325 yards.  The defense will be better and deeper than last year, but don't expect them to put up numbers good enough to win with 17 to 21 offensive points scored.  Look for the Bears to allow about 30 to 35 points per game and 400 total yards per game this year.

 

The BU secondary will be the team's best unit.  Safeties Willie Andrews and Maurice Lane are the top two returning tacklers teaming for 171 stops.  All five starters from the five-man secondary return.

 

Baylor will be somewhat weaker than average at linebacker.  Both starters Jamaal Harper and Colin Allred are career reserved getting a chance to start as seniors.

 

The four-man interior line has limitations.  None of the quartet is an exceptional pass rusher.  End Montez Murphy and tackle M.T. Robinson are the players guaranteed to keep their starting positions.  Baylor gave up more than 200 yards rushing last year at 4.6 yards per rush.

 

The Bears have one player who ranks at the top in the Big 12 at his position, and he will get lots of action this year.  Punter Daniel Sepulveda averaged 46 yards per punt last year with a net of 40.6.

 

Baylor's only guaranteed win this year is a home date against Samford.  They could compete in three or four others, but they will be underdogs in those games.

 

If All Games Were Played September 1st

(in other words, these ratings are only good for the first week of the season)

(and predicted records may move a team up or down due to HFA)

 

Team                   Conf.                             Overall

North

Colorado                     7-1                            9-3 *

Nebraska                    5-3                            8-3

Iowa State           5-3                            7-4

Kansas State        2-6                            5-6

Kansas                        1-7                            4-7

Missouri                      1-7                            4-7

 

South

Texas                          8-0                           11-1 *

Texas Tech          7-1                           10-1

Oklahoma                 6-2                             9-2

Texas A&M          6-2                             7-4

Oklahoma State   2-6                             5-6

Baylor                 0-8                            1-10

 

*  Texas expected to beat Colorado in Big 12 Title Game.


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