Texas and Oklahoma remain the class of the conference, but Texas finally will break through to win the South Division and capture the Big 12 championship. Both Texas A&M and Texas Tech have made strides, but neither is ready to challenge Texas and Oklahoma for the division title.
For the second year in a row, the North Division is weak. Five teams have a chance to come out on top, but none legitimately can challenge for the conference title.
Ranked second in Terry's Preseason Sweet 16
In the last four years under head coach Mack Brown, Texas has won 11, 11, 10 and 11 games, respectively. It doesn't get much better than that. Or does it? Well, the last four years does not include a single win over Oklahoma, and it does not include a single Big 12 championship, and it can get a lot better than that. Hang on to your ten-gallon hat, boys, because Texas will beat Oklahoma this year and Texas will win the South Division as well as the Big 12 Championship.
And if Texas beats Ohio State on Sept. 10, the Longhorns will play for and win the national championship. There, I've said it, I'm on record, my ballot is in the box. If I'm not correct in my prognostication and Texas doesn't make it back to the Rose Bowl, then do what you always do – blame it on Mack.
Vince Young is the difference maker on this Texas offense. If the defense overplays the run Young will beat you with his arm, and if it overplays the pass he'll beat you with his legs. Young is the Michael Vick of college football. Oh yeah, and the offensive line is the best Mack Brown has ever had at Texas.
But let me tell you an even bigger reason Texas will win it all this year. The Longhorns will win it because they will play defense like Oklahoma used to. They will play aggressive, they will play downhill, and they will GAYA (get after your you-know-what). Nine starters, including six seniors, are back. There won't be anybody on the field that ain't earned his spurs. Middle linebacker Aaron Harris will step in nicely for departed All-American Derrick Johnson, and tackles Rod Wright and Larry Dibbles will lead a deep and talented front four. The secondary will be led by strong safety Michael Huff.
However, the biggest reason I like Texas' chances to win it all this year is the addition of ex-Auburn defensive coordinator Gene Chizik. He is the best in the business and Auburn's No. 1 rank in scoring defense last season is an example of what he can bring to the table. He will be to Brown what Bob Stoops was to Steve Spurrier at Florida – the final piece to the national championship puzzle.
Ranked eighth in Terry's Preseason Sweet 16
If the above statements about Texas aren't enough to make a Sooner's blood boil then I don't know what will. Every Sooner fan knows Mack Brown at Texas hasn't beaten Bob Stoops at Oklahoma since Stoops' first season, 1999. However, Oklahoma's success this season and in the future is not so much about what happens at Texas but about what happens at Oklahoma. After the crushing loss to Southern California in last year's championship game, you have to wonder if the Sooners have lost some of the swagger that has made them so special.
One guy who can swagger anywhere he wants is running back Adrian Peterson. There is not a better tailback in the country. He will be called on early and often as the Sooners will be breaking in a new quarterback and several new wide receivers. Redshirt junior Paul Thompson and redshirt freshman Rhett Bomar are fighting it out for the starting QB position, and both have shown they can do the job. The final decision as to which one will start may come down to the very last day of preseason. Senior Travis Wilson is the most experienced returning receiver.
Defense is where the Sooners have the most question marks. Only four starters are returning but the reinstatement of tackle Dusty Dvoracek, who was dismissed before last season, will be a huge boost up front. Rufus Alexander is back to lead the linebackers. The biggest concern is in the secondary, where three starters were lost to the NFL. The secondary also must become more aggressive in attacking the ball. After four straight years of getting at least 24 interceptions as a team, last year's underachieving secondary only had eight steals.
Maybe all this talk about Oklahoma having to rebuild will be just the motivation the Sooners need to prove everyone wrong. Another win over Texas in the Red River Shootout would be a good way to shut everybody up.
With all the talk about Vincent Young at Texas it's easy to forget that Texas A&M may have the most athletic quarterback in the nation. Senior Reggie McNeal has a rifle for an arm and can run like a deer. Last year he set single-season school records for both passing yards (2,791) and rushing yards (718) by a quarterback. He also is a great decision-maker and did not throw an interception until the eighth game of the season. There are speedy deep threats at wide receiver, and four starters return on the offensive line to give McNeal the protection he is going to need. If the Aggies can come up with some kind of running game, the offense will be hard to stop.
Defensively, A&M returns eight starters, including five of the front seven. The defensive line is led by sophomores Red Bryant and Jason Jack. They must put pressure on the opposing quarterbacks because the secondary is young except for free safety Jaxson Appel.
Head coach Dennis Franchione has a history of turning around football programs, and Texas A&M should be no different. However, with a murderous road schedule including trips to Clemson, Colorado, Kansas State, Texas Tech and Oklahoma, I'm not sure this is the year the Aggies compete for a South Division title – unless they really get a solid running game going.
Quarterbacks Cody Hodges and Graham Harrell are fighting it out to replace Sonny Cumbie, but based on Mike Leach's track record at Texas Tech I'm not sure it's going to matter who gets the nod. Whomever it is, he'll throw for a zillion yards just like the rest of Tech's quarterbacks have under Leach.
What gives this year's team a chance to make a New Year's Day bowl is the defense. Seven starters return from a group that made unbelievable strides last season and looks to be even better in 2005. Both the kicker and the punter also return, along with sensational punt returner Danny Amendola.
With a soft non-conference schedule, Texas Tech has a chance to start the season 6-0. However, the last five games, which include four teams that went bowling last season, will determine just how special this season is going to be.
It's all about coaching changes at Oklahoma State and how well each new coach handles his responsibility. Head coach Mike Gundy has replaced Les Miles, who departed for LSU. After being a star quarterback and offensive coordinator for the Cowboys, he now has a chance to take Oklahoma State to a fourth straight bowl for the first time in school history.
Gundy brought in offensive coordinator Larry Fedora to run a fast-paced, no-huddle spread offense. The success of this year's offense will depend on how quickly quarterbacks Donovan Woods and Bobby Reid pick up the new system.
Defensively, OSU hired coordinator Vance Bedford from the Chicago Bears to install more of an attacking style of play. With seven starters returning, this is where the team should show the most improvement.
With all these changes it's hard to see Oklahoma State improving on last year's 7-5 record.
Last season Baylor was 100th in scoring offense, 110th in scoring defense and 113th in turnover margin. Considering there were only 117 teams in Division I-A, there is nowhere to go but up. However, it's going to be a mighty long climb to get out of the South Division cellar.
With all the off-field distractions last year and a team that wasn't ranked in the top 50 in offense or defense, Colorado incredibly managed to go 8-5, win the Big 12 North and beat UTEP in the Houston Bowl. Although coach Gary Barnett had two division championships in the previous three years, last season was his best job of coaching in six years at Colorado. This year, with 17 starters returning and only 15 lettermen lost, Colorado has the most experienced team in the Big 12. Although not one of these offensive or defensive returners are preseason first-team all-conference selections, there is strength in numbers. So while no one really thought the Buffs would get to last year's Big 12 championship game, this year Colorado expects it.
Third-year starter Joel Klatt returns at quarterback and leads the offense more with his head and his heart than with great athletic ability. However, with a nice group of experienced wide receivers returning along with top pass catcher Joe Klopfenstein at tight end, improvement in the passing game is not only imperative but likely. With unknown quality at tailback, the patented power running game of a Barnett-coached football team is not a certainty. But the offensive line has a fine nucleus with three returning starters, led by guard Brian Daniels. If the receivers can improve their pass-catching skills from last season, the passing game should be able to spread out defenses in order to open up the running game.
With 10 starters back on defense, Colorado just needs to get a little better in every phase of the game. The Buffaloes were 69th in Division I-A in rushing defense, 105th against the pass and 61st in scoring defense. That ain't real good. Maturity alone should make the Buffs better.
So where is the advantage that puts Colorado on top of the Big 12 North? The secret weapon is the best kicking duo in America. Mason Crosby had five field goals from 50 yards or longer, and John Torp's 44.6-yard average is the best among active punters. Add the fact that Gary Barnett gets more out of his players than any other coach in the conference, and what you have is the favorite in the Big 12 North.
Bill Callahan was hired at Nebraska to overhaul the offense, replacing its traditional power running attack with a high-flying West Coast offense. With the different type of talent needed, especially at quarterback, everyone figured there would be some growing pains on offense – and there have been. However, maybe of more concern is that Nebraska returned a very good defense with one of the nation's best secondaries, and it regressed into a below-average group. As much as the offense struggled last year, if the defense had just remained the same, Nebraska would not have suffered its first losing season since 1961.
So now there are two question marks at Nebraska. Can the Huskers develop into an effective West Coast offensive football team, and can they go back to playing tough Blackshirt defense?
The good news is that Callahan and his staff have proven to be superlative recruiters. With a few more recruiting classes like this one, the transformation should be a whole lot easier.
On offense, Zac Taylor replaces the ineffective Joe Dailey at quarterback, and this spring Taylor showed Cornhusker fans that he knows how to throw the football. He still could be contested this fall by hot recruit Harrison Beck. The receiving corps will be solid but not spectacular. Inch for inch, 5-foot-6 running back Cory Ross is as good as any back in the country, and highly regarded freshman Marlon Lucky also could add some explosiveness to the backfield.
Defensively, three of four starters are back from a front that last year led the Blackshirts to the 11th-best rush defense in the nation, and they again will be the strength on this side of the ball. However, if overall improvement is going to occur, it must come in the secondary. If Nebraska doesn't do a better job of stopping the pass, no one will bother running the ball. Strong safety Daniel Bullocks is the only returning starter in the backfield, and he will have the responsibility of holding the secondary together.
In spite of all the building that still must be done, Nebraska again will be a strong contender for the Big 12 North title – there is no clear-cut favorite.
Iowa State is one of three teams with a good chance to win the North. As ISU looks to make it to a fifth bowl game in the last six years, Coach Dan McCarney must get credit for continuing to improve the talent level.
ISU returns eight starters on both sides of the ball plus both the punter and the kicker. This alone should make the Cyclones better than last year's 7-5 team that won the Independence Bowl.
The offense struggled in every phase of the game last year but will be much improved with a return of all its big guns. Quarterback Bret Meyer played exceptionally well for a freshman last season and has matured into a much better leader and decision-maker. Wide receivers Todd Blythe (who must recover from ACL surgery) and Jon Davis both have all-conference potential, and 1,000-yard rusher Steve Hicks is back to lead the ground attack. Three starters also return on the offensive line.
Defensively, Iowa State will be solid at every position and has the potential to be the best in the Big 12 North. All four defensive backs return after leading ISU to a top-20 finish nationally in pass defense last year. Middle linebacker Tim Dobbins is coming off a stellar season, and if the Cyclones can make improvement stopping the run they just may find themselves playing in the Big 12 title game.
I remember when quarterback Brad Smith first broke into the national spotlight as a freshman. With his abundant skills and reckless running style, you just knew the kid was going to take Missouri to new heights. Three years later, all Mizzou has to show for the Brad Smith Experience is an 18-18 record, one bowl game and a whole lot of disappointment.
Last year head coach Gary Pinkel unsuccessfully tried to develop Smith into more of a pocket passer to improve the passing game. But in the effort, Smith lost his greatest asset, his ability to improvise with his legs. This year the shotgun/no-huddle/spread offense has been installed to get Smith back into his element and reinvigorate the offense.
Sophomore Tony Temple earned the starting tailback position in the spring, and senior wide receiver Sean Coffey, who caught a school-record 10 touchdown passes last season, leads an exciting young group of receivers. After averaging only 23 points per game last year, almost anything will be an improvement.
The Tigers were a top-25 defense last year, but with only three starters back on this side of the ball they will be hard pressed to improve. Defensive end Xzavie Jackson is the best of a very good group of defensive ends, and the secondary is chock-full of seniors.
The Tigers are hoping an improved offense will do its job by keeping the defense on the bench more than it was last year, but I don't see enough to project Missouri as a Big 12 North contender. A bowl appearance may be a necessity for Pinkel.
What in the world is going on at Kansas State? You could almost bank on the Wildcats having a 10-win season based on their success over the past decade, making last year's 4-7 record totally unexpected. Has coach Bill Snyder lost his edge, or was last season merely an aberration? Although there is serious work to be done, I believe it's the latter.
Finding a versatile quarterback who can run the Wildcat offense is the first priority. History shows K-State's offense goes nowhere without the "right kind of guy" under center. Dylan Meier was supposed to be the man last year, but he hurt his shoulder in the season opener and was largely ineffective throughout the six games he was able to start. After offseason surgery, he offers the greatest chance for getting the most out of the position. If he doesn't, then his replacement last year, Allen Webb, or redshirt freshman Allan Evridge must take the reins. If the quarterback situation gets corrected, everything else on offense will fall into place.
The most surprising collapse last season was on the defense, which gave up more than 30 points per game. That's pretty bad. And this is at a program whose defenses finished in the top six in the previous seven seasons.
After an attitude adjustment in the offseason the defense looks to get back to more of an attacking style of play. Five of the front seven are back, led by two very good defensive ends, Tearrius George and Scott Edmonds, and leading tackler Brandon Archer at linebacker. Senior safety Jesse Tetuan is back for his third year as a starter but the emerging star may be cornerback Kyle Williams.
If a quarterback comes through, Kansas State will be another challenger for the North Division title. If not, the Wildcats will struggle just to have a winning season.
When Mark Mangino left Oklahoma for Kansas I figured it would have the same effect on the Jayhawks as Mike Leach had on Texas Tech when he left Oklahoma two seasons earlier. He'd bring a wide-open, score-a-ton-of-points offense to a program that couldn't recruit enough great athletes to win with defense in the Big 12.
Lo and behold, in Mangino's fourth year, Kansas can't find a quarterback, can't score a lot of points and must rely on defense to win games.
Because I believe you can scheme victories on offense but must have better athletes to win on defense, I don't think Mangino can succeed at Kansas without a successful wide-open offense. This year will go a long way toward proving whether I'm right or wrong.