BIG 12 CONFERENCE
1. Nebraska Cornhuskers
Bill Callahan appears to get it. He’s still not the warmest soul walking the Big 12 sidelines. He’s not the most vibrant personality, and he’s still capable of rubbing people the wrong way with his sometimes-abrasive personality. He’s all-business. He’s competitive. And he may be about to turn a corner in Lincoln.
There are still hiccups, like an uninspiring 25-7 win over I-AA Maine, and a running game that averaged just 96 yards per game. Callahan and his offensive coordinator, Jay Norvell, have worked hard in the spring to revive the running game, which they see as an integral part of the offense. The quarterback and receivers are in place, and the defense is getting closer to “Blackshirt” form. This is a pivotal year for Callahan, because if he can develop that running game, a ten-win season could be the reward.
In good shape: Passing game. It still doesn’t look right for Nebraska to be throwing the ball 30-40 times per game, but that’s what they are doing. And they’re getting better at it. Zac Taylor returns as the quarterback after hitting just a shade over 55 percent of throws last year. His 2,653 yards last year put him less than 2,400 yards away from the school career record for passing yards. The senior has plenty of great young talent to throw to, highlighted by sophomore Nate Swift and juniors Terrence Nunn and Maurice Purify, a JUCO transfer. Taylor still has to be more consistent, but it will help if the Cornhuskers can develop a better running game.
Needs work: Running game. 96 yards per game? That’s somewhat less than good. Callahan and Norvell have a couple of sophomores who they think they can rely on in Marlon Lucky and Cody Glenn, but both are unproven at this level. They combined for 19 games last year, and Callahan believes they can carry the load. With the talent Callahan has recruited on the offensive line, they’ll have every opportunity to succeed.
Overview: The Blackshirts are indeed back. Senior DE Adam Carriker leads the way up front, and fellow senior end Jay Moore was honorable mention All-Big 12 a year ago. The linebackers are strong, too, led by All-Big 12 middle ‘backer Corey McKeon and OLBs Bo Ruud and Stewart Bradley. They should combine to further improve a run defense that allowed but 3.2 rush yards per carry a year ago. The secondary should again be good, despite the loss of safety Daniel Bullocks. The Cornhuskers have two layups before a September 16 showdown at USC, and they should be no worse than 4-1 when they visit Iowa State. Texas visits in late October, in a game that could propel Nebraska into Big 12 title contention if they can pull an upset. I don’t see this team contending for a national title, but Nebraska has the goods to win ten games if they can improve the running game and Taylor’s consistency.
2. Iowa State Cyclones
When your team is struggling for a few years, and you start to grumble about the current head coach, think about Dan McCarney and Iowa State. McCarney was 13-42 in his first five years at ISU, a record that, even at the most downtrodden program, is good enough to get fired. Since then, McCarney is 39-35, and the Cyclones have appeared in five bowl games, winning two of them.
Luckily for Cyclone fans, McCarney’s background is with defense. With the heavy personnel losses on defense after the 2005 season, they’ll need all the coaching they can get to keep up with Big 12 offenses.
In good shape: Quarterback. There are plenty of options on offense here. But Bret Meyer might be the best athlete playing quarterback in the Big 12 now that Mr. Young has moved on to the NFL. Meyer enters his third year as a starter, and he improved his numbers dramatically in 2005, completing 61 percent of his throws for 19 scores after hitting just 51 percent for 10 scores as a freshman. Meyer has the offensive line (five senior starters) and the skill-position weapons, and he should be in for a fantastic season.
Needs work: Linebacker. The Cyclones lose leading tacklers Tim Dobbins, who posted 103 tackles and 6.5 tackles for loss, and Matt Robertson, who also posted 103 tackles (Robertson was set to return, but got kicked off the team after testing positive for a banned nutritional supplement). McCarney has some depth back, including Michigan State transfer Tyrone McKenzie, who should start on the outside, and sophomore Adam Carter, who started six games a year ago. But losing a combined 206 tackles is going to be hard on this group unless McKenzie becomes the star McCarney hopes he’ll be.
Overview: With the likes of Jason Berryman, Nick Leaders, Dobbins, Robertson, and first team All-Big 12 corner LaMarcus Hicks gone, the Cyclones better be prepared to rely on their offense early. Opening non-conference matchups with Toledo and UNLV won’t be easy, because both teams employ versions of the spread offense, and ISU’s defensive personnel is questionable enough to cause worry if the opposition can move the ball consistently. However, the Cyclones pack some serious power on offense, with the likes of Todd Blythe and Austin Flynn waiting for Meyer’s passes, and a healthy Stevie Hicks running the ball. I expect the Cyclones to win a couple shootouts before the defense comes into form, and if they can survive the Iowa-Texas road trips with no worse than a 2-2 overall record, they could be in line for eight or nine wins and a solid finish in the Big 12 North.
3. Colorado Buffaloes
Since about 2001, the Colorado football program has had difficulty doing anything without generating some sort of controversy. They blew out Nebraska in the final game of a 10-1 season in 2001, gaining a berth in the Big 12 title game, but it was Nebraska who moved on to play for the national title. There was the Katie Hnida saga, which led to a far-reaching investigation of alleged improprieties in the CU program. Through it all, coach Gary Barnett survived. But Barnett couldn’t survive his Buffaloes being outscored 100-6 in back-to-back losses at the end of the season, including an embarrassing 70-3 loss to Texas in the Big 12 title game. Barnett was let go, and after CU played in the Champs Sports Bowl under interim head coach Mike Hankwitz.
It’s time to usher in a new era of CU football. Colorado hired the successful Dan Hawkins away from Boise State to do it. The eccentric Hawkins is 53-11 as a head coach, and he brings with him a plan to open up the offense with a spread attack.
In good shape: Secondary. The Buffaloes struggled a bit in the pass defense department last year, allowing a rather unsightly 248 yards per game through the air, including 392 to Nebraska and 337 in their first blowout loss to Texas. The good news for Hawkins and defensive coordinator Ron Collins is that three 2005 starters return, along with junior CB Terrence Wheatley, who missed last season with a wrist injury. Senior CB Lorenzo Sims broke up 17 passes last year, and senior safety J.J. Billingsley started all 13 games and was honorable mention All-Big 12. Sophomore Gardner McKay also fits into this mix.
Needs work: Wide receiver/tight end. Outside of senior WR Blake Mackey, who is coming back from a torn ACL last year, there are a lot of question marks. The Buffs are hoping that both sophomore Patrick Williams and junior Dusty Sprague can continue to emerge and become top wideouts. Both top tight ends from last year, Joel Klopfenstein and Quinn Sypniewski, were taken in the NFL Draft, so that position must also be rebuilt. Overall, Hawkins only has one of CU’s top four pass-catchers from 2005 (Sprague) back.
Overview: The secondary, along with a stout defensive line, should make for a pretty good CU defense. Hawkins appears to be set on that side of the ball. The offense, however, is stuffed full of question marks. Who plays quarterback? Smart money is on junior Bernard Jackson keeping the seat warm while Hawkins’ son Cody redshirts. Can the relatively undersized Hugh Charles carry the running game again? Will CU be able to field a solid offensive line? The interior should be good, led by senior guard Brian Daniels and senior center Mark Fenton, but new starters are needed at both tackle positions. Hawkins should expect some sort of an adjustment period as the kids get used to his wide-open spread attack, but Hawkins’ success at Boise State would lead one to believe that he’ll be successful in Boulder as well.
4. Missouri Tigers
Brad Smith became the first player in NCAA history to post over 8,000 yards passing and over 4,000 yards rushing in his college career. He had two 2,000/1,000-yard seasons, and he owns 69 school records at Missouri, including passing yards (8,799) and rushing yards (4,289).
Despite the gaudy statistics, Missouri only made two bowl appearances, both in the Independence Bowl, with Smith under center. He was only 25-23 as a starting quarterback, but it wasn’t always his fault. He had a lot of pressure on him to carry the offense. The running game rested on his shoulders, and he never had a game-breaking wide receiver to rely on.
Now, the offense has to diversify. Chase Daniel is good, but he’s not as good an athlete as Smith, and Gary Pinkel knows that the players around him will have to improve for the Tigers to get back into the bowl picture in 2006.
In good shape: Defensive line. The Tigers are loaded up front, with five defensive linemen returning that have significant experience. Senior end Brian Smith is undersized at 230 pounds, but he’s an outstanding pass-rusher. He recorded nine sacks last year and is already the school’s all-time career sack leader with 24. Senior tackle Jamar Smith is back after recording 12 tackles for loss last year, and junior tackle Lorenzo Williams had 9.5 TFLs. Senior tackle DeMarcus Scott and end Xzavie Jackson will provide depth.
Needs work: Running back. There’s talent here. That is not questioned. Missouri sports a pair of talented junior backs, and the question isn’t whether they can produce, it’s whether they can produce without Smith, and whether they can stay healthy. Marcus Woods appears to be the top back. He picked up over 700 total yards last year, but missed time with injuries, including a groin injury suffered in the regular-season finale against Kansas. Tony Temple had 883 yards last year, but missed spring practice after shoulder surgery. If Pinkel can somehow keep both these guys healthy, the Tigers’ running game should be in pretty good shape. But that could be a lot to ask.
Overview: Daniel got to play a little bit last year, and he did okay. He threw for 185 yards against Iowa State, and he showed a good knowledge of the offense in his limited work. He needs help at receiver, where Sean Coffey is gone, but Chase Coffman returns along with TE Martin Rucker. Senior receiver Brad Ekwerekwu should also get some chances to shine. The defense looks like it could be pretty strong, and the Tigers are really counting on it to be that way early in the season while Daniel gets acclimated to the starting job. The schedule is not terribly tough early in the season, with visits from Murray State, Mississippi, and Ohio, along with a trip to New Mexico. Missouri has a shot at seven or eight wins, thanks primarily to what should be a stout defense.
5. Kansas Jayhawks
Whoda thunk it? Kansas hires an offensive coach in Mark Mangino, and the defense snaps into form first.
KU’s defense might not have been as good as, say, Ohio State’s last year, but it was very good, especially in comparison to recent efforts from KU defenses. The Jayhawks allowed only 2.4 rushing yards per attempt, and they held opponents to a solid 303 total yards per game (as many as Texas allowed and four per game fewer than Oklahoma).
Now, the true test of Mangino’s offensive personnel comes. The Jayhawks have to replace eight starters on defense, but have seven returning on offense, including 2005 team offensive MVP Jon Cornish at running back.
In good shape: Running back. I gave it away there. KU should be able to run the ball this year. Cornish, a senior who was recruited out of Canada by USC, among others, posted four 100-yard games, including against Houston in the Fort Worth Bowl, along with Nebraska. Clark Green departs, so Brandon McAnderson gets the first shot at backing Cornish up. Thanks to a pretty good offensive line, Cornish, barring injury, is practically a shoo-in to become Kansas’ first 1,000-yard rusher since 1997.
Needs work: Linebacker. With three starters back a year ago, this was probably the strongest single unit on the football team. And they showed it. Nick Reid was the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year with 112 tackles and 14 tackles for loss. Kevin Kane and Banks Floodman combined for another 156 tackles and 21 tackles for loss. Oh, and Brandon Perkins posted a team-leading ten quarterback sacks among his 15 tackles. To say that Kansas has some work to do rebuilding this unit would be a massive understatement. Of the new starters, senior outside ‘backer Eric Washington probably has the best chance to impress right away. He’s one of the quicker linebackers in the league.
Overview: It’s been sort of quiet to this point (well, except for the blowup about a Big 12 officiating conspiracy after that Texas game in 2004), but Mangino has done a great job in Lawrence. This program was one of the worst in the Big 12 before he took over, and while it’s been a bit of a process, he’s nursed it to a level of respectability, earning two bowl trips in four years. If Mangino can find a quarterback (and he’s confident he’s found one in redshirt freshman Kerry Meier), the offense is in very good shape. The defense has been built into a strength, and it’s been well-coached. Veteran coordinator Bill Young and linebacker coach Mike Mallory have their work cut out for them, and there will be some lumps early, but I think Kansas has the goods to compete for a minor bowl bid.
6. Kansas State Wildcats
The biggest transition at KSU this year comes on the sideline. After 136 wins over 17 years, Bill Snyder stepped aside following two straight losing seasons. Moving in is former Virginia assistant Ron Prince, who is embarking on his first head coaching job at any level. He has the energy and passion to make this work, but it might take some time to mold the players into the systems he wants to install.
As much fun as we all liked to poke at Snyder for his normally weak non-conference scheduling (regularly scheduling powerhouse opponents like Florida International, McNeese State, Massachusetts, and Western Kentucky, among others), what he did in Manhattan is nothing short of incredible. His 136 wins are more than triple the second-place coach on KSU’s all-time win list, and it’s two more than all of KSU’s coaches had since 1937 (source: Phil Steele).
A similarly weak schedule may allow KSU to get off to a good start this year, but can Prince and his young staff keep them competitive in the Big 12?
In good shape: Defense. If KSU surprises and sneaks into a bowl game this year, it will be on the strength of the defense. Eight starters return, and all three units should be very solid. The defensive line gets back hulking tackles Alphonso Moran and Quintin Echols, and JUCO transfer Rob Jackson will compete for playing time inside. Linebackers Brandon Archer and Zach Diles return after solid efforts last year. Also back are starting corner Bryan Baldwin and safety Marcus Watts, who was honorable mention All-Big 12 last year.
Needs work: Quarterback. Prince wants to run the West Coast offense. As Blue Ribbon reported in their preview, he may have as many as five candidates to choose from at quarterback. The leading candidate appears to be Allen Evridge, who started six games last year with mediocre (at best) results. He hit just 48 percent of his throws and tossed seven picks to just six TDs. But the QB of the future is true freshman Josh Freeman, who reneged on a verbal commitment to Nebraska and signed to play for Prince. Will he be ready? Probably not, and that’s the problem, because Freeman’s the only QB of the bunch whose skill set actually fits Prince’s offense.
Overview: I’m not high on offensive success with such a radical changeover in the philosophy. K-State has been known as a running team for a long time, and Prince will be smart to use his running back, Thomas Clayton, a lot early on while everyone adjusts to the WCO. The defense is strong, and the early schedule is weak, possibly weak enough to allow for KSU to start 6-0 or 5-1. Key is a visit to Baylor, because the Bears aren’t as weak as they used to be. The Wildcats are good enough defensively to contend for a bowl bid, but anything more than six wins should be considered an achievement.