Few conferences in the NCAA have as many various and interesting storylines as the Big Twelve conference. Only three years removed as the most dominant conference in football, Oklahoma stepped aside for Texas, and then the league became surprisingly mortal with long time powerhouses in the North falling to the basement.
Can Hawkins resurrect an atrocious Colorado team? Will Texas claim the South? Can Gene Chizik, one of the hottest assistant coaches in football, and a signing coup for Iowa State, do the impossible and make the Cyclones consistently relevant? Can anyone here claim a national title? These are just a few of many story lines that the Big Twelve offers this year.
The North Division:
Nebraska: Finished 1st North, projected 1st in the North
This isn’t the Nebraska teams of old, not even close, but the transfer of QB Sam Keller from Arizona State has to seem like a godsend to coach Bill Callahan. This Nebraska team returns six starters on offense and five on defense, losing a lot of NFL caliber talent. The good news is that they are in the North, and though the Big 12 North will eventually become strong and relevant again—it’s not going to happen this year. With a solid offensive line and more recruits coming in designed for the West Coast offense, this is a team that is growing into itself and will do good enough to get to the Big 12 title game, where whoever wins the south will destroy them.
Missouri: Finished T-2nd North, projected 2nd in the North
Missouri has one of the two best quarterbacks in the Big 12 with Chase Daniel. Even better, seven other starters return to a solid offense that should be able to make the step to dominant this season. There are only five returning starters from a defensive unit that was this team’s strength last year, and some new players will have to step it up if Missouri is going to have a chance at the North. With an experienced offense and deep pool of talent, Missouri has the ability to beat Nebraska out for the Big 12 North, and they don’t have to play Texas. The biggest issue will be playing focused and not losing games they should have won easily (hello Texas A&M and Iowa State).
Kansas: Finished 4th North, projected 3rd in the North
Kansas now finds itself where ISU was a few years ago: after many close losses can they learn to close the deal, or will they fall apart and have to start from scratch? Despite going 7-5, Kansas did not receive a bowl bid because of its 3-5 division record. Returning seven offensive starters will help to keep chemistry, and few teams consistently stop the run better than Kansas. They were two overtime losses away from being 9-3, and two other losses were by a combined four points. They have talent, but this is the best opportunity they have to make the leap.
Kansas State: Finished T-2nd North, projected 4th in the North
They were killed by a much better Rutgers team in a bowl, but no one can deny that last season was far beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. When everyone expects a losing record and you go 7-5 with a freshman quarterback and a huge upset win over Texas, that’s a great first season by anybody’s expectations. With a plethora of returning starters on both sides of the ball, Kansas State appears more talented, but with non conference games against Auburn and Fresno State, they will need quarterback Josh Freeman to continue to improve and carry the team in order to get back into a bowl. The key game may be against a resurgent Iowa State team: if they’re fighting for a bowl that game may decide who sneaks into a bowl and who goes home.
Iowa State: Finished 6th North, projected 5th in the North
Gene Chizik was defensive coordinator at Texas during their national title run, and was defensive coordinator at an undefeated Auburn team before that. No one gave the Cyclones a chance to land one of the hottest assistants in the country, but they managed it and opened up the checkbook for Chizik to hand pick the coaches he wanted. Despite a late start on recruiting, they landed a JUCO heavy class. Everyone expected this offense to put up points, but it didn’t, and a usually strong defense was one of the worst in school history. But there is talent here with QB Brett Meyer and plenty of talent at wide receiver. With a new spread offense, and Chizik’s defensive mind, can ISU go from four wins to six and get a critical bowl bid? With a weak non-conference schedule (they should go 3-1 if they lose to Iowa, 4-0 with the upset), a coach who knows how to put together a defense, and some truly great wide receivers, six wins does not seem far away if this team can learn the new systems quickly and play to full potential. The early game against Iowa will be the measuring stick for this team, who will be very close to six wins, and sharply improved either way.
Colorado: Finished 5th North, projected 6th in the North
When Dan Hawkins arrived from Boise State, everyone expected Colorado to immediately become a contender and an offensive juggernaut. Didn’t quite work out that way, though there are signs of hope. The defense was surprisingly good, and they did manage four wins, including an upset of Texas Tech. Despite good recruiting classes, there’s no reason to believe the offense will be much better this year, and Kansas, Kansas State, and Iowa State have all shown reason to believe they will improve by large strides, Colorado hasn’t.
In the South:
Texas: Finished 2nd South, projected 1st South
Quarterback Colt McCoy is the best QB in the Big 12, and it won’t be much longer before you see him in the NFL. For now, if he can stay healthy, he’ll continue to improve and will help a strong Texas squad reclaim the Big 12 South from a strong Oklahoma team still smarting from the Boise State loss. The loss of Gene Chizik to ISU hurts, but Mac Brown has a great recruiting class and few teams in the nation have more depth than Texas. Expect them to win the South and take a good shot at the national title if they can run the table.
Oklahoma: Finished 1st South, projected 2nd South
Oklahoma suffered through some growing pains, but by the end of the season they were clicking and played well enough to unseat Texas and take back their Big 12 South title. With eight returning starters on offense, a strong stable of running backs, and a monster offensive line, this team will score regardless of who is starting at quarterback. Defense maybe more of a concern as only four starters return, three of whom are in the secondary. Replacing six of a front seven is never easy, but Oklahoma has had the recruiting classes, so the talent is there, but will they gel? Miami is an intriguing early season game, but the Sooners should be more than enough to handle them and only Texas and Texas Tech can mount serious in conference threats to the Sooners, so look for another great season from Stoops and Company.
Texas Tech: Finished 4th South, projected 3rd South
Is any team consistently scarier than Texas Tech? Mike Leach has done wonders with this school, putting together a system that makes a team far less talented than the Texas and Oklahoma giants fully capable of upsetting either one. The biggest problem this season is that with only our starters returning on offense and six on defense, a defense that was becoming solid now has plenty of holes, and in a complex offense a returning quarterback has new players in three of the four starting WR positions, not to mention only one returning offensive lineman. They won’t be able to take down the big boys this year, but they will be good enough for third and a solid bowl.
Oklahoma State: Finished T-5th South, projected 4th South
Eight returning starters on offense will provide the Cowboys the boost they need to compete in the always competitive Big 12 South. Having one of the best kickers in the country doesn’t hurt, either. This team has holes to fill on defense, but a great coaching staff will help both sides of the ball to remain competitive. State barely lost to Texas Tech and A&M last year, and this year should be able to beat A&M and make a serious run at Tech. Expect a solid season with a respectable bowl, and if the defense can come together early, they may have an upset or two to pull.
Texas A&M: Finished 3rd South, projected 5th South
At first glance the nine win season seems reason for optimism, but a 45-10 drubbing by Cal in the Holiday Bowl proved a point I harped on last season: that A&M was one of the two most overrated NCAA teams last year (Notre Dame was the other). Almost every game they won was within a field goal, and to beat Army by one point just isn’t impressive. Never did A&M seem dominating, but they always seemed to barely slip by and were always surprised to slip away with a win. With a harder non-conference schedule that includes Miami and Fresno State, and the ever strong South, don’t expect A&M to repeat the same miracles. In fact, I’m picking them to miss out on a bowl completely.
Baylor: Finished T-5th South, projected 6th South
Despite having three weak non-conference games, a Baylor team that could only manage four wins last season lost seven starters on offense, including nearly all the skills positions. Long the basement of the South, unfortunately there just isn’t any way this team is pulling together enough talent to challenge anyone. Another season in the basement watching everyone else head to a bowl.
The Big 12 is full of storylines this season. If Gene Chizik can pull off a bowl his first year, it means the world since there is talent at ISU: but much of it is graduating after this season, and the young players need that extra practice, not to mention to get recruiting into a school that usually has a hard time of it, Chizik needs all the help he can get. Turning around a program like Iowa State would be nothing short of miraculous. Can Texas A&M prove they’re for real—or is this the year the coach gets canned? How good will Keller be in Nebraska? It seems almost every team has a story, and this may be the most intriguing conference of all to follow.