PiRate Preview: The Big 12 Conference

PiRate Preview: The Big 12 Conference

Prior to last season, 1969 was the last time Texas won a National Championship. They went undefeated in the regular season the following year but lost a chance for back-to-back titles when they lost in the Cotton Bowl to Notre Dame.

Prior to last season, 1999 was the last time Oklahoma lost four regular season games.  They went undefeated the next year and won the national title.

 

One of those two teams will win the South Division this year and could play in the BCS National Title game in Tempe.

 

In the North, it's been seven long years since Nebraska last played in the Big 12 Championship game.  While Colorado went to that game four of the last five seasons, the Buffaloes find themselves with a new head coach.  There's a new coach in The Little Apple after legendary coach Bill Snyder hung up the reins at Kansas State.  Missouri must go on without Brad Smith.  This division is a wide open race.

 

In the media's official preseason poll, Nebraska was picked to end their North Division title drought, with Iowa State a close second.  Colorado was the third choice, followed closely by Kansas and Missouri.  Kansas State was a distant sixth and last.

 

In the South Division poll, the media selected Oklahoma to take the crown back from Texas with the Longhorns picked second.  Texas Tech was all by itself in third, while Texas A&M was a distant fourth.  Oklahoma State barely edged Baylor for fifth.

 

The PiRates disagree only slightly.  While agreeing on Nebraska to begin the 2006 season as the best in the North, the rating says Texas is still a top five team. 

 

North Division

 

1. Nebraska Cornhuskers

PiRate: 112             National Ranking: 25                   HFA: 6

 

In year two of the great metamorphosis, Nebraska won seven regular season games and then knocked off Michigan in an exciting Alamo Bowl game.  The ‘Huskers threw the ball for 224 yards a game, but they finished dead last in the Big 12 in rushing with just 96 yards per game—this from a team that used to exceed 350 yards rushing year-after-year.

 

Nebraska returns enough starters and letterman to be the favorite in the North this season.  The offense should be more efficient, but the defense should win a majority of the games.

 

Zac Taylor returns as the starting quarterback a year after tossing for a school record 2,653 yards and 19 touchdowns.  Taylor came of age last year against Iowa State, when he completed 36 of 55 passes for 431 yards.

 

When Taylor looks for his receivers this year, he will have two exceptional wide outs getting open.  Nate Swift and Terrence Nunn combined for 88 catches for 1,136 yards and 14 touchdowns.

 

Leading rusher Cory Ross has finished his collegiate career, but Nebraska cannot fare any worse than last season.  Marion Lucky takes over the running back spot with Cody Glenn, Brandon Jackson, and Kenny Wilson look to contribute.  This group should rush for more yards than last year's average.

 

The offensive line isn't as good as the lines during the Tom Osborne days, but center Kurt  Mann and tackle Lydon Murtha are good enough to draw votes on the All-Big 12 team.

 

The Cornhuskers averaged 24.7 points and 320 yards per game last year.  The yardage should jump to the 350 to 375 yard mark, and the points per game should top 27 points per game.

 

Nobody will confuse this defense for the "black shirts," but Nebraska should give up less than 20 points and 325 yards per game this year.  All three units are stock full of talent.

 

The front seven has two All-American players.  End Adam Carriker pulled off 17 tackles for losses last year, including 9.5 sacks.  Linebacker Corey McKeon led the ‘Huskers with 98 tackles with 22 behind the line and seven sacks.  He also intercepted three passes and broke up seven others.

 

Other stars up front are end Jay Moore (14 tackles for loss) and linebacker Bo Ruud (14 tackles for loss, 7 defended passes).  Back from injury is linebacker Steve Octavien, who should find a place in the starting lineup.

 

The secondary needs to kick it up a notch, and if the front seven continues to limit the time the passer gets to throw, the defensive backs could hold passers to under 50% completions this year.  Cornerback Courtney Grixby defended 11 passes last year, and he should be the big weapon in the back.

 

When the Nebraska defense forces a punt, the Cornhuskers will have two excellent speedsters set to return it.  Terrence Nunn and Grixby both averaged over 10 yards per return.

 

The ‘Huskers open with two patsies in Louisiana Tech and Nicholls State.  At 2-0, they will travel to the Los Angeles Coliseum to take on Southern Cal.  Later in the season, Texas comes to Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, and Colorado closes out the season by coming to Nebraska.  The only tough conference road games are at Iowa State and at Texas A&M.  I foresee Nebraska losing at USC and at home to Texas, but they should beat everybody else on their schedule to play in the Big 12 title game at 10-2.

 

2. Colorado Buffaloes

PiRate: 109             National Ranking: 30 (t)            HFA: 5

 

Colorado started the 2005 season 7-2 with the losses at Miami and at Texas.  Losses at Iowa State and at home to Nebraska still didn't prevent CU from clinching the North Division flag.  The Buffs got a chance to play Texas a second time and lost 70-3!  After a Champs Sports Bowl Loss to Clemson, CU finished 7-6.  It brought the Gary Barnett regime to a crashing end in Boulder.

 

Enter Dan Hawkins from Boise State.  Hawkins went 53-11 in his stay in the land of the blue carpet.  He takes over a team that lost its starting quarterback and leading receiver, but he welcomes back five of the top six tacklers. 

 

The key to this year's offense will rest in whether the new quarterback can run Hawkins' offense.  Getting first crack at the job is James Cox, who saw limited action last year when he completed 17 of 41 passes for 119 yards.  Backup Bernard Jackson can play multiple positions, and as a quarterback, he is a rocket on two feet.

 

CU rushed for only 110 yards per game last year.  Hugh Charles returns to his tailback position where he rushed for 858 yards last year.  With a healthy line blocking for him, he should top 1,000 yards.  While not overly talented, there is some depth here including a couple of true freshmen who could see action.

 

Charles is an excellent receiver out of the backfield, where he grabbed 28 passes last year.  Two other key receivers are Dusty Sprague and Patrick Williams, who teamed for 73 catches and 730 yards.

 

The offensive line lacks depth, but two players could earn 1st team All-Big 12 honors.  Mark Fenton was the 1st team all-league center last year, and guard Brian Daniels gives the Buffs a great inside hole to run over.

 

The biggest offensive weapon is kicker Mason Crosby.  He is in field goal range whenever CU gets to the opponents' 40-yard line (at least at home in the high altitude of Folsom Field).  Last year, he nailed a 58-yard field goal and finished 22 of 29 overall; he also converted on all 32 PAT attempts.

 

The Buffalo defense fell apart at the end of the 2005 season giving up 130 points to Iowa State, Nebraska, and Texas.  CU was actually quite difficult to run against, but they played matador pass defense, giving up almost 250 yards through the air.

 

Hoping to improve those pass numbers is a secondary that returns a lot of experienced talent.  Cornerback Lorenzo Sims broke up 17 passes and intercepted another last year.  Terrence Wheatley returns to the opposite cornerback spot after missing all of 2005.  Safety J.J. Billingsley made 88 stops and defended seven passes.

 

The Buffs have two strong linebackers that combined for 185 tackles last year.  Thaddeus Washington registered 15 tackles behind the line including seven sacks, and Jordan Dizon stopped seven opponents behind the line.

 

The first line of defense is led by end Abraham Wright, who picked up seven tackles for losses and defended six passes.  Nose tackle Brandon Nicolas is eligible after transferring from Notre Dame.

 

The schedule includes road games against Georgia, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Nebraska.  The rest of the slate is manageable.  Call it a 7-5 or 8-4 season in year one of the Hawkins regime.

 

3. Iowa State Cyclones

PiRate: 107             National Ranking: 39 (t)            HFA: 4

 

Two years in a row!  That's what ISU fans must be muttering in their sleep.  In both 2004 and 2005, the Cyclones lost their season finales in overtime.  Both times, a win would have given them the North Division title and berth in the Big 12 Championship game.

 

This year, most Iowa State games should be shootouts.  The Cyclones are loaded on offense and full of holes on defense.  If the running game returns this year, ISU could be unstoppable even against the top defenses in the Big 12.

 

Quarterback Bret Meyer had some big games last year, especially after the running game fell apart due to injuries.  He completed 61.7% of his passes for 2,876 yards and 19 touchdowns, and those numbers could actually improve this year.  He has a truckload of quality receivers on hand.

 

One of the top receivers in the league is Todd Blythe who snared 51 passes for 1,000 yards (19.6 avg).  Former quarterback Austin Flynn caught 56 balls, while H-back Jon Davis grabbed 41.  Backup R.J. Sumrall is yet another deep threat who caught 20 passes last year.  Even tight ends Walter Nickel and Ben Barkema chipped in with 38 receptions and four touchdowns.

 

Running back Stevie Hicks rushed for just 545 yards at a 3.7 yard average in 2005.  He suffered a groin injury during the season.  When fully healthy in 2004, he topped 1,000 yards and provided excellent pass blocking in the backfield.  Fullback Ryan Kock is excellent on 3rd and one and at the goal line.  Last year, he scored 13 touchdowns.

 

The offensive line is huge but may be a tad on the slow side.  All five starters tip the scale over 300 pounds, and tackle Aaron Brant has NFL potential. 

 

There are a few defensive stalwarts on the team, but ISU is missing several stars who contributed last year.  Cornerback DeAndre Jackson should see enemy passers throwing to the other side a lot this year.  Last year, he intercepted five passes and batted away eight others.  Jackson is the only returning starter in the secondary.  ISU gave up 242 passing yards per game and could give up 250-275 this year.

 

The only returning starter at linebacker is Adam Carper.  He moves over from outside to the middle this year and should become one of State's leading tacklers.

 

Up front, the Cyclones return 2nd team All-Big 12 tackle Brent Curvey, who was credited with 6.5 sacks last year.  End Shawn Moorehead picked up 5.5 himself, giving ISU a nice pass rush.  They will need to come up with more this year to keep quarterbacks from shredding the secondary.

 

The conference schedule couldn't have gotten any harder.  Baylor and Oklahoma State, and Texas A&M go off the ledger and Texas, Oklahoma, and Texas Tech replace them.  That's three losses there.  Iowa will be waiting for revenge, while Nebraska and Colorado should be tough to beat.  Unless ISU can pull off a major upset or two, it looks like 6-6 is all they can hope for.

 

4. Missouri Tigers

PiRate: 105             National Ranking: 43 (t)            HFA: 5

 

The Brad Smith era ended with yet another underachieving mediocre Tiger team.  This one finished 7-5, making it two five-loss winning seasons and two losing seasons.

 

Missouri's woes could not be blamed on Smith last year.  With his leading the way, Missouri rushed for more than 200 yards and passed for 225 while scoring right at 31 points per game. 

 

It was a defense that yielded almost 30 points per game that doomed Mizzou to 4-4 in the league.  The defense is still going to be average this year, so the Tigers will continue to play exciting, albeit average ball.

 

The one major defensive area of concern is the secondary.  Safety David Overstreet cannot make every tackle and defend every pass.  Last year, he recorded 100 stops and defended 10 passes.  He is the only experienced defensive back.

 

The rest of the Missouri defense is quite good.  Linebackers Dedrick Harrington and Marcus Bacon teamed up for 158 tackles; Harrington had 12.5 tackles for loss.  Nose tackle Jamar Smith and end Brian Smith could both earn some post-season accolades.  Jamar made 12 stops behind the line, while Brian recorded 17 stops for loss, nine sacks, and six defended passes.  End Stryker Sulak made the Freshman All-Big 12 team last year and should record double digit tackles for loss.

 

Figure on Missouri's defensive stats to improve in 2006.  They should hold opponents to about 22-24 points and give up less than 350 total yards per game.

 

Offensively, the Tigers cannot possibly match last year's output.  With a more conventional quarterback, the rushing average will fall, as Smith avoided sacks and scrambled for large gains on his way to 1,301 yards rushing.  Chase Daniel gets first crack at trying to fill Smith's shoes.  He could easily surpass Smith's passing yardage (2,304).

 

When was the last time two tight ends tied for first in receptions on a Division I-A team?  Prior to last season, the answer was probably back in the days of the old full-house, split-t offense (which Missouri popularized).  Missouri's two tight ends, Martin Rucker and Chase Coffman, finished with 47 receptions each, and both of them return this year.  Also back this year are William Franklin and Brad Ekwerekwu who teamed for 72 catches.

 

Marcus Woods and Tony Temple will be asked to carry the load at running back this season after being counters to the quarterback.  They split 912 yards last year.  Both are on the small side, so neither can be counted on to carry the ball 300 times.

 

The offensive line could be the strongest unit on this side of the ball.  Center Adam Spieker was an honorable mention all-league player last year.  Tackles Tyler Luellen and Joel Clinger should provide strong protection for Daniel.

 

Adam Crossett handles both the kicking and punting duties and is above average at both.  Missouri should have good return units to boot.

 

The Tigers should be 4-0 when Colorado comes to Columbia.  The opening four games are against Murray State, Ole Miss, at New Mexico, and Ohio.  Home games with both Kansas and Kansas State should provide them with enough wins to become bowl eligible.  Will 6-6 be enough to save Gary Pinkel's job?

 

5. Kansas State Wildcats

PiRate: 104             National Ranking: 49                   HFA: 4

 

Ron Prince takes over for legendary coach Bill Snyder, who did the impossible in Manhattan.  Prior to Snyder's tenure, Kansas State had enjoyed four winning seasons in the previous fifty years, and two of those were five-loss seasons.  K-State had actually fallen low enough to lose at home to Austin Peay and go 0-21-1 the two year's prior to his arrival.  Snyder guided the Wildcats to 11 winning seasons plus a 6-6 season in his 17 years in the "Little Apple."

 

Snyder left Prince with a full cupboard, and Kansas State should compete for bowl eligibility.  The offense returns nine starters if you count 2004 starting quarterback Dylan Meier.  Both of last year's co-starters at QB, Allan Evridge and Allen Webb, transferred.  Evridge left after August practices began.  That means Meier will fight it out with true freshman Josh Freeman for the starting job.

 

The running back situation isn't totally clear at this moment.  Thomas Clayton returns after leading the K-Cats last year with 637 rushing yards.  However, he has been in trouble off-the-field and will miss the season opener against Illinois State.  JUCO star James Johnson will likely start game one, and a prime performance could earn him the regular position.

 

The Wildcats' receivers all have great speed, but they are not tough enough to catch passes in a crowd.  Yamon Figurs caught only 14 passes last year after snaring 31 the year before.  Jordy Nelson and Jermaine Moreira return after finishing one-two in receptions with 45 and 35 respectively.  Nelson caught most of the crucial conversion passes that other KSU receivers could not do last year.

 

The offensive line doesn't have a star on it, but guard John Hafferty is strong and tough.  Three other starters return to the line with him, but these guys only opened blocking holes for 3.5 yards per rush.

 

The defense does not come close to matching the standards set by the late 1990's and early 2000's teams.  The Wildcats surrendered 28 points per game in 2005 after giving up 31 points the year before.  Look for a similar result this season.

 

Each unit has one upperclassman who could wind up as an honorable mention all-league selection.  Tackle Quintin Echols should improve upon his 5.5 stops for loss.  Linebacker Brandon Archer led State with 72 tackles and 9.5 for loss.  Safety Marcus Watts finished second on the team with 71 tackles and broke up five passes.

 

The strength of this team is probably the special teams.  Jeff Snodgrass is not Martin Gramatica, but the kicker connected on a 57-yard field goal last year.  Moreira and Figurs teamed up for an 11.3 yard punt return average; Moreira returned one all the way.  As kickoff returners, the duo averaged 23.8 yards per return with Figurs taking one back for six.

 

Even though Kansas State should be better this year, the Wildcats may only rise one spot in the standings.  The usually easy non-conference schedule has three softies and one tough opponent.  State hosts Illinois State, Florida Atlantic, Marshall, and then Louisville before opening league play.  The first two conference games are at Baylor and home for Oklahoma State.  If K-State is not 5-1 after the first half, you can forget planning to watch them in the postseason.  They close with Nebraska, at Missouri, Iowa State, at Colorado, Texas, and at Kansas.  A 5-1 start can mean a 7-5 record or 6-6 at worse.  If the record is 4-2 or less, then the losses will exceed the wins for the third straight season.

 

6. Kansas Jayhawks

PiRate: 101             National Ranking: 56 (t)            HFA: 4

 

The Jayhawks hit a stretch last year where they looked like they were ready to become a player in the North Division.  They knocked off Missouri then slaughtered Nebraska.  After enduring the Texas buzz saw, they closed out the regular season by eliminating Iowa State in overtime.  Then, in the Fort Worth Bowl, Kansas annihilated Houston 42-13 and outgained them 538 to 244.

 

That was last year, and this is this year.  It's back to reality for Mark Mangino, as he lost a lot of talent.  The Jayhawks will be lucky to just have a record reversal, as they return the fewest starters in the Big 12.

 

Defense is going to be a major concern as nine of the top 12 tacklers are gone including eight starters.  Kansas gave up 22 points and only 303 yards per game in 2005, and those stats will climb a good bit this season.

 

The offense may equal last year's output, as KU scored only 22.4 points per game while averaging just 330 yards per game.  Quarterback Kerry Meier inherits the vacant position after beating out senior Adam Barmann.  Meier has no collegiate game experience, while Barmann completed 16 of 30 passes for 118 yards.

 

At running back, senior Jon Cornish returns and could threaten 1,000 yards this season.  He rushed for 780 at 5.8 yards per clip last year as the backup and scored nine times.

 

Cornish may be asked to run the ball 20-25 times a game this year, because the receiving corps is lacking a true star.  Brian Murph, Derek Fine, and Marcus Herford will not carry the team on any of their arms and legs.

 

The offensive line has a couple of exceptional players in center David Ochoa and guard Bob Whitaker.  Ochoa has been placed on the Lombardi award watch list.

 

Only three receivers return on defense.  Tackle James McClinton made 27 tackles last year with four for losses.  Cornerback Aqib Talib and safety Jerome Kemp combined for 112 tackles and 13 defended passes.

 

The Jayhawks need to come up with a stopper at linebacker, as all three starters from 2005 are gone, including Big 12 Player of the Year Nick Reid.  Mike Rivera made 20 stops in a backup role and could be the future Reid.

 

Punter Kyle Tucker is on the Ray Guy watch list.  He averaged 42.9 yards per punt last year.

 

The only saving grace for the Jayhawks this season is an easier schedule.  Oklahoma, Texas, and Texas Tech are replaced by Texas A&M, Oklahoma State, and Baylor.  Northwestern State (La.) and Louisiana Monroe pay visits to Lawrence, while KU must go to Toledo and also host South Florida.  It looks like 2-6 at best in the league and 5-7 at best overall.  That's quite an improvement from the last time the Jayhawks returned less than half their starters—they went 2-10. 

 

South Division

 

1. Texas Longhorns

PiRate: 127             National Ranking: 2              HFA: 7

 

Texas fans need only to look at recent history to remain upbeat about the 2006 season.  Replacing Vince Young may be an impossible task, but repeating their 2005 accomplishment isn't.  Southern Cal replaced Carson Palmer with Matt Leaner and won the national championship.  Tennessee replaced Peyton Manning with Tee Martin and won the national championship.  When Heisman Trophy winner Pat Sullivan left Auburn after 1971, the Tigers went 10-1 with Randy Walls directing the run-dominated offense.  After Heisman Trophy winner Jim Plunkett led Stanford to the Rose Bowl in January, 1971, Stanford wasn't supposed to return to the Rose Bowl the following year, but Don Bunce led the Indians (as they were then called) back to Pasadena and another victory over an unbeaten opponent to finish with the same 9-3 record of the year before.

 

So, who is the next Leinert, Martin, Walls, or Bunce?  That job belongs to redshirt freshman Colt McCoy.  McCoy's next snap as a college quarterback will be his first.  His backup is true freshman Jevan Snead.  McCoy is not the runner Young was, but he is a much better runner than Snead.  Snead may have the better arm, so he is likely to see action in a rotation with McCoy.

 

Texas averaged 275 rushing yards per game last year with 81 of those yards coming from Young.  This year, Jamaal Charles, Ramonce Taylor, Selvin Young, and Henry Melton will share the load.  All four of these backs can have a breakout game and rush for 100 yards.  These four horses averaged six yards per rush last year and they should easily offset the 81 yards Young gained.  As a group, Texas could out-rush Adrian Peterson and his backups.

 

Texas isn't about to revert back to the Daryl Royal days and run the ball 85% of the time.  The ‘Horns have a fine stable of receivers, led by Billy Pittman and Limas Sneed.  These two speedsters can take a 10-yard reception and turn it into a long gain.  A year ago, they finished with 70 receptions for 1,295 yards and 10 touchdowns.  They will make the new quarterbacks look good.

 

You want to know the secret of how Texas won the national title last year?  Vince Young was great, but it was the offensive line that won the title.  They were the best contingent since Nebraska's 1995 line.  You want to know something else?  Texas still has the best line in the country.  Start with the next Willie Anderson at tackle.  Justin Blalock is the best offensive lineman in the Big 12, and he is a leading candidate for the Lombardi and Outland Trophy awards.  Center Lyle Sendlein and guard Kasey Studdard give UT two more All-Big 12 blockers.

 

The Texas defense had a breakdowns against Oklahoma State and Texas A&M, but they held eight teams to 17 points or less.  The USC game was not a breakdown.  It was more like Nebraska giving up 31 points to Oklahoma in their epic 1971 game.  The Longhorns lost four stars, but the replacements will soon gain star-status themselves.  Texas will field one of the top five defenses this year, but it may be the second best in the Big 12.  More about that in the next team preview.

 

The strongest component of this fantastic defense is the front four.  Tackle Frank Okam and end Tim Crowder caused opposing quarterbacks to dump the ball or force a bad pass.  The two only sacked quarterbacks four times, but quarterbacks are smart enough to dump the ball before someone has to deliver flowers to their hospital room.

 

The linebackers aren't the weakest defensive unit—that would be a disservice.  Let's call these guys the least superior.  Robert Killebrew and Rashad Bobino combined for 17 stops for losses and should increase that number this year.

 

The secondary features two potential All-Americans.  Cornerback Tarell Brown defended nine passes and safety Michael Griffin stopped 11 to go with 124 tackles.  Replacing Michael Huff and Cedric Griffin will be hard, but Aaron Ross should be the next big star.

 

Vanderbilt fans remember kicker/punter Greg Johnson who left the Commodores after it was too late to replace him in the recruiting process.  He finally gets a chance to be a regular at Texas after sitting for the better part of the last three years.  When he was a Commodore regular in 2002, Johnson booted 27 of 27 PATs and 8 of 13 field goals and carried a 43.3 yard punting average with a net of 38.8.

 

Texas plays two other preseason Top Five teams.  They face Ohio State September 9th in Austin, and they have their annual Cotton Bowl Texas State Fair match with Oklahoma.  They must also travel to Nebraska and Texas Tech and of course end the season against those Aggies.  While UT may be as good as last year, I cannot see them running the table once again.  Add in the fact that the players might wear down after practicing day after day in triple digit heat, and it figures to be a 10-2 or 11-1 season in Austin.  

 

2. Oklahoma Sooners

PiRate: 117             National Ranking: 6              HFA: 6

 

Oklahoma was an early wise guy choice for national champ this year.  Then, news came out that starting quarterback Rhett Bomar had been declared ineligible.  The Sooners dropped out of the news and Ohio State took their place as the team of the moment.

 

Fret not for the Sooners.  They have Adrian Peterson.  Can quarterback Paul Thompson come back from the wide receiver position and direct the offense?  Sure, he has Adrian Peterson.  Can the receivers get open and make huge gains to take some pressure off the running game?  They can, because Adrian Peterson will delay the linebackers from dropping back into passing zones any time he could run the ball.  What about a rebuilding offensive line?  They'll do fine because they block for Adrian Peterson.

 

Okay, enough of Adrian Peterson already.  No, it's not.  How can a player have an off-year due to injury and finish with 1,104 yards rushing and 14 touchdowns?  I compare it to Babe Ruth in 1929, when he hit only 46 homers in 135 games.  If Peterson stays healthy all year, he could top 2,000 yards rushing.

 

Thompson returns to the quarterback position after planning to play at receiver this year.  Thompson supplies great foot speed and size.  He won't be asked to do what Josh Heupel and Jason White were asked to do.  If he can get the ball to Peterson and keep defenses honest with accuracy on play-action passes, Oklahoma should move the ball and score points.  With the Sooner defense expected to be one of the tops in the nation, 25-28 points per game should be enough to win every game.

 

Thompson's chief pass catching weapon is Malcolm Kelly.  Kelly caught 33 passes for 471 yards last year and should increase his 14.3 yard per catch average this year.

 

The offensive line is young with four sophomores and a redshirt freshman among the top six and only one senior in the group.  Whether they can run block adequately enough to open holes for Peterson to explode through is the big question.

 

The Oklahoma defense may be as good as any defense in the last 20 years!  The last team to hold opponents to a single-digit average was Miami in 2001.  If Oklahoma's offense moves to a 70-30 rush/pass ratio, they may hold onto the ball long enough for the defense to hold opponents under 10 points per game.

 

So where is the Sooners' Achilles' heel on the stop side?  There isn't one.  All three of their units are in the top 5 nationally, and all three could be number one by year's end.  The last time a defense had the best three units may have been Alabama in 1961 (they surrendered a grand total of 27 points in 11 games).

 

The line returns two full-time starters and one part-time starter, but the one new starter, tackle DeMarcus Granger, may be better than the other three.  Ends C.J. Ah You and Calvin Thibodeaux teamed for 29 tackles for loss with 17 sacks.

 

All three starting linebackers from last year return.  Rufus Alexander and Zach Latimer finished one-two in tackles last with 102 and 84 respectively.  They teamed for 23 stops for loss and 15 defended passes.

 

The 2005 secondary returns in one piece.  Cornerbacks D.J. Wolfe and Reggie Smith form the nation's best twosome.  Safeties Jason Carter and Darien Williams play the run and pass equally well.

 

Garrett Hartley is yet another weapon at the Sooners' disposal.  Whenever OU gets to the 35-yard line, the kicker is in field goal range.

 

Oklahoma has two roadblocks standing in their way of a national title.  They must venture to Eugene, OR to give the Ducks a chance at revenge in game three.  Texas comes two games later.  If these two games came in November, I would happily predict OU to Boomer Sooner over both of them.  However, at this stage of the season, Thompson and the rebuilt offensive line could stumble in one of those games.  Still, 11-1 could get them in the National Championship picture if the rest of the nation is too evenly matched.  That could very well happen.

 

 

3. Texas Tech Red Raiders

PiRate: 115             National Ranking: 13                   HFA: 5

 

The Red Raiders began to show they can play both offense and defense last year.  TTU gave up only 18.8 points and 335 yards per game last year and upped their annual amount of regular season wins to nine.  If it weren't for an upset loss to Oklahoma State, Tech may have been a BCS at-large team.

 

This year, expect Texas Tech to take a step back to seven or eight-win status.  The Raiders lost too much on the defensive side.

 

The offense should continue to shine with 350 to 400 passing yards and another 100 on the ground.  The next 4,000-yard passer will be Graham Harrell.  Harrell completed 67.3% of his 55 passes last year for 422 yards and three touchdowns against no interceptions.  If he completes 67% of more than 500 passes, he should top 4,500 yards if Tech plays in a bowl.

 

Making Harrell's job all the more easier is the fact he has four top-notch receivers to work with.  Joel Falani caught 65 passes for 1,048 yards and eight touchdowns as the top deep threat.  Robert Johnson (67-951) and Jarrett Hicks (65-850) provide Harrell with excellent intermediate route runners.  Danny Amednola is the H-Back who caught 35 passes last year.

 

If you remove QB sacks from the equation (and they don't belong being included in rushing stats), Texas Tech rushed the ball 273 times for 1565 yards, an average of 5.7 yards per carry.  That's what Navy averaged last year.  This year's single back will be Shannon Woods, who rushed for 168 yards on just 24 carries last year; he scored three times.

 

Four starters return to the offensive line, led by guard Manuel Ramirez, who earned 2nd team All-Big 12 honors in 2005.   They should protect Harrell and open large holes on the draw.

 

The defense will rely on the play of linebackers Keyunta Dawson, Brock Stratton, and Fletcher Session.  Dawson moves from end where he made 62 stops last year.  Session is the leading returning tackler, while Stratton returns after missing 2005 with an injury. 

 

The line welcomes back tackles Chris Hudler and Ken Scott, while end Seth Nitschmann returns after missing all of last year.

 

The secondary better be glad they don't have to face their own offense.  TTU needs some newcomers to step in and contribute immediately.  Only cornerback Antonio Huffman returns as a starter.  He defended five passes last year.

 

Texas Tech could top 40 points a game this year, as Harrell could be on his way to breaking Cliff Kingsbury's record for 12,429 passing yards.  The defense may give up 25 to 28 points a game, but TTU could win eight or nine games if they give up 28 points every week.

 

4. Texas A&M

PiRate: 107             National Ranking: 39 (t)            HFA: 6

 

It wasn't supposed to be this way when Dennis Franchione took over in College Station.  After going 4-8 in his first season, A&M went 7-4 in 2004 and then was ridden hard and put up wet against Tennessee in the Cotton Bowl.  Last year, with 17 starters returning, the Aggies finished an inexcusable 5-6.  One more underachieving season could be curtains for Coach Fran.

 

A defensive breakdown ruined the season for TAMU.  They gave up 31.2 points per game, not being able to stop any quarterback.  The Aggies watched opponents pass for over 300 yards per game; that mark was dead last among the 119 I-A teams.  To help the pass defense this year, new defensive coordinator Gary Darnell is switching to a 4-2-5 defense.

 

The five defensive backs, safeties Devin Gregg, Melvin Bullitt and Japhus Brown, and cornerbacks Marquis Carpenter and Danny Gorrer absolutely must improve the horrid pass defense stats this year, but two of them are going to have to contribute against the run.  Making several tackles after opponents gain five to seven yards rushing won't help that much.

 

Justin Warren led A&M with 95 tackles.  He could challenge for All- America recognition this year.  Joining him in the two-man unit will be Mark Dodge, a JUCO.

 

Up front, tackle Red Bryant is a rock at 6-5 and 330 pounds.  He made 7.5 tackles for loss last year and needs to double that amount this year.  End Jason Jack tries to return to 2004 status after missing several games last year.

 

This defense will have to gamble with blitzes, dogs, and stunts to keep quarterbacks off balance.  They may increase their sack total, but the Aggies could give up more big plays.

 

Offensively, TAMU averaged 32 points and 442 yards per game.  That should have been enough to win eight or nine games.  This year, A&M could drop a few notches in the offensive statistics, as quarterback Reggie McNeal and top receiver Jason Carter are no longer around.

 

Stephen McGee takes over under center for McNeal.  He completed just 45.3% of his 53 passes last year in limited duty.  He rushed for 235 yards as well, saving his best for Texas by running for more over 100 yards and two scores.

 

Tailback Courtney Lewis returns after leading the Aggies with 723 yards on the ground.  Jovorskie Lane, all 5-11 and 274 pounds of him, rushed for 595 yards and nine touchdowns, and he should team with Lewis for 1,500+ yards.

 

Earvin Taylor, Chad Schroeder, Howard Morrow, Kerry Franks, and Martellus Bennett give McGee a deep receiving corps.  If Taylor is healthy after missing nine games last year, this unit could be one of the top three in the league.

 

Three offensive linemen figure to compete for All-Big 12 awards this year.  Center Cody Wallace, guard Kirk Elder, and tackle Yemi Babalolo combine size and speed.  They should allow A&M to rush for 225 yards or more this year.

 

I expect TAMU to give up fewer points this season, but the offense will also score less.  However, the defense should improve more than the offense regresses.  A very fortunate schedule should help the Aggies win more than they lose and return to a bowl.  The season commences with The Citadel, Louisiana Lafayette, Army, and Louisiana Tech (all at home except Army which will be played in the Alamodome in San Antonio).  At 4-0, Texas Tech will be the first real challenge.  After that a road game at Kansas, a home game against Missouri, and road games at Oklahoma State and Baylor are all winnable.  The Aggies should need to be bowl eligible with a minimum record of 6-3 at that point; they finish with Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Texas and will more than likely lose all three.  If the final record isn't at least 7-5, expect a new coaching search to begin.

 

 

5. Baylor Bears

PiRate: 99               National Ranking: 63 (t)            HFA: 4

 

Guy Morriss came close to ending the long Bear winning season hibernation last year, bringing his troops in at 5-6.  An overtime loss to Texas A&M and double overtime loss at Oklahoma kept them from going bowling. 

 

This is a pivotal season in Waco.  Baylor has the benefit of having the easiest schedule in the South Division, getting both Kansas schools and Colorado as the North Division opponents.

 

Baylor threw the ball 36 times per game last year, and that number could actually go up in 2006.  The Bears cannot run the ball against the better defenses, as they averaged just 70 yards rushing against Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, Missouri, and Oklahoma State and 89 yards overall in Big 12 games.

 

Shawn Bell returns to pilot the pass-it-all-over-the-field offense.  In 2005, he completed 59.4% of his passes for 1,964 yards and 12 touchdowns.  Backup Terrance Parks is now the starting tight end.

 

When Bell throws, he'll have a couple of good options to locate downfield.  Dominique Zeigler and Trent Shelton, finished with 87 total receptions last year.

 

When the Bears run, Paul Mosley will be the first option.  He led Baylor with 657 rushing yards.  Brandon Whitaker is a better pass catcher as judged by his 30 receptions out of the backfield.

 

The offensive line doesn't blow opponents off the line of scrimmage, but they do a decent job protecting the passer.  Center Yancy Boatner moves over from guard, and he is the prime-time player of the group.

 

Baylor improved from 36.9 points allowed in 2004 to 26.5 points allowed last year.  With the four leading tacklers gone this year (and seven of the top nine), expect BU to give up more than 30 points per game once again.

 

The five-man secondary features an outstanding cornerback in C.J. Wilson, who intercepted five passes and batted away five others last year.  Anthony Arline returns to the other corner.

 

The defensive line returns two starters in end Marcus Foreman and nose tackle M.T. Robinson.  The two seniors combined for 73 tackles, 10.5 for losses.

 

Both starting linebackers from last year have moved on, leaving junior Nick Moore as the only experienced player in this unit.  Moore played enough to make 23 tackles, but none of them were behind the line.

 

BU has an above-average kicking game.  Punter Daniel Sepulveda averaged 46.2 yards per punt, while kicker Ryan Havens connected on 16 of 23 field goals.

 

Baylor has five games on their schedule that are virtual locks in the loss column.  TCU, Colorado, Texas, Texas Tech, and Oklahoma should be out of reach.  Games against Northwestern State (La.), Washington State, Army, Kansas State, Kansas, Texas A&M, and Oklahoma State gives the Bears seven chances to win.  I think they will win either three or four of these.

 

6. Oklahoma State Cowboys

PiRate: 96               National Ranking: 78 (t)            HFA: 4

 

Year one in Stillwater was a bust for former Cowboy star Mike Gundy.  The OSU career passing leader took over for Les Miles, and guided the Pokes to a 4-7 record, breaking a string of three consecutive winning seasons ending in bowl games.

 

A defense that gave up 31.3 points and 418 yards per game could actually be weaker this year.  The offense should improve by leaps and bounds in year two of the passing offense.

 

The one spot defensively where OSU is above average is in the trenches.  Tackle Ryan McBean was credited with 5.5 stops behind the line.  End Victor Degrate and nose guard Xavier Lawson-Kennedy return as starters up front.

 

The three-man linebacking crew lost all three starters from a year ago.  Rodrick Johnson did start one game and returns after making 74 tackles, five for losses.

 

The secondary was much too generous, allowing 62% of enemy passes to be completed.  Former quarterback and now safety Donovan Woods and cornerback Calvin Mickens return.

 

The offense is in much better shape with the return of quarterbacks Bobby Reid and Al Pena, top running back Mike Hamilton, and the top five pass receivers.

 

Reid and Pena threw for a combined 1,704 yards, but neither completed half of their passes.  They also tossed 17 passes to players wearing the wrong jersey.

 

Wide out D'Juan Woods is a future NFL receiver.  Last year, he caught 56 passes for 879 yards and eight scores.  Ricky Price, Hamilton, tight end Brandon Pettigrew, and Tommy Devereaux combined for 58 receptions but only one touchdown.

 

Hamilton rushed for 961 yards, while short yardage bruiser Julius Crosslin crossed the goal line 12 times.

 

The offensive line features all-league tackle Corey Hilliard.  He joins returning center David Washington and returning tackle David Koenig.

 

Kicker Bruce Redden nailed 11 of 14 field goal attempts with a long of 52.  He converted on four of seven kicks from beyond 40 yards.

 

Oklahoma State starts the year behind Baylor in the PiRate ratings.  As the season progresses, I think the Cowboy offense will improve and allow them to possibly upset a Big 12 opponent.  With non-conference games against Missouri State, Arkansas State, Florida Atlantic, and Houston, OSU should be at least 3-1 and possibly 4-0.  Road games against the Kansas schools and home games against Texas A&M and Baylor give the Pokes six winnable games.  I believe they will fall short by about two.  Call it 4-8 in year number two of the Gundy administration.

 

Next Up:  The wild and crazy Pac-10 Conference where the average score per team in conference play was 30 points.  Can somebody overtake Southern Cal, or will the Trojans continue their stranglehold on first?

 

Sources:  The official website of the Big 12 conference and the official websites of the 12 member schools

 

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