Aug. 18, 2009

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By Adam Caparell
NCAA.com

The race of the Big 12 South title could be the most hotly contested division race in college football this year.

With preseason No. 2 Texas, No. 3 Oklahoma and No. 11 Oklahoma State, the South is stacked with some of the nation's top teams that not only have Big 12 Championship aspirations, but BCS dreams as well.

The likes of Colt McCoy, Sam Bradford and Zac Robinson make up quite the quarterbacking trio in the Big 12 South. But the league known as much for its high-scoring spread offenses than anything else should also be known for its dearth of quarterbacks this year with signal callers like Robert Griffin and Todd Reesing.


North


Colorado
2008 Record: 5-7 (2-6)
Returning Starters: 10 offense, 4 defense
Offensive Keys: While many Big 12 teams love running a no-huddle spread attack, the scheme did not seem to agree with the Buffaloes last season so change is in the air in Boulder. But considering that the Buffs seem to be constructed for a more conventional way of doing things, the change should be welcomed with open arms - and probably produce better results than what we saw out of them last year. QB Cody Hawkins - son of head coach Dan Hawkins - will be asked to cut down on the mistakes. While wide receiver may lack depth, it certainly isn't lacking in the backfield.
Defensive Keys: Colorado won't have the services of a number of their top defenders from last year so it'll be interesting to see how they fair this year. Hawkins had them switch schemes so the Buffs will now line up in the 3-4 so they can utilize their corps of linebackers and mask the defections on the line. The secondary has plenty of able bodies.
Keep An Eye On: RB Darrell Scott, LB Shaun Mohler, CB Jimmy Smith
All In The Numbers: 20.2, points per game average for Colorado last season, last in the Big 12.
Deciding Game: Nov. 27 vs. Nebraska
Outlook: There seems to be more question than answers with the Buffaloes. How will the defense handle the change? Can the offense finally break through for the first time in Hawkins' four years at the school? No one can definitely say, but Colorado does have a penchant for ripping off an upset for two every year (Oklahoma 2007, West Virginia 2008) so don't rule out anything with this team.


Iowa State
2008 Record: 2-10 (0-8)
Returning Starters: 9 offense, 6 defense
Offensive Keys: What took them so long? That's the question a lot of people will ask regarding the Cyclones after they decided to install the spread that just about every other Big 12 program runs. Coordinator Tom Herman is the man in charge of making sure the Cyclones know what they're doing before the season kicks off. QB Austen Arnaud will be leading the way again this season after a very respectable 2008. The offense put up some quality numbers last year, including 248.4 yards per game in the air. Throwing from the shotgun should suit him just fine.
Defensive Keys: It was the defense that was the main culprit for the Cyclones disappointing record. Finishing 112th in total defense obviously didn't allow the offense very many chances to stay in games. But in all fairness, it's not easy against those high-powered Big 12 offenses. But if the Cyclones want to start heading in the right direction things are going to have change. The front seven features mostly upperclassmen. Iowa State will need a few playmakers to emerge.
Keep An Eye On: RB Alexander Robinson, WR Darius Darks, LB Jesse Smith
All In The Numbers: 0-8, Iowa State's record last year when allowing 30 points or more.
Deciding Game: Sept. 12 vs. Iowa
Outlook: The Gene Chizik era did not last very long and Iowa State did not seem to mind a head coaching change all that much. In comes Paul Rhoads to try and turn things around in Ames. It's not going to be easy, but there should be improvement over last year's two wins. The offense will be potent; it's just a matter of what the defense gives them.


Kansas
2008 Record: 8-5 (4-4)
Returning Starters: 8 offense, 7 defense
Offensive Keys: He might be small in stature, but he packs a big punch. QB Todd Reesing is among the nation's top quarterbacks entering his senior season and the Jayhawks are looking forward to one last season of him airing it out. He's got two talented wide out in Dezmon Briscoe and Kerry Meier to throw to and a very good running back in Jake Sharp to hand off to. The offensive line has a few holes that need to be addressed, but the Jayhawks offense will be putting up big numbers yet again, due in large part to the 5-foot-10 QB calling the shots.
Defensive Keys: They're changing things up a little bit in Lawrence as they transition over to the 4-2-5. New starting linebackers must be decided upon for a unit that allowed a ton of passing yards last season. Hopefully getting another defensive back in there on most downs will help keep those high powered Big 12 offenses in check. For the most part, the secondary that struggled last season will feature mostly upperclassmen so improvement is expected on the 114th passing defense in the nation.
Keep An Eye On: C Jeremiah Hatch, DE Jake Laptad, S Darrell Stuckey
All In The Numbers: 0, times Kansas has gone to three straight bowl games.
Deciding Game: Nov. 14 vs. Nebraska
Outlook: Kansas, even with Missouri losing Chase Daniel, can't get any respect. They were overlooked in the Coaches Poll and Nebraska was picked to finish first in the Big 12 North by the media. But they'd prefer it to be that way. The Jayhawks like playing that underdog role and hope to ride that all the way to the Big 12 Championship game. But with games against Oklahoma and Texas this year on the schedule, it won't be easy.


Kansas State
2008 Record: 5-7 (2-6)
Returning Starters: 6 offense, 8 defense
Offensive Keys: Bill Snyder is back in Manhattan and one of his first tasks will be to decide on a quarterback after Josh Freeman left for the NFL. It'll probably end up being Carson Coffman because he's the only legitimate candidate who is not a freshman. Junior college transfer Daniel Thomas will not be playing quarterback as was speculated. Snyder wants him at running back instead where the athlete figures to thrive. Talent returns at receiver for a team that probably won't throw it quite as much as last season.
Defensive Keys: Defense was the culprit for the Wildcats last season as they struggled to stop teams either on the ground or in the air. The front seven should be much stronger this year where DE Brandon Harris leads the way. Other returning starters are splashed around the 4-2-5 defense meaning that there should be improvement from last year.
Keep An Eye On: WR Brandon Banks, RB Keithen Valentine, FS Tysyn Hartman
All In The Numbers: 2006, last time Kansas State earned a bowl berth.
Deciding Game: Nov. 7 vs. Kansas
Outlook: Snyder might be turning 70 this season, but that doesn't mean he's lost touch. He's demanding change and revamping things around the football facility that's named in his honor in hopes of restoring the Wildcats to the ranks of the Big 12 North elite. They've fallen off since he was last on the sidelines and he's vowed not to rest until that happens. A quick turnaround does not appear to be in the cards, but don't bet against Snyder over the long haul. He made many people a loser the first time around.


Missouri
2008 Record: 10-4 (5-3), Big 12 North Champions, Alamo Bowl
Returning Starters: 5 offense, 4 defense
Offensive Keys: The Chase Daniel era is officially over and in comes Blaine Gabbert to take over. At 6-foot-5, the Missouri offensive line won't have to create any passing lanes for Gabbert like it had to for Daniel. But Gabbert, despite his huge frame, will still be operating out of the shotgun, spread formation that the Tigers have featured for years now. Under Daniel, Missouri was a pass-happy team, but expect them to dial that down a bit with Gabbert's inexperience. They want to be more balanced and hopefully they can accomplish that on the back of Derrick Washington.
Defensive Keys: The defense was throttled for 286.6 passing yards per game last year and with so few starters back, there's obvious cause for concern. It all starts at the line where only one starter returns. Head coach Gary Pinkel hopes he can generate some sort of pass rush this year. Linebacker will be a strength where two starters return.
Keep An Eye On: WR Jared Perry, NT Jaron Baston, CB Kevin Rutland
All In The Numbers: 101, career passing touchdowns for Daniel in his four years at Missouri. 
Deciding Game: Nov. 28 vs. Kansas (Kansas City)
Outlook: To say a lot is riding on Gabbert's shoulders would be understating things. He's the key pretty much to the season. As he goes so goes Missouri. If he settles in nicely and finds a good rhythm and doesn't make too many back-breaking mistakes there's no reason why Missouri won't be bowling again for the fifth straight season. But if he doesn't, the Tigers could really struggle with a schedule that features a very tough three game swing with trips to Nevada and Oklahoma State with Nebraska sandwiched between.


Nebraska
2008 Record: 9-4 (5-3), Gator Bowl
Returning Starters: 4 offense, 6 defense
Offensive Keys: He doesn't have much in the way of experience, but that's not going to stop the Cornhuskers from throwing Zac Lee under center when the season starts. Unfortunately for Lee, his receivers are going to be just as green as he is. Greater importance will be put on the running game. Roy Helu, Jr. and Quentin Castile are the duo in the backfield that Nebraska hopes will keep the running game churning. The offensive line returns three starters.
Defensive Keys: While they were pretty stout against the run, Nebraska still has a ways to go under head coach Bo Pelini and his defense after finishing 55th in the nation a year ago. The guru expects the numbers to improve this year, especially against the pass that turned out to be the Cornhuskers weak point last season. Starting up front, Ndamukong Suh is the name to watch and he should get help from a secondary that brings back four starters.
Keep An Eye On: TE Mike McNeil, DE Pierre Allen, CB Anthony West
All In The Numbers: 3, times Pelini's defenses at LSU finished ranked third nationally in total defense.
Deciding Game: Nov. 14 at Kansas
Outlook: Some have Nebraksa projected as the Big 12 North favorite while other likes Kansas. Bottom line is it appears that it's going to a battle down the stretch between those two with that November date quite possibly the determining factor as to who heads down to Arlington for the Big 12 Championship game in December. The defense needs to improve against the pass first and foremost and if Lee is steady, then Nebraska just might emerge with the division.

 

South


Baylor
2008 Record: 4-8 (2-6)
Returning Starters: 8 offense, 8 defense
Offensive Keys: You'd be hard pressed to find a more athletically gifted quarterback than Robert Griffin. As a freshman last season, Griffin threw for 2,091 yards and 15 TDs and ran for another 843 yards and 13 TDs. The guy's so talented he could just as easily be dominating the country on the track. He was a track and field All-American his freshman season after finishing third in the 400 at the NCAA Championships. Griffin will have a huge target on his back this fall, but he also feels he has plenty of weapons to work with. They do have a glaring hole at tackle with the departure of Jason Smith who was the second overall pick in last April's NFL Draft.
Defensive Keys: This unit appears to be on the up. With Penn State transfer Phil Taylor taking his place on the line and LB Joe Pawelek roaming the middle, the Bears are shaping up to be a much better squad than the one that finished 85th in total defense. The passing defense was suspect, to say the least last year, in allowing 255.3 yards per game last year. Increased pressure on the quarterback, something that was lacking, should help with that cause.
Keep An Eye On: RB Jay Finley, WR Kendall Wright, FS Jordan Lake
All In The Numbers: 1994, the last year Baylor went bowling.
Deciding Game: Nov. 28 vs. Texas Tech (Arlington)
Outlook: There is a lot of optimism in Waco in Art Briles' second season. That's mostly due to Griffin and his considerable talents. But the Bears are talking bowl game this year. If the defense can tighten things up against the pass then the postseason could be a very distinct possibility when the season comes to an end. The schedule, however, won't make things easy for them with road games against Wake Forest and Oklahoma.


Oklahoma
2008 Record: 12-2 (7-1), Big 12 South Champions, Big 12 Champions, BCS Championship Game
Returning Starters: 5 offense, 9 defense
Offensive Keys: Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford easily could have gone to the NFL, but he's back under center for the Sooners. Unfortunately, he's only going to have one returning starter on the offensive line so the quarterback who rarely found himself under duress last year could face a lot more in the way of pressure. RB DeMarco Murray's health is a bit of a concern, but the Sooners have plenty of talent at running back. TE Jermaine Gresham could develop into Bradford's favorite target this fall. 
Defensive Keys: It looks great on paper that nine starters are back, but the Sooners defense was very vulnerable last season, especially against the pass. They let up plenty of points against the Big 12's best last year, but the front seven returns everyone from last year so a strong rushing defense should be just as strong this fall. Gerald McCoy and Auston English make up one of the best pass rushing duos in the country.
Keep An Eye On: RB Chris Brown, WR Ryan Broyles, LB Travis Lewis
All In The Numbers: 11, times Bradford was sacked last season.
Deciding Game: Oct. 17 vs. Texas (Dallas)
Outlook: The Sooners have lofty expectations heading into the season as many have picked them to repeat in the Big 12 and make it back to the BCS Championship game. But that's heavily dependent on a rebuilt offensive line and a defense that has to limit the big play in the air. The Sooners are going to score plenty of points and battle it out with Oklahoma State and Texas for the Big 12 South crown. That matchup with the Longhorns will be one of the most highly anticipated in the long and storied history of both schools.


Oklahoma State
2008 Record: 9-4 (5-3), Holiday Bowl
Returning Starters: 8 offense, 6 defense
Offensive Keys: The Cowboys should feature one of the most balanced and explosive attacks in the nation. Zac Robinson will anchor the offense under center, but there is some cause for concerns around Stillwater as a nagging hamstring injury has limited him somewhat during fall camp. But that's not going to stop him from putting up big numbers once the season rolls around. He's got two Heisman Trophy caliber players in WR Dez Bryant and RB Kendall Hunter. The Cowboys have been remarkably balanced over the past several seasons and Mike Gundy's squad figures to be just the same this year.
Defensive Keys: Bill Young has done a lot of traveling the last couple of years going from Kansas to Miami to Oklahoma State, but the defensive coordinator hopes being back home with the Cowboys will work out well. The team could use his tutelage, especially when it comes to defending the pass. It doesn't help matters that only one starter returns in the secondary, but the majority of improvement has to come with the front seven. Fortunately, all three linebackers return.
Keep An Eye On: LT Russell Okung, LB Orie Lemon, CB Perrish Cox
All In The Numbers: 1,555, yards rushing for Hunter last season, tops in the Big 12.
Deciding Game: Nov. 28 at Oklahoma
Outlook: Oklahoma State is getting plenty of respect this year and deservedly so. That offense is going to be a monster with the talent they have lined up. But ultimate success will depend on the defense and how many late game stops they make. The schedule is not kind, either. Right off the bat the Cowboys host Georgia and Houston and of course hit the road to end the season in their annual Bedlam matchup with the hated Sooners. That being said, the Cowboys should find themselves in a three-way battle with Oklahoma and Texas for the division title.


Texas
2008 Record: 12-1 (7-1), Fiesta Bowl
Returning Starters: 6 offense, 8 defense
Offensive Keys: It starts and stops with Colt McCoy. The Heisman Trophy runner-up is everything to the Texas offense so his health directly correlates to the success of the Longhorns. Fortunately, he has a pretty good offensive line protecting him and that should make for a very strong running game as well. McCoy's targets out wide are among the Big 12's best in Jordan Shipley and Malcolm Williams. As McCoy enters his senior season at Texas, expect big things out of the signal caller as he looks to take his place next to Vince Young as the all-time greatest QB in Texas history.
Defensive Keys: The loss of Brian Orakpo can not be understated enough. But hopefully Sergio Kindle will pick up where Orakpo left off. There were some defections at linebacker, but this doesn't mean any big drop-off is expected. The front four will be a cause for concern and the pass defense has struggled mightily over the last several years, but the Texas defense should be one of the best units certainly in the Big 12 and among the nation's best yet again against the run.
Keep An Eye On: RB Vondrell McGee, LB Roddrick Muckelroy, CB Chykie Brown
All In The Numbers: 0, teams that produced more sacks nationally than the Longhorns last season.
Deciding Game: Oct. 17 vs. Oklahoma (Dallas)
Outlook: The bitter taste that was last year's win over Oklahoma and controversial tiebreaker situation that kept the Longhorns out of the Big 12 Championship game - and subsequent BCS Championship appearance - still eats at them, no matter what they say. They felt wronged and they want to make that right. McCoy is set up to have a huge season and wants to leave school with a conference crown and more. It'll be tough to top the numbers he put up last year, especially that scintillating 76.7 completion percentage that nearly earned him the Heisman Trophy.


Texas A&M
2008 Record
: 4-8 (2-6)
Returning Starters: 9 offense, 7 defense
Offensive Keys: It was a struggle on offense for the Aggies last year. Finishing last or near last in all the major offensive categories in the Big 12, the Aggies were bad because of the front five had some many issues; inexperience chief among them. That shouldn't be much of an issue this year. A&M does have talent at the skill positions despite losing names like Stephen McGee, Mike Goodsen and Jorvorskie Lane. Jerrod Johnson figures to be the man to take over for McGee, but first thing the Aggies must do is improve that woeful running game that only produced 77.1 yards per game last year.
Defensive Keys: The defense didn't do the Aggies many favors last year. The Aggies finished among the nation's worst in scoring defense, rushing defense and total defense. They're banking on improvement in the secondary and getting their fastest, most athletic players onto the field. They're going to need to in order to combat the speed they'll face with those prolific Big 12 South offenses.
Keep An Eye On: RB Cyrus Gray, WR Jeff Fuller, DE/LB Von Miller
All In The Numbers: 2.9, average yards per carry for the Aggies last year.
Deciding Game: Nov. 26 vs. Texas
Outlook: In Mike Sherman's second season, he expects improvement. He should definitely get it on the offensive line which should translate into better numbers for the offense as a whole. The defense seems to be much more of a question mark, however. And if they don't cut down on the number of yards and points they allowed last season, then any notion of returning to a bowl game will go out the window.


Texas Tech
2008 Record
: 11-2 (7-1), Cotton Bowl
Returning Starters: 5 offense, 7 defense
Offensive Keys: How much of a downshift will the Red Raiders offense take without Graham Harrell and Michael Crabtree? Not as big as some people might think. The Mike Leach offense has proven that it can produce big numbers with any quarterback and the next in line will be Taylor Potts. Now that's not to say that every Tech quarterback has been a system quarterback, but Leach's offense is definitely QB friendly. Potts has been around the program for three years now and he should know Leach's offense in and out. He won't have the luxury of an experienced or deep offensive line, but he'll make due thanks to a big arm.
Defensive Keys: Losing the conference leader in sacks is never a good thing and that's what the Red Raiders are facing with the departure of Brandon Williams. Don't overlook the loss of McKinner Dixon either. The secondary has its fair share of holes as well and considering the Red Raiders finished up 2008 94th in the nation against the pass, that's worrisome.
Keep An Eye On: WR Lyle Leong, WR Jacoby Franks, LB Brian Duncan
All In The Numbers: 6, of the last seven seasons the Red Raiders have led the nation in passing.
Deciding Game: Nov. 21 vs. Oklahoma
Outlook: There's a lot less talent on this team than last year's squad. It doesn't mean that Texas Tech is in rebuilding mode. Far from it in fact. But that does mean that to expect another 11-win season might be overly optimistic. But Texas Tech certainly will find itself in a bowl game. Leach has proven himself to be too good of a coach not to get the Red Raiders back into the postseason, even with a few new faces on offense.