August 3, 2005

Big 12 reloading for a shot at the Rose Bowl

After USC, Tennessee and Ohio State dominated Big 12 opposition in their respective bowl games last season, the league is ready to re-establish itself as the top conference in college football in 2005 and once again stake a claim in the hunt for the national title.

Oklahoma may not be as strong as in past years, but they are still a force to be reckoned with, while Mack Brown and Texas may finally have combined all the pieces for a championship run.

The Big 12 North lost much respect last year, but its teams have regrouped and should once again form a solid division with Iowa State, Nebraska and Colorado battling for a shot at the Big 12 championship game in Houston.

The more things change, the more they stay the same, as Oklahoma State is the only school with a new football coach, Mike Gundy. Gundy was the Cowboys' offensive coordinator before Les Miles headed east for the LSU.

The biggest change in the Big 12 is the graduation of running backs. Cedric Benson, Darren Sproles, Vernand Morency, Bobby Purify and Damien Nash have left their teams trying to find adequate replacements, and each team has its own questions to answer going into this season.

Will Selvin Young be the answer in Austin? Who will Kansas State count on to replace its diminutive All-American? Who can replace Jason White for Oklahoma? Will Nebraska be able to fill the void created when Fabian Washington and Josh Bullocks left early for the NFL?

THE FAVORITE: Texas

Is this finally the year Texas gets past Oklahoma? You can bet on it. The game with Ohio State will do one of two things: either motivate Texas after a devastating loss or imbed in them the feeling they can beat anyone anywhere. Vince Young still has to prove he can be consistent throwing the ball, the running game needs a leader and the receivers all lack experience. Despite those things, the offensive and defensive lines could be the best in college football and Gene Chizik's defense will be suffocating. Texas rolls through the Big 12 unscathed and uses the Big 12 Championship game as a mere tune-up en route to a BCS Bowl where they might just stop and smell the roses.

THE SLEEPER: Texas Tech

Texas Tech has been nipping at the heels of the Big 12's elite teams for three years, but it hasn't been able to unseat Oklahoma and continues to struggle with Texas. But, Tech isn't using the same unheralded players. This year, receiver Jarrett Hicks and running back Taurean Henderson are among the elite skill players in the Big 12. But the Red Raiders can't win with offense alone. Last year, the defense finished 46th nationally, and with eight defensive starters returning, it should continue to improve. Oklahoma and Texas A&M both travel to Lubbock, which helps Tech. Tech goes to Austin, but the last time the Raiders played there, they fell by just three points in an offensive shootout. With a few lucky bounces, Tech could be headed to Houston to play the Big 12 North champion.

PROGRAM ON THE RISE: Iowa State

The Cyclones caught the Big 12 by surprise last year after an embarrassing 2-10 record in 2003. They finished the 2004 season 7-5 but cost themselves a shot at the Big 12 title when they lost to Missouri on a missed field goal during the last game of the season. With quarterback Bret Meyer, running back Stevie Hicks, and receiver Todd Blythe, ISU will have a high-powered offensive attack and a defense which should be improved athletically. DeAndre Jackson could be the best Big 12 cornerback not named Charles Gordon. Coach Dan McCarney has his team confident and prepared to grasp what it allowed to slip away last season, a Big 12 North title.

PROGRAM ON THE SLIDE: Missouri

A quarterback who could run and pass, a solid running game, and some of the highest expectations in the programs history are how Missouri started 2004. But a bizarre touchdown run by a Troy offensive lineman in the second game of the season was the catalyst that sent them from Big 12 North favorite to a team fighting for a .500 finish. With only 10 returning starters, coach Gary Pinkel has his hands full trying to turn around a program with such promise just two years ago. Will the Tigers right the ship? Hard to tell, but it is safe to say they won't be playing in Houston this year, although they could impact who will.

TOUGHEST SCHEDULE: Colorado

The Big 12 scheduled some quality nonconference games this season, including contests against Ohio State, UCLA, Pittsburgh, Clemson and Iowa. However, games against Montana State, Sam Houston State, Samford, Texas State and Maine leave much to be desired. The Buffaloes, though, have the toughest nonconference slate and also will play two of the toughest Big 12 South opponents. Colorado State always gives Colorado a tough game, and four of the last five meetings have been decided by seven points or less. Then, the Buffs travel to Coral Gables to meet Miami. Games in Austin and Stillwater will be early challenges, while a trip to Ames, Iowa, could be for the Big 12 North crown.

MARK YOUR CALENDAR: Texas vs. Oklahoma, Sept. 8

Texas vs. Texas A&M. Texas Tech vs. Oklahoma. Iowa State vs. Colorado. There are so many potential great match-ups in the Big 12, but there is always one game headlining them all, and this year it is no different. The Red River Shootout will once again be crucial in deciding the Big 12 South title, and if Texas is the favorite to win the Big 12, then it must finally overcome Oklahoma's dominance. The average score during the last five years has been 38-11 in favor of the Sooners, including a 12-0 shutout and a 65-13 annihilation. Is this the year Young and company take down mighty Oklahoma? Only time will tell.

UPSET SPECIAL: Oklahoma State at Baylor, Nov. 19

For many Big 12 fans, Baylor is a school that is hard to dislike. They Bears aren't much of a threat, and when they are playing any other team, it is nice to see them play competitively and perhaps upset a Big 12 rival team. Two years ago it was Colorado, and last year they tackled Texas A&M. This year, it's time to recognize Baylor as a team destined to win one Big 12 game and this year it will beat Oklahoma State. Oklahoma State may have the roughest slate of consecutive Big 12 games this year with games at A&M, at Iowa State, Texas, a bye week, Texas Tech and then a game in Waco against Baylor. With the game against Oklahoma schedule after Baylor, they could even overlook the Bears in anticpation of knocking off the Sooners. Baylor could pounce on tired and unexpecting Cowboys team if they are not careful.

REMEMBER THIS NAME: Dominique Zeigler

It is hard to get attention when you are a good player on a bad team. After Baylor beat Texas A&M in overtime last year, Dominique Zeigler started to get attention from his Big 12 counterparts. Now, a year older, stronger and more experienced, Zeigler is the best offensive player on Baylor's team. Zeigler led the Bears with 55 catches and should see his numbers inflate with the graduation of Marques Roberts. Zeigler, a junior, will make some All-Big 12 teams at the end of the season. With freshman speedster David Gettis helping to even the playing field, Zeigler won't be double-teamed often and should have his way with Big 12 cornerbacks, provided his quarterback, Shawn Bell, can get him the ball.

Also watch for: Texas A&M DT Joseph Bryant, Texas Tech DE Keyunta Dawson, Iowa State QB Meyer and Oklahoma State DE Nathan Peterson.

INSTANT IMPACT: Zac Taylor

No player will help elevate his team from last year's results more than Nebraska quarterback Zac Taylor. The Cornhuskers struggled with turnovers, largely based on then starter Joe Dailey's 19 interceptions. Taylor should be able to step in and lead this team toward establishing the West Coast offense coach Bill Callahan has installed. If the transition is smooth, Nebraska could be the team to beat in the North. Taylor also will be able to establish himself as teams will focus on stopping running back Cory Ross, thus forcing Nebraska to beat them with the pass. Taylor's confidence will allow his team to do just that, taking them back to a bowl game.

Also watch for: Texas WR Quan Cosby, Oklahoma WR Malcolm Kelly, Oklahoma State DT Ryan McBean and Kansas WR Brian Murph.

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH

North
1. Iowa State
2. Colorado
3. Kansas
4. Nebraska
5. Kansas State
6. Missouri

SOUTH
1. Texas
2. Oklahoma
3. Texas Tech
4. Texas A&M
5. Oklahoma State
6. Baylor

Champion: Texas


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