because of a natural aversion to writing, researching, and pretty much any kind of deadline,i've been forced to squeeze an off-season's worth of analysis and prediction into two posts.
the Big XII North, in no particular order...
Since the heralded arrival of Bill Callahan and his new fangled west-coast offense, Nebraska fans have been wandering in the desert, surviving on mana (a.k.a - the North as of late), waiting for Callahan to return them to the BCS promised land. Yet, there is hope, and it comes in the form of a rugged senior quarterback named Zac Taylor.
Taylor, sacked a staggering 38 times in 2005 (Nebraska was 105th in sacks allowed), remained calm and unwaivering as he dropped back to pass throughout the season. His leadership in the double-OT victory over Iowa State as well as in the Huskers victory over Michigan in the Alamo Bowl was inspiring. It is his ability to lead his teammates coupled with a toughness rarely found in the QB position that leads the state of Nebraska (as well as ESPN) to revere him as their probable football savior.
Unfortunately, it will take more than the spirited leadership of a senior quarterback to lead the Husker nation through their brutal guantlet of a schedule to salvation, and talented support on the offensive side of the ball will be lacking. The Huskers lose their starting tailback from their 107th ranked rushing offense, in addition to only returning C Kurt Mann from the offensive line that allowed 82 tackles for loss (-342 yds) in 2005. Although Taylor will have quality passing targets in So WR Nate Swift and Jr WR Terrence Nunn, without a significant running threat to defend against, opposing defenses will only need to drop back into coverage to negate Taylor's aerial threat.
The blackshirts should have less to worry about than the offense. With a healthy and deep LB corps, as well as an experienced Secondary returning, the only unknown is whether or not the interior line can reload. Expect the blackshirts to reload with no problem, and to carry this team in 2006.
projected # of wins: 7
the Buffs are entering uncharted territory with new head coach Dan Hawkins. Expectations for Hawkins' first season are, naturally, not very high. Returning talent and difficulty(ease) of schedule are critical factors for success in a rebuilding/transition season such as this, and the Buffs won't be receiving much help in either category.
The offense returns 3 experienced upperclassmen to anchor the OL, as well as Jr RB Hugh Charles. Yet, the combination of an untested QB and an untested receiving corps could prove disastrous. Oh, and let's not forget the inevitable confusion and miscues that come with the first season of a brand new offensive scheme.
The Colorado defense, which ranked 11th(NCAA) against the run last season returns a solid nucleus of LBs in Jr Jordon Dizon and Sr Thaddaeus Washington. The secondary, on the other hand, is much more suspect. With the pass-heavy teams on CU's schedule (Arizona State, Missouri, Baylor, Texas Tech, and Iowa State) the Buffs could find themselves in dire straits.
projected # of wins: 4
The 7-5 (4-4) Mizzou team that overcame a 21-pt lead to win the Independence Bowl last season was young and relatively inexperienced. In 2006, the Tigers return 8 starters on Offense and 7 on Defense...(it's ok, I had to re-read it and pick up my jaw too). Is there anything that could prevent these now fully grown Tigers from romping in the Big XII North?
Yes. Although the offense returns 8, including 4 Linemen, there will be one glaring void: Brad Smith. With Brad Smith gone, so is Mizzou's explosive running game. Defenses will no longer need to spy the QB, alleviating past coverage problems when faced with Mizzou's very talented receiving corps and pair of TE's.
The defense returns almost its entire interior unit with the exception of WLB. Although the secondary will be breaking in new talent, look for the experienced D-Line and LBs to compensate with increased pressure on opposing QBs.
If the preceding potential weaknesses can be adressed early, Mizzou could very well find itself in Kansas City on Dec. 2 playing for the Big XII Championship.
projected # of wins: 8
Will the demise of the Bill Snyder era signal the demise of the Kansas State program? It all depends on whether the Prince turns out to be a Machiavelli, or an Artist Formerly Known As.
Coach Prince has brought with him a healthy dose of NFL level coaching and playbook. The new offensive coordinator, fresh from Green Bay, is expected to institute a hefty portion of West Coast. The new DC, from Tampa Bay, is bringing with him the Bucs' vaunted Cover 2. The question is, not only will there be enough time for the players to learn and perfect their execution of the new schemes, but will the new systems even be able to compensate for the pitiful performance of 2005. The Wildcat's favorable schedule says...it's possible. 6 of their first 7 games are played home, giving K-State plenty of time to adopt the new systems and develop the necessary confidence before facing division foes: Nebraska, Missouri, and Iowa State.
projected # of wins: 4
With Vince Young, Brad Smith, and Reggie McNeal gone, the Big XII quarterback on everyone's lips will be Jr Brett Meyer. With 9 starters returning on offense, expect Meyer and the Cyclone offense to retain their status as one of the top offenses in the conference.
Although the defensive line lost two all-conference players, the defense as a whole will continue to dominate, especially in of the most obscure, yet critical statistical categories: Turnovers Gained. In 2005, the Cyclones led the conference with 35 turnovers gained, 22 of which were INTs(!!).
Unfortunately, the Schedule Gods have not smiled on Iowa State this year. The Cyclones face a brutal schedule this season: @ Iowa, @ Texas, @ Oklahoma, Texas Tech. If the Cyclones can stay healthy, only Nebraska and Missouri stand in between them and a date with Arrowhead Stadium in december.
predicted # of wins: 8
"3 and Out" was often the theme for the Jayhawks last season, on both Defense AND Offense. So far, the theme for 2006 seems to be "role reversal". This year, it'll be KU's defense that will be the weak link. The Jayhawks only return 3 starters on defense; DT James McClinton, CB Aqib Talib, SS Jerome Kemp. The defense will have to quickly compensate for a lack of experience if they want to retain their rank as #1 against the run in the Big XII again this year.
The Jayhawks return 7 on offense, 4 of which are offensive lineman. Lead by Outland Trophy watch list-er, Sr David Ochoa, the line should prove to be an experienced and consistent base for coach Mark Mangino to build the offense upon. Under center this season will be the 6'3" 210lb redshirt freshman, Kerry Meier. In the Spring game, Meier proved himself to be a talented passer and explosive athlete out the pocket. The combination of a consistent QB in Meier, and an experienced offensive line should prove to be a potent one for Sr RB Jon Cornish. If he can stay healthy, look for Cornish to flirt with 1,000 yds this season. The only question mark for the Jayhawk offense is the lack of experience and depth in the receiving corps.
Their schedule is a little bit of good news and a little bit of bad. The absence of such South powers as Texas, Oklahoma, and Texas Tech will provide a significant boost to the season. Yet, the Jayhawks will face a rather rough road schedule with Toledo, Nebraska, and Iowa State all on the road.
predicted # of wins: 6
Two Minute Drill: the South, coming tomorrow