August 13, 2009

Big 12 South set for exciting title chase

MORE: Big 12 preseason unit rankings

You're up, Oklahoma State.

Throughout the past decade, Oklahoma and Texas have dominated play in the Big 12 South, with one or the other advancing to every conference championship game.

The South representative has won the past four conference championships and appeared in four of the past six BCS national title games.

At times, other programs have challenged the South Division's establishment. Texas A&M did in the early years of the decade, and Texas Tech managed to wrest a share of the division title last season.

This season, Oklahoma State led by the explosive trio of quarterback Zac Robinson, tailback Kendall Hunter and wide receiver Dez Bryant appears to be the greatest threat to the Oklahoma-Texas monopoly.

Meanwhile, the North race has an establishment vs. upstart quality of its own. Kansas never has represented the North in the championship game but has a chance with senior quarterback Todd Reesing leading the way. The Jayhawks' main competition likely will be Nebraska, which has won the North four times.

THE PLAYERS

BEST OFFENSIVE PLAYER: Oklahoma QB Sam Bradford. He won the Heisman last season as a sophomore, when he passed for 4,720 yards and 50 touchdowns. He'll have to work behind a rebuilt line and with two new starting wide receivers, but he's extremely accurate and more mobile than he's sometimes given credit.

BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER: Oklahoma T Gerald McCoy. He has the strength of a run-stuffer and the quickness to rush the passer. Last season as a sophomore, he had 30 tackles and 6.5 sacks. He'll again be the centerpiece of what is expected to be an ornery OU line.

OFFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Texas Tech QB Taylor Potts. Potts, a junior who takes over for departed record-setting passer Graham Harrell, is an obvious pick. Red Raiders quarterbacks have led the nation in passing in eight of the past nine seasons. That's a high standard to meet, but Potts figures to be next.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Nebraska E Barry Turner. He was expected to develop into a star when he set a Nebraska freshman record with six sacks in 2005. Since then, though, he has managed just 5.5 sacks. Turner, who is returning from a broken leg, needs to help supply an outside pass rush to complement tackle Ndamukong Suh's inside charge.

PLAYER WITH THE BIGGEST SHOES TO FILL: Missouri QB Blaine Gabbert. Gabbert, a sophomore, replaces Chase Daniel, who set numerous school passing records. The Tigers were 30-11 in three seasons with Daniel at quarterback. Meanwhile, Gabbert has yet to throw his first college touchdown pass.

BREAKOUT OFFENSIVE STAR: Texas WR Malcolm Williams. Look for Williams, a sophomore, to emerge as the Big 12's next elite receiver. Playing in a backup role as a freshman, he averaged 17.9 yards on 17 receptions and scored three touchdowns, one coming on a 91-yarder. His opportunities and touchdown catches figure to increase substantially this season.

BREAKOUT DEFENSIVE STAR: Oklahoma FS Quinton Carter. Word out of Norman is Carter, a junior, could be Oklahoma's best safety since Roy Williams. High praise, indeed. Carter has good coverage skills, which should boost a secondary that was soft in the middle of the field last year. And like Williams, Carter packs a powerful wallop when delivering a hit.

BEST OFFENSIVE NEWCOMER: Kansas T Tanner Hawkinson. Kansas coaches were so impressed by Hawkinson, a redshirt freshman, that they moved him into the starting lineup. To make room, they moved Jeremiah Hatch, a freshman All-America tackle last season, to center. Hawkinson was an all-state tight end as a high school junior in Kansas, then an all-state defensive end as a senior. He's a good athlete with the quick feet necessary to thrive at tackle. He's still a little on the light side he weighs about 270 pounds but his athleticism should enable him to get by as he continues to add weight, bulk and strength.

BEST DEFENSIVE NEWCOMER: Baylor T Phil Taylor. Bears coaches are expecting a big contribution from Taylor, a junior who sat out last season after he was booted off the team at Penn State. While Taylor has had some off-field issues, he's a 355-pounder whose presence upgrades Baylor's line.

MOST OVERRATED PLAYER: Oklahoma DT DeMarcus Granger. Some analysts have rated Granger, a senior, as a possible NFL first-round pick. But while Granger has the measurables and potential to be a star, he won't even be in the Sooners' starting lineup. Last season, Granger posted 20 tackles, but he must develop more consistency.

MOST UNDERRATED PLAYER: Texas A&M WR Ryan Tannehill. In the receiver-rich Big 12, even excellent pass catchers can be overlooked. One of those is Tannehill, who originally was recruited as a quarterback. Tannehill averaged 15.3 yards on 55 catches and scored five touchdowns last season as a freshman. He could continue to thrive at receiver, though he wants to return to quarterback.

THE COACHES

COACH ON THE HOTTEST SEAT: Colorado's Dan Hawkins. These days, coaches get fired even after winning seasons, which should cause some uneasiness for Hawkins. The Buffaloes are 13-24 in three seasons under Hawkins, including a bowl appearance in 2007. To be fair, a rash of injuries was a problem in last season's 5-7 finish. The likeable Hawkins remains popular, but that popularity could fade if the Buffaloes struggle again.

BEST COACHING STAFF: Oklahoma. How can an argument be made against OU? The Sooners have won three consecutive Big 12 championships and six in 11 seasons under coach Bob Stoops. Offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson has led units that have ranked among the top five in the nation the past two seasons. He was awarded the Broyles Trophy last season as the nation's top assistant after OU scored more than 700 points. Defensive coordinator Brent Venables has been criticized of late, but OU's defenses typically are among the best in the Big 12.

BEST OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Oklahoma's Kevin Wilson. In three years with Wilson as coordinator, OU has won three conference championships. In the past two seasons, Oklahoma has exceeded 40 points 19 times.

BEST DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Texas' Will Muschamp. In each of his five seasons as coordinator at Auburn and LSU, Muschamp oversaw defenses that ranked among the nation's top five. Last season, he took over a struggling Texas defense that had allowed more than 25 points per game in '07 and made immediate improvement. Texas allowed fewer than 19 points per game last season while leading the nation in sacks and ranking third in run defense. Muschamp already has been anointed as Texas' coach-in-waiting.

THE GAMES

(Listed chronologically)

1. Georgia at Oklahoma State, Sept. 5

2. Texas Tech at Texas, Sept. 19

3. Nebraska at Virginia Tech, Sept. 19

4. Colorado at West Virginia, Oct. 1

5. Oklahoma at Miami, Oct. 3

6. Texas vs. Oklahoma at Dallas, Oct. 17

7. Texas at Oklahoma State, Oct. 31

8. Oklahoma at Nebraska, Nov. 7

9. Nebraska at Kansas, Nov. 14

10. Oklahoma State at Oklahoma, Nov. 28

GAME OF THE YEAR: Oklahoma vs. Texas in Dallas, Oct. 17. The Red River Rivalry grudge match typically matches two of the best teams in the nation. It won't be any different this season, and the ill feelings may be heightened if that's possible after last season's tiebreaker controversy. Last season's game proved that the winner isn't assured of the Big 12 South title, but it definitely should have the inside track this season. The game will match two of the nation's premier quarterbacks in Bradford and Texas' Colt McCoy.

TOUGHEST SCHEDULE: Oklahoma State. The Cowboys are in most preseason top 10s and will get a chance to prove they deserve that status. The schedule includes three teams Texas, Oklahoma and Georgia ranked in the top 13 in the coaches' preseason poll. The Cowboys also play high-scoring Houston, Missouri and Texas Tech, as well as Colorado, which projects to be vastly improved. They get a break in that Georgia, Houston, Missouri, Texas, Texas Tech and Colorado must travel to Stillwater. So, how much is home-field advantage worth? The Cowboys hope it's worth a lot.

EASIEST SCHEDULE: Iowa State. Not only do the Cyclones avoid Texas and Oklahoma from the South, but they also have a less-than-challenging non-conference schedule that includes Army, Kent State and Football Championship Subdivision member North Dakota State. Archrival Iowa is the only non-conference Football Bowl Subdivision opponent that managed a winning record last season. The Cyclones face Oklahoma State, but their other South Division opponents are Baylor and Texas A&M, which were a combined 8-16 last year. And six of their 11 FBS opponents failed to post winning records in '08.

MOST EMBARRASING GAME: Idaho State at Oklahoma, Sept. 12. An intrasquad scrimmage would offer more intrigue. It would be bad enough if the opponent was Idaho, a WAC team that was 2-10 last season. But it's Idaho State, which was trounced 42-27 by Idaho last season. Idaho State was 1-11 last season and has had just five winning seasons in the past 20. The Bengals have played nine FBS opponents this decade and lost by an average of 27 points. And none of those opponents was near as good as OU.

FIRST TEAM OFFENSE
QBSam Bradford, Oklahoma, 6-4/218, Jr.
RBKendall Hunter, Oklahoma State, 5-8/190, Jr.
RBDeMarco Murray, Oklahoma, 6-1/205, Jr.
WRDez Bryant, Oklahoma State, 6-2/215, Jr.
WRDezmon Briscoe, Kansas, 6-3/200, Jr.
TEJermaine Gresham, Oklahoma, 6-6/261, Sr.
TRussell Okung, Oklahoma State, 6-6/305, Sr.
TTrent Williams, Oklahoma, 6-5/308, Sr.
GRyan Miller, Colorado, 6-8/310, Soph.
GKurtis Gregory, Missouri, 6-5/305, Sr.
CChris Hall, Texas, 6-4/300, Sr.
FIRST TEAM DEFENSE
EJeremy Beal, Oklahoma, 6-3/253, Jr.
TGerald McCoy, Oklahoma, 6-4/295, Jr.
TNdamukong Suh, Nebraska, 6-4/300, Sr.
ESergio Kindle, Texas, 6-4/255, Sr.
LBTravis Lewis, Oklahoma, 6-2/232, Soph.
LBJoe Pawelek, Baylor, 6-2/240, Sr.
LBSean Weatherspoon, Missouri, 6-2/245, Sr.
CBDominique Franks, Oklahoma, 6-0/189, Jr.
CBJamar Wall, Texas Tech, 5-10/195, Sr.
FSJordan Lake, Baylor, 6-1/210, Sr.
SSDarrell Stuckey, Kansas, 6-1/205, Sr.
FIRST TEAM SPECIALISTS
KAlex Henery, Nebraska, 6-2/175, Jr.
PDerek Epperson, Baylor, 6-3/240, Jr.
KRPerrish Cox, Oklahoma State, 6-0/195, Sr.
PRDez Bryant, Oklahoma State, 6-2/215, Jr.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.




 

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