Big XII South Preview, Part Deux
Some of you might be wondering why I'm holding off on writing many Nebraska-related preview articles. There are a couple of reasons for that, the first being that Pelini has been downright Belichik-ian through fall camp thus far, giving very little in the way of information on possible starters, injuries, or anything else.
The second reason is a direct result of the first: I don't want to make any predictions before I have all the information in front of me and then end up being wrong as a result of bad information.
Last year, I correctly predicted a 9-4 record on my old Husker Guy blog (just type in Husker Guy on Google, and you'll find it). After that, there's no going back. I want to get it right every time from now on, and I'm going to wait until next week to do my final season preview and predictions column.
With that out of the way, on to the last half of the Big XII South.
Texas Tech Red Raiders
While everyone has, to a certain extent, written off the Red Raiders due to the loss of both Graham Harrell and Michael Crabtree, it'd be foolish to think there's going to be some huge offensive dropoff in Lubbock.
After all, the previous four quarterbacks in their first year of starting averaged over 4,800 yards passing, so while Harrell was obviously a great guy to have directing that offense, one has to think that Taylor Potts, this year's plug-in, will do just fine.
Actually, if anything he'll do more than fine, considering he has more game experience than the previous guys to take over the starting quarterback job: he appeared in 10 games last year during mop-up duty.
In addition to Potts, the Raiders will also have Baron Batch in the backfield, who averaged 6.7 yards a carry last year for 758 yards, in addition to catching 45 passes.
Well what about replacing Crabtree, you say? Obviously, it's tough to replace a freak of nature like that. But it's not as if the other receivers aren't talented or experienced. Detron Lewis, the second leading receiver last year, had 76 catches for 913 yards, and there are three other receivers with over 35 catches returning, so the passing game, while maybe being slightly less prolific, will still keep humming along as it always has under Leach.
The bigger concern for the Red Raiders is the defense, in my opinion. It lost two safeties in Daniel Charbonnet and Darcel McBath, both of whom were named All-Conference last year.
In addition to them graduating, Tech also lost last season's Big XII sack leader as well, when Brandon Williams left school early to enter the NFL Draft. Further weakening the pass rush is Leach's decision to suspend McKinner Dixon, who had 9 sacks last year but has already entered into this year's pool for the NFL Supplemental Draft.
It's the ability to replace these defensive losses, not the departures of Harrell and Crabtree, that will determine if the Red Raiders can replicate last year's run.
With 18 starters returning, including all-everything QB Robert Griffin, there is hope in Waco that this is the year they break their 14-year bowl drought. The optimism is well-founded, despite the team's 4-8 record last year. What's important to remember when taking that record into account is the fact that the Bears played against eight eventual bowl teams, including the murderous Big XII South.
As all Husker fans know, Griffin nearly single-handedly beat us last year before halftime adjustments enabled us to stop him. Baylor also put scares into Mizzou and Texas Tech before eventually succumbing.
That said, almost and woulda-coulda-shoulda's don't go far in this conference, and Baylor faces a challenge in replacing both it's starting tackles, particularly Griffin's blindside protector, Jason Smith (the No. 2 overall pick in the draft).
In addition to Griffin, the offense also returns Jay Finley in the backfield, who rushed for over 800 yards last year. I think what was most impressive about last year's offense wasn't just the running game but Griffin's stellar TD/INT ratio (15 to 3), and it will be interesting to see how far the passing game comes along after Griffin's commitment to football over track in the offseason.
The defense, like the offense, returns nine starters, led by first-team All-Big 12 linebacker Joe Pawelek, who finished seventh in the country in both tackles (128) and interceptions (six).
The biggest issue the Bears have is creating a pass rush (tied for 84th last year in sacks), something that becomes even more problematic considering they have to replace defensive tackle Vincent Rhodes, who had 4.5 of the team's 19 sacks.
While some have hope that this is the year to get into a bowl game, I think the schedule is going to prevent that from happening for the Bears. In addition to Big XII South, the Bears also have to face Mizzou and Nebraska from the North, as well as Wake Forest and UConn in the non-conference slate.
With all those quality teams, it's going to take quite a breakthrough to produce six wins, as they'll have to steal one or two games from a favored opponent.
Texas A&M Aggies
As a Husker fan, it's easy to look at the A&M's 2008 campaign and feel a little bad for them. The 2008 Wrecking Crew was a downright wreck, looking similar to the 2007 Blackskirts of Nebraska.
Giving up 461 yards and 37 points a game (both good for 114th in the country) is not conducive to winning football games, as any Big Red supporter will tell you after watching Kevin Cosgrove's last unit put up similarly putrid numbers.
The good thing for the Aggies is that there is hope that this season will be better, as the offense should be pretty decent with nine starters returning.
A&M has a talented quarterback in Jerrod Johnson, who in his debut season (replacing the injured Stephen McGee) passed for over 2,400 yards and 21 touchdowns against 10 interceptions. Having a season and spring ball under his belt should help Johnson be even more productive this year, especially with Ryan Tannehill and Jeff Fuller, his two leading receivers from last season, returning for this fall's campaign.
The aforementioned Wrecked Crew has six starters returning, though it will be interesting if any spots are taken by an incoming recruiting class that ranked 22nd nationally according to Rivals.com.
The best incumbent is Matt Featherston, who last year shared the team lead with 94 tackles from the middle linebacker spot, but is now expected to help shore up a pass rush at a hybrid DE/LB position opposite Von Miller.
Kyle Mangan, a converted fullback, will move to the linebacker position vacated by Featherston. No matter who is manning what position, the question is whether it will help shore up a defense that was a real liability last fall. Unfortunately for prediction making, we won't know until the season starts.
The good thing for the Aggies is that the 2009 schedule starts easy, with three winnable games before it's first true test against Arkansas. The ease of the beginning is negated by the difficulty at the end, as the Aggies must face OU, Baylor, and Texas to close out the season.
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