The Pick: Missouri
Missouri versus Kansas was probably one of the toughest picks for me to make. The Big 12 has replaced the Pac-10 as the “all offense, no defense” conference, meaning that a team that can play defense will have a definite advantage. I suspect Mizzou will have the better offense, but Kansas could have the better defense.
I think the difference between the offenses will be greater than the difference between the defenses, so the Tigers get the edge. They just have so many weapons on offense that they are impossible to ignore.
There is some defined risk here. As I pointed out in my analysis of Gary Pinkel’s coaching record, the last time Missouri had any expectations was 2004. Despite having one of Pinkel’s best defenses and Brad Smith returning at quarterback, they stumbled to a 5-6 record that season.
The Tigers won’t fall that far, but one great year does not wash away all the rest. They must still prove they can win with the spotlight on.
The Runner-Up: Kansas
Kansas’ schedule was a complete joke last year, but at least they completely blew out their non-conference patsies. Plus, it’s not the Jayhawks’ fault that the conference schedule rotated out Oklahoma, Texas, and Texas Tech.
They had their year in the sun with an Orange Bowl at the end. Much like Missouri, they now must prove they have something sustainable, and the opportunity is there to do just that. The Big 12 South heavies return to the slate, and Kansas takes a trip to play USF in Tampa.
I don’t expect them to lose five games like Rutgers did in 2007 after its dream 2006 season, even though I’ve drawn a parallel between those teams in the past. KU returns a lot more talent than Rutgers did, and I can’t really see them losing more than four. Still, they are a potential faller, so I don’t think they’ll win the division.
The Dark Horse: Nebraska
Most people would label Colorado the dark horse of the North, but I’m going with the Huskers. In the three games that returning QB Joe Ganz started last year, Nebraska scored 54 points a game, including 39 against the otherwise stingy Kansas defense. The offensive scheme this season will not be a whole lot different, so the potential for fireworks from Ganz is there.
Obviously defense was a huge problem last season, but new head coach Bo Pelini will work to get that straightened out in short order. The Blackshirts won’t be back to being the terrors they were in the ‘90s, but they will make some strides in the right direction.
I still think Nebraska is a year or two away from being ready to compete for the division title. The Huskers do miss Texas and get Missouri, Kansas, and Colorado in Lincoln though, so the schedule is somewhat favorable in that sense.
If Kansas crashes to earth and Missouri breaks under pressure, the old bullies of the Big 12 North could slide in to capture the division.
The Pick: Oklahoma
The Sooners have been the default pick in the South almost every year this decade, and that shoe definitely fits them this year. I actually had Oklahoma as my national title pick last season. If they had kept their focus against Colorado, or Sam Bradford didn’t get hurt against Texas Tech, then they would have been in the title game ahead of LSU.
Bradford had an amazing season last year as a freshman, and thanks to a massive and massively talented offensive line, he should be able to continue the success. The offense goes from dangerous to lethal if DeMarco Murray can stay healthy. The defense has a lot of question marks, but Bob Stoops usually gets it in top shape.
In my opinion, this is the Big 12 team with the best shot at going undefeated. Of course, there are uncertainties when it gets to BCS time, but that’s well after the conference title has been decided.
The Runner-Up: Texas Tech
When it comes to the Red Raiders, I’m like Fox Mulder: I want to believe. I like what I’ve read about Mike Leach the person, not even counting all of his hilarious eccentricities. I like seeing his offense rack up insane amounts of yards and points, and Michael Crabtree is a joy to watch.
That said, the questions about defense are completely legitimate. I’ve heard all the stats and factoids thrown around about the improvement under midseason replacement defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill, but they still gave up 200-plus yards rushing five times after he took over. Maybe a whole offseason under McNeill will make a difference, but the jury is still out.
When it comes down to it, Texas Tech just isn’t that good on the road in the conference, and they play at Kansas and at Oklahoma. Mack Brown has owned the Red Raiders, going 8-2 against them, but both losses were in Lubbock (where they play this year), and the Longhorns have a vulnerable secondary with two freshmen starting at safety. A win over UT is possible.
I have a feeling that they will post a 6-2 conference record, placing second in the South for the second time in four seasons. However, if Leach is ever going to win the division, this is the year to do it. If they can upset Oklahoma again, the South could be theirs.
The Dark Horse: Texas
It’s a little odd calling Texas a dark horse when it has won 10 or more games each of the last seven seasons, and it won nine each of the three years before that. For those scoring at home, that means nine wins are the fewest in the Mack Brown era.
The Longhorns’ grip on that 10 wins per year streak has been slipping, with them needing a bowl win each of the past two seasons to preserve it. Colt McCoy had a rough year last season, tossing up 18 interceptions behind a highly suspect offensive line.
This season, there are questions at running back, receiver, and safety. You can add to that a brand new defensive scheme under new coordinator Will Muschamp.
Mack Brown has never finished below second in the Big 12 South since he arrived in 1998, but this is the year that streak gets broken. Now, it is a young team, so it will get better as the year goes on, and they will have a Leak/Tebow dynamic with McCoy and John Chiles.
Nevertheless, there are just too many holes filled with nothing but question marks to predict a top-two finish in the South, given how much is returning in Norman and Lubbock.
If the Red Raiders disappoint and the Sooners stumble again, the Longhorns will be in position to step up and take the division, but I don’t believe they’ll reach up and grab it themselves. The 2009 season is a different story, but for now it’s 2008.
BCS At-Large: Texas Tech