Who's going to win the North Division? Heck, I don't know

April, 1, 2009
4/01/09
6:44
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- After driving more than 1,100 miles and meeting with five of the six coaches in the North Division over the last week, it would seem that I would have a pretty good idea who should be the favorite for next season.

But after meeting with Bill Snyder earlier today to finish off my North swing, I'm more confused than ever who should be favored.

Confidence is high at both Kansas and Nebraska. The Jayhawks believe they finally have an offense to contend with Oklahoma and Texas. The defense -- minus three starting linebackers -- is another story.

And Nebraska feels reasonably confident about its defense with the return of defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and several other key defense players. The offense, which will start a new quarterback and two new wide receivers figures to be a lot like the Cornhuskers were back in the 1980s -- the Big Red ground machine -- with a lot of Roy Helu Jr. and Quentin Castille.

If you could morph Kansas and Nebraska together, I think you might be able to find a Big 12 championship-caliber team. The Jayhawks' offense, supported by the Cornhuskers' defense, would be a salty combination. But both teams are lacking one key element that makes it unlikely the conference championship will come back to the North Division for the first time since 2003.

After visiting every Big 12 team but Colorado, here are some of my perceptions.

  • I was really impressed with the confidence emanating from Kansas players like wide receiver Kerry Meier. He might be ready to catch 100+ balls this season. But the Jayhawks need Dezmon Briscoe back in the lineup if they are going to challenge for their first Big 12 title.
  • The most athletic looking player I saw during my brief glimpses of practice was Suh, who could be poised for an even bigger season after last year's breakout campaign. He told me after practice that he didn't come back to college intent on picking up many awards. He might not be able to help himself -- particularly with the Outland Trophy being presented in Omaha next January.
  • It's hard not to like new Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads. He reminds me a lot of former Cyclone head coach Dan McCarney because of his people skills and his upbeat enthusiasm. Like it was for McCarney, all of those skills will be tested during his first season in Ames.
  • While watching Missouri practice, I was more impressed with the play of backup quarterback Jimmy Costello than heralded prospective No. 1 quarterback Blaine Gabbert. Now Gabbert made a bunch of good throws when I saw him, but Costello did too. I don't expect Costello to make a legitimate challenge for the starting job, but if plays like I saw him on Tuesday, he's got a shot.
  • It was interesting to compare the media hordes at the various practices. Bo Pelini's appearance on Saturday drew a crowd of more than 30 media members from all over the state. The Cornhuskers traditionally receive the most extensive media coverage in the league. And the excitement from last season's Gator Bowl victory over Clemson has done nothing to diminish that.
  • Bill Snyder looked as relaxed as any time I have interviewed him over the years, seemingly re-engergized after his three-year sabbatical from football. As is his tradition, he was wearing his customary coat and tie to the office -- an offseason outfit different than most head coaches. It's like he never left.
  • Snyder had a couple of tidbits of news and provided me with the basis of a nice profile. First, all jobs are open on his starting team and he's not even thinking of using a depth chart when practice begins next week. Leading 2008 rusher Lamark Brown has requested a position change earlier this spring to wide receiver that will be granted. And heralded junior-college quarterback/running back recruit Daniel "Big Boy" Thomas of Northwest Mississippi Community College should be eligible when the Wildcats begin preseason camp later this summer.
  • I'm the first to admit to being a barbecue snob considering where I grew up. I think Kansas City-style Q ranks with most Texas versions, but nowhere near what I grew up with. The Memphis barbecue is going to be the biggest thing that John Calipari misses when he leaves the Bluff City for Kentucky. I can already feel his pain.
  • Are there really many inventions that are better than satellite radio? Nothing passes time better on the Kansas Turnpike than a Jimmy Buffett buffet or a Bruce Springsteen concert replay that is readily available over most satellite channels.
  • Watch for feature stories over the next several days from my various stops. And I'm planning to be in Austin Sunday afternoon for the Longhorns' scrimmage to wrap up their spring practices.

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