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Friday, April 3, 2009
Tim's mailbag: The Big 12's best in the trenches

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Happy Friday afternoon to everybody.

Here are some of the more representative e-mails and letters I received this week.

Drew from San Diego writes: Tim, love your blogs. I'm curious, who will have the best offensive and defensive lines in the North and South this coming season?

Tim Griffin: In the North Division, I would give Colorado a slight edge for having the best offensive line. The Buffaloes return four starters and also will have key players like Ryan Miller and Mike Iltis coming back from injuries that will only boost their talent.

Dan Hawkins has really been recruiting strong Colorado talent and we could see players like Bryce Givens and Evan Eastburn emerge during the spring to challenge for starting jobs. I give them a slight edge over Missouri, Kansas State and Nebraska.

On defense in the North, I really like Nebraska. Ndamukong Suh, who I think is the best defensive player in the division, should be a force at defensive tackle. And the return of Barry Turner at end might give them a player who could contribute 10-12 sacks next season if he's healthy.

In the South, I really like Texas' offensive line. The Longhorns lose only one starter in guard Cedric Dockery and should only be better by playing another season together. I'm looking for a big push from players like Tray Allen, Kyle Hix and Britt Mitchell and mammoth incoming freshman Mason Walters during the summer.

Oklahoma could be poised to have one of the great defensive lines in Big 12 history with the players they have coming back. Not only do they have all four starters back from last season, including All-American candidate Gerald McCoy, but also six of the top eight players in the two-deep roster from last season. And that doesn't even include Auston English, who was merely the pass rusher in the conference in 2007 before struggling with injuries last season.

And if I had to pick the best in the conference, give me Texas' offensive line and Oklahoma's defensive line. Just another reason why the Red River Rivalry shapes up as so interesting this season.


Steve Belch from Tulsa, Okla., writes: Tim, I read your blog often and I enjoy all of your comments and insight about players and coaches. But I also enjoy the little tidbits of information you provide about some of the non-football stuff across the conference.

With that in mind, I'm curious where your favorite stop is in the Big 12 and why do you like it the most? Also, any other particular favorites?

Tim Griffin: Actually, I hate to sound like John Madden, but my favorite stop is Texas for one main reason. I can jump in my car and be at the stadium in about an hour. I can also get back from there and into my own bed that night, which is becoming more and more important with my family the older I get.

My other favorites include Colorado (great scenery, cool backdrop for stadium), Nebraska (big-game feel/comfortable press box), Oklahoma (strong SID department really takes care of your needs) and Texas Tech (very underrated stop because of many friends in Lubbock over the years).

But let me also mention there are no bad stops along the Big 12 that I regularly visit. I can -- and do -- enjoy myself anywhere.


Luke Robertson from Des Moines writes: Hey Tim, I saw where you visited Iowa State earlier this week. What kind of chance do you see for them making a move back into bowl contention under Paul Rhoads?

Tim Griffin: Luke, it likely will be a long road back to a bowl game for the Cyclones. But I really like Rhoads' enthusiasm for the job and what appears to be his realization of all the work that will be needed over the next several years.

I think the hirings of Tom Herman and Wally Burnham arguably were among the most significant in the conference. Austen Arnaud being around for the next couple of years will help. But they've got to get much better quickly on defense, and that will be a huge challenge in the Big 12.


Robert Williams of Lake Charles, La., writes: Tim, Big 12 expatriate here stuck in the SEC's footprint, unfortunately. Thanks so much for your blogs. You give me a heaping dose of information every day.

Just curious if you think any starting quarterbacks from last year face any legitimate chances of being unseated before the start of the season. I'm particularly curious what you might think about Jerrod Johnson at my former school, Texas A&M.

Tim Griffin: Robert, thanks for the kind words. I can really only think of only one place where the incumbent isn't firmly entrenched in the Big 12 and that's at Colorado.

I think that Cody Hawkins will have to win the job again before the start of the season. Tyler Hansen showed flashes last season and Matt Ballenger has the size and the big arm that all offensive coordinators seem to love. I'm not willing to hazard a guess on who will be starting for the Buffaloes in their season opener Sept. 5 against Colorado State.

I know Texas A&M coach Mike Sherman is saying that he's giving Ryan Tannehill a shot to become his starting quarterback this spring. But I still expect Johnson to end up as the starter. I know he struggled down the stretch last season.

But Tannehill developed into a pretty salty wide receiver last season. And I don't think Tannehill will provide that much more of a boost over Johnson at quarterback to convince Sherman to move him away from his new position. In a sense, I can't see him weakening himself at another position unless the personnel boost will be a lot greater at quarterback than I think it will be.


Andy from Akron, Ohio, writes: Tim, give me your pick. Gerald McCoy or Ndamukong Suh? Suh has better stats and McCoy has better talent around him to take away the offenses focusing on him. I know my opinion, what is yours?

Tim Griffin: Andy, great question. I really like both of them for different reasons. As you said, Suh does have better statistics, but also has the ability to get them because of his team's demands for him. McCoy is also a great player who is the linchpin in the conference's best defensive line.

But as far as choice between one of them, check my daily rankings for the best players in the Big 12 over the next several weeks for my answer. Trust me, it was a tough decision.


Jackson Roach from Marfa, Texas, writes: Tim, thanks for all the coverage you provide to us about the Big 12. I couldn't live without it. I trust you are going to the Texas scrimmage on Sunday. Who are some players you are interested in watching and why?

Tim Griffin: Jackson, I wouldn't miss the scrimmage. It should be interesting.

I'm most intrigued to see John Chiles' new role at receiver. I'm hearing he's getting a lot of balls this spring because Jordan Shipley is out of action. He also would be an ideal candidate to replace Quan Cosby on the swing pass
es and jailbreak screens that Colt McCoy really likes. Those passes would really showcase Chiles' athleticism. Just a guess here, but I bet that McCoy throws to Chiles among the first several plays of the scrimmage.

I'm also curious about freshman defensive end Alex Okafor, who I've heard is really lighting it up at practices so far. The Longhorns obviously have a huge need at defensive end. Can Okafor overcome his youth to become a prime producer so quickly in his career? We'll start seeing that on Sunday.

I want to zero in on Ben Alexander at defensive tackle, particularly against the Longhorns' talented offensive front.

And I'm also very interested in watching the secondary. I think the battle for playing time among players in the unit could be as intense as any on the team. Sunday will be an early indicator of how it could play out.

Thanks again for the correspondence and enjoy the Final Four tomorrow. In my mind, it's one of the great days in all of American sports -- at least until football season rolls around!