Big 12: Bo Williams
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Most preseason predictions expect it's going to be tough for new Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads to pull his team out of the North Division cellar.
The Cyclones aren't bereft of talent with 15 starters including nine offensive starters and five of their six skill-position starters back from last season.
But the North Division will be unforgiving, giving them little room for error if they hope to make their first bowl appearance since 2005.
Here are three things I expect will happen with Iowa State this season.
1. Despite much fanfare during fall camp, quarterback Austen Arnaud will keep his starting job heading into the season. But I expect Jerome Tiller to get some playing time during the course of the season, giving Arnaud the opportunity to stay fresher after playing nearly every snap last season.
2. Iowa State's season will hinge on its first conference game. The Cyclones should be above .500 heading into their Oct. 3 opener at Arrowhead Stadium against Kansas State. It will be a critical game and perhaps determine who stays out of the North Division cellar during the rest of the season. And regardless of how that game plays out, it will be interesting to see what kind of job Rhoads does in picking up his team's confidence after that the first several conference games.
3. Bo Williams will earn the starting job at tailback by the Kansas State game. Although Alexander Robinson is one of the more versatile and underrated backs in the conference, Williams is a better downhill runner who should be able to provide the Cyclones with 15-20 carries per game if he's utilized in that manner. I look for Williams, a transfer from Florida, to become the Cyclone's featured back with Robinson becoming the Cyclones' third-down receiver/rusher as he better fills that role in ISU offensive coordinator Tom Herman's new offense.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Some Big 12 position groups are clearly above others as far as raw talent and athleticism. Here's a look at some of the most dominant in the conference.
Oklahoma's front seven: The Sooners go two-deep in talent in the defensive line and linebackers. Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy anchors the defensive front and is an Outland Trophy candidate. Adrian Taylor and Cordero Moore also are capable players. The Sooners have the best collection of defensive ends in college football with Frank Alexander, Jeremy Beal, R.J. Washington and Auston English. Travis Lewis could develop into one of the finest linebackers in Oklahoma history and Mike Balogun, Brandon Crow and Keenan Clayton all are expected to contribute. If heady team leader Ryan Reynolds comes back from his knee injury, this group could rival any in the country -- if it doesn't already.
Texas' secondary: After producing only six interceptions last season, Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp ratcheted up competition among defensive backs. The results were seen in the spring, when the group was the best defensive backfield group I saw in the conference. Aaron Williams and Chykie Brown have emerged as starters at the corners with Curtis Brown and Deon Beasley providing backup. Safeties Blake Gideon and Christian Scott both are emerging, but the key player might be sophomore safety Earl Thomas, who played the nickel position with tenacity and abandon. It's not a stretch to say that two Thorpe Award winners could emerge out of this group in the next several years.
Colorado's running backs: The Buffaloes seemingly have a back for every situation with the deepest backfield in the conference. Darrell Scott appears intent on making a comeback after a disappointing freshman season. Rodney Stewart looks recovered from a broken leg sustained last season that kept him from rushing for 1,000 yards. Sophomore Brian Lockridge appears to be the fastest back and 215-pound Demetrius Sumler is the biggest back with the best inside running ability among the group. This group will serve as the backbone for the Buffaloes' hopes of returning to a bowl game and perhaps their dark horse challenge for the Big 12 North title.
Kansas' wide receivers: Dezmon Briscoe missed all of spring practice for an undisclosed violation of team rules, but is back to serve as one of the nation's most explosive deep talents. Coach Mark Mangino hopes to be able to permanently switch Kerry Meier to receiver for his senior season after a breakout season in 2008. Meier and Briscoe were two of the nation's top-15 receivers last season when they combined for 189 catches, 2,452 yards and 23 touchdown grabs. And Wilson emerged as quarterback Todd Reesing's go-to receiver in the spring when Briscoe was gone, notching six catches in the spring game. Add Rod Harris, Tertavian Ingram and Raimond Pendleton and it might be among the most potent pass-catching groups in the nation.
Nebraska's running backs: With unproven Zac Lee starting at quarterback, look for Shawn Watson to lean heavily on a pair of talented returning backs. Quentin Castille trimmed about 20 pounds to get into better shape and leading returning rusher Roy Helu Jr. boosted his weight by 24 pounds to become a more powerful rusher between the tackles. Together, it wouldn't be a stretch that the two backs could combine for 2,000 rushing yards and 20 rushing touchdowns if both can stay healthy.
Iowa State's running backs: With new offensive coordinator Tom Herman taking over with a spread offensive attack, a talented array of running backs still will have frequent opportunities to contribute. Leading returning rusher Alexander Robinson could be poised to become one of the most underrated rusher/receiver combination backs in the conference. But Robinson will have to fight for playing time with a stacked group that also includes bruising redshirt freshman Jeremiah Schwartz and heralded University of Florida transfer Bo Williams. Herman will be able to utilize all three backs in a variety of roles.
Missouri's defensive ends: The Tigers appeared loaded before spring practice with Brian Coulter and Jacquies Smith back, but redshirt freshman Aldon Smith has developed into an immediate contributor. Converted offensive tackle Brad Madison and redshirt Marcus Marlbrough also had strong springs, leading Gary Pinkel to say it was his best group of defensive ends he's ever had at Missouri.
Texas Tech's wide receivers: Even after losing two-time Biletnikoff Award winner Michael Crabtree and Eric Morris, the Red Raiders developed several potential playmakers during the spring. Edward Britton appeared to have crawled out of Mike Leach's doghouse with strong late production. New quarterback Taylor Potts should have many productive targets including Detron Lewis, Tramain Swindall, Lyle Leong, walk-on flanker Adam Torres, 6-foot-7 Adrian Reese and redshirt freshmen Austin Zouzalik and Eric Ward. The Red Raiders won't have two players grab the majority of balls like Crabtree and Morris did in recent seasons. Instead, they will feature a more balanced attack featuring eight to 10 receivers capable of thriving in a tag-team approach.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Alexander Robinson's college career has been a testament to adaptability.
|Alexander Robinson led the Cyclones last season with 703 yards rushing.|
The Iowa State running back is playing under his third offensive coordinator in less than three seasons with the arrival of Tom Herman on Paul Rhoads' new coaching staff. But despite never really feeling settled earlier in his college career, Robinson appears to be better suited for Herman's new no-huddle spread offensive attack than any of his previous offenses.
"I'm definitely excited about this," Robinson said. "We're going to spread the ball around. It gives us a chance to get outside and everybody is a threat on every play. It highlights everyone in the offense."
The spread offense might be a great equalizer for the Cyclones, who have struggled matching up with some of the more talented teams in the Big 12 in recent seasons. ISU has lost 21 of its last 24 conference games and has finished in the North Division cellar or tied for last place during each of the past three seasons.
But Herman's spread attack, keyed by quarterback Austen Arnaud, could give ISU a chance to at least make things interesting offensively.
One of the biggest reasons for that optimism is the production of the 5-foot-10, 184-pound Robinson, who rushed for a team-leading 703 yards last season. He also added 17 receptions, including seven catches in his final two games.
That strong showing, along with his quick assimilation into Herman's new offense this spring, has the new coaching staff buzzing about what Robinson can do.
"A-Rob has been a shining light," Rhoads said. "He's intelligent, he's quick, and he's strong."
Herman's offense at Rice was one of the most innovative in the nation last season. The Owls ranked in the top 10 in passing, total yards and scoring.
Robinson's early production in Herman's offense has the new coordinator excited about using him in a variety of roles as a rusher and a receiver. He even got some snaps in the spring game lining up as a quarterback in a "Wildcat" formation.
"After being around here for a very short time, he might be my favorite player," Herman said. "And the reason why is the number of different things he does for us. He's just a very versatile, productive player."