Big 12: John Houlik
1. Texas (14 starters back: 6 offensive, 7 defensive, 1 special teams). Garrett Gilbert got a head start on replacing Colt McCoy with his considerable playing time in the national title game, an invaluable learning experience for a young player. The Longhorns return most of the defense that improved in its second season under Will Muschamp. The biggest chores will be for offensive coordinator Greg Davis, who has to boost running game production and find a replacement for record-breaking wide receiver Jordan Shipley.
2. Nebraska (18 starters back: 8 offensive, 8 defensive, 2 special teams). Bo Pelini has the Cornhuskers positioned for a potential top-10 preseason ranking. Most of the offensive weapons will be back from a unit that sputtered down the stretch before breaking out in the Holiday Bowl victory. Quarterback Zac Lee will miss some of spring practice as he recovers from postseason surgery. Cody Green and Kody Spano will get most of the work until Lee returns. Nebraska coaches think the defense can be better this season, even without the up-the-middle strength of Ndamukong Suh, Phillip Dillard, Larry Asante and Matt O’Hanlon.
3. Oklahoma (15 starters back: 9 offensive, 4 defensive, 2 special teams). The Sooners overcame a debilitating run of injuries last season to finish with a flourish, knocking Oklahoma State out of a BCS game and winning the Sun Bowl in their final two games. Landry Jones will be infinitely better in his second season as a starter and Ryan Broyles and DeMarco Murray may be the best one-two receiving/running back combination in the conference. Bob Stoops will be facing a big renovation on defense where key players like Gerald McCoy and Dominique Franks left early for the NFL draft. Look for Travis Lewis to be the key to a defense that will need to improve by the time Big 12 play begins if the Sooners are to have any hope of claiming a seventh Big 12 title this season.
4. Missouri (19 starters back: 9 offensive, 9 defensive, 1 special teams). The Tigers will miss Danario Alexander and linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, who were arguably the best players at their positions in the conference last season. But Blaine Gabbert is back for a second season as starting quarterback and some talented recruits are expected to emerge on defense. A key for the Tigers’ success will be a more productive running game and consistency from the offensive line. Improvement on both will be critical for coordinator David Yost during the spring.
5. Texas Tech (15 starters back: 7 offensive, 6 defensive, 2 special teams). New coach Tommy Tuberville immediately will have to sort through a potentially difficult decision at quarterback between Taylor Potts and fan favorite Steven Sheffield. New coordinator James Willis hopes to install a 3-4 defense that should be a haven for athletic linebackers. But the group’s success will hinge on replacing Jamar Wall at cornerback and finding some pass-rushing threats to replace Brandon Sharpe, Richard Jones and Daniel Howard along the front.
6. Texas A&M (19 starters back: 8 offensive, 9 defensive, 2 special teams). With Jerrod Johnson, Jeff Fuller, Uzoma Nwachukwu and Christine Michael back, the Aggies shouldn’t have trouble scoring points, although the line needs to do a better job of protecting Johnson. But the Aggies’ success will depend on the returning starters quickly taking to new coordinator Tim DeRuyter’s teachings. The group was blistered for at least 35 points in seven games last season and allowed at least 30 points in two other games. So needless to say that even with nine starters back, DeRuyter has his work cut out.
7. Kansas (16 starters back: 7 offensive, 7 defensive, 2 special teams). New coach Turner Gill inherits an uncertain quarterback situation, but has the framework for a strong running attack with all of his starting linemen back, along with Toben Opurum and heralded back Brandon Bourbon as running threats. The Jayhawks will need to fill in for the loss of Darrell Stuckey in the secondary, but new coordinator Carl Torbush should find the elements for a blitzing, attacking defense among the returnees. But the biggest reason the Jayhawks might be bound for a bowl game in Gill’s first season is swapping Texas, Texas Tech and Oklahoma for Texas A&M, Oklahoma State and Baylor in their cross-divisional schedule.
8. Iowa State (13 starters back: 8 offensive, 4 defensive, 1 special teams). Paul Rhoads returns most of the offensive weapons that led the Cyclones to the Insight Bowl, most notably quarterback Austen Arnaud and running back Alexander Robinson. But the team loses all of its starting linebackers; veteran coordinator Wally Burnham will be challenged to cobble together a serviceable unit. The Cyclones could actually be a better team in 2010 but post a worse record. A tougher schedule featuring nonconference games against Utah, Iowa and Northern Illinois and the addition of South Division powers Oklahoma, Texas and Texas Tech will make last season’s bowl trip much tougher to duplicate.
9. Oklahoma State (10 starters back: 4 offensive, 4 defensive, 2 special teams). The Cowboys must find replacements for key players like Zac Robinson, Keith Tosten, four offensive linemen (including Outland finalist Russell Okung) and six of their back seven on defense. New offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen finds an uncertain quarterback situation but will lean heavily on a healthy Kendall Hunter. A manageable nonconference schedule should have them in bowl contention, but this should be a step back from Mike Gundy’s last two teams.
10. Kansas State (15 starters back: 7 offensive, 6 defensive, 2 special teams). The Wildcats missed out on a bowl trip last season only because they scheduled two FCS teams, but they surprisingly challenged for the Big 12 North title up to their last game of the season. It might be tougher to do that this season, although Daniel Thomas will provide the foundation on offense. Carson Coffman has the inside track at quarterback, but keep an eye out for Oregon transfer Chris Harper at either that position or wide receiver. Players like Jeffrey Fitzgerald and John Houlik will be missed on defense, but all four starters are back in the secondary.
11. Colorado (16 starters back: 8 offensive, 7 defensive, 1 special teams). Dan Hawkins’ seat is the hottest in the Big 12 and arguably in college football after missing a bowl for a second straight season last year. Tyler Hansen returns as the starting quarterback, but the Buffaloes need to find some help in the backfield with only three scholarship backs in spring practice. The defense was young last season and should be improved, but will miss the leadership provided by Jeff Smart and Cha’pelle Brown. A bowl trip likely will be necessary to save Hawkins’ job and a tough nonconference schedule featuring games at California and against Hawaii and Georgia will prove troublesome even before Big 12 play begins.
12. Baylor (14 starters back: 6 offensive, 6 defensive, 2 special teams). The Bears’ hopes of stopping the conference’s longest bowl drought will hinge largely on the health of Robert Griffin, who is recovering from knee surgery that forced him to miss the final nine games of the 2009 season. New offensive lineman “Big” Robert Griffin will have to protect his quarterback if coach Art Briles has any hope of making a bowl trip. Jay Finley and Kendall Wright are underrated offensive threats, but the Bears will miss key defensive leaders like Joe Pawelek and Jordan Lake who were stalwarts for several years.
Here's a look at some of the trends in the first half of the game that will determine the North Division champion.
Turning point: Kansas State safety Tysyn Hartman’s interception late in the second half was a critical play that accounted for a huge momentum swing for the Wildcats. Nebraska was set to take a potential 14-point lead as they were moving the ball well against a Kansas State defense that seemed to be tiring. But defensive end Jeffrey Fitzgerald came up with a huge sack before Hartman’s interception in the end zone. His pick not only ended Nebraska’s scoring drive, but also kept the Wildcats within striking distance at the half.
Stat of half: The diference in penalties was startling. Kansas State was penalized six times for 54 yards – and each one seemed to place the sputtering KSU offense in difficult positions for first downs. Nebraska was penalized once for 15 yards.
Best player of the half: Take away one interception and Nebraska quarterback Zac Lee had a solid first half. Lee completed 9-of-14 passes for 91 yards and a touchdown. He also chipped in with 14 yards on seven carries and also took a critical 15-yard late hit along the sidelines by KSU linebacker John Houlik early in the second quarter that helped spark the Cornhuskers’ drive that resulted in a touchdown three plays later.
Best call: Tight end Mike McNeill was injured late in the Kansas game and was thought to be doubtful to play until late this week. But McNeill is back in the lineup and made a huge contribution that gave the Cornhuskers the lead. McNeill streaked through the KSU secondary, making a fancy double move to split the defenders for a 17-yard touchdown reception from Lee that has accounted for the game’s only touchdown so far.
What Nebraska needs to do: Keep the same defensive intensity. Other than the first and last drive of the half, the Cornhuskers’ defense was the major story. Not only did it limit KSU to only three points, but it also enabled the Wildcats to convert only one of six third-down plays.
What Kansas State needs to do: Stay away from penalties. The Wildcats’ offense isn’t built to pick up yards in big chunks. Penalties make it hard to do that with a station-to-station offense like the Wildcats have. They can’t beat themselves if they want to stay in manageable down-and-distance situations.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Big 12 defenses are nearly as proficient as their offensive counterparts. But the best teams in terms of defense will likely end up as the conference’s best teams because stopping the high-powered offenses in the conference is so rare.
Here’s a look at how I rank them:
1. Oklahoma: The Sooners return nine starters and are among the nation’s very best defenses. It starts with three-deep talent along the defensive line keyed by Gerald McCoy and Auston English, who was the conference’s preseason player of the year last season before spraining his knee. They might be a little lacking in depth at middle linebacker behind Ryan Reynolds with the injury to freshman standout Tom Wort and Mike Balogun’s iffy status. The only new starters are strong safety Sam Proctor and free safety Quinton Carter, who have both been impressive in fall camp. The Sooners’ substitutes might be better collectively than most Big 12 units.
2. Texas: The Longhorns have arguably the conference’s best back seven, particularly a developing secondary led by Earl Thomas and corners Chykie Brown and Aaron Williams. Sergio Kindle and Alex Okafor are poised to become the primary pass-rushing specialists. Lamarr Houston has developed into an anchor at defensive tackle, but the Longhorns need to find another player at the other defensive tackle position to juice production for their biggest defensive weakness. Will Muschamp’s unit must do a better job after producing only 16 turnovers last season to rank tied for 104th nationally.
3. Nebraska: It all starts with the defensive line, which is among the best in the nation with Outland Candidate Ndamukong Suh and defensive ends Pierre Allen and Barry Turner. The Cornhuskers are young at linebacker where they might start two linebackers, although coaches really like 6-foot-6, 230-pound buck linebacker Sean Fisher and Will Compton. Coaches say the secondary is playing with more confidence, but the group produced only 12 interceptions last season. Boosting that turnover production will be critical in the Cornhuskers’ division title hopes.
4. Texas Tech: This is where the big drop-off starts from the top three teams. The Red Raiders will miss pass-rushing threats McKinner Dixon and Brandon Williams from last season, but have an experienced unit back. Rajon Henley and Brandon Sharpe are set to fill in as the pass-rushing threats and Colby Whitlock can be a terror at times -- particularly against Texas. Brian Duncan is a producer and the team’s leading tackler at middle linebacker. Jamar Wall is one of the better cover corners in the league. But the unit will depend on the improvement of two projected starters: redshirt freshman free safety Cody Davis and strong safety Franklin Mitchem.
5. Oklahoma State: The development by veteran defensive coordinator Bill Young will determine whether this unit has the goods to lead the Cowboys to their first South title and a potential maiden BCS bowl appearance. The biggest key will be producing more sacks from a defensive front that notched only 15 last season. Young has been concentrating on push from his defensive tackles and thinks he has an underrated pair in seniors Swanson Miller and Derek Burton. The loss of Orie Lemon at middle linebacker will hurt, although Donald Booker has been a producer in limited playing time. The secondary will be playing new starters with only Perrish Cox returning. But keep an eye out for senior free safety Lucien “The Punisher” Antoine who was turning heads last season before blowing out his ACL in the second game last season.
6. Colorado: The Buffaloes are faster this season and that should help them cope with the high-powered offenses in the Big 12. The linebackers are deep with Shaun Mohler and Jeff Smart as the prime producers. And I really like the secondary, with Jimmy Smith and Cha’pelle Brown among the best pair of cornerbacks in the conference. The biggest concern is along the defensive line, particularly after the injury of heralded freshman Nick Kasa that may idle him for the season. One area to note will be at right defensive end, where sophomore Lagrone Shields and freshman Forrest West are in the two-deep. Shields has played four snaps in his career.
7. Kansas: The Jayhawks need defensive improvement if they are going to fulfill their hopes of making their first championship game. The Jayhawks were crippled last season without a consistent pass rush. They hope junior-college transfer Quintin Woods, Caleb Blakesley and 304-pound Jamal Greene up front along with sack leader Jake Laptad. After losing three starting linebackers from last season, the Jayhawks will retool. I look for them to play two linebackers and a nickel look in many cases. Look for freshman Huldon Tharp to become a producer at linebacker. The secondary is the strength of the defense with All-Big 12 candidate Darrell Stuckey at strong safety and Phillip Strozier poised to continue his late-season development.
8. Baylor: Up the middle, the Bears might be among the strongest defenses in the conference with heralded transfer defensive tackle Phil Taylor, linebacker Joe Pawelek and hard-hitting safety Jordan Lake. Baylor coordinator Brian Norwood knows he needs more production from a defensive line that collected only 21 sacks and allowed opponents to complete 67 percent of passes for 3,063 yards. Antonio Jones and Antonio Johnson sometimes get overshadowed by Pawelek at linebacker. Junior cornerbacks Tim Atchison, Clifton Odom and Antareis Bryan need to improve or it could be a long season for the secondary.
9. Missouri: Any defense that starts with All-American candidate Sean Weatherspoon won’t be too bad. The Tigers could be a surprise considering that Gary Pinkel has been raving about the speed his unit possesses -- particularly at defensive end and at cornerback. Look for a three-man rotation at defensive end with Brian Coulter, Jacquies Smith and Aldon Smith to boost production in the pass rush. The secondary was a huge liability last season ranking 118th in pass defense. Kevin Rutland has shown a physical style at cornerback and Kenji Jackson and Hardy Ricks might be ready to help at safety.
10. Kansas State: New coordinators Chris Cosh and Vic Koenning plan to run a 4-2-5 defense. Their first concern is developing a rush with 2008 first-team freshman All-America pick Brandon Harold out with an injury. While he’s gone, the Wildcats need Eric Childs and Jeffrey Fitzgerald to emerge up front. John Houlik and Alex Hrebec apparently have earned the starting jobs at linebacker. Three junior college players -- David Garrett, Troy Butler and Emmanuel Lamur -- have apparently earned starting jobs for a secondary that desperately needs to improve after ranking 106th nationally in pass defense. The defense ranked tied for 110th in scoring defense and 117th in total defense, so the new coordinators better boost improvement or it will be another long season.
11. Texas A&M: Whatever happened to the Wrecking Crew defenses from the past? The best indication of the concern that Mike Sherman has for his defensive unit came when he transferred projected starting left tackle Lucas Patterson move back to defensive tackle late in preseason practice to boost production inside. Von Miller was impressive at the “jack” position, but he’ll need some good fortune to hold up consistently rushing against the huge offensive lines in the conference. The Aggies need to improve after yielding 461 yards and 37 points per game and earning the ignominy of being one of three FBS teams to allow opponents to average 200 yards rushing and passing last season. Coaches say the unit is faster and more athletic, but they have to play much better to get the Aggies back into bowl contention.
12. Iowa State: Veteran defensive Wally Burnham has a great reputation and most recently flummoxed the spread defenses of the Big East while at South Florida. The Big 12, however, will be a different story. The Cyclones ranked tied for 110th in scoring defense and 112th in total defense. Coach Paul Rhoads says he’s been frustrated by his team’s lack of tackling techniques. They have a building block in cornerback Leonard Johnson. Burnham and Rhoads know what they are talking about defensively as both were coordinators for top 30 defenses last year. But it will take a lot of patience to help rebuild this unit that needs so much improvement.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Sometimes the spring provides a chance for personnel holes to be filled. Sometimes it doesn't.
Here are some of the notable positions around the Big 12 that picked up some assistance during the spring.
Baylor: The quick development of defensive tackle Phil Taylor, a heralded transfer from Penn State, should turn a traditional position of weakness for the Bears into a strength. Joining him at the position will be Jason Lamb, who showed some promise after moving over from defensive end before spring practice.
Colorado: The emergence of hulking 260-pound middle linebacker Marcus Burton and B.J. Beatty at outside linebacker have helped transform the Buffaloes' defense. Burton led the team in tackles and was a prime playmaker in the spring game with eight tackles, two sacks and a fumble recovery. He had eight tackles in 10 games last season.
Iowa State: Redshirt freshman quarterback Jerome Tiller outplayed starter Austen Arnaud in the spring game, passing for 210 yards and getting free for a 65-yard touchdown run. I'm not sure that Tiller will be starting come September, but he'll make Arnaud work harder to earn his job.
Kansas: The Jayhawks had questions in the defensive line before the spring, even with the return of all-Big 12 honorable mention selections Caleb Blakesley and Jake Laptad and late season starting defensive tackles Richard Johnson and Jamal Greene. The development of tackle Darius Parish and end Max Onyegbule should add to the depth. And that doesn't even account for the arrival of heralded junior college transfer Quintin Woods, who originally signed with Michigan out of high school before heading to Bakersfield (Cal.) Community College to get his grades in order.
Kansas State: The emergence of linebackers like Alex Hrebec, Ulla Pomele and John Houlik has helped turn the position into the strength of the defense, even as the Wildcats are transforming to a 4-2-5 alignment. Hrebec, a former walk-on, contributed 19 tackles in the spring game and Houlik is a huge hitter despite his 5-foot-11, 219-pound size.
Missouri: Redshirt freshman Aldon Smith has only added to the Tigers' depth at defensive end, which already featured Brian Coulter and Jacquies Smith in front of him. Smith was voted as the team's most improved player in the spring. Throw in converted offensive tackle Brad Madison and redshirt freshman Marcus Marlbrough and you'll see why Gary Pinkel considers it his best collection of defensive ends at Missouri.
Nebraska: The Cornhuskers had serious questions at quarterback, particularly after the departure of projected starting challenger Patrick Witt before spring practice and Kody Spano's knee injury. But the strong spring by Zac Lee and the surprising development of converted linebacker LaTravis Washington eased some of offensive coordinator Shawn Watson's concerns. Their strong spring work also should mean that heralded freshman Cody Green likely won't be thrown into action perhaps as quickly as Watson might have feared before the spring.
Oklahoma: After losing starters Nic Harris and Lendy Holmes, safety was the only position without returning starters for the Sooners on defense. Quinton Carter nailed down one starting position and Sam Proctor and Joseph Ibiloye are poised to fight for the other job beside him. Emmanuel Jones and Desmond Jackson also had strong spring efforts to challenge for playing time.
Oklahoma State: Defensive tackle was enough of a question that new coordinator Bill Young moved Derek Burton inside from defensive end to help bolster depth at the position. Burton and Swanson Miller appear to have won starting jobs with redshirt freshman Nigel Nicholas and junior Chris Donaldson providing strong depth. Their strong play helped the Cowboys rack up seven sacks in the spring game - more than half of their 2008 season total of 13.
Texas: The Longhorns were concerned about defensive end after the departure of NFL draft picks Brian Orakpo and Henry Melton from last season. Those fears appear to be assuaged after the seamless transition of Sergio Kindle to the position from linebacker and the quick assimilation by freshman Alex Okafor. Toss in Sam Acho and Russell Carter and the return injured pass-rushing threat Eddie Jones and the Longhorns appear stacked at the position.
Texas A&M: Safety was a question mark before spring camp after the loss of Devin Gregg and Alton Dixon and the move of 2008 starting free safety Jordan Peterson to cornerback. But the strong return to safety by converted cornerback Jordan Pugh and the noticeable development by Trent Hunter helped solidify the position during the spring. And the Aggies' depth at the position was improved after the move of wide receiver Chris Caflisch to the position along with strong play from DeMaurier Thompson.
Texas Tech: The departure of two-time Biletnikoff Award winner Michael Crabtree and underrated Eric Morris was supposed to cripple the Red Raiders' receiving corps. Mike Leach appears to have found several serviceable replacements after Tramain Swindall, Lyle Leong, Detron Lewis and walk-on flanker Adam Torres all emerged during the spring. And that doesn't include Edward Britton, who was in Leach's doghouse much of the spring after falling behind in the classroom but still is perhaps their most athletic force on the field.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
The first Saturday of football season finally is here. I can't wait.
My enthusiasm couldn't even diminished by a balky wireless system that kept me about three hours behind this morning. Fortunately, the hamsters were rousted and the power restored a few minutes ago. Hopefully, these links to whet your appetite on the first full day of the season will be savored.
Enjoy them and check back throughout the day. I'll have tidbits and information as the conference starts play at 2:30 p.m. CT when Oklahoma State squares off with Washington State in Seattle. That gives you guys most of the morning to catch up on your honey-dos before the games start in earnest.
But remember to read your links first. They are a better hangover cure than menudo, my friends back in San Antonio tell me.
- Baylor coach Art Briles has named freshman QB Robert Griffin as his starter for the Northwestern State game next week. "He just gives us a few more options," Briles told the Waco Tribune-Herald. "His poise at quarterback is a given because he's played the position all his life and is comfortable with it and handles it well."
- The Colorado-Colorado State game will return to campus sites in 2009 and 2010, the school's athletic directors announced on Friday.
- Colorado coach Dan Hawkins expects several CU freshmen to have an impact in Sunday's game against Colorado State in Denver.
- Strong debuts by both QB Austen Arnaud and Phillip Bates pleased Iowa State coach Gene Chizik, although he's still unwilling to name a starter for next week's game against Kent State.
- Redshirt Missouri freshman T Elvis Fisher needs to take care of business Saturday night against Illinois All-Big Ten DE Will Davis in their epic "Viva St. Louis" debut.
- Jeffrey Martin of the Wichita Eagle/Kansas City Star reports that Kansas State players insist that last season's late collapse is behind them as they head into Saturday's opener against North Texas. But the Wildcats will have to start without LB John Houlik, who will be suspended three games after being arrested Aug. 1 for driving under the influence.
- Kansas still is getting little respect nationally, Lawrence Journal-World columnist Tom Keegan writes. Maybe he's hasn't seen those national rankings.
- Omaha World-Herald columnist Tom Shatel writes that Nebraska football gets a clean slate with Bo Pelini's first official game as head coach.
- Mike Gundy learned a lesson from his old boss Les Miles seven years ago. That's why he's calling plays as Oklahoma State's offensive coordinator as well as serving as its head coach Saturday, Tulsa World columnist Dave Sittler writes.
- Chattanooga's visit to Owen Field today will be the biggest mismatch in modern Oklahoma history - even if Terrell Owens once played for the Moccasins, Oklahoman columnist Berry Tramel writes.
- Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds escapes the competitive world of college sports with a green thumb.
- Texas will retire Vince Young's uniform number before tonight's game against Florida Atlantic and Tommy Nobis and Bobby Layne later this season. Austin American-Statesman columnist Kirk Bohls wonders who is next?
- New Texas A&M coach Mike Sherman hopes to rally support from Aggie fans as he starts his head coaching career there against Arkansas State.
- Texas Tech RB Baron Batch has a different attitude after enduring seven surgeries during an eight-month period.
- Chuck Carlton of the Dallas Morning News writes that Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp has a perfect stage tonight to debut the team's aggressive new style.