Big 12: Richard Jones
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.
Defensive line: After losing starters Jason Lamb and Trey Bryant and having Phil Taylor and Earl Patin entering their senior seasons, the Bears need to add immediate depth. Xavier Ruben and Anthony Gonzales will help shore up the deficiencies and the Bears still are in the hunt for top prospects like Carlos Thompson and Byran Jones.
Secondary: Starters Jordan Lake and Jeremy Williams have graduated and four juniors in the two-deep roster will start their senior seasons. Coach Art Briles has already lured surprising strength in the defensive backfield with Ahmad Dixon, Tyler Stephenson and Prince Kent. That trio makes it one of the finest positional groupings for Baylor in recent history.
Robert Griffin’s redshirt season has lessened the immediate need at quarterback: With Griffin now having three years of eligibility remaining, recruits now see only a two-season window to play. But another Robert Griffin should help the Bears as well. Baylor coaches see the other Griffin, a junior college transfer from Coriscana Junior College, being able to contend for the starting position at right tackle from his first day in the program.
Running back: With Chris Brown graduating and DeMarco Murray entering his senior season, the Sooners need some producers at the position. Bob Stoops has never hesitated to playing top freshman players in the past if they can help. Don’t be surprised if top recruits like Brennan Clay and Roy Finch get an early chance in 2010 with the Sooners.
Receiver: Ryan Broyles is entrenched in the slot, but the Sooners are looking all over for pass catchers who can challenge existing players. Recruits Kenny Stills, Joe Powell, Julian Wilson and Sheldon McClain all should challenge this summer to battle their way into the rotation.
Defensive tackle: Injuries and NFL declarations have riddled the Sooners’ depth at the postion. Gerald McCoy will leave early for the NFL draft with JaMarkus McFarland ready to take over. Adrian Taylor was set at the other position, but his nasty ankle injury sustained in the Sun Bowl has depleted the Sooners’ depth. Redshirt sophomore Casey Walker and four incoming freshmen are all that is in place as far as depth at the critical position.
Offensive line: The Cowboys lose four senior starting offensive linemen from the Cotton Bowl team, including the left side of their offensive line in tackle Russell Okung, guard Noah Franklin and center Andrew Lewis, as well as right tackle Brady Bond. Mike Gundy needs some immediate help at the position, both from existing players and incoming ones.
Defensive tackle: Starters Swanson Miller and Derek Burton both will graduate and top backups Shane Jarka and Chris Donaldson both will be senior this season. Defensive coordinator Bill Young needs to find some defensive linemen who can challenge for playing next season.
Linebackers: Young also will have to rebuild this group after the underrated group of Andre Sexton, Donald Booker and Patrick Lavine helped sparked the Cowboys’ surprising defensive growth last season. All will be gone this season, putting pressure to add some more contributors to add to the returning mix of players including James Thomas, Tolu Moala and Justin Gent.
Defensive end: With Sergio Kindle graduating and Sam Acho and Eddie Jones both entering their senior season, the Longhorns need a talent boost here. It also just happens to be the position where top target Jackson Jeffcoat would immediately fill the rather sizable hole.
The left side of the offensive line: Tackle Adam Ulatoski, guard Charlie Tanner and center Chris Hall combined for 114 starts during their careers.The Longhorns has some strong arriving talent, but they’ll still miss the leadership and savvy that this trio provided over the years.
Quarterback: Even with Garrett Gilbert seemingly entrenched as the Longhorns’ quarterback of the future, the Longhorns added depth with the commitments of Connor Wood and Colt’s little brother Case McCoy. It will make for some interesting competition this spring and fall as the rotation sorts itself out.
Defensive end: The Aggies received a huge boost when Von Miller announced he would return for his senior season, but A&M needs to prepare for his departure -- particularly after losing starting defensive end Matt Moss and Miller’s backup Matt Featherston as departing seniors from 2009.
Tight end: Starter Jamie McCoy graduated and top replacements Kenny Brown and Craig Raschke both will be seniors next season. Adding at least one player would be beneficial as the Aggie coaches hope they can find a combination blocker/receiving threat at the position like McCoy was.
Offensive tackle: The Aggies lose bookend senior starters Michael Shumard and Lee Grimes. They do have Stephen Barrera and Danny Baker in the depth chart but would like more depth to help the line develop.
Defensive line: The Red Raiders’ biggest need is at defensive end where all three players in the two-deep roster -- Brandon Sharpe, Ra’Jon Henley and Daniel Howard were seniors. At defensive tackle, Richard Jones departs as a senior and Colby Whitlock will be a senior next season. New coordinator James Willis needs to find some productive players in the trenches quickly.
Linebackers: Starters Bront Bird and Brian Duncan will be back as seniors next season, but Tech loses departing starter Marlon Williams on the other side. They need some depth to help build for the future at the position.
Quarterback: Taylor Potts and Steven Sheffield will wage one of the closest-watched battles for playing time in the nation during the spring and summer. But both will be seniors, meaning the Red Raiders need to prepare for their departure by grooming some young talent like Scotty Young, a recent commitment at the position.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
All three Texas Tech defensive ends who missed last week's game against Texas will be available for the Red Raiders' game at Houston Saturday night.
Starter Ra'Jon Henley and backups Ryan Haliburton and Brandon Sharpe will be back in the lineup after practicing this week. Henley's health is the biggest concern after he sustained an ankle injury on the first defensive series in the Red Raiders' second game of the season against Rice.
Henley's return would be huge for the Red Raiders, who had surprising success against Texas despite their limited numbers along the defensive front. Defensive tackle Richard Jones and linebacker Bront Bird switched to defensive end to fill the gap against the Longhorns.
"I thought they handled themselves well," Tech defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill said about his patchwork group at defensive end. "The one thing there was is that they didn't have the 'deer in the headlights look' when we out there. I think that comes from players trusting coaches and coaches trusting players."
The Lubbock Avalanche-Journal reports that starting safety Franklin Mitchem and special teams player Ryan Hale both did not make Tech's travel roster for the Houston game and will not play against the Cougars.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
As Texas Tech cornerback Brent Nickerson watched game films of Houston earlier this week, a sense of familiarity grew as he studied how the Cougars operate their offense.
The Cougars have incorporated many of the elements from the Red Raiders thanks to their offensive coordinator, Dana Holgorsen, who coached at Tech for eight years after playing under Mike Leach at Iowa Wesleyan.
"We know that a lot of things they do are similar to our offense,” Nickerson said. “They do a lot of empty sets and two-back stuff -- just like us. We’ve got a good feeling for what they like to do.”
And like Tech, the Cougars have developed into one of the most potent teams nationally.
Houston leads the nation in scoring, averaging 50 points per game. They also rank fourth nationally in passing (406.5 yards per game) and fifth in total offense (525 yards per game).
But the fact the Cougars are so alike the Red Raiders has provided Tech defensive tackle Richard Jones with some confidence as he prepares for Saturday’s game.
“I think it will make it a little easier because what they run is pretty similar to ours. I’ve seen it for the last four years and it’s nothing new to me,” Jones said. “But I’m sure that Coach Holgorsen knows our defense pretty well too. But just practicing against our offense will prepare us for this game because we see it a lot.”
That familiarity could cut both ways, Leach said.
“They are very similar (to Tech),” Leach said. “They do a lot of good things. They run a lot of similar plays and have a similar philosophy.”
How that will impact the ball game could help the defenses of both teams.
“If it’s easier for you, then it’s also easier for them, too,” Leach said.
That mirror image could lead to one of the most entertaining games in the nation this weekend. Both teams have high-powered offense directed by productive, talented quarterbacks.
The Cougars have jumped to No. 17 nationally – their highest ranking in 18 seasons – after beating Northwestern State and Oklahoma State to start the season.
Holgorsen’s offense is similar to Tech’s current offense except the Cougars use more players in motion. It’s more akin to Leach’s offense at Oklahoma when he was on Bob Stoops’ staff in 1999 than the current Tech derivation.
Another connection is between starting Houston quarterback Case Keenum and starting Tech quarterback Taylor Potts, who both grew up in Abilene, Texas, and are the same age. Keenum graduated from Abilene Wylie High School and Potts from Abilene High. The only time they played against each other was in a regional all-star game after graduating from high school in 2005.
Potts is coming off a strong, gritty game against Texas where he threw for 430 yards in his first career road start. His play was one of the bright spots in the Red Raiders’ 34-24 loss to the No. 2 Longhorns.
Only a week earlier, Keenum engineered an upset at No. 5 Oklahoma State, passing for a season-best 366 yards and three touchdown passes to jump into Heisman consideration.
Tech defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill said that Keenum’s skill set is remarkably similar to several Tech quarterbacks over the years.
“He’s a really good quarterback,” McNeill said. “He reminds me of the quarterbacks we’ve had here. Case is smart and accurate. He understands what needs to be done with the ball and distributing it properly. In this offense, that’s something that’s critical.”
And while McNeill might have gleaned a little insight into Holgorsen’s play-calling tendencies over the years, the talent of Houston concerns him even more.
“They are a challenge for anybody,” McNeill said. “Houston has a great set of skill-position people and a big, strong offensive line. They do a good job of blending and mixing plays. They like to stretch you vertically and horizontally and make it tough for a defense.”
So whether Holgorsen really has an advantage over the Red Raiders is debatable.
“I think it’s a draw,” McNeill said. “He knows me as well as well as I know him. I think the game will depend on which team ends up making the most plays.”
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
AUSTIN, Texas -- Texas Tech could be facing a huge injury concern considering that defensive end Ra'Jon Henley and Ryan Haliburton both will not play tonight.
Henley's ankle injury kept him back in Lubbock and Haliburton also isn't expected to play.
It means that Richard Jones will switch to the starting position at defensive end or linebacker Bront Bird would move from linebacker to defensive end.
Whoever starts, it will still mean a reduced rotation against a Texas offense that will likely try to establish the tempo with its running game.
And mammoth 334-pound Texas Tech guard Brandon Carter has been twittering on his account about flu-like symptoms.
And despite the rumors to the contrary, Texas quarterback Colt McCoy looks hale and hearty while taking part in pre-game workouts. A rumor about McCoy struggling with the flu has been bouncing across the message boards today, but it appears untrue.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Earlier this week, Texas Tech coach Mike Leach commented that the "rebuilding question" is vastly overrated for his team.
"Sure, we're going to lose [Michael] Crabtree and [Graham] Harrell, but the fact is we've done it about seven times before," Leach said.
Which is true. But the transformation will become a lot harder if Leach carries through with his plans to suspend pass-rushing threat McKinner Dixon for failing to keep up with his academic demands.
Leach is adamant about education and particularly for Dixon, who was given a second chance after flunking out of school after a sterling freshman season in 2005.
Dixon got his grades back up at Cisco Junior College and returned to Tech last season to become the same kind of transcendent defensive threat he had been before he left the first time. In the process, he notched nine sacks and 11 tackles for losses -- both leading totals for Tech returnees this season.
I've got to believe that Leach will try everything he can to get Dixon back into class and his grades up. He's that good of a defensive player and his return would keep the Red Raiders at a level that could enable them to challenge the likes of Oklahoma and Texas in the Big 12 South Division.
The Red Raiders' defensive front with Dixon involved is one of their biggest defensive strengths. And that position is of paramount importance considering players like Sam Bradford, Colt McCoy, Todd Reesing and Robert Griffin on the Red Raiders' upcoming schedule.
Even after Brandon Williams declared early for the NFL draft, the return of projected starters Rajon Henley and Brandon Sharpe for Tech led to Dixon and Brandon Sesay cross-training at defensive end and defensive tackle this spring. Dixon likely would have been even more valuable for the Red Raiders by his ability to play two positions than merely one.
The Red Raiders already are solid inside with Colby Whitlock, Chris Perry and Victor Hunter at nose tackle and Richard Jones, Myles Wade and Britton Barbee at defensive tackle.
But Dixon was clearly the best pass-rushing threat they had and along with Whitlock, one of the Red Raiders' top two defenders in the trenches.
Leach told reporters Monday that he didn't see much hope in Dixon being able to come back.
That might have been his spin to try to get him back into class. But something tells me that a clearer indication of the Red Raiders' needs will be seen over their next few practices by Leach.
Even with the needs of doing everything possible to keep a standout pass-rushing threat, I'm guessing that Leach might not be willing to give Dixon much rope considering his earlier educational transgressions. And that might be a tough doghouse for Dixon to extricate himself from, after the allowances that Leach has already made for him earlier in his career.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
LUBBOCK, Texas -- To say tonight is a big game at Jones Stadium wouldn't do justice to hyperbole.
It's so big that for the first time in recorded history, a scout from the Rose Bowl has ventured to Jones AT&T Stadium to cover the game for bowl purposes.
Texas Tech coach Mike Leach said he has been inundated with more media requests than any time during his career. And he still didn't relent and let Graham Harrell or Michael Crabtree talk to any out-of-town media members.
Texas arrives in the final game of a final stretch of four games against top 12 opponents. No team has been able to make that stretch against top teams since Notre Dame in 1943. If the Longhorns can win tonight, they would appear to have a relatively easy finish until the Big 12 championship game.
Tech's 8-0 start is its best since 1976 and has stretched a 10-game winning streak that is tied for the best in the nation. The Red Raiders will be taking a perfect record into November for the first time since 1938. But the program will still have doubters until it can topple Texas and climb into the BCS discussion.
Heading into the game, here are some things I'm looking for:
- The Heisman chase: Colt McCoy can put a hammerlock on becoming the first Texas quarterback in history to win the Heisman with a strong performance tonight. But a big outing and a victory by Harrell could throw the competition back open. Harrell needs a victory to show that he's not merely a "system quarterback" in Leach's passing offense. And he has a nice finishing schedule that will enable him to keep his profile before voters -- if he can win tonight.
- Can Tech come up with some big stops on defense?: Texas has lined up and dominated the Red Raiders in the past, particularly in the past two seasons. In those games, Texas has clicked on 17 of 27 third-down plays and 5-of-5 fourth down attempts against the Red Raiders. Getting a key third-down stop early in the game would be huge for their confidence and to get the sellout crowd into the game
- Tech's kicking game: Walk-on kicker Matt Williams was 9-for-9 kicking point after touchdowns last week, but still hasn't tried a field goal. The Red Raiders' kicking game is spotty as Donnie Carona has converted only three of eight attempts. Leach has hinted that he might be willing to try Williams on shorter attempts. But Tech's kicking will be a question and I can't see them winning a game on a tight attempt in the final minutes or overtime.
- Texas' running game: The Longhorns have pounded Tech in the trenches in recent seasons, but they don't have a feature back like Cedric Benson or Jamaal Charles to provide key carries. Mack Brown has gotten around that with a backfield-by-committee grouping that's resulted in Colt McCoy becoming Texas' leading rusher. It will also be tougher to run against Tech, which is allowing only 101 yards per game and is 14th nationally.
- Watch if Texas can dictate the clock: The best way to beat Tech is to keep their offense off the field. Nebraska nearly used that strategy in an overtime loss here earlier this season where the Cornhuskers controlled the clock for 40:12. If Texas can do that tonight, they've got a great chance to extend what might be the most significant statistic I've seen. The Longhorns are 90-2 under Brown when they've produced at least 400 yards and 62-0 when producing at least 200 rushing yards.
WEATHER: It's an ideal day for football with temperatures currently in the high 70s. The temperatures are expected to drop before leveling out in the low-60s late in the game. Wind will not be a factor, as it can occasionally be in this stadium. It's expected to be from the south at 5 to 10 mph. Humidity is only 15 percent and there is no chance of any precipitation expected.
INJURIES: Texas' biggest concern is cornerback Chykie Brown, who missed last week with an ankle injury. If he can't go tonight, he'll be replaced by Curtis Brown.
Texas Tech wide receiver Michael Crabtree's sprained ankle has gotten better, but he's still not likely to be at 100 percent. Crabtree was injured returning a kickoff against Texas A&M two weeks ago. And starting defensive tackle Rajon Henley has been sidelined for the last two games with a knee injury. Junior Richard Jones would start in front of him if he can't go tonight.