Big 12: Sheldon Richardson

MissouriCal Sport Media/AP ImagesCan Gary Pinkel's squad continue their run of recent success when they move to the SEC?
We introduced Mizzou to the SEC earlier Tuesday, but now it's time to get dirty.

Big 12 blogger David Ubben and Edward Aschoff debate: What awaits Missouri in the SEC?

The decline of one of college football's rising programs? Or new heights in a foreign conference that's college football's toughest?

Let's hash this out.

Edward Aschoff: So, with the Tigers joining the SEC, some are wondering if the Tigers will make more of an impact in basketball, rather than football. After all, the Big 12 hasn't exactly had its way with the SEC lately. But Mizzou does bring back a slew of talent on both sides of the ball and could compete in the SEC East in its first season. David, why should we believe that Missouri will be anything more than just a one-hit wonder?

David Ubben: Gary Pinkel. You'll hear this stat parroted often, but the Tigers are one of just a handful -- six, I believe -- teams in college football to win at least eight games in six consecutive seasons. TCU and Boise State have done it, too, but doing so outside of a power conference is nowhere near as impressive.

The Tigers haven't necessarily won big. The program is still seeking its first BCS bowl appearance but they've won consistently on the back of solid recruiting and even better development. Even in the program's glory years under Dan Devine in the 1960s, it never saw this kind of consistent success.

Players know what is expected of them under Pinkel. He wants to retire at Missouri, a point he's reiterated several times. The fans love him after this six-season stretch that followed some rough years early on, and would love to have him there as long as he wants. He's got the program rolling, and deep enough where a nightmare year of 4-5 wins just isn't going to happen.

Of course, he's done much of this on the back of Texas recruits, a luxury afforded many of the teams in the former Big 12 North after the Southwest Conference merged with the Big 8.

We've already seen them shift some recruiting focus into your neck of the woods, Florida and Atlanta. What does this program have to do to make some recruiting inroads there and continue this success?

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
Sarah Glenn/Getty ImagesHow will James Franklin fare against more athletic and tougher defenses?
EA: Well, getting into the Florida and Atlanta areas is a good start, but Missouri can't forget about the entire Southeast. There are some other states that can be Missouri's friends as well. One thing going for Missouri is that St. Louis and Kansas City are pretty close. Both are about two hours away from Columbia and kids just love the those big cities! But the bright lights and the big malls can only take Missouri so far. Missouri has to prove that it can really compete on the SEC's level for an entire season and beyond. Winning just comes naturally in this conference, so Missouri will have to prove that it can keep up for years to come. One thing that will really get the athletes' attentions in the Southeast will be starting things off on the right foot. Playing in the SEC East and returning a good amount of starters should help with that. But make no mistake about it, there will be tons of negative recruiting thrown Missouri's way because of the Big 12 past and the fact that those starters will soon be gone after their SEC introduction.

Missouri's coaches are going to have to get very aggressive when it comes to recruiting over here. It's a rough game in the South. There are no unwritten rules about being respectful of committed prospects. SEC coaches play for keeps down here.

Also, Missouri's coaches are going to have to compete with the distance factor. Columbia is almost 700 miles away. There certainly are players who travel away from the Deep South, but most of them stay home. Can Missouri build enough of that family atmosphere to get these players to venture over to its neck of the woods?

We've hit Missouri's returners, but in order to win in the SEC you have to play well up front. Everyone says this a line-of-scrimmage league and from what I've read it sounds like Missouri's defensive line could have/should have played better in 2011. How do the Tigers make sure they're strong and tough enough up front to compete in this league?

DU: Good points on Mizzou's recruiting trying to spread its wings. The problem? They'll try to maintain those ties in Texas and it'll have to make sure they don't get spread too thin.

These are all issues Mizzou's coaching staff will have to figure out. I'm glad I don't have to.

You're right about the defensive line. They were good in 2011, but not as good as people thought. They'll have to be better. Landing a couple of those big defensive tackles down south would serve the Tigers well. For now, they've got great size coming back in a St. Louis kid, Sheldon Richardson. He's a 6-foot-4, 290-pounder with great athleticism who went to junior college before coming back to Mizzou. Monte Kiffin almost got his hands on him out at USC, but the Tigers have him and need him to have a huge season as a senior in Year 1 in the SEC.

The defensive line lost three starters, but they were deep in 2011 and have good pieces to fill the losses of Terrell Resonno and Dominique Hamilton at tackle and Jacquies Smith at defensive end. The time is now for promising ends Michael Sam and Kony Ealy.

Richardson's the biggest piece at tackle. Brad Madison was a Big 12 preseason Defensive Player of the Year candidate at defensive end, but had a disappointing season after playing through a shoulder injury that really limited his effectiveness and flexibility on the line. He'll be hungry as a senior in 2012. Memo to SEC offensive lines: look out for the spin move.

[+] EnlargeGary Pinkel
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesGary Pinkel's success in coming seasons will hinge on how well Missouri can recruit in the South.
Players like Richardson come down to recruiting, though. The kinds of players Mizzou needs on the defensive lines are much more plentiful in their new recruiting soil. Getting their feet on the ground in junior colleges will be huge.

What about the offense, though? You've seen these SEC defenses up close all season. I'd argue that outside of Alabama, LSU and Georgia, the SEC's defenses were way overrated based on reputation this season.

Will the Tigers' spread offense work in the SEC East? What, if anything, has to change?

EA: Well, you certainly won't make friends down here with that sort of talk. South Carolina fans will surely let you know just how they feel about being left out of the defensive discussion. After all, South Carolina ranked third nationally in total defense and the SEC had six defenses ranked in the top 25, including five in the top eight. But I digress. We've seen the spread work before in the SEC. Florida's 2007 and 2008 offenses were two of the best in the country. The 2009 team put up a good bit of yards too. We've seen elements of the spread in other offenses as well around the SEC and Arkansas does a great job of spreading defenders out with its passing game. Mississippi State also utilized a pretty successful spread offense in 2010.

In order for it to work, the offensive line has to be beefy and athletic. I know, it's an interesting concept, but you won't survive in this league without some real athletes up front. You've said in the past that Missouri's offensive line was a better than average, well that won't cut it in this league.

You also need some elite speed at the wide receiver position and a sound running game. Getting Dorial Green-Beckham out there could be a major get for this offense because of his size and speed. As for running, mobile running backs and commanding the read option are key. Missouri will have to find ways to combat the tremendous speed off the edge from SEC pass rushers every week. That's James Franklin's running ability comes in. Working the option is huge in the spread.

Well, let's wrap this thing up. I think Missouri will be fun to watch next season, but I'm not sure how well the Tigers will do afterward. You've been around Missouri a lot longer, where do you see Missouri stacking up in the next few years in the SEC?

DU: Good point on those SEC defenses being awesome. I know guys like Morgan Newton, Justin Worley and Clint Moseley give defensive coordinators nightmares. Somebody get the Gamecocks a medal for not letting Arkansas score 50 and getting lucky enough to dodge LSU and Alabama on the schedule.

But I'm getting off target here, much like SEC quarterbacks' passes.

As for the Tigers, it's going to be tough when the current players begin to leave. I don't think they'll have as much success recruiting in Texas, but I've got no idea if they'll be able to get a foothold near the SEC East and, like you said, convince some of these kids to come to Missouri.

Neither outcome would surprise me, but I think as the transition happens and the current talent begins to drain out of the program, the Tigers will hit some lean years. Whether they bounce back depends on what everything in college football depends on: recruiting.

Can Mizzou do it? Only time will tell.

Missouri DT has sharp words for Texas

November, 8, 2011
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Missouri and Texas will play on Saturday, and Missouri defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, a St. Louis native who spent two years at junior college in California, can probably expect to hear plenty of rebuttals to his comments to Columbia NBC affiliate KOMU on Monday.
"I hate people from Texas. I give people on our team from Texas a hard time because they're from Texas. I hate Texas. I just do. I hate Texas. Any other overrated state in football I pretty much hate. That's how I feel about it... Overrated. Overrated. Overrated. It's blown out of proportion. It really is. I played against their best recruits and I wasn't impressed, at all."

Richardson's got experience with the "best recruits" he's referencing. He took part in the 2009 U.S. Army All-American Bowl, and I assume that's when he got his best experience against them.

The biggest names from Texas from that team?

Texas RB turned DE Chris Whaley, Texas A&M RB Christine Michael, Oklahoma DT Jamarkus McFarland, former Texas LB (transfer) Tariq Allen, Texas DE Alex Okafor, and Texas DT Calvin Howell.

Among that group, Michael's really the only guy that's emerged as an elite player, so maybe Richardson's comments, based on his experience, aren't all that crazy.

That said, there are plenty of great players from Texas Richardson didn't matchup against. Like, for instance, his All-American tight end, Michael Egnew, quarterback James Franklin or running back Henry Josey, who is fifth nationally with 1,149 rushing yards this year.

Missouri's roster this year has 35 Texans.

Here's guessing Richardson will hear plenty of talk from across the line of scrimmage on Saturday about just how overrated Texas players are. The Longhorns have rushed for over 400 yards in consecutive weeks for the first time since 1977, and will try to do the same on Saturday. Richardson will be on the first line of defense.

Overrated or not? We'll get to find out.
Missouri's first two major defensive tests?

Perhaps not failures, but far from successes.

Arizona State's Brock Osweiler threw for three touchdowns and 353 yards and the Sun Devils racked up just under 500 yards of offense.

[+] EnlargeGary Pinkel
Dak DillonAfter back-to-back solid efforts, coach Gary Pinkel's Missouri defense faces another stiff test in Oklahoma State.
Two weeks later, Oklahoma's Landry Jones threw for three more touchdowns and 448 yards. Oklahoma beat the Tigers 38-28 and had almost 600 yards of offense.

Lesser offenses followed, and the Tigers responded, holding Kansas State and Iowa State to a combined 298 yards passing. Iowa State didn't reach 400 yards of offense. Kansas State had fewer than 300.

"We’ve been pretty aggressive. There’s some things we need to learn, but I think experience within the group is improving during the season so far," said linebacker Luke Lambert.

This week?

"We’re going to certainly get tested this week against maybe the best offense in the nation," coach Gary Pinkel said of No. 4 Oklahoma State, "so we’ll see where we go here, but certainly the consistency of play is the thing I’m maybe most concerned about."

He's not exaggerating. The Cowboys, who didn't meet Mizzou last year, come to Columbia rolling up points and yardage just as quickly as they did during last year's 11-win season.

OSU ranks second nationally with more than 550 yards a game and scores an average of 49.2 points a game, more than every team in the FBS but Wisconsin.

That improving Missouri defense meets another big challenge. We'll see Saturday how it measures up.

"I think we’ve done a great job, especially this last week, of when we’re put in a bad situation, how the defense reacts to it," Lambert said. "We don’t pout or have a bad attitude. We can stop people. The first part of the season, maybe we didn’t do so well, but it’s something we’ve definitely built on."

Last year's defensive line was arguably the league's best, and returned every starter. The team's top defensive tackle, Dominique Hamilton, returned after a broken ankle and the line was bolstered by the addition of hyped juco recruit Sheldon Richardson. Sophomore Michael Sam and Kony Ealy figured to offer solid depth to a line looking to help out a new set of cornerbacks.

Missouri is tied for fourth in the Big 12 in sacks but is just one tackle-for-loss behind leader Oklahoma, at 47.

But 3-3 isn't where Missouri envisioned itself at the season's midpoint. For Pinkel, it circles back to the search for consistency.

"If I had an answer for that, I’d fix it. We’ve shuffled some players in and out," he said. "Statistically, we’re pretty decent in relationship to the league in the three games league-wise. We have to coach better and play better."

There won't be any hiding from an offense that will test every bit of the Tigers' improvement on Saturday. Be solid, or be exposed. A climb back above .500 depends on it.

"Plays will happen if everybody’s [focused and emotionally invested], and this last week kind of showed that," Lambert said. "Hopefully, we can build on what we started."

Lunch links: Who is on upset alert?

October, 18, 2011
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What I mean is you gooder no make difference.

Notes/thoughts from the Big 12 two-deeps

August, 29, 2011
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A few teams across the Big 12 updated their depth charts in preparation for the season. Here's what you ought to know.

KANSAS STATE
  • Bill Snyder's depth chart for the team's game notes heading into next week's game against Eastern Kentucky? A work of art.
  • Snyder said he'll be releasing the depth chart tomorrow. More later on the Wildcats.
OKLAHOMA
  • Oklahoma didn't have any huge surprises, but the biggest news: Jamell Fleming has officially reclaimed his spot above Gabe Lynn at the boundary corner spot, despite missing all of spring practice after leaving the university.
  • Three true freshmen also broke the lineup. Kameel Jackson will back up Trey Franks at receiver, and recently added linebacker Kellen Jones is a co-backup with Jaydan Bird behind Tom Wort at middle linebacker. Nila Kasitati is a co-backup behind Tyler Evans at right guard.
  • Doubt the committee approach at running back? Brennan Clay, Dominique Whaley and Roy Finch are all co-starters at the position. Finch is listed last on that group, but we'll see how carries are distributed in Week 1 vs. Tulsa. Whaley is a walk-on who has had big days in the spring game the past two seasons.
  • Ronnell Lewis is listed as the starter at defensive end, but the university has yet to officially clarify his eligibility status. Kenny Stills is likely suspended for Saturday's game after an offseason arrest, but he's listed as the starter at receiver.
TEXAS TECH
  • Texas Tech has pair of hyped defensive linemen, and both cracked the two-deep. Leon Mackey, a juco transfer, will start at defensive end in Week 1 for the Red Raiders against Texas State. Meanwhile, former UNC signee and recently cleared true freshman Delvon Simmons will back up Kerry Hyder at defensive tackle in Chad Glasgow's 4-2-5 scheme, fresh from TCU.
  • Glasgow will lean on a true freshman for one of his two linebacker spots. Blake Dees had a huge impact in the spring and solidified his starting spot during fall camp.
  • Receiver Marcus Kennard, a juco transfer, looks like he'll redshirt after not showing up on the two-deep, but Darrin Moore will grab the Z receiver spot for the Red Raiders.
OKLAHOMA STATE
  • The rumors have been officially proven correct at Oklahoma State: The Cowboys return all five starters on the offensive line, but juco transfer Michael Bowie has crashed the starting lineup at left tackle. He'll replace Nick Martinez, who'll back up Lane Taylor at right guard now. The Cowboys offensive line is the league's best, and clearly, Bowie's hyped arrival gives it a whole lot more than depth.
  • Justin Gilbert has officially usurped Devin Hedgepeth as the corner opposite Brodrick Brown. No surprise there. Gilbert's ceiling is sky high.
  • Caleb Lavey was the likely starter at the spot, but he'll officially start the year as Orie Lemon's replacement at middle linebacker, where he began spring camp.
MISSOURI
  • Justin Britt replaces Elvis Fisher at left tackle. The sophomore had been inside, but the team saw him moving outside eventually. He'll take that spot now with Fisher out for the season with a torn patellar tendon.
  • Hyped juco transfer Sheldon Richardson? Fifth on the depth chart no more. The recently cleared big man moved to No. 2 at defensive tackle behind Terrell Resonno.
  • Center Travis Ruth is out for the opener against Miami (OH). Jayson Palmgren fills his void.
  • Starting corner Kip Edwards is doubtful. Trey Hobson is listed as the starter.
  • Receiver Jerrell Jackson is also doubtful. Marcus Lucas will get the nod if Jackson can't go.
  • True freshman Corbin Berkstresser grabbed the No. 3 quarterback spot behind James Franklin and returning backup Jimmy Costello, who left the team and planned to join the Army, but re-joined after Tyler Gabbert's transfer.
IOWA STATE
  • Iowa State made it official on paper: Steele Jantz is the starting quarterback. His backfield? Crowded, but led by Shontrelle Johnson, as expected.
  • I'm not sure if it means he's playing for sure just yet, but Darius Reynolds is listed as the starter at one of the three receiver spots, despite suffering a broken toe earlier in fall camp.
  • A.J. Klein, meanwhile, has moved to middle linebacker next to weak side linebacker Jake Knott. Matt Tau'fo'ou started at middle linebacker spot last year, but after suffering a broken leg, he's backing up Klein in the middle. C.J. Morgan, a freshman, takes over at strong side. I haven't seen Morgan play, but at 207 pounds vs. Klein's 243, he'd presumably offer some more, much-needed speed at the position. Jacob Lattimer? Starting at defensive end, despite a March arrest and suspension.

Offering insight into the Big 12 O-lines

August, 18, 2011
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The Rimington Trophy, given annually to college football's top center, is starting up its own blog soon, and asked yours truly for a little insight into the Big 12 offensive lines.

Here's what I had to say:

What is the overall strength of the offensive lines in the Big 12?

It's good, but not great. Oklahoma State is the league's best, and Baylor is really underrated on a national scale. I've got the Bears as the second best line in the league, closely followed by Texas A&M and Missouri, who both return four starters from good lines in 2010.

Which team in the Big 12 you think will be most impacted by the loss of last year’s senior center?

Probably Missouri. They look like they're going to put Travis Ruth, an experienced junior, in Tim Barnes' slot, but Barnes was a three-year starter and an All-Big 12 talent. His knowledge and ability to adapt is going to be tough to replace. (Post-script: That loss could be even more difficult to rebound from after losing All-Big 12 left tackle Elvis Fisher for the season with a torn patellar tendon.)

Are there any up and coming first year centers you think may exceed expectations?

It's a little early. We haven't heard a lot of these guys get a ton of credit from the coaching staffs, so we'll see.

What team in the Big 12 poses the biggest defensive threat to an offensive line?

Missouri, definitely. Their defensive line is loaded. It's deep and has the most top-end talent. If newly eligible Sheldon Richardson is the real deal, too? Offensive lines better look out.

Who do you think will emerge as the best center in the conference?

I think it'll be a close race between Ben Habern at Oklahoma, Grant Garner at Oklahoma State and Philip Blake at Baylor.

Big-time recruit arrives at MU and speaks

August, 11, 2011
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The near three-year saga of defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson and Missouri has seen plenty of suspense.

First, he committed to the Tigers as an ESPNU 150 recruit in 2009. Then, he didn't qualify, and Missouri's coaches helped him get into junior college in California.

Where, of course, he committed to USC and Monte Kiffin in hopes of heading to the NFL.

Missouri's coaches talked him out of that, and after signing his letter of intent in December as the nation's No. 3 overall junior college recruit, had yet to be officially cleared to practice at Missouri.

That changed on Wednesday, when the NCAA opened the gate for Richardson, who suited up for practice on Thursday and spoke with reporters after.

"We were just dotting all the I’s, crossing all the T’s and making sure when I’m here, I’m here to stay," Richardson told reporters. He later added: "I had a big head when I graduated high school, I went to juco and that leveled me out a bit. ... "If anyone tells you humble pies taste good, they’re lying to you."

For now, Missouri has two returning starters entrenched at defensive tackle: Dominique Hamilton and Terrell Resonno. For now, the athletic 6-foot-4, 310-pounder will have to earn his playing time like the rest of his teammates.

"He starts at the bottom, like Jeremy Maclin, everybody starts at the bottom,” Pinkel told reporters on Thursday. "There’s no prima donnas around here and he knows that."

Lunch links: Texas A&M/SEC fallout

August, 11, 2011
8/11/11
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One thing I know for certain in this land of rumors: Jürgen Klinsmann knows how to get down.

Lunch links: Lurking Longhorns?

August, 4, 2011
8/04/11
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FOOTBALL IS BEING PLAYED TODAY. Not, not, not the games. Not a game. Not a game. We talkin' bout practice.

Lunch links: HS games moratorium fallout

August, 2, 2011
8/02/11
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Mad Men being placed on Netflix Watch Instantly has been costly to my productivity.

Lunch links: Supersized Media Days Links

July, 26, 2011
7/26/11
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Too much?
We've tackled every other spot, and now we'll wrap up out Big 12 position rankings with the defensive lines across the Big 12.

Here are the rest of the position rankings.
Now that we've finished ranking the complete units, we'll start ranking the top 10 at each position very soon leading into the 2011 season.

This is a decent position for the Big 12 this season, and the top half of the league should feel pretty good about their group. There aren't many studs in this group, but there are a whole lot of solid players.

Brad Madison
AP Photo/Pat SullivanMissouri has one of the Big 12's best pass rushers in Brad Madison.
1. Missouri -- Missouri has the Big 12's best returning pass rusher and a Defensive Player of the Year contender in Brad Madison, but its depth is what lands it on top of the list. Jacquies Smith is solid at the opposite defensive end spot, and Michael Sam and Kony Ealy provide great depth at DE. Dominique Hamilton's absence last season hurt after breaking his ankle against Oklahoma, but he's back, alongside Terrell Resonno. Sheldon Richardson, who may be transferring from junior college, is a wildcard that could be anywhere between a complete game changer, irrelevant or absent.

2. Oklahoma -- Oklahoma's defensive tackles are somewhat suspect, but the defensive end combo of Ronnell Lewis (provided he is eligible come fall camp) and Frank Alexander is on par with the best in the Big 12. Both were preseason All-Big 12 selections, but Jamarkus McFarland needs to make good on his potential. Stacy McGee and Casey Walker should both get time at the other tackle spot.

3. Texas -- Defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat is loaded with potential as the nation's former No. 1 recruit. He had a big impact early last season before being slowed by an ankle injury. Alex Okafor moved outside from defensive tackle just before spring and had five sacks in the spring game. Inside, Kheeston Randall is an All-Big 12 favorite, but Ashton Dorsey had a strong spring and could help out with Reggie Wilson opposite Randall.

4. Texas A&M -- The Aggies have one of the best linemen in the league in Tony Jerod-Eddie, but Jonathan Mathis, Eddie Brown Jr. and Ben Bass have a lot to prove around him after the loss of Lucas Patterson, who was outstanding in 2010.

5. Texas Tech -- Sam Fehoko has moved to defensive end from middle linebacker, and should provide some good speed to the front line. Scott Smith looked on his way to an All-Big 12 campaign last season, but was suspended for the remainder of the season by coach Tommy Tuberville and has yet to be officially reinstated. For now, Dartwan Bush and Aundrey Barr will help out at defensive end, outside of Donald Langley, Kerry Hyder and Pearlie Graves. The Red Raiders did snatch a big pickup from departed UNC signee Delvon Simmons, a defensive tackle that could have an impact immediately.

6. Oklahoma State -- Defensive line is the biggest weak spot for the Cowboys, who have a decent set of ends in Jamie Blatnick and former heralded recruit Richetti Jones, but an even bigger question mark at defensive tackle where Christian Littlehead and Nigel Nicholas enter fall camp as starters.

7. Kansas -- Top rusher turned defensive end Toben Opurum came on strong late last season and should be one of the most exciting Jayhawks to watch in 2011, but the rest of the line leaves a bit to be desired. Keba Agostino has the other starting spot at defensive end ahead of Pat Lewandowski, who had a great spring. Patrick Dorsey and John Williams enter fall camp as starters at defensive tackles.

8. Kansas State -- K-State recruited this position hard in its 2011 class. For now, defensive end Brandon Harold will try to bounce back from a disappointing 2010 after a promising 2009. Lance Dunbar and Taylor Martinez think this group is ranked too high, but Meshak Williams could start opposite Harold, while Ray Kibble and Raphael Guidry should be the tackles inside.

9. Baylor -- Tevin Elliott was limited this spring because of offseason shoulder surgery, and Terrance Lloyd exited spring practice as the starter, but I'd expect Elliott to regain the spot by the time the season arrives. Phil Taylor, a first-round pick, is a big loss, but Gary Mason Jr. will try to fill his spot next to Nicolas Jean-Baptiste.

10. Iowa State -- Having a pair of linebackers combine for 241 tackles is a good and bad thing. They've got outstanding linebackers, but the defensive line was the Big 12's worst last season for a unit that ranked 10th in rush defense and had just 11 sacks. That was the fewest sacks in the Big 12 and more than just three teams in all of college football. The good news is all four starters return, but for now, this is where the Cyclones start. Stephen Ruempolhamer has some promise, but Cleyon Laing, Jake McDonough and ends Patrick Neal and Roosevelt Maggitt have a lot to prove. Jacob Lattimer ran into offseason trouble, but re-appeared atop the depth chart released by the Cyclones on Wednesday.

Assessing the contenders: Missouri

July, 14, 2011
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Heading into the season, I see five teams in the Big 12 with a realistic chance to win the league. I'll be breaking them down in order (which won't be the same as my post-spring power rankings) of their chances to leave the season with the Big 12 title.

No. 1 on the list was the favorite: Oklahoma.

No. 2 was Texas A&M.

Oklahoma State came in at No. 3.

Why the Tigers will win the Big 12

1. Experience. Missouri returns 105 starts on the offensive line, losing only center Tim Barnes. That's the most in the Big 12 and 11th most in the nation on an offensive line that was fantastic in 2010. Just less than 80 percent of its total lettermen return, eighth-most in college football. That's a lot of guys who have been around, and the Tigers knocked over a big wall last year when they toppled the Sooners. Eliminate Mizzou's curious road hiccup at Texas Tech, and the Tigers would have been back in the Big 12 title game instead of sharing the Big 12 North with Nebraska after a third 10-win season in four years.

2. Dave Steckel. The Tigers' defense has steadily improved under Steckel, who previously coached linebackers under Matt Eberflus. Missouri had its best defense under Gary Pinkel last year, and that could continue this year with a great mix of experience and upside at linebacker, with Will Ebner and Zaviar Gooden set to knock around a few folks. Missouri's defense is noticeably tougher under Steckel, and though the Tigers must replace Aldon Smith and both starting corners, don't expect it to take a big jump back. Though Kip Edwards and E.J. Gaines lack the experience of Carl Gettis and Kevin Rutland, they may prove to be better corners very soon.

3. The defensive line. And what's the best way to negate inexperience at corner? How about the Big 12's best defensive line. Brad Madison is arguably the Big 12's best returning pass-rusher, and his counterpart at defensive end, Jacquies Smith, is one of the better ends in the Big 12, too. Missouri also has the best depth of any defensive line, with Michael Sam and Kony Ealy itching to spell Madison and Smith. At defensive tackle, Terrell Resonno could be poised for a breakout year, and blue-chip recruit Sheldon Richardson, if/when he actually makes it to campus, should join Dominique Hamilton at the opposite tackle spot, making sure Missouri's front four are not to be trifled.

Why the Tigers won't win the Big 12

1. The quarterback has never started a game. Sometimes, it's just this simple. James Franklin may blossom into a star at Missouri, but as a first-year starter, he's bound to have a few bad nights. Can Missouri survive them? Its Big 12 title hopes depend on it. If Blaine Gabbert had stayed, Missouri would likely be a top-15 or top-10 team and join Texas A&M and OSU as the chief contenders to knock off Oklahoma. Instead, the Tigers are relegated to a dark horse/wild-card role that depends heavily on how Franklin performs in his first year. The one advantage he has is after Tyler Gabbert's post-spring transfer, fall camp will be more about cementing his role as starter than winning it. Franklin walked in as a true freshman last spring and eventually won the No. 2 job behind Blaine Gabbert. That says a lot, and he earned some playing time last year, but his sophomore season won't be anything like 2010, when he threw all of 14 passes.

2. The passing game is limited. NFL teams knew Blaine Gabbert had a cannon, but he didn't get very many chances to showcase it to college fans last year, and Franklin may be forced to do the same. T.J. Moe and Michael Egnew are a great duo with some of the best hands in the league and a great sense of space, but without a deep threat to keep defenses honest, their production declined late in the season. Danario Alexander and Jeremy Maclin were able to stretch the field for guys like Chase Coffman and Martin Rucker in the past, but Moe and Egnew won't come close to 2010's production if the Tigers can't find someone to haul in a few passes over the top of the secondary.

3. Trips to Norman and College Station are on the schedule. I hear you, Missouri fans. I was there for the destruction of Texas A&M at Kyle Field last year. But that was a very different Texas A&M team than you'll be facing this time around. And the return trip may not be quite as enjoyable. Jerrod Johnson struggled against the Tigers, but the 30-9 loss was his penultimate start and Ryan Tannehill is driving the bus now. Also, don't count on this one being an 11 a.m. kickoff. I'd plan for prime time, and Kyle Field is a very different place at 8 p.m. than at lunch time. Ask Nebraska. Missouri knocked off Oklahoma last year, too, but don't think the Sooners have forgotten the fourth-quarter meltdown in Columbia. Oklahoma gets both of its losses in 2010 -- Missouri and Texas A&M -- in Norman this year, where it carries a 36-game home winning streak, the nation's longest, into 2011.

Lunch links: Another delay for big signee

June, 7, 2011
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Is it September yet?
Our friends in the Big East kicked off this idea, and it'll suit the Big 12 well. The All-Big 12 preseason teams are still a long way away, but which units in the Big 12 are the best entering 2011?

Here are my votes, and I feel pretty good about all of them. Which would you pick?

Quarterbacks: Oklahoma State

The Cowboys return All-Big 12 first-teamer Brandon Weeden, and the senior will have his top target back, Biletnikoff Award winner Justin Blackmon. He threw for 4,277 yards last season and his quarterback rating of 154.11 was eight points higher than any passer in the Big 12.

Honorable mention: Oklahoma, Baylor

Running backs: Texas A&M

Cyrus Gray was the Big 12's best back late in the conference season, and his running mate re-joins him in the backfield this year after breaking his leg midway through 2010. Christine Michael and Gray form perhaps the best backfield duo in the nation, but by far the best in the Big 12.

Honorable mention: Oklahoma

Receivers: Oklahoma

This one's close, but Oklahoma's depth gives them the edge. Ryan Broyles is narrowly the Big 12's No. 2 receiver and a Biletnikoff finalist in his own right, but Kenny Stills could sneak up on a 1,000-yard season as a sophomore in 2011. Dejuan Miller and Trey Franks are two more solid options, and the Sooners could add a pair of talented freshmen to the rotation in Trey Metoyer and Justin McCay.

Honorable mention: Oklahoma State, Texas A&M, Baylor

Offensive line: Oklahoma State

The line helped running back Kendall Hunter finish second in the Big 12 with 1,548 yards last season, and all five starters return from the unit that gave up the fewest sacks in the Big 12. That's aided by the quick-release approach in the Air Raid offense, but the line boasts the Big 12's best returning lineman, tackle Levy Adcock.

Honorable mention: Texas A&M

Defensive line: Missouri

The Tigers have the Big 12's returning leader in sacks, defensive end Brad Madison, but the unit is deep and talented and could get even more so next season. DT Terrell Resonno, DE Jacquies Smith and DT Dominique Hamilton are all experienced, and defensive ends Michael Sam and Kony Ealy should provide very little dropoff when they're on the field as part of the rotation. The Tigers also welcome a possible game-changer in Sheldon Richardson, a light-footed 6-foot-4, 296-pound defensive tackle and St. Louis native who is the nation's No. 3 juco recruit.

Honorable mention: Texas

Linebackers: Oklahoma

The Sooners have one of the favorites for Big 12 Preseason Defensive Player of the Year in senior linebacker Travis Lewis, who is likely to be joined by some combination of Tom Wort, Corey Nelson and Jaydan Bird. Nickel back Tony Jefferson could be poised for a break out year on a national scale after sharing Defensive Freshman of the Year honors last season.

Honorable mention: Iowa State

Cornerbacks: Texas A&M

The Aggies have two of the Big 12's best in Dustin Harris and Coryell Judie, who doubles as perhaps the Big 12's most dangerous return man. The pair combined for eight interceptions last season and 21 passes defended. Terrence Frederick defended 10 passes of his own. Health was a concern for this group in the spring, but they should be ready come fall.

Honorable mention: Oklahoma

Safeties: Oklahoma State

Markelle Martin is a future draft pick and one of the Big 12's hardest hitters, but Johnny Thomas played some of his best football late last season. They combined for 118 tackles last season, and 100 of those were solo stops.

Honorable mention: Kansas State

Punter: Oklahoma State

Quinn Sharp has been one of the Big 12's best punters for the past two seasons, and led the league in punting average at 46.2 yards in 2010.

Kicker: Missouri

Grant Ressel has made 43 of 46 field goals over the past two seasons, and the former walk-on should be a contender for the Lou Groza Award as a junior in 2011.

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