Big 12: Zaviar Gooden

We're moving on with our postseason position rankings. Today, it's time for linebackers. If you missed it, here's how I ranked them in the preseason.

At this position, depth is a major factor in these rankings. Additionally, I included nickelbacks in this grouping. Hybrid defensive end/linebackers will be grouped with defensive lines.

[+] EnlargeJake Knott
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireIowa State linebackers Jake Knott, 20, and A.J. Klein combined for 231 tackles in 2011.
More postseason position rankings: 1. Iowa State: The Cyclones top the list after a huge year from their outstanding duo, Jake Knott and A.J. Klein. They combined for 231 tackles in 2011, both finishing among the top four in the Big 12 in tackles. They had 241 together in 2010, but this season Knott played through injuries and Klein was awarded co-Defensive Player of the Year honors from the league's coaches.

2. Texas: The Longhorns will sorely miss an outstanding duo of their own with tons of experience. Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho are both NFL-bound after combining for 215 tackles.

3. Oklahoma: The Sooners weren't quite as good as expected in 2011, but part of that was because of a Travis Lewis preseason toe injury that slowed him for much of the season. Lewis, Tony Jefferson and Tom Wort all topped 70 tackles in 2011, and are a solid group.

4. Kansas State: Arthur Brown reinvigorated this group, finishing eighth in the Big 12 with 101 tackles, but the Wildcats linebackers were more than just Brown. Tre Walker and converted safety Emmanuel Lamur combined for 135 stops and helped lead one of the league's most underrated units and a much-improved run defense.

5. Texas A&M: The Aggies' backers were big pass-rushers, though they struggled in coverage this season. Sean Porter was the Big 12's sack champion with 9.5, and Caleb Russell and Jonathan Stewart combined for six more. Damontre Moore is the rawest talent of the bunch, but built on that in 2011, making 72 tackles.

6. Oklahoma State: OSU's group was good, but not great. Alex Elkins' crazy story came to an end with 90 stops in 2011. He showed up everywhere for the Cowboys, but reigning Big 12 Freshman of the Year Shaun Lewis didn't quite have the sophomore season some had hoped. Caleb Lavey added some solid play for the turnover-hungry unit, producing 74 tackles and five tackles for loss.

7. Missouri: Zaviar Gooden wasn't quite the impact player Mizzou had hoped, but he was solid alongside a group that's been injury prone over the past two years. Sophomore Andrew Wilson emerged as the team's top tackler with 98 stops, and Luke Lambert added 82 more. A high ankle sprain in the season opener kept Will Ebner off the field, but he'll be back in 2012 after the NCAA granted him a fifth year of eligibility.

8. Kansas: Steven Johnson led the Big 12 with 119 tackles, but the rest of the unit left a lot to be desired. Darius Willis has some potential, but the rest of the team's linebackers have their work cut out for them in 2012. Tunde Bakare also returns from a unit that ranked ninth in the Big 12 in rushing defense.

9. Baylor: The Bears needed help just about everywhere. Elliot Coffey was solid, and finished tied for fourth with 114 stops, but Baylor was eighth in the Big 12 in rush defense. Baylor has solid athlete in the secondary and on the defensive line, but at linebacker, Rodney Chadwick and Brody Trahan leave a bit to be desired. Ahmad Dixon was better in 2011, but still has a lot of potential that needs to be filled.

10. Texas Tech: The Red Raiders are looking for a new defensive coordinator and the 4-2-5 made a short stop in Lubbock. The Red Raiders were awful everywhere on defense, but especially up front. Nobody in college football was worse at stopping the run, and D.J. Johnson, Daniel Cobb and Cqulin Hubert turned in forgettable performances. Time to get better for 2012.

The Big 12's top returning NFL talents

January, 27, 2012
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This week's Senior Bowl and next month's NFL scouting combine will help decide who will hear their names called, and when, in April's NFL draft, but what about next year?

Mel Kiper unleashed his top five returning players for 2012, the top prospects at their positions in next year's draft.

Lots of interesting names. Here's where the Big 12 talents sit.

Quarterbacks
Fullbacks
My take: Good to see Wilson's name on this list. He's impressed coach Bill Snyder from the start, and Wilson was an underrated reason for K-State's success running the ball the past two seasons with Daniel Thomas in 2010 and Collin Klein/John Hubert in 2011. One of the Big 12's toughest players.

Receivers
My take: Both of those names made me do a double take. Williams was a great player this season, and you perhaps best know him as the player who caught the game-winning touchdown to beat Oklahoma, but he's never looked to me like a player who could be the first receiver drafted. We'll see how he does in 2012 as Baylor's No. 1 receiver, with Nick Florence throwing him the ball instead of Robert Griffin III. Williams could become a star.

Austin always struck me as an undersized player, but there's no denying his playmaking ability. Few can match his game-breaking ability with the ball in his hands.

Offensive tackles
Centers
Defensive ends
My take: No surprise there. Okafor burst on the scene this season, and has that combination of size and speed you rarely see outside of players who become first-round picks.

Inside linebackers
Outside linebackers
Cornerbacks
Punters

Best and worst from Big 12 bowl season

January, 12, 2012
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The bowl season is over, and it's time to pass out a few awards.

Best offensive player: Justin Blackmon, WR, Oklahoma State. Blackmon went nuts against Stanford after the Cowboys were shut out in the first quarter against Stanford. His first two catches went for touchdowns, and he finished with 186 yards on eight grabs and his third three-touchdown game of his career. That was the first time he'd done that since the Tulsa game in 2010, the third game of the season.

[+] EnlargeJustin Blackmon
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesThree of Justin Blackmon's eight catches against Stanford in the Fiesta Bowl were for touchdowns.
Second-best offensive player: Terrance Ganaway, RB, Baylor. Ganaway ended his career in style, taking plenty of heat off his Heisman-winning quarterback, Robert Griffin III. He scored five touchdowns and ran for 200 yards, leading the way for three Bears 100-yard rushers in the 67-56 win over Washington in the Alamo Bowl.

Best defensive player: Jamell Fleming, CB, Oklahoma. Passing? I think not, Iowa. Matched up with NFL-bound, Skycam-attacked Marvin McNutt, Fleming made seven tackles, returned an interception 21 yards and broke up three passes. Well done.

Best team performance: Oklahoma State. The Cowboys got the Big 12's best win of the entire season, knocking off a solid Stanford team and handing Andrew Luck a loss in his final game as a Cardinal. Maybe they got lucky with a missed 35-yard field goal attempt to force overtime, but the Cowboys played well after a shaky first quarter and beat the nation's No. 4 team on a neutral field. Well done.

Best play: Robert Griffin III's post-Heisman "Heisman moment." He somehow backpedalled out of a handful of Washington tacklers, escaped outside and galloped to the pylon, diving into the end zone as he took a big hit before scoring. A big-time play from the Heisman winner for a 24-yard score.

Craziest play: North Carolina's Bryn Renner whipped a strike to Dwight Jones, but a hit jarred it loose. Somehow, it ended up on Jones' shoulder and rolled across his back, staying there long enough for Missouri LB Zaviar Gooden to sprint over and slide in to intercept the pass before it hit the ground.

Scariest play: Marvin McNutt, WR, Iowa. McNutt was minding his own business in the Iowa huddle. Then the Skycam at Sun Devil Stadium came crashing down and sent McNutt into a panic. Fortunately, nobody was hurt, but it was memorable incident. The camera was grounded for the Fiesta Bowl later in the week.

Best out-of-nowhere performance: Colton Chelf, WR, Oklahoma State. Starter Tracy Moore was reportedly suspended, and Chelf filled the void well. He caught just 16 balls in 12 games, but hauled in five for 97 yards in the win over Stanford, including a 24-yarder in overtime that was ruled a touchdown before being reversed and giving way to a game-winning field goal.

Worst performance: Kansas State. It was shocking to see. The Wildcats made too many early mistakes that they hadn't made all year. There was a fumble to give Arkansas an easy three points, a handful of dropped passes, a wave of penalties and an ill-advised punt to Joe Adams that swung the game in favor of the Hogs. Not good, and K-State didn't give itself a chance in the 29-16 loss.

Best handling of distractions: Texas A&M had to deal with the loss of senior offensive lineman Joey Villavisencio, who died in a car crash on his way home for Christmas. It fired coach Mike Sherman earlier. Interim coach Tim DeRuyter left for Fresno State, but stayed to coach the bowl game. The team was prepping for a move to the SEC and playing its bowl game in the home of its new coach, Kevin Sumlin. The Aggies, though, played pretty well against Northwestern and controlled most of the game in the 33-22 win.

Best atmosphere: Cotton Bowl. For a second consecutive year, this bowl takes the cake. K-State and Arkansas fans absolutely packed Cowboys Stadium and cheered loudly from an hour before the game through the entire matchup. A big-time atmosphere for what should be a big-time game.

Big 12 did what was expected in bowls

January, 11, 2012
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Six wins is a lot. Especially when it's in just eight bowl games.

But surveying the landscape, and it's hard to draw much from the Big 12's bowl performance, the conference did exactly what was expected.

Compared to college football's standard these days (the SEC) the Big 12 can be encouraged. It's 6-2 record is a better winning percentage than the SEC whether you want to count the national championship (6-3) or not (5-2).

But then again, the same Big 12 won every game it was favored to win.

It lost every game it was favored to lose.

The Big 12 holds the distinction of the only league in which every bowl tie-in is with another automatically qualifying conference, so that's something. This season, though, the Big 12 mostly took care of business.

That's an improvement on 2010 when Big 12 teams were run over by any and everyone in the ground game and went just 4-4.

That season, the Big 12 was favored to win seven games.

Both years, the league took care of business in the BCS, which is important to any league's reputation. Last year, Oklahoma's win over UConn fell under the "took care of business" umbrella.

But this season? The Big 12 can hang its reputation on Oklahoma State's win over Stanford. It was the league's best nonconference victory of the season by a long way, and the Cowboys won it in memorable fashion.

This season, the Big 12 needed all the memorable moments it could find. There was Stanford's two missed field goals and Oklahoma State's game-winning touchdown turned 24-yard pass that set up the game-winning field goal.

Baylor beat Washington in a game that was memorable from start to finish. The Bears set a bowl record with 777 yards of offense in the 67-56 win, and its 67 points were a bowl record for a week, before West Virginia scored 70 in a win over Clemson in the Orange Bowl.

But beyond those two? The Big 12 did what it was supposed to do, it just did so in largely forgettable fashion.

Missouri's Zaviar Gooden snagged an acrobatic interception, but there's not much else to take away from the Tigers' solid win over North Carolina, except that Missouri's multifaceted rushing offense exposed UNC's overrated defense up front. Texas' defense mucked up an ugly game in a 21-10 win over California.

Iowa State's quarterback(s), surprisingly, struggled against Rutgers and the defense gave up 173 yards rushing to the nation's No. 112 rushing offense, almost twice its average.

Oklahoma and Texas A&M? Well, they were a lot better than their two plodding Big Ten opponents, Iowa and Northwestern. Both proved it, though A&M tried to blow its 30-7 lead late in the 33-22 win. Oklahoma was uninspired but won by double digits.

Kansas State made uncharacteristic mistakes and put its run-heavy offense in a big hole against an Arkansas team that played its best defensive game of the season.

For the Big 12 it was all a good and solid bowl performance.

But not much more. And ultimately, outside of a few flashes, forgettable.

Instant analysis: Missouri 41, UNC 24

December, 26, 2011
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A mid-level bowl game on a rainy day in a location few consider a vacation spot led to a small crowd. But Missouri looked like it wanted to be in Shreveport, La., on Monday afternoon, dominating this game, and earning a solid win in the AdvoCare V100 Independence Bowl over North Carolina, 41-24.

How the game was won: Missouri was the aggressor from the start, pounding North Carolina with a relentless running game and hitting simple throws when necessary. The Tigers scored on all five of their first-half drives and raced to a 31-10 halftime lead. Missouri forced a pair of first-half turnovers after allowing a touchdown on the opening drive. The rout was on early.

Turning point: North Carolina turned the ball over on consecutive snaps and when it looked up, Missouri led, 31-7. Giovani Bernard fumbled near midfield and Missouri marched 40 yards for a touchdown. Bryn Renner threw a perfect pass to Dwight Jones, but a hit jostled loose the ball, which ended up rolling off Jones' back and into Missouri linebacker Zaviar Gooden's hands. Missouri used seven plays to go 59 yards for a score and a 31-7 lead.

Stat of the game: Missouri's running game really couldn't be stopped in the first half. The Tigers outrushed North Carolina, 192-13. Bernard, an All-ACC first-teamer, had just 12 yards on eight carries in the half. The Tigers finished with 337 rushing yards -- just the third time this season the Tigers topped 300 yards on the ground. They did it against UNC, who entered Monday's game with the nation's No. 14 rush defense, allowing just more than 106 yards rushing per game this season.

Player of the game: Franklin. Missouri's sophomore quarterback was at his best, utilizing his underrated arm and great legs, and helping the Tigers keep solid balance. He finished with 142 yards rushing and 132 yards passing, accounting for three touchdowns.

Worst omen: Truman the Tiger. Mizzou's mascot shattered the crystal Independence Bowl trophy just hours before the game, but bowl officials told media at the game they hustled to find a replacement trophy from a "local jeweler." Missouri isn't expected to be forced to foot the bill for the trophy, which cost a "couple thousand bucks, at least," but the omen didn't seem to bother the Tigers in the bowl win.

Stat of the game II: Truman the Tiger fumbles: 1. Missouri Tiger fumbles: 0.

Unsung hero of the game: Missouri's offensive line. North Carolina's defense is littered with NFL talent, highlighted by defensive end Quinton Coples. The Tigers O-line blew them off the ball from the start, clearing huge holes and giving Franklin tons of time to throw.

Best call: Missouri gave up a 22-yard touchdown pass on the opening drive, but came back with a trick play you know it was itching to unleash. Facing a second-and-4 on the UNC 40, Franklin flicked a pass to his right, back to former high school quarterback and the team's leading receiver, T.J. Moe. He flung it downfield to a wide-open Wes Kemp for a 40-yard, game-tying touchdown. The trickery worked to perfection, and the execution was perfect, too.

What it means: Missouri will head to the SEC with some good momentum off a pretty average season. The day in Shreveport finished with an S-E-C chant from the Tigers fans who made the trip. The Tigers will face a huge challenge in a new conference next year, while North Carolina begins a brand-new era in the ACC. Interim coach Everett Withers is headed to Ohio State as a co-defensive coordinator, and former Southern Miss coach (and Oklahoma State offensive coordinator) Larry Fedora will now take over in Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels have constantly underachieved under Butch Davis with lots of NFL talent, and Fedora will try to change that.

Record performance: North Carolina quarterback Bryn Renner broke Chris Keldorf's school record, set in 1996, for touchdown passes with his 24th of the season on the opening drive. That ball was caught by Dwight Jones, his 12th of the season, which tied Hakeem Nicks' school record set back in 2008.

Record performance II: Missouri's 31 first-half points were a Mizzou bowl record, and also an Independence Bowl record. The Tigers made it look easy.

Season recap: Missouri

December, 7, 2011
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MISSOURI TIGERS

Record: 7-5 (5-4)

The Big 12 is a quarterbacks league and The Big Question for Mizzou was simple: Did it have one? It had two until Tyler Gabbert transferred, but James Franklin proved in 2011 that the answer was yes. He progressed as a passer throughout the season and never lost sight of his ability to run, either, rescuing Missouri from a 3-4 start to win four of the team's final five games and reach a bowl game.

The Tigers won seven games, the fewest since the 2005 season, but that's telling of the program's progress. All five losses were quality, and the Tigers might be the best five-loss team in America. Take that for what it's worth, but No. 3 Oklahoma State was the only team to beat Mizzou at home. It's other losses came to Oklahoma, Arizona State, Baylor and Kansas State, all on the road. Not bad at all. The defense was a bit underwhelming, but the Tigers were playing their best football late in the season, and won a dramatic game against Texas Tech in the home finale without coach Gary Pinkel, who was suspended for the game after a drunk driving arrest. The Tigers handled that crisis as well as possible, being up front about the mistakes made and handing Pinkel a stiff punishment that included financial penalties exceeding $300,000. It didn't prove to be a huge distraction for the team, and though the Tigers would have liked to leave for the SEC with more impact, the bar is not high in the Big 12 for teams with first-year starters at quarterback.

Offensive MVP: Henry Josey, running back. Josey suffered a serious knee injury, tearing his left MCL, ACL and patellar tendon, but he was still the Big 12's leading rusher for almost three full weeks after his season was over and the Big 12 continued on. He averaged an outlandish 8.06 yards per carry and finished with 1,168 yards, despite having just the 12th-most carries in the Big 12. Not bad for a guy who started the season as the team's No. 3 back.

Defensive MVP: E.J. Gaines, cornerback. No clear winner here. Missouri could point to a handful of places, but I went with the team's truly most outstanding season. Gaines intercepted three passes, but he broke up 16 more. The next most on Missouri's team: four. In a passer's league like the Big 12, that's pretty amazing. So, with apologies to Andrew Wilson, Zaviar Gooden, Luke Lambert, Brad Madison and Jacquies Smith, I'm going with Gaines.

Turning point: The overtime win over Texas A&M. You could see in the Tigers' emotion after the win how much it meant. Dropping to 3-5 would have been a huge hit and put a lot of pressure on the team down the stretch. Franklin highlighted the day with a certified "Beast Mode" run, bouncing off tacklers for a 20-yard touchdown run early on, but the win featured a 14-point second-half comeback and keyed off a 4-1 finish for the Tigers. The only loss came on the road to Baylor by three points.

What’s next: For now, it's a brief jaunt into SEC country -- Shreveport for the AdvoCare V100 Independence Bowl -- before a permanent stay next season. The Tigers will bring back a ton of experience on offense, though three of the top six tacklers on defense will be gone. The program's already altered its recruiting strategy, assigning two coaches to recruit Florida and another in Atlanta. Maintaining recruiting ties to Texas as much as possible is important for the program's future, and a cross-divisional rivalry with Texas A&M -- Missouri will visit the Aggies every other year, vs. once every six years for the other SEC West teams--should help a bit. The Tigers should contend for the SEC East title next year, but their recruiting will determine longterm success in their new home.

Crazy stretch for MU's Dominique Hamilton

November, 26, 2011
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Two drives, two tips and two interceptions for Mizzou in its last three defensive possessions.

The man making it happen? Defensive tackle Dominique Hamilton. He was one of Missouri's biggest assets stopping the run last season, but he's tipped passes at the line of scrimmage to teammates on two possessions separated by a week.

He did it to seal last week's win over Texas Tech, knocking a ball to defensive end Michael Sam.

He stopped KU's opening drive this week by tipping a pass to linebacker Zaviar Gooden to keep this year's Border Showdown scoreless in the first quarter.

Well done, and quite the rare stretch for the man in the middle of MU's defense.

Midseason review: Missouri

October, 11, 2011
10/11/11
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MISSOURI TIGERS

Record: 2-3 (0-2 Big 12)

Missouri's tough early-season schedule has taken its toll, causing the Tigers to fall out of the polls, to the bottom of the Big 12 standings and underneath .500 for the first time since 2004. The offense has been solid and the transition from Blaine Gabbert to James Franklin has been about as good as could realistically been expected. A late comeback bid and a game-winning kick went wayward in an overtime loss at Arizona State. Then Missouri failed to end the nation's longest home winning streak at Oklahoma before getting out-schemed by Bill Snyder in Manhattan.

So, here the Tigers sit. Disappointed, but yet underrated by virtue of their unimpressive record. The schedule softens now, with Iowa State next week and three games at home or a neutral site to close the season against Texas Tech, Texas and Kansas. In between? It could get bumpy with Oklahoma State and Texas A&M still queued up. Games like Arizona State and Manhattan aren't easy, but if you don't want to take a step back as a program after a 10-win season in 2010, they're games that have to be won. They weren't.

The defense hasn't been as good as advertised after a strong year last year and the defensive line has lacked the disruptiveness that was a hallmark of the 2010 team. There's still plenty of time to salvage the season for the Tigers, but the Big 12 title darkhorses look like they won't be a factor this year.

Offensive MVP: James Franklin, QB. Apologies to Henry Josey here, but Franklin has been really, really good and really, really vital to the offense. His 83 carries are 28 more than any other player on the team, and he's turned them into 306 yards and a team-high five touchdowns. He's also thrown the ball 161 times, completing just under 60 percent of his passes for just under 1,200 yards and seven touchdowns. Those 244 touches mean on 67 percent of Missouri's 364 plays this season, Franklin has been the man they've counted on. Missouri's only sixth in the Big 12 in total offense, but that's 16th nationally against a really tough schedule. Not bad for a first-year starter.

Defensive MVP: Andrew Wilson, LB. Wilson, a sophomore, lacked the hype of the more-athletic Zaviar Gooden, but he's been a huge playmaker early on this season. He leads the team with 38 tackles (24 solo) and has four tackles for loss. The 230-pounder from outside Kansas City was named the team's most improved player in the spring, and is carrying that improvement into the season. The Tiger D has benefited.

Big 12 Players of the Week: ISU, MU, KU

September, 12, 2011
9/12/11
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The Big 12 has named its three players of the week, and all hail from the former Big 12 North.

Anyone want to check on the last time that happened?

OFFENSE

Steele Jantz, QB, Iowa State: Jantz, a juco transfer, completed 25 of 37 passes for 279 yards and four touchdowns and ran for 42 yards in his second career start, a 44-41 triple-overtime win over rival Iowa. Iowa State hadn't scored that many points against the Hawkeyes since 1894.

DEFENSE

Zaviar Gooden, LB, Missouri: Gooden had nine tackles and blocked an extra point in Missouri's 37-30 overtime loss to Arizona State. He also had the Tigers' lone sack of the day. All nine of his tackles were unassisted.

SPECIAL TEAMS:

D.J. Beshears, WR/KR, Kansas: Beshears set up Kansas' game-winning touchdown with a 51-yard kickoff return, and he finished with 285 all-purpose yards in the Jayhawks' 45-42 win over Northern Illinois. He also caught the game-winning touchdown and finished with 70 yards and a score on seven catches, all career highs.
Moving on in our rankings of the top 10 at each position in the Big 12 entering 2011.

[+] EnlargeTravis Lewis
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireOklahoma's Travis Lewis is among the Big 12's top linebackers entering the season.
Here are the top 10s you've missed so far:
The Big 12 is really, really strong at linebacker, just as it is at receiver. Running back and defensive line are two of the Big 12's weakest positions, but linebacker might prove to be a true strength by season's end.

If you're curious, here's how I ranked the units by team.

We might even see big, young talents like Corey Nelson, Tom Wort, Arthur Brown, Jordan Hicks and Huldon Tharp fight for spots on this list by season's end, but overall inexperience keeps them off for now.

Here are the top 10.

1. Travis Lewis, Oklahoma: Lewis took home the Big 12's preseason Defensive Player of the Year Award (as much as someone can take home an award with no actual hardware, anyway), but he'll be the easy favorite for the award entering the season. Of my postseason top 25 Big 12 players, Lewis is the only returning defensive player. He's made 100 tackles in each of his first three seasons at Oklahoma, and eschewed the NFL draft to try and win a title at Oklahoma.

2. Jake Knott, Iowa State: Knott doesn't get the national pub of some other guys on this list, but he should. In just his first year as a starter, Knott made 130 tackles, the most of any returning Big 12 starter. Just a junior, Knott should make even more improvement in 2011.

3. Keenan Robinson, Texas: Robinson has all the physical tools, and should be set loose in new coordinator Manny Diaz's aggressive scheme. Robinson made 106 tackles in 2010, but look for his sack totals (two in 2010) to get a big boost from spending more time in offensive backfields.

4. Shaun Lewis, Oklahoma State: Lewis exploded into the Big 12 fan's consciousness as a true freshman in 2010, sharing Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year honors with Oklahoma's Tony Jefferson after making 58 tackles with eight tackles for loss, despite not officially being a starter until the second half of the season. He's a bit faster than you might expect him to be at 5-foot-11 and 220 pounds, but he should be due for a big encore.

5. Emmanuel Acho, Texas: Acho joins Robinson in one of the best linebacker groups in the league, and will likely be a team captain alongside his fellow linebacker. Acho made 81 tackles to rank second on the team, and added 10.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks for an underrated Texas defense in 2010.

6. Zaviar Gooden, Missouri: Gooden is easily the fastest guy out of this group, and should be due for a breakout year on the national stage if Missouri gets the ball rolling with James Franklin at quarterback and becomes a top 25 mainstay. He tied for the team lead in tackles last season (84, 49 solo) during his first year as a starter, and could see that number jump as a junior in 2011.

7. A.J. Klein, Iowa State: As little respect nationally as Klein's teammate, Knott, gets, Klein gets even less. Which is a shame. Klein, like Knott, was a first-year starter but became one of just 11 players in the Big 12 with more than 100 tackles. Was that number (111, 49 solo) aided by a weak defensive line? Sure, but somebody made those stops. And it was Klein. He'll get plenty more chances to further prove himself.

8. Garrick Williams, Texas A&M: Williams returns as one of the leaders of the Wrecking Crew after making 112 tackles in 2011, including five tackles for loss and a forced fumble. The Aggies need him to play well at inside linebacker in Tim DeRuyter's 3-4 scheme, if for no other reason than because of the uncertainty and likely inexperience at the inside linebacker spot.

9. Elliot Coffey, Baylor: Coffey should be one of the lynchpins of a maturing Baylor defense with lots of work to do under new coordinator Phil Bennett. Though there's no formal depth chart just yet, Art Briles admitted that if anyone has solidified a starting spot, it's Coffey. The 6-foot, 230-pounder made 61 tackles (34 solo) and 4.5 tackles for loss as a junior in 2010.

10. Steven Johnson, Kansas: Johnson emerged out of a good group of linebackers last season to lead the team in tackles, with 95 stops (62 solo). He loses fellow linebackers Justin Springer and Drew Dudley, but will get help with the return of Huldon Tharp. Johnson was a former walk-on, but in his first year as a starter in 2010, rewarded the Jayhawks' decision to put him on scholarship.

Just missed: Will Ebner, Missouri; Sean Porter, Texas A&M

Ranking the Top 25 Big 12 players: No. 25

July, 26, 2011
7/26/11
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The official list of the Big 12's top 25 players is locked away in a vault in an undisclosed location, but we're revealing the list day by day here on the blog. Here's a refresher on my exact criteria.

No. 25: Zaviar Gooden, LB, Missouri

2010 numbers: Made 84 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss and three sacks. He also broke up five passes and intercepted two.

Most recent ranking: Gooden was unranked in our postseason list of the Big 12's top 25 players.

Making the case for Gooden: The Tigers linebacker quietly broke out last season in his first season as a major contributor. He's got an interesting balance of accomplishment and potential heading into 2011. He was second on the team in tackles last year, but figures to be one of the top playmakers on a solid Tiger defense this season.

Players like Gooden, a 6-foot-2, 225-pound linebacker with speed that ranges from 4.3 to 4.5 (depending on who you believe), are rare and extremely valuable in the Big 12, where speed is a must on defense. He can rush the passer but be equally effective in coverage. His technique is nowhere near that of a guy like Texas A&M's Von Miller, but his physical skill set is somewhat similar, and allows him to make plays a lot of other guys in this league just can't.
The Tigers defense pitched a pair of shutouts in conference play last season, and Gooden was a big reason why. He broke out on the field last year, but still enters 2011 as a relative unknown on the national stage or even the conference stage. That could change very fast, especially if Missouri racks up some wins early in the season.

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.

Big 12 lands eight on Butkus Award list

July, 14, 2011
7/14/11
2:30
PM ET
The Butkus Award has released its 2011 preseason watch list, and eight Big 12 linebackers made the cut.

The award is given annually to college football's top linebacker. Here's who made the preseason list:
  • Emmanuel Acho, Texas
  • Arthur Brown, Kansas State
  • Zaviar Gooden, Missouri
  • Jake Knott, Iowa State
  • Travis Lewis, Oklahoma
  • Keenan Robinson, Texas
  • Garrick Williams, Texas A&M
  • Tom Wort, Oklahoma

The folks at the Butkus Award clearly believe in the potential of Wort and Brown, but if they're making this list, I'd have liked to see Iowa State's A.J. Klein make it, too. Also, where's Shaun Lewis?

Other than that, a solid list.

Last year, you may remember some guy named Von Miller accepting the award from the award's namesake, Dick Butkus, at a team meeting.

He was the first Big 12 player to win the award since Texas' D.J. Johnson in 2004, though current Texas linebacker Jordan Hicks won the high school version of the award in 2008.

Oklahoma has the nation's most Butkus Award winners, with four. Brian Bosworth won the first two awards in 1985 and 1986, and no other program has more than two in their history.

Looking into the Big 12's NFL Draft future

July, 13, 2011
7/13/11
4:00
PM ET
Colleague Mel Kiper Jr. recently put together his top-five juniors and seniors at each position. You'll recognize plenty of the Big 12 talents on his list. Here's where they landed:

SENIORS

Quarterbacks
Running backs
Fullbacks
Receivers
Tight ends
Offensive tackles:
  • No. 1: Levy Adcock, Oklahoma State
  • No. 3: Kelechi Osemele, Iowa State
Outside linebackers:
  • No. 2: Travis Lewis, Oklahoma
  • No. 4: Keenan Robinson, Texas
Safeties
  • No. 4: Markelle Martin, Oklahoma State

A few thoughts:
  • I'm not the only one who keeps seeing the lopsided talents at the top on offense versus defense, right? Believe me when I tell you this, folks: Prepare for puntos mucho in the Big 12 this season.
  • I wouldn't be too surprised to see Fuller above Broyles on this list. Broyles is obviously a better college receiver, but he may find his size (5-foot-11, 187 pounds) to be a challenge at the next level, and NFL teams won't have the same concerns over the 6-foot-4, 215-pound Fuller. I see them both having solid, lengthy, productive NFL careers, but Fuller is slightly less risky. Also, against NFL corners, Fuller's size offers a bigger target for quarterbacks and a better red zone option.
  • Look at the offensive players who did make the list: Big 12 players were No. 1 at four positions and three positions had two Big 12 prospects in the top five. Not a bad senior class.

Now, the younger guys who will be draft-eligible after this season (not including sophomores with a redshirt season.)

JUNIORS

Quarterbacks
Fullbacks
Receivers
Centers
  • No. 3: Ben Habern, Oklahoma
Defensive ends
  • No. 5: Brad Madison, Missouri
Outside linebackers
  • No. 1: Ronnell Lewis, Oklahoma
  • No. 3: Zaviar Gooden, Missouri
Punters
  • No. 2: Ryan Doerr, Kansas State
  • No. 3: Quinn Sharp, Oklahoma State

Some more thoughts:
  • I haven't really asked around about what NFL scouts think of Baylor's Griffin III, but this is the first time I've seen him show up on a list like this from our draft gurus, Kiper or McShay. Perhaps unfairly, Griffin's athleticism prompts some fans around the league to label him as a scrambler, but anyone who watched Baylor for any extended period of time last season got a clear look at how much he's grown as a passer from his freshman year in 2008 to last year's sophomore season following his 2009 knee injury. I'd expect it to continue, but could Griffin have a decision to make by the end of the season? He's told me he plans to stay for four years, but once the money starts to become more and more real, he wouldn't be the first guy to change his mind.
  • As for receivers, well, Alshon Jeffery over Blackmon? Strongly disagree, both as a college receiver and in regard to their potential pro careers.
  • Got 40 minutes to spare? Ask Bill Snyder what he thinks of Wilson sometime. You could probably keep him going for a few days. Players like Wilson are what Snyder is all about.
  • Very surprised to see Gordon on this list this early. I love his athleticism and his ceiling is absolutely sky high, but his production to this point hasn't been there. Don't be surprised if that changes in 2011, but I hadn't seen his name thrown out on a list like this before.

Nine from Big 12 on Nagurski Watch List

July, 11, 2011
7/11/11
10:00
AM ET
The Bronko Nagurski Trophy has released its watch list, and nine Big 12 players made the 87-man list.

The Nagurski Trophy is given annually to college football's top defender.
  • Arthur Brown, LB, Kansas State
  • Zaviar Gooden, LB, Missouri
  • Coryell Judie, CB, Texas A&M
  • Jake Knott, LB, Iowa State
  • Travis Lewis, LB, Oklahoma
  • Brad Madison, DE, Missouri
  • Markelle Martin, S, Oklahoma State
  • Kheeston Randall, DT, Texas
  • Keenan Robinson, LB, Texas

I don't see many favorites on this list, but the Big 12 has won the Nagurski Award in two of the past three seasons. Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh won in 2009 and Texas' Brian Orakpo won the award in 2008.

Texas and Oklahoma each have two trophy winners since the award's inception in 1993, and are among just four schools (Northwestern, Miami (Fla.)) to earn the distinction.

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