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Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
It's an inexact science trying to provide power rankings more than six months before the Big 12 season starts, but here's my best guess heading into spring practice. I've considered coaching changes, NFL draft defections, returning players, schedules and expected boost from arriving recruiting classes in determining how I think teams should be placed heading into the spring.
1. Texas -- A sense of unfinished business is present after the Longhorns came within seconds of challenging for the national championship last season. That feeling helped lure Colt McCoy and Jordan Shipley back for another year. If recruit Chris Whaley can emerge at running back and the defensive line can be rebuilt, the Longhorns should be in the hunt for a shot at the national title game at the Rose Bowl. The last time the crystal ball was awarded there, Texas upset USC for the championship. Could history repeat itself?
2. Oklahoma -- The Sooners had a strong signing day, but an even better one a couple of weeks earlier when Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford, Jermaine Gresham and Gerald McCoy, among others, decided to return for the 2009 season. But the Sooners still need to find some playmakers at wide receiver and rebuild their offensive line. And of a more immediate concern for Bob Stoops than his recent BCS bowl struggles is that nagging 1-3 mark against Texas over the past four seasons.
3. Oklahoma State -- Next season's Texas Tech could be Oklahoma State, which has all of its major weapons returning after Russell Okung decided to put off the NFL draft for another season. But the Cowboys' hopes of challenging for their first Big 12 South title will depend on wily veteran coordinator Bill Young's work with the defense. If it can improve like the Red Raiders did most of the 2008 season, it won't be far-fetched to think that the Cowboys can make a similar jump.
4. Nebraska -- The Cornhuskers got a big shot of momentum after their impressive comeback victory in the Gator Bowl. Ndamukong Suh will be back, but the Cornhuskers have to find a replacement for Joe Ganz at quarterback. Offensive coordinator Shawn Watson's work in turning out serviceable players at the position at Colorado and Nebraska lessens some of those concerns. But it still wouldn't surprise me to be seeing heralded incoming freshman Cody Green to be starting at the position by early November -- maybe even with the North Division title on the line.
5. Kansas -- The Jayhawks made history last season by making back-to-back bowl trips. With most of their major offensive weapons back, can they make similar history with their first undisputed Big 12 North title? Todd Reesing and Dezmon Briscoe will pile up passing yardage, along with increased talent from their past two recruiting classes. But the Jayhawks still face the same challenging Texas-Oklahoma-Texas Tech rotation among South opponents, making for the toughest challenge of any North team in their out-of-division contests.
6. Texas Tech -- Michael Crabtree and Graham Harrell are gone. Mike Leach is angry after a prolonged contract dispute with school officials. It will mean that Taylor Potts will face a huge challenge stepping in at quarterback. And defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill hopes that some of the strong talent in the trenches can step forward immediately after his team's late collapse against Oklahoma and Mississippi last season.
7. Missouri -- The Tigers' offense will take a big step back with Chase Daniel, Chase Coffman and Jeremy Maclin all gone from last season's Alamo Bowl team. Sean Weatherspoon will anchor a defense that will have to rebuild after losing Ziggy Hood, Stryker Sulak and William Moore. Too many key Tiger players are leaving to think they can make a three-peat of North Division titles, although Missouri should again be in the hunt for a bowl game.
8. Colorado -- Dan Hawkins is already sold on this team, proclaiming it capable of a 10-2 record shortly after his team's disappointing finish last season. I'm not thinking Colorado will be that good, but I do expect a bowl trip if the Buffs can stay away from injuries, Cody Hawkins or Tyler Hansen emerges at quarterback and Darrell Scott fulfills the promise he arrived at college with.
9. Baylor -- Art Briles' unexpectedly solid recruiting class should provide Robert Griffin with a lot of weapons. Most notable might be Terrance Ganaway, a bullish 220-pound transfer from Houston who will give Jay Finley a nice balance at running back. The Bears' hopes of making their first bowl appearance since the Big 12 was formed will depend on playing better in close games -- they were 0-3 in games settled by a touchdown or less in 2008.
10. Kansas State -- Bill Snyder's return to college coaching didn't wow recruits, but it's a start. The Wildcats do have 15 returning starters, but have to hope that new coordinator Andy Ludwig can make some offensive magic with either Carson Coffman or junior college transfer Daniel Thomas. And they have to hope that some offensive linemen emerge to protect whoever is starting.
11. Texas A&M -- Mike Sherman added speed and playmaking ability to his defense, but the Aggies really needed it. And all of the heralded recruits still will be facing a steep learning curve against all of the other heralded offenses in the South Division. But Christine Michael will be arriving as the most heralded playmaker for the Aggies in more than decade, ensuring there will be some excitement when he's surrounded by players like Jerrod Johnson and Jeff Fuller.
12. Iowa State -- Paul Rhoads is back at Iowa State, and he'll think it's kind of li
ke 1995, when he started coaching there on Dan McCarney's staff. The challenges in the Big 12 might be even more imposing than they were then, meaning Rhoads will be facing a steep climb to respectability. Austen Arnaud, Alexander Robinson and Darius Darks provide an offensive foundation, but Rhoads' biggest talents have always been developing a defense. He'll definitely have his work cut out at his new job.