Some of you have asked for it, and since it makes sense to do it early on, I’ll be breaking down the Big 12 over the next couple of days. Today, I’ll give my take on the North and South races. Tomorrow, I’ll put them together for my own pre-spring power rankings.
Update: My pre-spring power rankings will go up later this afternoon.
The Huskers will do without the services of the House of Spears, but the Pelini brothers’ defense was hardly built around one player. Replacing linebacker Phillip Dillard and safeties Matt O’Hanlon and Larry Asante won’t be easy, but the Nebraska defense should still be stout.
As for the offense, last season’s home loss to Iowa State in which the Huskers had more turnovers (8) than points (7) would suggest the only way to go is up.
To repeat in the North, the Huskers must defend Memorial Stadium, where they’ll get to face Missouri and Texas.
Missouri returns 18 starters, including junior quarterback Blaine Gabbert, who threw for 3,593 yards and 24 touchdowns as a sophomore.
He’ll need support from still-maturing senior corners Carl Gettis and Kevin Rutland, who gave up 427 yards passing to Baylor freshman quarterback Nick Florence (almost 200 more yards than he had in any other game last season) in an ugly home loss to the Bears, negating Gabbert’s career high of 468 yards.
For Missouri, taking back the North will mean surviving a difficult early conference schedule, which opens with Colorado but then forces the Tigers to play at Texas A&M before hosting Oklahoma. The next week, they travel to Lincoln for another showdown with Nebraska that would give the winner the inside track at a North title.
3. Kansas State
The Wildcats busted in their bowl-or-bust game against Nebraska to close out last season, but will try and rebound with a run at the North title. They’ll miss Brandon Banks’ kick returns, but Daniel Thomas (1,265 yards in 2009) wouldn’t mind getting his number called almost 250 times again like he did last season. For Kansas State, the earlier the uncertainty ends at quarterback, the better. Three candidates enter spring with a chance to start.
The personnel behind Kansas’ missing offensive firepower last season is gone. Kansas standouts QB Todd Reesing, receivers Dezmon Briscoe and Kerry Meier and running back Jake Sharp won’t return, and new coach Turner Gill will try to patch back together a team that finished last season on a seven-game losing streak after winning its conference opener against Iowa State.
Sophomore running back Toben Opurum provides a nice foundation for Gill’s new offense after playing well when Sharp sat out or was slowed with injuries.
5. Iowa State
Paul Rhoads’ team showed progress in 2009, finishing the season with a win over Minnesota in the Insight Bowl for the program’s first winning season since 2005. He’ll try to improve on that with only four defensive starters returning this season.
Quarterback Austen Arnaud and running back Alexander Robinson return, but on the Cyclones’ schedule, so do Oklahoma and Texas. They’ll also face Utah, Iowa and Northern Illinois in nonconference games. Returning to a bowl for a second consecutive season won’t be easy.
The Buffaloes didn’t earn much respect around the conference after giving up 54 points to Toledo in an early-season loss in 2009. They finished with three close losses at Iowa State and Oklahoma State before finishing the season with a home loss to North champ Nebraska.
If Colorado wants to dig itself out of the North basement, it’ll need Tyler Hansen to play like he did in the first half of a win over Kansas in Hansen’s first start, when the Buffaloes charged to a 24-3 second-quarter lead behind two Hansen touchdowns.