NCF Nation: Stryker Sulak
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.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Here are players I feel are deserving of special mention after their games on Saturday:
Texas Tech QB Graham Harrell: Completed 43 of 58 passes for 536 yards and two TDs to lead the Red Raiders' 49-24 victory over Eastern Washington
Texas QB Colt McCoy: Sparked Texas' 52-10 victory over Florida Atlantic, rushing for a team-high 103 yards and a TD, and passing for 222 yards and three more scores. He set Texas' single-game consecutive completion streak by hitting his first 13 passes and 19 of his first 20.
Missouri LB Sean Weatherspoon: Contributed nine tackles (including one for a loss) and two interceptions to key the Tigers' 52-42 victory over Illinois. He punctuated his big effort with a clinching 35-yard interception return for a touchdown with 3:18 remaining to ice the game.
Oklahoma State's special teams: Produced a 42-yard punt return by Dez Bryant, a 68-yard punt return by Ricky Price and a 90-yard kickoff return for a TD by Perrish Cox to spark the Cowboys' 39-13 victory over Washington State.
Nebraska LB Cody Glenn: A converted I-back who made the most of his first career start at linebacker. Glenn notched nine tackles, three assists, 2 1/2 tackles for losses, broke up three passes and forced a fumble in the Cornhuskers' 47-24 victory over Western Michigan.
Kansas State QB Josh Freeman: Produced five touchdowns -- three passing and two running -- and 255 yards of total offense in the Wildcats' 45-6 conquest of North Texas.
Big 12 recruiting coordinators joke they can throw a rock in Houston and Dallas and find more potential football players within a 20-mile radius than any place in the country. It's why those areas have become the recruiting center for almost every team in the conference.
An ESPN.com survey (see chart below) indicates that 45.4 percent of all players in the conference played at Texas high schools. Every team in the South Division has more Texas players on its roster than those from any other state.
Both Missouri and Kansas have parlayed contributions from lightly-regarded Texas recruits to become North Division powers in recent seasons.
Missouri quarterback Chase Daniel was ranked as a solid prospect at Southlake Carroll in suburban Dallas-Fort Worth, but never turned the heads of national powers when he was recruited as might have been expected after watching his college career play out.
But the Tigers have also hit the jackpot on Texans like wide receiver Danario Alexander (Marlin), defensive tackle Ziggy Hood (Amarillo Palo Duro) and defensive end Stryker Sulak (Rockdale) to become huge producers.
Kansas coach Mark Mangino has employed the same strategy, clicking on players like quarterback Todd Reesing (Austin Lake Travis), wide receivers Dezmon Briscoe (Dallas Cedar Hill), Dexton Fields (Dallas South Oak Cliff) and Marcus Herford (De Soto Cedar Hill) and safety Patrick Resby (Houston Forest Brook) to help fuel last season's trip to the Orange Bowl.
The survey indicates that seven schools have more Texas players on their roster than any other state. Baylor, Kansas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas, Texas A&M and Texas Tech all have rosters tilted to the Lone Star State.
Texas coach Mack Brown realizes that he can't keep every top recruit in the state.
"There are a lot of kids that get out of Texas because there's 350 of them and we can only take 22," Brown said. "So there's about 330 that are mad at me every year."
Such recruiting slights have fueled Daniel, who will make his first trip to Austin in a pivotal Oct. 18 game when he faces the Longhorns. Brown and the Longhorns face those challenges from former Texas high-school players every week in the Big 12.
"That's an exciting thing," Brown said. "They always want to prove we were wrong. We knew [about Daniel], the guy didn't lose one high school game. This doesn't surprise us at all. He's done a great job changing the face of Missouri and turning them into a national power. He's great."
Daniel actually never lost a high school game, but who's counting? He was a great Texas high school player who decided that playing at a Big 12 school away from the state was the best way that his friends and family could watch him.
Source: 2008 Big 12 Media Guide