Originally Published: May 6, 2010
James D. Smith/Icon SMIWill Mack Brown and Bob Stoops have some competition for the top spot in the Big 12?

Huskers' rise key to Big 12 balancing act

By David Ubben
ESPN.com

Since Kansas State beat Oklahoma in 2003 (and even that was an upset), all the fun has gone out of the Big 12 championship game for the North.

Colorado lost to Oklahoma 42-3 and Texas 70-3 in consecutive title games.

Nebraska lost by two touchdowns to the Sooners in 2006.

Missouri lost by 21 to Oklahoma in the 2007 title game, even though it entered with college football's top ranking. Then the Tigers were steamrolled 62-21 by a record-breaking OU offense in 2008.

Drama hadn't been on the Big 12 championship game's guest list for a while.

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Bruce Thorson/US PresswireNebraska's resurgence under Bo Pelini could trigger a power shift in the Big 12.

That changed last year, when Nebraska famously came within a second (and a few somehow-overlooked feet on Hunter Lawrence's 46-yard game-winning kick) of ending the Red River Rivalry teams' streak of Big 12 titles, now at six.

The effect of the Huskers' performance on Texas coach Mack Brown was clear this spring.

"I'm glad to see Nebraska is back now, because we needed that," he said. "When I got here Nebraska, Kansas State and Colorado were the three strongest teams in the league. I feel the North is coming back now, and we're about to be one of the better conferences in the country at the top end."

Who would have figured Brown would say something like that this spring when the Huskers sat at 4-3 and 1-2 in the Big 12 in mid-October?

Nebraska's resurgence has prompted a balance the conference hasn't seen in a long time.

The spring has been about validating 2009's balance, proving that even losing Ndamukong Suh, one of the conference's best players ever, won't slow the Cornhuskers' progress.

They've done it by building their team around defense and bringing the beef on the offensive and defensive lines.

Missouri built one of the best teams in school history around a dynamic offense, eventually ascending to No. 1 in '07, but still lost twice to the Sooners that season. A year later, the Tigers fell behind 35-0 in the first half to Texas and had no chance in the Big 12 title game, trailing 41-7 at one point in the second half against Oklahoma.

Last season, Nebraska proved the South Division giants wouldn't bully it. It beat Oklahoma (though it was a wounded Sooners team, in Lincoln) and came oh-so-close to beating Texas.

"I finally felt like we were at the position in our program where we can compete with anybody out there," said Nebraska coach Bo Pelini of his address to the crowd after the Holiday Bowl. "We had finally reached that point where week in and week out, there's not anybody they can throw at us that we don't have the opportunity to beat."

If teams want respect, that's how to earn it. Above all else, find a way to hold their own on the front lines. Nebraska hasn't won anything yet, a point Pelini pounded home this spring to anyone who would listen.

It won't be easy, and plenty of teams not named Texas and Oklahoma will try to stop them. But for the Huskers, this season is about beginning to fill the Pelini era's empty résumé and, in the process, restoring the conference's balance.

What we learned this spring

By David Ubben
ESPN.com

Spring is when the seeds of hype are planted.

Plenty of figures around the conference only sent the hype surrounding their debuts through the roof. Texas quarterback Garrett Gilbert and Nebraska's defense, for example. But while nobody will be able to write a research paper based on what we learned this spring, here's a quick look at what we can take away from a spring after a season that saw the biggest exodus of first-round NFL talent in the conference's history.

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Jeff Moffett/Icon SMICarson Coffman is ready to deliver for the Wildcats in 2010.

1. The spread will be a little thinner in Austin. Texas won't be slinging it with the frequency it did when Colt McCoy was the quarterback. And while a return to that style is possible if new starter Gilbert matures quickly, they'll enter this season with the intention of running Fozzy Whittaker and Tre' Newton more north and south from under center.

2. QBs are in the South, RBs are in the North. The top four returning rushers are in the North, and it could stay that way in 2010. Four of top five returning passers are in the South, while the North is full of quarterback controversies that have only been recently settled. Gilbert could easily join the top passers in the South, too.

3. Building a monster in Lincoln? Nebraska has improved in each of Bo Pelini's first two seasons, and will be looking for more in 2010. But with 10 wins last season, any more improvement could be a big accomplishment for the Huskers.

4. Defense, if you haven't heard, wins championships. Even in the Big 12. The division winners last season were teams that had great defenses a year ago and focused on shoring them up again this spring. Oklahoma did the same. The Big 12 will have plenty of offenses that put up big points, but last year defenses won games, and that will be the case again this year.

5. Still honeymooning in Lawrence and Lubbock. Turner Gill and Tommy Tuberville are both undefeated in their new jobs, and stayed that way all spring. Expectations will be higher for Tuberville in year one, but both kept the positive vibes flowing through spring.

Best of spring

By David Ubben
ESPN.com

Everybody has wrapped up spring practice in the Big 12, and it's time to look at the some of the superlatives of the past two months:

Best spring game performance: Carson Coffman, QB, Kansas State: Coffman spent the spring battling for the quarterback job, and with his main competition, Collin Klein, stuck on the bench, he tossed seven touchdowns in the spring game to establish himself as the clear leader heading into the fall.

Best performance by a freshman: Taylor Martinez, QB, Nebraska and Kenny Stills, WR, Oklahoma: Oklahoma needed another wide receiver. Nebraska didn't need another quarterback. But Stills caught a game-high six passes for 84 yards and a touchdown, capping off a solid first spring after enrolling at Oklahoma early. Martinez became the talk of Nebraska's spring camp, and validated it with a performance that showed off his speed. The redshirt freshman ran for 60 yards and completed 5 of 9 passes for 79 yards and two touchdowns.

Best out-of-the-blue performance: T.J. Moe, WR, Missouri: Moe was hobbled by a broken foot last season, but broke out this spring, outperforming his fellow receivers in the team's scrimmages, including 12 catches in the spring game.

Biggest rising star: Alexander Robinson, RB, Iowa State: Yeah, yeah, Robinson's already risen. His profile hasn't. But after rushing for over 1,200 yards in 2009 and leading his team to seven wins, it should have. Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads says Robinson has improved significantly from the end of last season to now, and if he duplicates or exceeds last year's production, and leads Iowa State to a surprising win or two, he could become a star.

Best story of the spring: Garrett Gilbert, QB, Texas: Gilbert's performance in the national championship game probably made life a little more difficult, raising expectations significantly. But he answered them this spring, and they won't drop at all heading into the fall.

Best non-story of the spring: Bill Snyder's torn ACL, MCL: A knee injury like that would keep one of his players out for six to nine months. It kept the Kansas State coach out about six to nine minutes. Snyder was run over by 600 pounds of linemen in an early spring practice, but got up and finished practice without missing a beat. He's weighing offseason surgery, but it didn't affect the Wildcats' practice routine.

Worst luck: Texas Tech: Texas Tech lost both of its possible starting senior quarterbacks in less than a week, and both were forced to undergo spring surgery. Steven Sheffield re-broke a bone in his foot, and Taylor Potts suffered a deep laceration to his throwing hand. Both should be available for preseason camp.

Best quote: "I'm going to hold the mustard. Whoever wants mustard for their hot dog, I'm gonna have it." -- Oklahoma LB Travis Lewis, after winning the spring game 23-0 and sending his Red Team opponents to a hot dog dinner while he and his teammates ate steak.

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