Huskers' rise key to Big 12 balancing act
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.
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
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.
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
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.
BCS contenders from Big 12
Team-By-Team Spring Reports
Baylor: The return of Robert Griffin III and increased depth have Baylor optimistic about 2010. For more on the Bears, click here.
Colorado: A settled QB situation and an improved defense are the keys to a Colorado recovery. For more on the Buffaloes, click here.
Iowa State: Paul Rhoads and Iowa State used the spring to build on 2009's progress. For more on the Cyclones, click here.
Kansas: New coach Turner Gill used the spring to set the tone for his tenure at Kansas. For more on the Jayhawks, click here.
Kansas State: Carson Coffman fully established himself as the Wildcats' QB this spring. For more on the Wildcats, click here.
Missouri: Depth at wide receiver and linebacker emerged during Mizzou's spring. For more on the Tigers, click here.
Nebraska: Improved quarterback play will be the key for Nebraska in the fall. For more on the Cornhuskers, click here.
Oklahoma: Improved offensive and defensive lines have OU excited about 2010. For more on the Sooners, click here.
Oklahoma State: New offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen's spread attack is taking shape. For more on the Cowboys, click here.
Texas: A strong secondary and Garrett Gilbert's growth were the spring talk in Austin. For more on the Longhorns, click here.
Texas A&M: Improving the defense was the main spring focus at Texas A&M. For more on the Aggies, click here.
Texas Tech: The running game and defense were spring areas of focus in Lubbock. For more on the Red Raiders, click here.
Big 12 games to watch
Post-Spring Power Rankings
1. Texas: The defending champs will have one of the nation's best defenses again, and perhaps its best secondary. Garrett Gilbert spent the spring validating his performance in the national title game, showing some of his near-limitless potential. The Horns won't be easy to unseat in 2010, especially if they find a running game.
2. Oklahoma: Here's why the Sooners are here: The gap between Oklahoma's offense and Nebraska's offense is wider than the one between the Sooners' defense and the Huskers' defense. If OU's offensive line can show improvement, the Sooners won't have trouble scoring, with the talent they have at the skill positions.
3. Nebraska: The Huskers get Mizzou and Texas in Lincoln and don't see OU, which has Big Red looking for a big season, but don't count on another 10-win season if the offense doesn't improve. Solid QB play is needed to build off the 33-0 bowl win over Arizona. With what could be the best D in football again, and two solid backs in Roy Helu Jr. and Rex Burkhead, NU's floor is pretty high, and the ceiling is even higher.
4. Missouri: Home losses to Nebraska and Baylor ended any chance the Tigers had of winning the North in 2009, but they bring back a lot from last year's eight-win team and have plenty of experienced talent at linebacker and receiver ready to replace the big names they lost. Blaine Gabbert has to show he's ready to become a household name, and if he does, the Tigers could make a serious run at the North.
5. Texas A&M: The Aggies kept almost the entire core from last year's team, but remember, A&M still only won six games last season. The Aggies' skill-position players -- cumulatively the best in the conference -- will excel if three offensive line replacements deliver. If the defense improves and the line re-establishes itself, the Aggies are South contenders. If not, the Aggies could be a seven-win team.
6. Kansas State: The Wildcats aren't built to win 10 games just yet, but if Nebraska and Missouri stumble, they'll be there to slip into the North conversation. Carson Coffman took hold of the starting QB job in the spring and will need to be productive with his three new receivers to lighten the load on running back Daniel Thomas. If that happens, there will be more happy Saturdays than sad ones in Manhattan.
7. Texas Tech: Injuries kept the Steven Sheffield versus Taylor Potts QB debate from really heating up this spring, but the switch to a higher risk/reward strategy with an aggressive defense could be fun to watch next season. The Red Raiders are deep at running back and receiver, but look for the former to get more touches this fall than they have in over a decade.
8. Oklahoma State: The Cowboys grabbed hold of Dana Holgorsen's offense this spring, and Brandon Weeden grabbed hold of the starting role. Oklahoma State should have an impact player at each level of the defense, but it will need the rest of the D to solidify for the Cowboys to climb to a higher rung of the South ladder.
9. Iowa State: Iowa State is getting better, but the tough schedule and young defense will make it difficult for the Cyclones to improve on their 7-6 record in 2009. Iowa State is solid in the secondary, but with the amount of quality running backs in the North, a good defense up front is more important. The Cyclones must replace two starters on the defensive line and will be inexperienced at linebacker.
10. Baylor: A bowl game isn't out of reach for the Bears, but they'll have to prove something before they move out of the South's cellar. Robert Griffin III gives Waco hope, but the other 21 guys have to provide substance for Baylor to succeed. Replacing two safeties, two linebackers and an All-American offensive lineman could make Baylor's early road a bumpy one.
11. Kansas: Expectations are measured after losing plenty on both sides of the ball, but the Jayhawks are a team that could get a lot better as the season progresses. When it starts, they'll have a lot of work to do. Slipping past rival Kansas State to finish in the top half of the division is about as good as it could get in Turner Gill's first season. Not having Texas or Oklahoma on the schedule could help make that happen.
12. Colorado: Transfer Toney Clemons infuses some excitement into the Buffaloes. The underrated receiving corps will help loosen things up for Rodney Stewart. But the defense gave up the second-most points in the conference last season, and there's little reason to think they'll be a lot better in 2010. Scoring 22 points a game and allowing just under 29 is the opposite of a recipe for success.