Big 12 North features balance

The Big 12 North might be an afterthought compared to its southern counterpart in many respects, but it won't mean the divisional race there won't be interesting this season.

South teams have won every Big 12 championship since 2003, winning the last five games by an average margin of 36.4 points. North teams were thrashed by the South by a 16-3 margin -- matching the most one-sided cross-division record in Big 12 history.

But even with those daunting trends, Nebraska coach Bo Pelini isn't ready to concede that the North is significantly weaker than the South.

"Is it?" Pelini asked. "They can say whatever they want. It's a new year this year. We'll see how it plays out on the field."

The North won't feature the firepower of the Texas-Oklahoma-Oklahoma State logjam at the top of the South, but should be balanced without a clear-cut favorite.

Kansas has the most offensive talent. Nebraska has more defensive playmakers back. Colorado and two-time defending title game participant Missouri are mystery teams. And Kansas State and Iowa State will be trying for a fresh start with new coaches.

The Jayhawks enter the season after winning back-to-back bowl games for the first time in the 119-season history of the program.

Quarterback Todd Reesing is the most established player at his position in the division. And wide receivers Dezmon Briscoe and Kerry Meier and running back Jake Sharp provide him with as good a collection of skill-position talent as anywhere in the division.

Defense might be a different story, as the Jayhawks replace three starting linebackers who were key contributors.

But the biggest concern for most about the Jayhawks is their tough cross-division schedule of Oklahoma, at Texas and at Texas Tech. The three teams beat Kansas by a combined margin of 143-59 last season.

"We're getting better all the time," Kansas coach Mark Mangino said. "That's what we've set out to do. We're not where we want to be yet. We want to be a team that competes for championships and is among the best teams in the Big 12. We're headed there, but we're not there yet."

The Jayhawks have particularly struggled against elite Big 12 teams, posting a 2-9 regular-season record against ranked conference opponents in the last five seasons.

"The only way you do that is you have to consistently win against the best teams in the league," Mangino said. "For us to really get where we want this program to be, we have to start beating them from time to time."

Kansas' biggest challenge is expected to come from Nebraska, which finished strong in Pelini's first season with four straight victories, capped by a Gator Bowl triumph over Clemson.

Despite breaking in new quarterback Zac Lee, Pelini likes his collection of talent.

"He's a very confident young man, borderline cocky, but not cocky," Pelini said. "Zac is very grounded. I've been around a lot of athletes, and I really like his makeup. I'm looking forward to having him as our quarterback."

The Nebraska defense will be keyed by All-America candidate Ndamukong Suh, whose growth mirrors that of the program under Pelini.

"A year ago, I thought we were up and down … more inconsistent than we are and not exactly where we want to be," Pelini said. "We're not a finished product. I understand that. But right now they know what it means to compete and work hard every day. And that gives us a chance to be a good football program."

Two-time defending Big 12 championship game participant Missouri might be the biggest question. The Tigers have to replace a strong collection of talent headed by Jeremy Maclin, Chase Daniel, Chase Coffman and Ziggy Hood. Two new coordinators will also take over as David Yost leads the offense and Dave Steckel calls the defensive signals.

The Tigers have improved recruiting in recent years, and Gary Pinkel said his current team is his fastest at Missouri. It also might be the youngest, with 26 freshmen and sophomores on the post-spring two-deep roster.

"I think we have a lot of talent, but we've got to tap it," Missouri linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said. "The word you say now is 'potential.' That's a word we really don't like to use, but unfortunately, we sometimes have to. Hopefully, we'll untap that potential and see a lot more talented players once the season begins."

Another team with much uncertainty is Colorado, which was tabbed to win "10 games and no excuses" after last season by coach Dan Hawkins. The Buffaloes will have the league's most unsettled quarterback situation and are searching for a big-play replacement for wide receiver/kick returner Josh Smith, who abruptly transferred to UCLA this spring.

"I think we have a chance, provided we can avoid some of the injuries we had last year and get a little momentum going," Hawkins said. "We have a chance to do some really nice things this year."

New Kansas State coach Bill Snyder is back after a three-year sabbatical. The Wildcats have made one bowl trip in the last five seasons, but the rebuilding job isn't nearly as daunting as Snyder faced when he arrived in 1989. Then, the Wildcats had won only three games in the previous four seasons.

But it still will be a difficult turnaround in an improving conference.

"What this outcome will be, I really have no idea," Snyder said. "But as I've said many times, if we can settle the waters, it will be worth the effort."

Iowa State athletic director Jamie Pollard was looking for a similar curative hire when he chose Paul Rhoads, a former defensive coordinator at Auburn and Pittsburgh. Rhoads is familiar with the culture of Iowa State after growing up nearby and serving five seasons as an assistant coach on Dan McCarney's staff.

The Cyclones struggled to a 2-10 record last season, worst in the conference. They open the season with a 17-game road losing streak that is the longest in the country.

"We've attacked those numbers from Day One. We don't hide from them," Rhoads said. "We don't try to brush them under the carpet. We talk about them openly and the challenges that it takes to overcome them."

Tim Griffin covers college football for ESPN.com. You may contact him at espntimgriff@yahoo.com.