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Brooks: Big 12 Trots Into A Very Different Season

Aug 29, 2010

BOULDER - Devotees of high drama and low-level intrigue will love what's about to unfold in Big 12 Conference football in 2010. Let's not waste time: Your top storylines in a season sure to be memorable for most of the right reasons:

  • Two teams could be making farewell tours - Nebraska for certain, Colorado hopefully. The Cornhuskers are headed for the Big Ten in 2011, the Buffaloes for the Pac-12 in . . . stay tuned. They meet on Nov. 26 in Lincoln; could be the Exit Bowl - for one team at least, maybe both.
  • A pair of new coaches - Tommy Tuberville at Texas Tech, Turner Gill at Kansas - will join the fray (or is that a fraying league?).
  • Gentlemen, start your search . . . for the next gaggle of marquee quarterbacks. Suddenly, the Big 12 is a little light in that department.
  • Following a couple of seasons where the conference had a well-armed offense in most stops, is defense staging a league-wide comeback this year?
  • Bulletin: Daddy Mack (Brown) wants to run downhill. Texas will adjust to life without gifted QB Colt McCoy by stretching its legs.
  • Is Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy stretching the patience of big-spender T. Boone Pickens?
  • Isn't Oklahoma, ah, overdue in the Red River Rivalry against Texas? The 'Horns have hooked 'em in consecutive meetings and in four of the past five games.
  • Is the South Division as wide open as it's ever been (which has been not very)?
  • What will healthy QB Robert Griffin mean for long-suffering Baylor? Buffs fans will see first hand on Oct. 16 in Boulder.
  • Has the North once again become Nebraska's playground? Can Bo Pellini be the resident bully?
  • Do the Cornhuskers have anybody - make that any big body - to replace defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh?
  • Will Kansas State's second season (actually, the 19th) under Bill Snyder convince him that retirement wasn't so bad?
  • Is this the season that sees CU reach expectations under fifth-year coach Dan Hawkins? Got to be.
  • Can the Big 12 produce another BCS Championship Game contender? If so, can a Big 12 team win it?

Of course, the league's storylines can change dramatically or be edited slightly from week to week, but those are enough to get us underway in the last season of the Big 12 as we know it.

A capsule look at the league, with the teams listed by division in our predicted order of finish:

NORTH DIVISION

1.      Nebraska

Coach: Bo Pelini (20-8, 2 years at Nebraska)

Last year: 10-4 overall, 6-2 Big 12; defeated Arizona 33-0 in Holiday Bowl.

Stadium: Memorial Stadium (81,067).

Top returnees/2009 statistics: TB Roy Helu (220-1,147 yards, 10 TDs), QB Zac Lee (177-302, 2,143 yards; 14 TDs, 10 INT),  WR Niles Paul (40-796, 4 TDs), DT Jared Crick (73 tackles, 12.5 for loss, 9.5 QB sacks).

Pivotal game: Oct. 16 vs. Texas.

Coach speak: "I always felt like the third year in a system and the third year together, you really have a chance to make a big jump." - Pelini

Bottom line: The Cornhuskers' thorough demolition of Arizona in last season's Holiday Bowl sent a strong signal for 2001 - namely that Pelini believes his culture is in place. The Huskers defense will be minus its monster in the middle - Ndamukong Suh - but they'll still be strong. After last season's Big 12 championship game, Nebraska fans have been counting the days until Texas visits Lincoln. The Huskers' trip to Washington (Sept. 18) is their only real non-conference test.

2.      MISSOURI

Coach: Gary Pinkel (67-46, 9 years at Missouri; 140-83-3 overall, 19 years).

Last year:  8-5 overall, 4-4 Big 12; lost to Navy 35-13 in Texas Bowl.

Stadium: Memorial Stadium/Faurot Field (68,349).

Top returnees/2009 statistics: TB Derrick Washington (190-865 yards, 10 TDs), QB Blaine Gabbert (262-445, 3,593 yards, 24 TDs, 9 INT), LB Andrew Gachkar (80 tackles, 3 for loss, 3 QB sacks).

Pivotal game: Oct. 30 at Nebraska.

Coach speak: "There's a consistency of winning that we have . . . there's (still) a lot of things we have to accomplish and I want to win at a higher level on a more consistent basis." - Pinkel

Bottom line:  Picking Mizzou second in the North might be a stretch, but the schedule favors the Tigers. Only Nebraska is on the road in divisional play, with the Border War game against Kansas again in Kansas City. If Gabbert can take a liking to his new receivers, the Tigers passing game shouldn't suffer. Pinkel's MU teams have had finished with glitzy regular-season records but never won the Big 12.

3.      COLORADO

Coach: Dan Hawkins (16-33, 4 years at CU; 69-44 overall, 9 years).

Last year: 3-9 overall, 2-6 Big 12.

Stadium: Folsom Field (53,750).

Top returnees/2009 statistics: QB Tyler Hansen (129-231, 1,440 yards, 8 TDs, 7 INT), TB Rodney Stewart (198-804 yards, 9 TDs), WR Scotty McKnight (76-893, 6 TDs), S Anthony Perkins (78 tackles, 1 QB sack).

Pivotal game: Sept. 4 vs. Colorado State (Denver).

Coach speak: "The concept is about the team, it's not about the individual . . . that really, really bodes well for us." - Hawkins

Bottom line: The Buffs need a fast start to send them into another demanding non-conference schedule. Last season's loss to Colorado State - it came in Folsom Field, no less - sent CU on a disastrous downward spiral. The players say they remember and won't permit it to happen again. If they're right, the Buffs could be a team to watch. But a fast start is critical for CU, which needs a large dose of confidence on the front end of the season.

4.      KANSAS

Coach: Turner Gill (first year at KU; 20-30 overall, 4 years).

Last year: 5-7 overall, 1-7 Big 12.

Stadium: Memorial Stadium (50,071).

Top returnees/2009 statistics: TB Toben Opurum (133-554 yards, 9 TDs), QB Kale Pick (4-5, 22 yards), LB Dudley Drew (88 tackles, 8.5 for loss, 3.5 QB sacks).

Pivotal game: Oct. 2 at Baylor.

Coach speak: "I'm a firm believer . . . in building relationships. That was the first thing I wanted our football program, our football team, to do. Building relationships from players to coaches, coaches to players, coaches to coaches and players to players." - Gill

Bottom line: KU goes into the 2001 season with a new coach and an outgoing athletic director (Lew Perkins). The Jayhawks lost one of the top QBs in the country in Todd Reesing and can't let the position's productivity drop dramatically. Coming out of non-conference play with a 3-1 record isn't impossible, and that kind of momentum is what Gill needs going to Baylor to open league play.

5.      IOWA STATE

Coach: Paul Rhoads (7-6, 1 year)

Last year: 7-6 overall, 3-5 Big 12; defeated Minnesota 14-13 in Insight Bowl.

Stadium: Jack Trice Stadium (55,000).

Top returnees/2009 statistics: QB Austen Arnaud (178-303, 2,015 yards, 14 TDs, 13 INT), TB Alexander Robinson (232-1,195 yards, 6 TDs), WR Darius Darks (28-303 yards, 2 TDs), DB David Sims (88 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, 5 INT).

Pivotal game: Sept. 18 vs. Kansas State (Kansas City).

Coach speak: "We'll be an improved football team . . . and we'll need to be. We face a very challenging schedule that some rate as the toughest in the country." - Rhoads

Bottom line: Rhoads isn't blowing smoke about his schedule being a killer, particularly in October. After catching Texas Tech and Utah in Ames, the Cyclones make back-to-back trips to Oklahoma and Texas. Kansas comes calling on Oct. 30, and Nebraska visits on the first weekend in November. By the time the Cyclones get to CU (Nov. 13), will they be a breath of fresh air for the Buffs? And will the Buffs need it at that point?

6.      KANSAS STATE

Coach: Bill Snyder (142-74-1, 18 years).

Last year: 6-6 overall, 4-4 Big 12.

Stadium: Bill Snyder Family Stadium (50,000).

Top returnees/2009 statistics: TB Daniel Thomas (247-1,265 yards, 11 TDs), QB Carson Coffman (71-117, 860 yards, 2 TDs, 4 INT), DB Emmanuel Lamur (68 tackles, 3 INT).

Pivotal game: Sept. 18 vs. Iowa State (Kansas City).

Coach speak: "We have to be able to spread the ball around. We have to find a variety of different ways to do it, which is ingrained in our offense." - Snyder

Bottom line: Snyder got a shock when he returned last season. These weren't the Wildcats he left, and it's going to take a while before they return to the level he constructed from 1989-2005. Thomas led the conference in rushing last season (105.4 yards a game) and was the focus of a grind-it-out offense. The QB situation is unsettled. Among the competitors is Sammuel Lamur, twin brother of K-State's leading returning tackler.

SOUTH DIVISION

1.      OKLAHOMA

Coach: Bob Stoops (11 years, 117-29).

Last year: 8-5 overall, 5-3 Big 12; defeated Stanford 31-27 in Sun Bowl.

Stadium: Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium (82,112).

Top returnees/2009 statistics: TB DeMarco Murray (171-705 yards, 8 TDs), QB Landry Jones (261-449, 3,198 yards, 26 TDs, 14 INT), WR Ryan Broyles (89-1,120 yards, 15 TDs), LB Travis Lewis (109 tackles, 9.5 for loss).

Pivotal game: Oct. 2 vs. Texas (Dallas).

Coach speak: "I really believe, going through it a year ago (and) losing the number of seniors that we did, that we gained experience that you didn't want at the time. That will definitely make us a better and stronger team coming into this year." - Stoops

Bottom line: The Sooners' five losses in 2009 were uncharacteristic, but a strong finish (27-0 over Oklahoma State and the bowl win) eased some of the pain. Stoops doesn't want many more seasons like that, however. Texas has beaten OU in four of their past five meetings - and Stoops needs to snap out of that funk, too. But as usual, the talent is in place to do it. OU is in position to win big - and maybe even win The Big One against Texas.

2.      TEXAS

Coach: Mack Brown (12 years, 128-27; 214-101-1 overall, 26 years).

Last year: 13-1 overall, 8-0 Big 12; lost to Alabama 37-21 in BCS Championship game.

Stadium: Darrell K. Royal/Texas Memorial Stadium (94,113).

Top returnees/2009 statistics: TB Tre' Newton (116-552 yards, 6 TDs), QB Garrett Gilbert (30-66, 310 yards, 2 TDs, 4 INT), DE Sam Acho (59 tackles, 13 tackles for loss, 9 QB sacks).

Pivotal game: Oct. 2 vs. Oklahoma (Dallas).

Coach speak: "We will go back and work harder to get the ball downhill from the tailback spot. We'll have the quarterback under the center more." - Brown

Bottom line: Without QB Colt McCoy for the first time in three years, the Longhorns will return to being a power running team. That should take some of the pressure off of Gilbert, who is a capable passer but not close to being a McCoy-type scrambler. Texas should field a typical Texas-type defense - talented, fast and nasty. In addition to the OU game, here's another must-see: Oct. 16 at Nebraska. Husker fans felt their team was jobbed in last season's championship game loss to the 'Horns.

3.      TEXAS A&M

Coach: Mike Sherman (2 years, 10-15)

Last year: 6-7 overall, 3-5 Big 12; lost 44-20 to Georgia in the Independence Bowl.

Stadium: Kyle Field (82,600).

Top returnees/2009 statistics: TB Christine Michael (166-844 yards, 10 TDs), QB Jerrod Johnson (296-497, 3,579 yards, 30 TDs, 8 INT), WR Ryan Tannehill (46-609, 4 TDs), OLB Von Miller (47 tackles, 21.5 for loss, 17 QB sacks).

Pivotal game: Sept. 30 at Oklahoma State.

Coach speak: "This season is about taking that next step, and the next step for us is to be in games in the fourth quarter with two minutes left where you're in position to win the football game." - Sherman

Bottom line: Given that the Aggies allowed 33.5 points and 426.3 yards a game last season, it should surprise no one that four new defensive coaches are on Sherman's staff, including former Air Force defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter. A&M has two of the top players in the conference in Johnson (QB) and Miller (OLB).  The Aggies made a bowl trip last season, but their fans are hardly pacified by a trip to Shreveport, La. They won't wait too much longer for Sherman to show something better.

4.      TEXAS TECH

Coach: Tommy Tuberville (first season at Tech, 110-60 overall, 12 years).

Last year: 9-4 overall, 5-3 Big 12; defeated Michigan State 41-31 in Alamo Bowl.

Stadium: Jones AT&T Stadium (52,882).

Top returnees/2009 statistics: TB Baron Batch (168-884 yards, 14 TDs), QB Taylor Potts (309-470, 3,440 yards, 22 TDs, 13 INT), WR Alex Torres (67-806 yards, 6 TDs).

Pivotal game: Sept. 18 vs. Texas.

Coach speak: "You have to get your philosophy over . . . if you don't sell that to your team and your fans, then you're going to have problems. You've got to let them know up front how you're going to handle things." - Tuberville

Bottom line: Not many college football programs bore the mark of their coach as strongly as did Tech for 10 years under Mike Leach. But Tuberville has been battle-tested in the SEC and knows what it takes to win. There should be enough holdover talent from the Leach regime to allow for a successful debut. But what kind of identity will the Red Raiders, who were air-it-out swashbucklers under Leach, have under Tuberville?

5.      BAYLOR

Coach: Art Briles (2 years, 8-16; 42-44 overall, 7 years).

Last year: 4-8 overall, 1-7 Big 12.

Stadium: Floyd Casey Stadium (50,000).

Top returnees/2009 statistics: TB Jay Finley (79-370 yards, 1 TD), TB Terrance Ganaway (68-200, 5 TDs), QB Robert Griffin (45-69, 481 yards, 4 TDs), LB Antonio Johnson (77 tackles, 6 for loss, 2 QB sacks).

Pivotal game: Oct. 2 vs. Kansas.

Coach speak: "We're physically the best football team we've been from . . . the talent standpoint. But our guys feel good about each other and good about the direction." - Briles

Bottom line: Briles, the former Houston coach, appeared poised to direct a very non-Baylor type season in 2009 until Griffin went out in the third game with an ACL injury. Griffin is back now and, according to Briles, better than ever. If Griffin stays healthy, those 2009 high hopes will be rekindled in 2010. The Bears' toughest non-conference game is at Texas Christian (Sept. 18). They haven't made a bowl appearance since 1994 (Alamo Bowl), so you know their goal.

6.      OKLAHOMA STATE

Coach: Mike Gundy (5 years, 36-27).

Last year:  9-4 overall, 6-2 Big 12; lost to Mississippi 21-7 in the Cotton Bowl.

Stadium: Boone Pickens Stadium (48,000).

Top returnees/2009 statistics: RB Kendall Hunter (89-382 yards, 1 TD), QB Brandon Weeden (15-24, 248 yards, 4 TDs), DE Ugo Chinasa (30 tackles, 9 for loss, 6.5 QB sacks).

Pivotal game: Sept. 30 vs. Texas A&M.

Coach speak: "This upcoming season provides us with an opportunity to develop some new faces, let some of these young guys in the fold quick, gain a lot of experience." - Gundy

Bottom line: Cowboys bankroller T. Boone Pickens, jokingly called "the best owner in college football," might be losing patience with Gundy, who hasn't delivered the championships Pickens expects. OSU has won nine games in each of the past two seasons and been to four consecutive bowls. But the Cowboys still haven't slain the Big 12 South monsters (Texas, Oklahoma) - and doing it in a rebuilding year isn't likely. This is a pivotal season for Gundy.

Contact: BG.Brooks@Colorado.EDU