The Big XII will again be arguably the best conference in the country in 2003. The South Division is also, in my opinion, the strongest division in the nation. In 2002, Colorado claimed their second Big XII North title in a row, while Oklahoma and Texas tied atop the Big XII South standings. Those same two teams should again be at or near the top of the division in 2003. Oklahoma returns four offensive and nine defensive starters from last year's team that finished 12-2 after an easy bowl win over Washington State. The Sooners have one of the top, if not the top, ranked defenses in the nation coming into this season, with DL Tommie Harris, LB Teddy Lehman, LB Lance Mitchell, CB Derrick Strait, and FS Brandon Everage all likely to be all-conference members. QB Jason White is a senior this season, while big things are expected out of sophomore RB Kejuan Jones. RB Quentin Griffin, one of the best in the nation last year, will be tough to replace. The Sooners face three quality opponents out-of-conference at home (North Texas, Fresno State, UCLA) this year and also must pay a visit to Alabama. The annual Red River Shootout with Texas in Dallas may prove to be the difference in the South. Home games with Missouri and Oklahoma State are not guarantees, and a road trip to Colorado will be tough as well. OU has a chance to go undefeated this year with a schedule that is favorable and a defense that should be stifling.
The Texas Longhorns also had a successful '02 season as they went 11-2 overall. Eight starters return from last year's squad on each side of the ball. RB Cedric Benson is only a junior even though it seems as if he's been at UT forever; last year he rushed for nearly 1,300 yards and 12 TDs. The senior WR threesome of Sloan Thomas, B.J. Johnson, and Roy Williams is the best in the land, but following the departure of QB Chris Simms, they will have to find somebody to throw to them. On defense, LB Derrick Johnson and CB Nathan Vasher are both all-conference performers and could be all-Americans. The out-of-conference games should all be won by the Horns, and the toughest two road games in conference play are to Oklahoma State and Texas A&M. The Big XII-opener at home against Kansas State as well as the Shootout with Oklahoma will be huge factors in UT's success.
After winnng a combined three games in the Big XII in '00 and '01, the Oklahoma State Cowboys went 5-3 in the league last year and following a win over Southern Miss in the Houston Bowl, finished the season with an 8-5 record. Junior QB Josh Fields, senior RB Tatum Bell, and senior WR Rashaun Woods are three of eight starters that return on offense for OSU. Six starters are also back on 'D'. The Cowboys should win each of their four non-conference games, but the season-opener at Nebraska will be extremely tough. Trips to Texas A&M and Oklahoma will also be challenges. If the Cowboys can win the games they should at home, they would be just an upset or two from being at the very top of the South Division. However, I think they will be just a step behind OU and UT this season.
Texas Tech will feel the loss of QB Kliff Kingsbury this year. He was one of only 2 starters the Raiders lost on offense while there are five returnees on defense. Leading rusher Taurean Henderson as well as all the top WRs are back, but senior B.J. Symons will have to be able to consistently be on the money with his throws for Texas Tech to be successful. Non-conference road trips to NC State and Mississippi will be tough to win though they should be extremely good offensive battles. I only see Texas Tech having a shot in one road conference game and possibly losing two home games in the Big XII as well.
Texas A&M has a new head man in Dennis Franchione. The Aggies finished the 2002 season with a 7-6 record after a bowl win over in-state rival TCU. Six offensive and five defensive starters return from that team. After two easy non-conference games to open the season, the Aggies must travel to Virginia Tech and then get a visit from Pittsburgh, two of the top three teams in the Big East this seson. The Aggies could lose every one of their Big XII road games and should also lose at least one home game. Texas Tech and Texas A&M battle it out for the fourth spot in the Big XII South.
The Baylor Bears will again bring up the rear this season. New coach Guy Morriss, who led to Kentucky to a winning season last year, provides a little spark to the program, but Baylor needs more of an explosion to make serious noise in the Big XII. Six starters on each side of the ball return from 2002's 3-9 team. The Bears should do no worse than 3-1 in the non-conference games which gives them a shot to near .500 with a little luck in the Big XII. They have chances to beat Kansas on the road and Texas Tech at home.
The Big XII North has four teams that could potentially come out on top this season. Colorado, last year's division winner, should drop off a little this season, opening the door for teams like Kansas State, Nebraska, and Missouri. The Wildcats won eleven games last season while only losing two. They capped off the seson with a close win over Arizona State in the Holiday Bowl. Seven offensive and five defensive starters from last year's team return for coach Bill Snyder's squad. Senior QB Ell Roberson and junior RB Darren Sproles are the leaders for KSU's scoring attack. Roberson accounted for 23 TDs last season, 16 rushing and 7 passing while only throwing 4 INTs. Sproles ran for almost 1,500 yards in his sophomore season and scored 17 rushing TDs. The Wildcats begin the season with four non-conference games, all of which should be victories. The toughest of the five will be the first and the last, vs California in Kansas City and vs Marshall. Their conference slate finally begins on October 4 with back-to-back trips on the road to Texas and Oklahoma State. A visit from Colorado follows before the schedule lightens up some. The last two games of the season are both winnable but will be tough. A road trip to Nebraska followed by a visit from Mizzou will likely decide the winner of the North.
The Nebraska Cornhuskes suffered through one of their worst seasons in recent history last year, though they still finished .500 at 7-7. Five offensive starters return for the 2003 season while only four starters on defense were lost from last year's team. QB Jamaal Lord is a senior who accounted for about 1,400 yards each passing and rushing last year, as well as 20 TDs. CB Fabian Washington is the star of the defense, as he was tied for the team-lead in INTs last year with four. The Huskers get right to it with the start of the schedule as three of their first four games include home games with Oklahoma State and Penn State, followed by a road trip to Southern Mississippi. After over a month of lay-off in Big XII action, the Huskers travel to Missouri for a key inter-divison matchup. Two conference road trips to Texas and Colorado in November will likely hold the Huskers' fate in the Big XII North this season.
Though they didn't have a winning record last season, the Missouri Tigers were one of the surprise teams of 2002. Led by freshman QB Brad Smith, the Tigers started off the season with an upset of Illinois, but dropped a huge loss to Bowling Green later in the month. After following just a TD short against Oklahoma and Colorado (in OT), the Tigers went on the road and knocked off Texas A&M in double-overtime. With nine offensive and six defensive starters returning, this could be a big season for the Tigers. RB Zack Abron is a senior this season after scoring 15 TDs last season. Missouri's schedule begins with a matchup against Illinois for the second consecutive season before three other non-conference games that should be easily won. After a visit from Nebraska to start the month of October, the Tigers travel to Oklahoma. Trips to division-rivals Colorado and Kansas State are two of the final three regular season games of the season for MU.
The Colorado Buffaloes return only three offensive and six defensive starters from last year's team that won the Big XII North title. The Buffs' running game should be in fairly good hands with two players who have sufficient experience coming back: sophomore Brian Calhoun and senior Bobby Purify. The annual in-state matchup with Colorado State in denver opens the season followed by three consecutive, extremely tough non-conference matchups: vs UCLA, vs Washington State, and at Florida State. Big XII action finally heats up for Colorado in October. A trip to KSU is followed by a visit from the Sooners. The final regular season game may eliminate one team from the race for Big XII North champ when Nebraska visits Colorado.
Iowa State finished an even .500 last year with a 7-7 record. Their biggest win of the year was undoubtedly a five point triumph over in-state rival Iowa early in the season, a defeat for the Hawkeyes that surely cost them a shot at playing in the national title game. Eight offensive starters return and seven defensive starters are back, but the biggest loss for ISU is super-sensation QB Seneca Wallace. Wallace accounted for 23 TDs last year for the Cyclones. The first two games should be wins for ISU before Iowa comes to visit, followed by a trip to MAC-power Northern Illinois. The Big XII is murder this season: Oklahoma, at Texas Tech, Texas, at Nebraska, at Missouri, Kansas State, Colorado, and at Kansas. The only game Cyclone fans can really feel comfortable about once October starts is their final game of the season in Lawrence, KS.
Speaking of the Jayhawks, Kansas is coming off a 2-10 season (and only one win was against a D-I opponent). Five offensive and six defensive starters return in 2003 and open up with four straight non-conference battles, all but one of which are at home. With Baylor and ISU both coming to Kansas, the Jayhawks could potentially grab two conference wins this season, but a .500 season is extremely unlikely.