The Big XII Conference was definitely the most fun conference to watch week-in and week-out in 2008. Not only does the Big XII have the most compelling rivalry at the elite level of college football, but tons of star power and deep talent pools in even the weaker teams makes for one of the best conferences in college football. Oklahoma is again the defending champion, but it did not come without controversy as Texas and Texas Tech also finished 7-1 in the conference. Texas will be looking to pay Oklahoma back for 2008, while Oklahoma State and Texas Tech will be looking to finally take the two big boys down. Even the North division has made the conference championship worth watching, as Kansas, Nebraska, and Missouri lead the charge. One thing's for sure: all eyes will be on this conference to find a possible challenger to Florida's dominance.
Most teams who lose national championship games take such a hit on the chin that even with a bunch of returning talent, the next season is never quite as good. Fortunately for Sooner fans, this OU team could be the team that breaks that mold. The handful of questions are only minor after graduations, and the most important offensive player came back for another go in Heisman QB Sam Bradford. The defense will be rock solid with the best front seven in the country. The schedule is absolutely brutal but that will probably not stop the Sooners.
If Sam Bradford coming back to Oklahoma was a huge boon, Colt McCoy coming back for his senior season is a whole other level of awesome for Longhorn fans. McCoy arguably has been the best quarterback in the nation the past two seasons, and yet has had to watch as Tim Tebow and then Bradford took away Heismans and national title chances. Look for WR Jordan Shipley to be the primary target, at least as good as the Young-Sweed hookup from 4 seasons ago. The defense is good but needs to make more big plays and turnovers happen in the most important games. October is brutal with Oklahoma in Dallas followed by Missouri and Oklahoma State on the road: win two of these and Texas could be in the BCS championship even with a loss.
Oklahoma State Cowboys
After watching Lubbock enjoy the upper echelon of college football last season with Texas and Oklahoma, the fans in Stillwater think it's their turn after going 5-3 and only losing to the big three last season. Oklahoma State has all the right pieces converging this season for what could be a special year or just another disappointment. The schedule is rough but plays nicely as it can with Georgia, Missouri, Texas, and Texas Tech coming to OSU and none of these on consecutive weekends. The offense will again be prolific with QB Zac Robinson throwing to Dez Bryant and a stable of up and coming receivers. The defense has great linebackers, but OSU needs to get better line play on both sides of the ball if they expect to really win this conference.
If you could flip a three-sided coin to determine the North division favorite, you nmay have a better sense than anyone who will come out of this crazy division. Nevertheless, Kansas brings back the most stars highlighted by QB Todd Reesing and his receiver duo Dezmon Briscoe and Kerry Meier. The best part about the Jayhawks should be the strong line play on both sides of the ball, and while 12-1 will not happen again with the rough schedule including Tech, OU, and Texas, the Jayhawks should win all games against the North division. Look for Kansas to build tons of momentum and a likely 6-0 start heading into the Oklahoma game.
IN THE MIX
Texas Tech Red Raiders
The Red Raiders finally broke through last season and made the nation pay attention by beating Texas and grabbing number 1 in the country before losing to Oklahoma and being forced to watch the bigger name programs they tied with go to the BCS. While most called Texas Tech overrated when they lost to Ole Miss, that was a tough bowl game matchup and Texas Tech is much easier to play with extra time to prepare. Look for coach Mike Leach to plug in new talent at the offensive skill positions and not miss much of a beat on that side of the ball. The real problem will be the defense, who will be hard pressed to stop the wide open passing attacks in the conference.
Watch carefully college football fans, as Bo Pelini is quickly restoring more glory days for the storied Nebraska Cornhuskers. Nabbing ten wins with a prolific offense was nice, but now Pelini has started to get his kind of guys in to revamp the defense into a juggernaut. Make no mistake about it, a strong defense will run roughshod over this league and will give the Big XII an even mroe legitimate national title threat if Nebraska stays on the course. Look for the defensive line to be the all-stars of the 2009 season, forcing pressure and lots of mistakes that will lessen the load for a decent offense. The Cornhuskers could steal the divison with a win at Kansas.
Now the rubber hits the road for the Missouri Tigers, as we will find out if Missouri is a legitimate perennial contender or just a disappearing fad. So much talent is gone to graduation, but look for the new guys stepping in to be better than most expect, including QB Blaine Gabbert. The conference slate starts tough with Nebraska, OSU, and Texas in consecutive weeks, but then Missouri could get on a roll that doesn't stop until bowl season. The Tigers will certainly remain in the mix for their third division title in a row.
For a team that has struggled to four wins a season during coach Dan Hawkins's tenure, it seems strange to be considering Colorado as a possible division winner. Yet the attitude in Boulder is just that with Nebraska, Kansas, and Missouri all not dominant in 2009. The offense should be better than most at controlling the pace of the game with star RB Darrell Scott, but the defense needs some help from what appeared to be quality recruits 2 and 3 years ago. If the Buffaloes take care of the other big three North teams at home, then losing games at Texas and OSU could still lead to a division crown.
ALL THE REST
Texas A&M Aggies
On the bright side, Mike Sherman played a lot of young guys last season and is bringing in talent on par with the other Big XII South programs for the first time in a decade. On the grim side, the rebuild will take until at least 2011 to be competitive in the roughest division in college football. There will be more growth but all the Aggies can hope for is a bowl berth.
Baylor is finally getting some good recruits in the Texas playing field and would be right in the mix for a North division title in 2009. Unfortunately the Bears are in the South, so this year should only show more 4-6 win competitiveness. Look for speedster QB Rober Griffin to show off his arm more this year, perhaps becoming the next big thing in the conference.
Kansas State Wildcats
Bill Snyder is back in Manhattan after two years away from the game, but the Wildcats are in even worse shape than when he left. It's hard to imagine that the rebuilding program will go easily this late into a coach's career, but perhaps in the North division a few wins can be stolen. If Kansas State makes a bowl game the next couple of seasons, then maybe they will get enough momentum to go back to the conference championship game and try their luck.
Iowa State Cyclones
Oh boy, the Gene Chizik years somehow took this Cyclone program further into the ground. Now Iowa State has to look forward to a long process of coming out of the cellar before ever competing for their first division title. The Cyclones have a defense that needs more playmakers and a brand new offense coming in with the new coaching staff. All we can say is good luck ISU fans.
So last season was crazy in the South with three 7-1 teams and two years ago the Kansas and Missouri showdown was the game of the year. No matter what the storyline becomes in 2009, you know it will be entertaining. The best question going into the future is whether the Baylor and Colorado programs can become competitive and whether Nebraska will own the North again. However, right now both divisions are fairly wide open. We could see Oklahoma-Missouir part two, but it's just as likely we'll see Kansas-Oklahoma State in December. Join us Friday as we cap the week with the Big Ten.