When the Texas Longhorns took the extra second added to the clock and nailed a field goal to come from behind and knock off Nebraska in last year's championship, who would have guessed the hostilities between the Longhorns and Huskers was just beginning. These two schools were the center of attention during the realignment talks this offseason, and Nebraska will try to stick it to Texas and their natural rival Oklahoma one last time on their way out of the conference. Meanwhile in the South division, the battle in Dallas will again likely decide the South crown as Texas Tech has a new coaching staff and Oklahoma State goes through a rebuilding year. The story will definitely be which of the big three schools win it all, and whether the Big XII can return to the biggest stage in sports for another shot at the SEC and the BCS Championship. Colorado will also be interesting to watch, although it sounds like the Buffaloes are not gone until 2012.
In an odd coincidence, Oklahoma had only their second non-double digit win season of the decade last year due to many injuries, and yet again Texas took advantage of the situation by going to the BCS Championship. With only five starters returning on the defensive side of the ball, the Sooners may not be an obvious pick for the BCS Championship. However, this team lost 4 very close games and was decimated by injuries that presumably will not happen again. On the offense, the injuries to Sam Bradford opened the door for freshman QB Landry Jones to move in and he will certainly benefit from all that experience this year. A tandem attack of running backs Demarco Murray and Jermie Calhoun will keep defenses honest, and looks for an offensive line loaded with pro talent to open big holes for both of them. The defense will have six new faces, two at each level of the defense. However, three of these new starters are top-10 recruits at their positions: DL Jamarkus Mcfarland, LB Tom Wort, and LB Ronnell Lewis. The key two game stretch of the season is September 25 at Cincinnati and the following week opening conference play against Texas. If Oklahoma is 5-0 at that point, expect the Sooners to be playing for the BCS Championship in the Big XII title game.
Mack Brown may have fallen short last season when Colt McCoy went down in the championship, but he showed his true prowess by leading the Longhorns back into that game with a green quarterback and a demoralized team. Although Garrett Gilbert will have certainly improved from his game-manager role in Pasadena, the offense will take some time to reload with 6 new starters including Gilbert. The offensive line has three new starters but all are juniors and seniors who will likely be playing on sundays soon. Thus, Texas will likely dominate the Big XII outside of Oklahoma and Nebraska, and those two games will again determine the fate of Texas's season. The defense returns seven starters and will plug in two new great ends on the defensive line in Alex Okafor and Eddie Jones. The defensive backfield is led by Aaron Williams and Curtis Brown, who will shut down almost any opposing passing games. The schedule is easy outside of Oklahoma and Nebraska, as the only tough road game is at Lubbock, and they are not going to be the team that knocked off Texas two yars ago. Double-digit wins for the tenth straight year seems likely, but Texas will have to work hard for them.
Let the happy farewell tour begin. Nebraska came within a second of a shocking BCS bowl last season, and despite losing Ndamukong Suh, this team is the most loaded Cornhuskers team in Bo Pelini's three seasons in Lincoln. The offense brings back nine returnign starters and should be much better than last year's unit which only averaged 323 yards and really put the pressure on the Blackshirts defense. The key to the offense will be the if the line can open up holes for Roy Helu and hold the fort when Zac Lee drops back to pass. Each of the linemen are seniors except for the third best junior college line recruit Yoshi Hardick, who will fit right in at left tackle. The defense obviously does not improve by losing Suh, but sophomore Baker Steinkuhler was the top defensive line recruit in the country last season and will grow into someone who will live up to Suh's big shadow. Nebraska looks a lit like a Big Ten team, and there's enough talent here to win the conference on their way out the door. Expect a good battle with Texas and a rematch in the conference championship or one final colossal battle with rival Oklahoma.
In an interesting twist, the most hostile Big XII team to the Nebraska football program may be their biggest rival of the past few seasons, as Missouri was left on the doorstep by the Big Ten while Nebraska was let in alone. One thing that would make the rest of the conference happy is if the Tigers knock Nebraska out of the conference championship game. Missouri struggled to a 4-4 conference record when QB Blaine Gabbert went down to injury, but Gabbert will likely be back full strength behind an improved offensive line in 2010. The only possible catch is that two of the receivers will be new in Jerrell Jackson and TJ Moe. The defense is led by a backfield which has four seniors who should produce some turnovers against the mostly weaker quarterbacks in the Big XXI North. The schedule is brutal with only three home conference games (Kansas is neutral site) and Oklahoma at home as well as A&M and Tech on the road. Even if the Tigers knock off Nebraska on the road, this might be a year where Nebraska still wins the league title. That battle in Lincoln will be the best game the North has to offer in 2010, and a fitting end to the current North dvision.
IN THE MIX
Texas A&M Aggies
After a tough 2008, Mike Sherman got the most out of 18 true freshman last season in guiding the team to a 6-6 record and a bowl appearance. The Aggies showed a lot of promise against a tough Texas team, and that means with OSU and TTU rebuilding, A&M should return to competing for the division crown this year. QB Jerrod Johnson leads seven returning starters on a potent offense, and he will have Ryan Tannehill, Jeff Fuller, and Uzoma Nwachukwu to throw to for a second-straight season. The offensive line replaces three starters but should be nearly as good as the solid group from last season. The defense is stacked with sophomores and juniors with 9 returning starters from a unit that quite frankly, was not all that good in 2009. However, when the Aggie offense is rolling, the defense has a lot less pressure to perform perfectly. Look for the linebacker crew of Von Miller, Sean Porter, Garrick Williams, and Kyle Mangan to bring back a shadow of the old Wrecking Crew defense. Mike Sherman knows how to get a team to defensively shut down opponents, so expect vast improvements on that side of the ball and perhaps a stolen victory from Texas or Oklahoma this year.
Texas Tech Red Raiders
Texas Tech starts a new era with Tommy Tuberville at the helm, and although the offseason and firing of Mike Leach was rocky, Red Raider fans have to be happy with the high-level hiring and the solid team coming back. The only new starters on offense are on the line, which may not be crucial assuming Tuberville keeps the wide-open attack Tech has used so well for years (17 straight winning seasons). Both Taylor Potts and Steven Sheffield have started at quarterback, but expect Potts to lead the team most of the time. The receivers will split numbers basically but look for Detron Lewis to have a breakout year. The defense will likely be shaken up by Tuberville, who has lived through the battles of the SEC for a decade and a half. For this first season, expect a lot of young starters to rotate in with the veterans, especially with a change in scheme to a 3-4. Expect a lot of shootouts again this season, but the defense should show signs of improvement by the end of the season. Unfortunately, UT is early and Oklahoma and A&M are on the road, but the Red Raiders might flirt with 10 wins.
The Bears have been a consistent performer the past decade, hitting the 3-5 win mark every season. Despite being outgained by 60 yards per game last season, the offense will be much better with Robert Griffin entering his second season as starter. The key to his success will be the offensive line, which is full of better athletes in coach Art Briles's third season. Also look for sophomore WR Lanear Sampson to have a breakout season. On the defensive side of the ball, the bears will be reloading a bit with six new starters, but the new crew is led by freshman FS Ahmad Dixon. The defense overall will likely be a bit worse early on, but by the end of the season the Bears may be competitive with the four south division games in late October and November. Look for NT Phil Taylor to cause some havoc against the middle of opposing offensive lines after two years at Penn State. The schedule is favorable by missing Missouri and Nebraska in the north, so look for Baylor to flirt with bowl eligibility and be right in the mix this year.
Colorado is basically in the same boat as Missouri, except that Colorado is leaving the conference in 2012 to possibly greener pastures in the PAC-10. This is Dan Hawkins's best team since arriving in Boulder, yet the schedule is a display of brutality with Missouri, Oklahoma, and Nebraska all on the road. Nevertheless, the offense should be much improved with 10 returning starters, most of which are still juniors. The quarterback battle from last season will return as the coach's son Cody will likely be second string behind Tyler Hansen again. However, Hansen has a short leash especially with the talented crew of wide receivers led by Michigan transfer Tony Clemons. The Buffaloes should have a good defense, although their best two players in the linebacker core have now graduated. Look for sophomores LB Jon Major and safety Ray Polk to learn quickly and keep this unit one of the better defenses in the conference. Colorado only needs one big upset to be right in the division mix, but Hawkins has shown no indication that this will happen yet. A solid bowl berth should be expected if nothing else.
ALL THE REST
Oklahoma State Cowboys
Mike Gundy has turned OSU into a legitimate contender in the Big XII South, but this season is his least experienced since his first year with only 8 starters back. Furthermore, the Cowboys will be running a spread passing offense now, which is quite a change and will take a couple of years to work the kinks out. Brandon Weeden will be the new quarterback but it remains to be seen if he is well-versed in the spread attack or if he is a stopgap for now. Only one starter on offense is a senior this year, so learning the ropes now will be crucial to success in 2011. The defense also reloads, although the new mix is mostly seniors and juniors who have been in the program for a while. The linebacking crew should lead the defense despite slotting Justin Gent and James Thomas for their first starts. The defense was the best Gundy has had last year, so perhaps this team could reach .500 with some big plays on defense. However, this looks like a huge rebuilding and reworking year for OSU. Do not expect the Cowboys to stay down long.
The Jayhawks managed to shock the world by dominating the North division with a 12-1 finish and an Orange Bowl win three years ago, and then shocked everyone again by falling apart to seven straight losses last year, which ended the Mangino era. Turner Gill steps in from Buffalo, and it will be interesting to see such a talented coach finally get a big opportunity (saved by Texas saving the Big XII). Gill inherits 13 returning starters from a team that fell apart in a year where the Big XII schedule was tough. Although Gill and offensive coordinator Chuck Long will be looking for a much more balanced or run-oriented attack, the current talent may force them to remain relatively wide open this season. The new quarterback should be Kale Pick, although Jordan Webb also has a shot at the job. Toben Opurum takes over the rushing duties behind an entirely intact offensive line, which will be the key to maintaining the high levels of production this unit had at times last year. The defense the past two seasons has been atrocious the past two seasons but expect some improvement there this year. The special teams has a couple of rock-solid performers in kciker Jacon Branstetter and punter Alonso Rojas. Kansas will move out of last place, but it is hard to imagine them overcoming the talent Nebraska, Missouri, and Colorado returns in 2010.
Kansas State Wildcats
Although the Wildcats missed a bowl at 6-6 last season, they also played for the North division title the last week of the season against Nebraska. Bill Snyder always seems to find the most out of his teams in Manhattan, and this year will be another case study with a hard conference schedule and only 11 returning starters. The offense basically replaces everyone except for RB Daniel Thomas and the offensive line. Look for Thomas to put up big numbers as long as the passing game is a true threat to defenses. Senior Carson Coffman led the chase for the quarterback position in the spring, but also look at former receiver Collin Klein to compete for the job. One continuous trend of Snyder's teams is a tough defense, and the 2010 version will keep the wildcats in a lot of games. The only possible weakness is in the middle with two new linebackers coming into the starting roles in Kevin Rohleder and Alex Hrebec. Josh Cherry was one of the best kickers coming out of high school but failed to live up to expectations last year with 12-20 field goals. Expect improvement in special teams and a real chance at 7-5 and a bowl game this year.
Iowa State Cyclones
The Cyclones missed Texas, Oklahoma, and Texas Tech last season in conference and parlayed that schedule to a bowl game and a winning season in Paul Rhoads's first season. ISU returns 8 starters on offense, only needing to fill gaps at receiver and on the line. QB Austin Arnaud split the starting duties last season and only threw for 561 yards, but this year he should be the main man and perhaps top 2500 yards. The defense reloads this season but SS David Sims will be a solid anchor in the backfield who will hopefully lead a better passing defense. The worst news is that Texas, OU, and TTU are back on the schedule, making for likely the hardest schedule in the country. Only four true road games, but they are Iowa, Oklahoma, Texas, and Colorado. Add Utah to the nonconference slate and the Cyclones will be staying home this bowl season.
Although Texas certainly has chances against OU and Nebraska to get into the mix, this looks like one of those seasons where two undefeated teams could end up in the conference championship, namely the Sooners and the Cornhuskers. Each team has some challenging games, but the talent level in each division is not quite up to the usual snuff and thus these teams should take care of business. If it becomes an Oklahoma-Nebraska battle for the crown, I believe Nebraska's defense will dominate and lead to another game decided by field goals. In that battle, Alex Henery is more proven especially at distance and will lead Nebraska to one more title on their way to the Big Ten. No matter who ends up representing the Big XII in the BCS, expect a lot of emotion and a lot of great battles all through both divisions as most teams fight for winning records and bowl eligibility.