Wednesday, August 26, 2009

College Football Insiders Preview: Big XII

The Big 12 will once again look to rival the SEC as the top conference in the nation. While they may lack depth, the Big 12 is powerful at the top. Both in regards to teams—see Oklahoma and Texas—and players. The top quarterback, wide receiver, tight end, offensive linemen, defensive tackle and pass rusher may all reside in the conference.

The Favorites: Texas vs. Oklahoma: This battle will focus on the quarterback play as Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford and Heisman trophy finalist Colt McCoy both decided to return for one more season. With both teams being from the Big 12 South, the conference will likely be determined when they meet on October 17th. The 104th Red River Rivalry game will be played in Dallas, as it has been since 1912, so there will be no home field advantage in this, one of the must-see games of the year. Oklahoma will not lack firepower on offense. Junior DeMarco Murray is an explosive back, while Jermaine Gresham, arguably the top tight end in college football last year, returns for his senior season. The one question mark will be the offensive line. They have two underclassmen starting in sophomores Ben Habern and Stephen Good at center and guard respectively. If they can protect Bradford and open up some holes for Murray, this should be a very potent offense yet again. Texas will not be lacking in the offensive category, either. McCoy will have the pleasure of choosing between wideouts Jordan Shipley and Malcolm Williams. Running back Vondrell McGee looks to help out the offense by keeping opposing defenses honest and running with speed and quickness. The determining factor in this battle will be the defense. Texas boasts an outstanding veteran defense which includes six returning starters. Linebackers Sergio Kindle and Roddrick Muckelroy can be game changers and will impose their dominance at will. However, Oklahoma’s defenders are no slouches. The Sooners boast two of college football’s best defensive linemen in Gerald McCoy and Auston English—a pair of run-stopping big men that can also get after the quarterback. Two rivals should be neck and neck heading into the October 17th tilt, where the winner will likely take the Big 12 title.

The Contenders: Oklahoma State, Nebraska, Kansas:
Like Texas and Oklahoma, the Cowboys of Oklahoma State also have a solid 1-2 punch on offense. Senior quarterback Zac Robinson is a great pocket passer and possesses a high football IQ. He may be one of the best decision makers in all of college football. That skill set matches perfectly for the “new” best wide out in football, Dez Bryant. At 6’2” and 220 pounds, Bryant can use his outstanding leaping ability and strong hands to go get poorly thrown balls; or balls where the defender seems to have position. The Cowboys’ offensive line will be filled with veterans, giving Robinson time to stand and deliver. This offense will be as scary, if not if not scarier, than that of rivals Oklahoma and Texas. They play a fairly soft schedule after hosting Georgia for their season opener. They then play host to Texas on Halloween, which should be a “scary” good game, and then finish off the season traveling to Norman to play the Sooners. Look for them to scratch and claw for the Big 12 title all season long. The Cornhuskers look as though they are starting to regain their early 90’s form with a tough defense combined with playmakers on offense. They have great balance on offense. They have all upper-classmen starting on both sides of the ball, which will make this team tough to beat in close games. Ndamukong Suh is the leader of the defense and should make everyone around him better. The Huskers lucked out and only have to play one of the two favorites this season, Oklahoma, and they get that one at home. The Jayhawks should be jumping for joy that they are in the Big 12 North and not the beastly South. Their one major hurdle will be Nebraska in getting to the Big 12 title game. They weren’t as lucky as the Huskers on the schedule, though, and will have to face both Texas and Oklahoma during the season. Their extremely soft non-conference schedule will allow them to build up confidence going into their conference gauntlet run. They do have the offense to run with anyone in the conference, led by senior quarterback Todd Reesing. Reesing is coming off a 3,888 yard, 32 touchdown season and will be throwing to a set of tall wide receivers, all about 6’3”. Dezmon Briscoe and Kerry Meier are both coming off of 90+ catch, 1,000+ yard receiving seasons and should be able to match, if not exceed, those numbers this year. Their passing attack will be a concern for opposing defenses, but it is their own defense that may cause Kansas fits. They have only one senior on their defensive line and senior playmaking safety Darrell Stuckey can only be so many places at once. If the Jayhawks’ pass rush proves feeble, then their defense will be picked apart by opposing quarterbacks. If they can get to the quarterback, then their offense should be able to produce enough wins to take them to the Big 12 title game. Only time will tell if the Jayhawks will “rock chalk”.

The Sleeper: Missouri: One rule of thumb for college football should be “never count out the Tigers of Missouri”. They have an extremely young and inexperienced football team with only nine returning starters on both offense and defense combined, along with 10 underclassmen total starting on both sides of the ball. Mizzou’s quarterback is young and inexperienced and has to play in Chase Daniels’ shadow. They lost big play wideout Jeremy Maclin and Mackey Award winner Chase Coffman. In addition, they have a brutal schedule in the heart of the season, playing host to Nebraska, traveling to Oklahoma State, and then hosting Texas. However, they are very well coached and disciplined which can take you a long way in this game. They also have the team athleticism and speed to keep up with powerhouse schools like Oklahoma and Texas. Plus, they play in the Big 12 North. They have as good a chance as anyone to represent the North in the Big 12 Championship Game. The swing games for them will be when they host Nebraska on October 8th and Kansas on November 28th. If they can win those games, then you will be watching them play for the Big 12 Championship.

Offensive Player of the Year: QB Colt McCoy (UT) vs. QB Sam Bradford (OU): As if you didn’t see this one coming. Both are likely to be Heisman Trophy candidates again this season based on their amazing stats last year. Both quarterbacks have terrific arms and great decision-making skills, but only one can run with the best of them…and that is Colt McCoy. Considering the fact that the 6’2” signal caller led his team in rushing last season, and did so without having the big play running back that Sam Bradford had in DeMarco Murray, the Longhorn has a leg up in the competition—literally. But if Bradford can utilize his running back to his advantage and keep defenses honest, he may be able to put up prolific passing numbers that even McCoy can’t touch. This race could come down to which team ends up in the Big 12 Championship Game; allowing one quarterback to showcase their skills and pad their stats for one extra game. This should be the race to keep an eye on in the Big 12.

Honorable Mention: QB Zac Robinson (Oklahoma State), QB Robert Griffin (Baylor), QB Todd Reesing (Kansas), RB Kendall Hunter (Oklahoma State), RB DeMarco Murray (Oklahoma), WR Dez Bryant (Oklahoma State), WR Kerry Meier (Kansas)

Defensive Player of the Year: Sergio Kindle (UT) vs. Gerald McCoy (OU): You’ve got to love a battle between players who both come from powerhouse schools playing in the same side of the conference. Both Kindle and McCoy possess speed and strength to go along with incredible agility. This battle will come down to who can wreak the most havoc on opposing offenses. Sergio Kindle was a stat stuffer all year long in 2008; totaling 46 tackles, 12.5 for loss, 10 sacks, two pass breakups, one forced fumble, and one blocked punt. He was also a first-team All Big 12 selection by the coaches and was All-America honorable mention by Gerald McCoy was named AP second-team All-America and Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year by several publications. He also led all interior linemen in tackles. It will definitely be fun to watch both players go after opposing quarterbacks with a potential BCS National Championship birth on the line.

Honorable Mention: DT Ndamukong Suh (Nebraska), DE Auston English (Oklahoma), LB Travis Lewsis (Oklahoma), LB Sean Weatherspoon (Missouri), FS Darrell Stuckey (Kansas)

Breakout Seasons: QB Taylor Potts (Texas Tech), QB Blaine Gabbert (Missouri), WR Ryan Broyles (Oklahoma): Taylor Potts is the heir apparent to Graham Harrell and has some big shoes to fill. He doesn’t have Michael Crabtree to throw to, but he still does have the spread offense run by Mike Leach. In his brief appearances in 2007 and 2008, he posted respectable numbers in 2007 by completing 32 for 49 of his passes for 409 yards with three touchdowns and one pick; in 2008, he completed 23 of 36 passes for 260 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. If he can learn this offense quickly and garner a good rapport with his wide receivers, then he will have a very solid statistical season with a Red Raiders offense that looks to pass first and run second. Another player with big shoes to fill is Missouri’s Blaine Gabbert, who takes over the starting quarterback role after the departure of Chase Daniels. Like Potts, he lost his number one playmaker in Jeremy Maclin, but he does have some up and coming talent in running back Derrick Washington and wide receiver Jared Perry. Gabbert has had minimal playing time in his lone season as a backup quarterback, making only 13 pass attempts. He is a smart player, though, and should be able to take the reins and make this Tiger offense go. After playmaker Juaquin Iglesias left for the NFL, Ryan Broyles steps in as Sam Bradford’s new number one receiver. He and Bradford have already had time last season to build a connection in the passing game. Broyles caught 46 passes for 687 yards and six touchdowns as a freshman. With that experience and one of the premier quarterbacks in all of college football throwing to him, he should be one of the top receivers in the Big 12.

Best Pro Prospect: Dez Bryant (OSU): Dez Bryant
is one of the most athletically gifted players in college football. He is very similar to Michael Crabtree in his style of play. He has great hands and can go up and fight for any ball that comes his way, a la Steve Smith or Larry Fitzgerald. Size is something you can’t teach and he has it at 6’2” and 220 pounds. He could, in fact, be a Plaxico Burress type of player at the next level. His route running is the one area he needs to polish up if he decides to enter the draft in 2010. Look for him to showcase his abilities this season and possibly establish himself as the best playmaker in college football. It should be noted that Sam Bradford, Trent Williams, Jermaine Gresham, Gerald McCoy and Ndamukong Suh are all potential top 10 picks.

College Football Insiders' Picks:

Conference Champion: Texas Longhorns: It’s hard to ignore the Longhorns’ defense and the fact their toughest game will be at a neutral site, not on the road. The rest of their schedule is fairly soft and the Longhorns will be playing with a chip on their shoulder after being snubbed out of last year’s Big 12 Championship Game (and the right to play for the BCS National Championship). Colt McCoy will save his best for last and will bring the Horns a conference championship, even if he has to put the team on his shoulders and run with them.

Offensive Player of the Year: Colt McCoy, Texas: With 45 total touchdowns last season (34 passing, 11 rushing) it’s hard to look away. He amassed 3,859 yards passing with only eight interceptions. Not to mention the fact that he had a 76.7 completion percentage and a quarterback rating of 173.75. He could very well lead the team in rushing yet again this season, and when you stack up these stats and throw in the fact he plays on the best team in the conference, it’s very hard to not consider him the frontrunner.

Defensive Player of the Year: Sergio Kindle, Texas:
Too much size, strength, speed, and experience here to shy away from this pick. He had 10 sacks and 46 tackles last season at the linebacker position, and it’s hard to believe he can’t mimic or surpass those numbers this season whether he lines up at linebacker or defensive end. He will show that he is the best defensive player in the conference as well.

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Photo Credit: Mizzou Media Relations, OU Athletics Department, University of Texas Athletics, College Press Box