Every day, four teams will take their turn, and while nobody will
likely pepper Sam Bradford about his virginity ,or ask Baylor coach Art
Briles whether he voted for Colt McCoy for the All-Big 12 team, each
team has its issues that need to be answered.
Below is the first of a three-part series, breaking down the teams set
to face the podium. Nebraska, Oklahoma State, Iowa State and Texas
A&M will be the first to the mic, with eight more teams to
follow over the next couple days.
First, here’s the good news. The Cornhuskers return several key
defensive spots, including Ndamukong Suh at defensive tackle. But Suh
is just the best part of a line that should include Pierre Allen, who
came on last year, and Barry Turner, who is looking to get back to form
after injury. The X-factor could be Jared Crick, who has looked at
times like a burgeoning star. That line should make things pretty easy
for an experienced secondary. Not to be outdone, the ‘Huskers appear to
look pretty strong in the trenches on the offensive side of the ball as
well, where center Jacob Hickman returns to lead an offensive line that
returns three starters. That line will have the privilege of blocking
for one of the Big 12’s best running back tandems in Roy Helu Jr. and
But Nebraska has its fair share of holes as well. The ‘Huskers are
starting over at quarterback with Zac Lee, and at receiver, though the
latter problem should be alleviated by a solid tight end unit. Nebraska
also needs to find its linebackers … several players who are projected
as starters have run into issues, from Phillip Dillard’s spot in the
doghouse to Blake Lawrence’s concussion problems, leaving the group
with several questions. Then there’s the schedule, which includes trips
to Virginia Tech and to North contenders Kansas, Missouri and Colorado.
The Cornhuskers went 2-2 on the road in 2008, with the victories coming
against Iowa State and Kansas State.
Oklahoma State faces a new attitude this year, with several media
outlets proclaiming the Cowboys as darkhorse national title candidates,
in the mold of last year’s Texas Tech story. The main reason for
optimism stems from the offense, where the Cowboys return one of the
country’s top skill-position trios in quarterback Zac Robinson, running
back Kendall Hunter and wide receiver Dez Bryant. Throw in left tackle
Russell Okung and what appears to be a pretty good offensive line and
you have a recipe that lights up the scoreboard.
But the Cowboys have struggled in recent years to keep teams off that
same scoreboard, a problem that defensive coordinator Bill Young hopes
to take care of. Finding talented athletes won’t be the problem — the
Cowboys return all three linebackers from 2008 and cornerback Perrish Cox. But the real issues have been on the defensive line, where the
Cowboys have struggled to pressure the quarterback and slow down other
teams’ run games. The secondary must also replace three starters,
though there is some young talent waiting to break through. Like
Nebraska, Oklahoma State also has a nice non-conference game set up,
with the Cowboys playing host to the Georgia Bulldogs to open the
season. Oklahoma State also gets Texas at home, though the Cowboys must
travel to Oklahoma.
It might seem difficult to find positives for a team that went 0-8 in
the Big 12 last year. The Cyclones could hit the donut mark again this
year as well, but there are reasons for optimism. First is at
quarterback, where the Cyclones have two high-quality signal callers in
Austen Arnaud and Jerome Tiller. Both bring different styles to the
Cyclones’ new up-tempo attack — Arnaud is the big pocket passer, while
Tiller is the explosive athlete. Speaking of athletes, the Cyclones
experimented this spring to find ways to get the ball into the hands of
Alexander Robinson, the squad’s running back. One of those included a
Wildcat formation that featured Arnaud split out as a wide receiver.
Robinson could top the 1,000-yard mark for new coach Paul Rhoads this
year. The Cyclones also have some nice returning players at receiver,
including Darius Darks, who put up 49 catches as a freshman. The
interior of the offensive line also returns to give Robinson some
running room. Christopher Lyle broke out last season with five sacks,
while defensive tackle Nate Frere supplies experience.
As expected, there are many more question marks. The Cyclones may
return several receivers, but how many can break a game open? For as
good as Darks was, he averaged just 9.7 yards per reception. Iowa
State’s players have also spent time talking about the improved
fundamentals on defense, and Rhoads has said he wants more of a
penetrating, playmaking approach on that side of the ball. The problem
is that the Cyclones lack the defensive linemen and the linebackers to
do it. Four players on the defensive line two-deep are freshmen or
sophomores. The defensive backfield may be even thinner than the
defensive line. Two of the three starting linebackers return, but they
didn’t make enough plays last year. The Cyclones do get the “easy”
South rotation, but Oklahoma State, Texas A&M and Baylor
outscored Iowa State by an average 49-21 margin of 49-21 in 2008.
Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Just 11 years ago, the Aggies captured
the Big 12 crown. The Aggies are also just a few years removed from a
nine-win season. Now, with the quick (somewhat) turnaround of Baylor,
Texas A&M just might spend the 2009 season as the worst team in
the Big 12 South. Still, there’s quite a bit to like about the Aggies,
especially offensively. Most teams would like to have young playmakers
like junior quarterback Jerrod Johnson, sophomore running back Cyrus Gray, sophomore quarterback/receiver Ryan Tannehill, sophomore receiver
Jeff Fuller and freshman running back Christine Michael. Johnson, Gray,
Tannehill and Fuller are four parts of an offensive unit that
essentially returns 10 starters from a year ago. Gray could become
A&M’s next great back, while Tannehill and Fuller combined for
nearly 1,500 yards and 14 touchdowns last season. Jamie McCoy, one of
the league’s top receiving tight ends, is another great piece to have.
Defensively, athletic freak Von Miller could serve up a double-digit
sack season from his new “Jack” position.
But while the offense returns just about everybody from 2008, the
defense is almost a total rebuilding job. Just four starters return
from a unit that struggled last season, allowing a Big 12 worst 37.4
points per game. That group was almost equally bad against the run
(219.2 yards per game, worst in the conference) and the pass
(second-worst passing efficiency defense in the league). Some bright
spots came out of last year’s trials, including defensive tackles Eddie Brown and Tony Jerod-Eddie and safeties Trent Hunter and Jordan Pugh.
But for every plus, there are several more minuses. The problems aren’t
just limited to one side of the ball. The offense, despite all that
young talent, put up the second-fewest points in the league. The Aggies
must also deal with a typically rough South schedule, though they do
get a break against the North, playing Iowa State, Colorado and Kansas
Tomorrow will feature Missouri, Baylor, Kansas and Oklahoma.