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July 9, 2008

There will be numerous story lines to follow during the 2008 college football season, now less than two months away.

Newly hired Rich Rodriguez will try to find a quarterback who can run his spread option offense at Michigan, but he'll have to wait awhile to curry the favor of Wolverine fans by beating Ohio State. The Southeastern Conference will draw even more than its usual allotment of attention when its newest multimillion-dollar coaches, Alabama's Nick Saban and Bobby Petrino of Arkansas, face each other on Sept. 20 and Florida's Tim Tebow will try to win back-to-back Heisman Trophies.

But the biggest story in college football this fall will be the rise of the Big 12 North.

Missouri and Kansas finished in the nation's top 10 last season. The Jayhawks could push the Tigers for first place again this year, although it will be hard for KU to replace two underclassmen who defected to the NFL a year early. Five of the six teams in the North could have winning records at season's end. The projected cellar-dweller, Iowa State, beat intrastate rival Iowa last year and will be respectable again.

At least one national preseason publication is predicting that the North champion will win the Big 12 title game for the first time since Kansas State upset Oklahoma 35-7 in 2003. That game will be held Dec.6 in Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium, as it was on that frosty night when the Wildcats short-circuited the Sooners' run toward Bob Stoops' second national title.

Blair Kerkoff of the Kansas City Star, writing for The Sporting News college football preview, picks Missouri to knock off Oklahoma in a rematch of last year's championship game. If that happens, it would be a big breakthrough for the North, which has been knocked around with regularity by its southern cousins for most of this decade. The North has lost five of the last six title games and won only four of 12 football crowns since the league was born in 1996. But Missouri has the talent to make it win it this year.

Tom Osborne's prediction has finally come true. During the 1970s and 80s, Osborne used to wonder out loud why Missouri was having so much trouble with consistency, since it's the only major college football school in a state of 5.8 million people and should be able to recruit well in that rich population base. So finally, the Tigers are starting to get the job done. With Chase Daniel on this year's Heisman short list, lightning-fast receiver/kick returner Jeremy Maclin a candidate to win it in 2009 and highly-touted quarterback recruit Blaine Gabbert on campus this fall, the Tigers will have plenty of talent on offense for years to come.

Mizzou does not have to face Oklahoma in the regular season this year. It gets Colorado and Kansas State at home and plays KU in Arrowhead Stadium to end the regular season for the second year in a row. But the Tigers have a road game against Texas and have to travel to Lincoln, a place they have not won since 1978.

Kansas again will have a rugged defense, and it returns record-setting quarterback Todd Reesing. An early-season trip to South Florida will indicate how much mojo the Jayhawks have left over from their astounding 12-1 season.

Colorado should continue to improve steadily under the coaching of Dan Hawkins and the steady quarterbacking of his son, Cody. The Buffaloes will give people a lot of trouble. If running back recruit Darrell Scott is as good as advertised, CU will have a balanced attack, but it had a subpar defense last year and has to replace all-America middle linebacker Jordan Dizon.

Nebraska is a wild card in the college football world this fall. The Cornhuskers could struggle to finish above .500. On the other hand, they could win 10 games. If Bo Pelini resuscitates the Blackshirts as quickly and completely as he did in 2003, and if Nebraska knocks off Virginia Tech on Sept. 27 and follows it up with a win over Missouri the following week, the table would be set for a remarkable comeback year for the Big Red.

Defensive line play will be pivotal for Nebraska. Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh was one of the biggest no-shows in the Blackshirts' inexplicable meltdown last fall, and defensive end Barry Turner, a freshman All-America selection in 2005, was almost as invisible. Both are remarkably gifted athletes who must have effective seasons for Nebraska to excel in the Big 12. If there is an efficient four-man pass rush, the Huskers' young but talented secondary will have a big year and the Huskers could start forcing mass quantities of turnovers they way they did for Pelini in 2003.

Bill Callahan's innocent-sounding goal of winning the North in 2005 and 2006 now seems like an incredible challenge for Pelini and the Huskers in 2008.

Diehard Husker fans who think that Pelini will lead Nebraska back from a losing season to the Big 12 crown in his first year at the helm may need a reality check, but there's no denying that NU will play a huge part in determining the North champion. The Huskers also have Kansas and Colorado at home this year. However, Nebraska could go unbeaten against the North and still not win the division, since it has killer road games against Texas Tech and Oklahoma. That being said, defending Memorial Stadium against its Northern rivals would be a major accomplishment in itself for the Huskers, who were embarrassed at home by Southern Cal, Oklahoma State and Texas A&M last year.

If Nebraska returns to the national stage this fall, so much the better for the Big 12, which needs a healthy team in Lincoln again to help balance the power between North and South and establish itself alongside the SEC as the top two conferences in the nation.

Tad Stryker is a longtime Nebraska sports writer, having covered University of Nebraska and high school sports for more than 25 years. He was sports editor at the North Platte Bulletin from 2003-2007, when he wrote "Around the Husker Nation," a commentary on NU football. He was a writer and columnist for the North Platte Telegraph from 1984-2002.