May 3, 2009
The Big 12 North is on the rise. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.
That's what I said – somewhat prematurely, it turns out – last summer, when looking ahead to the 2008 season. I said that the rise of the Big 12 North would turn out to be the biggest story in college football. Well, I'll admit now that Utah's undefeated season and the three-way battle for the Big 12 South title were a little bigger.
But the North will rise, and better sooner than later – maybe as soon as this fall.
Four teams will be relevant in the North in 2009, and they won't be Kansas State or Iowa State, both of which are breaking in new head coaches. Paul Rhoads and Iowa State are at least a few years away from contending, and Bill Snyder inherits a colossal mess left by Ron Prince in Manhattan, Kansas. The Wildcats won't be on the radar this season, either.
Nebraska did its part last season to build pride in the North. The Cornhuskers had their problems, including huge losses to Missouri and Oklahoma, but they improved from 5-6 in 2007 to 9-4 last year and beat preseason Top 10 selection Clemson in the Gator Bowl. More importantly, Bo Pelini resurrected the soul of the program, and the Huskers finished the season strong.
But unfortunately, Missouri, Kansas and Colorado didn't quite hold up their end of the deal in 2008.
Sure, Missouri got off to a great start, ripping Nebraska 52-17 in Lincoln to improve its record to 5-0, but then the Tigers tailed off, losing four of their next eight games before winning the Alamo Bowl over Northwestern. It's not that they had a bad year, just a worse year than expected. They lost decisively to Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game, emphasizing the South Division's ongoing superiority.
Now Mizzou faces 2009 without most of the offensive weapons who led them for the past two years, and linebacker Sean Weatherspoon will be counted upon to hold together the Tiger defense, which won't be a dominant one, although the defense looked good against the Blaine Gabbert-led offense during the spring game at Columbia. Missouri looks to be receding slightly, and a loss at home to Nebraska on Oct. 8 could send the Tigers reeling, since it has games against Oklahoma State and Texas later in the month.
Kansas took the nation by storm in 2007, going 12-1 and winning the Orange Bowl. Then came 2008, when the Jayhawk defense and running game went soft and quarterback Todd Reesing started throwing interceptions, sending KU to an 8-5 season. Reesing returns for his senior season, and likely will recapture the magic of his sophomore season, which will give Kansas the best quarterback in the North. Dezmon Briscoe and Kerry Meier may be the division's top two receivers, and running back Jake Sharp returns for his senior season. The Jayhawks will improve again in 2009, and if they can develop more strength in the offensive and defensive lines, could win the division despite a tough schedule against the Big 12 South. Their must-win games are Oct. 17 at Colorado and Nov. 14 against Nebraska in Lawrence.
Colorado is the biggest question mark in the Big 12 North. The Buffaloes went 6-7 in 2008, then failed to make a bowl last fall. Missouri will likely trend downward and Kansas should improve, but CU is hard to predict. Coach Dan Hawkins is only 13-23 after three seasons in Boulder, but has said publicly that there's no reason Colorado can't win 10 in 2009. The bravado sounds nice in the offseason, but eight wins is more realistic, and it may take that many for the charismatic Hawkins to keep his job. After likely losses at Morgantown, W.Va., and Austin, Texas, Colorado hosts Kansas Oct. 17 in what could be a make-or-break game for Hawkins and the Buffs.
If they beat the Jayhawks, the Buffs will get a huge confidence boost and could make the biggest leap of any team in the North. They have winnable road games at Iowa State and Kansas State, and they get Missouri, Texas A&M and Nebraska at Folsom Field. If they win five of those six, they likely make the huge jump to the Big 12 title game. On the other hand, if they lose to KU, the Buffs could freefall the rest of the season. I get the feeling that Colorado will be an emotionally fragile team.
The success of the Colorado running game will play a big factor in how far the Buffs rise this season. Quarterbacks Cody Hawkins and Tyler Hansen have not inspired confidence; neither is the type of player that can carry a team. Hawkins needs his offensive line to heal up and block for sophomore backs Rodney Stewart and Darrell Scott. The CU O-line will be relatively young, but it could have more combined returning starts than anyone in the North. The Buff offense is still a big question mark, however. It was last in the Big 12 in 2008, and after the April 25 spring game, it lost fourth-year offensive coordinator Mark Helfricht, who is moving to Oregon to take a job as quarterbacks coach.
If the running game is important for CU, it is absolutely vital for Nebraska, and it's one area in which the Huskers could dominate their division. Roy Helu is the best back in the North, and Quentin Castille packs a punch as his backup. If the Husker offensive line is effective (and with a combined 44 starts returning, it should be at least solid), I like Nebraska's chances to win the North. The Cornhuskers have momentum coming into this fall, and their dynamic young coaching staff returns intact. That's something that Missouri, Kansas and Colorado can't say.
After a long hiatus, Nebraska is positioned to emerge if its running game is solid. In fact, the Huskers could dominate the North if junior quarterback Zac Lee can get comfortable in the driver's seat and provide NU with a balanced attack. The progress he made during spring drills was encouraging.
The defense and special teams should be much more athletic this season, and with a full year of experience in Bo Pelini's system behind them, the Huskers will be able to think less and react more. Granted, there are at most seven starters returning on defense, and that puts a fair amount of burden on a redshirt freshman class that is unproven. If that class responds to the challenge, the result should be an attacking defense that gets turnovers and sets up the Husker offense with good field position.
Nebraska finished the 2008 season with a lot of optimism. If it can win important road games behind a first-year quarterback, it will gain even more momentum. That would radically shift the balance of power, even in an improved Big 12 North.
Formerly the sports editor at the North Platte Bulletin and a sportswriter/columnist for the North Platte Telegraph, Tad Stryker is a longtime Nebraska sports writer, having covered University of Nebraska and high school sports for more than 25 years. He started writing for this website in 2008. You can e-mail him at email@example.com. | Archive