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Football Predictions: A Second Slice
Tier 1: Missouri; Oklahoma
There was a point last season when Missouri were ranked No.1 in the nation, and they'd like to get back there. To do so, they need to win the Big 12, which they failed to do last year, and that relies on the defense rather than the offense you're expecting us to mention first. Nine starters return, and the secondary is simply the best the conference, so shoot–outs shouldn't be a factor. The defense stole the ball away 33 times last season. Special teams too are a strength, WR Jeremy Maclin doubling as a dangerous return man, and Jeff Wolfert the best kicker in the Big 12. And then there's that Chase guy: Chase Daniel is a serious Heisman candidate following a 4,300 yard, 33 TD season with 4 more scores on the ground. He still has some of the same targets, although the line lost a couple of important pieces, and RB Tony Temple is also gone, so if anything happens to Daniel, Missouri's national hopes could die quickly. They must also watch for away games at Texas and Nebraska, as well as a trap game at Iowa State one week before their regular season finale with Kansas.
The team getting in Missouri's way last year was Oklahoma. Twice. First Oklahoma knocked them off the no.1 spot, then slam–dunked them again 38–17 in the title game. It was the only team Missouri lost to all season, and as if to make up for it, the two are not in each other's path again this season... for now. Oklahoma could well go into the title game unbeaten, thanks to an easy road schedule. There's nothing especially sexy about Oklahoma's offense, no gaudy numbers, no heisman favorites. They simply have an awesome line that allowed Sam Bradford to throw 36 TDs and a mere 8 interceptions in his debut season as a starter. If there's anything lingering about RB DeMarco Murray's knee, new recruit Jermie Calhoun could be just as splashy. They also have the best D–line in the Big 12 for stuffing the run. Whether they have the secondary to stop the likes of Kansas, Texas Tech or Missouri remains to be seen. The Tigers may yet have their revenge on the Sooners.
North Division, Tier 2: Kansas
Kansas QB Todd Reesing may not be a strong NFL prospect at 5–foot–11, 200lbs, but with 33 TDs to 7 interceptions, he's everything a college coach could ask for. But with the Jayhawks installing a new starting rusher, two new starting tackles, and a replacement for their top receiver, the offense might not be that smooth again. The defense figures to be good again, even without Aqib Talib. Mike Rivera and Joe Mortensen still lurk amongst the linebackers, and the secondary is set. The intangibles and turnover margin that peaked last season may slip back a little this year, allowing Missouri to secure the North, but Kansas will be a close second, probably staying unbeaten until an October 18 meeting with Oklahoma. If Missouri slip — as they have been known to — the regular season meeting of the two could be for the right to play in the conference championship game.
Tier 3: Colorado; Nebraska
Oklahoma and Missouri better get on with their national aspirations, because a number of teams in the North are on the rise, if distantly. The best parts of the Colorado line are back, and will block for able sophomore Cody Hawkins and superfrosh Darrell Scott, expected to explode soon at running back. Lord knows who the receivers will be, but it's a start. Defensively, 8 starters return, so as flimsy as the pass defense will be, there will be some solidity. But this still isn't Colorado's year, not with West Virginia, Florida State, Texas and Kansas on the mid–season menu. The Buffs know they're building a champion for 2010, but they're happy for an opportunity to cause some upsets before then.
Bo Pelini's arrival in Nebraska brings a sigh of relief, as if things are getting back on track. That has yet to be proved, because the first thing he must tackle is the tackling. The defense gave up scores of 65 and 76 during last season. That would have been unthinkable back when Pelini was the defensive coordinator. The combination of improvement there ('it can't get no worse', as the Beatles once sang), and good field position — punter Dan Titchener is superb — may mean the offense doesn't have to score 50 points of their own every week. QB Joe Gantz looked good in relief of Sam Keller last season, and the running game remains strong. Overall, the defense has a long way to come, but Pelini is the man for the job. A morale–boosting 6–6 or 7–5 finish is attainable.
Tier 4: Iowa State; Kansas State
Iowa State went 3–9 last season, and will be breaking in a new quarterback, but the line knows what it is doing and looked good blocking for RB Alexander Robinson late in the season. More of the same will keep the Cyclones on an upward trend, and there are some other skill position players of note. The defense is mediocre, and Iowa State is unlikely to make any big moves this season, but coach Gene Chizik seemed to work out his running game as 2007 wound down. If he can do the same with other phases of the game in 2008, the cyclones needn't fear the North Division cellar for long.
In a conference where Chase Daniel, Sam Bradford, Todd Reesing, and Graham Harrell are features, not having a good pass defense is something of a problem. Kansas State have that problem. They also have those passers to face. K–State do have a formidable rush–blocking line, so they will be in games to start with, but big passer Josh Freeman will have to play out of his sophomoric skin to keep up. The Wildcats went 5–7 last season and thanks to a weak early schedule could start out looking good. But they will need to cause some major upsets to improve on that record.
South Division, Tier 2: Texas Tech; Texas
Texas Tech may be one of those teams that are all about offense, with some contributory defense hanging on for dear life, but when an offense is this prolific, it's hard to argue with that philosophy. (1) Graham Harrell threw for 48 scores, and over 5,700 yards last season, most in the nation. (2) Michael Crabtree caught 1962 of those yards, also tops nationally. (3) The entire offensive line is back. On the defensive side of the ball, the Red Raiders will be no slouches either, with 8 starters back, and add DE Brandon Sesay, a JuCo standout, and Miami transfer DT Chris Perry, and this starts to look like a defense worthy of some of the attention. Whisper it, but this may be a good enough team to beat Texas (who they lost to in a 59–43 shootout last year), and good enough to give Oklahoma something to think about.
Texas QB Colt McCoy is a high–percentage, fleet of foot leader who produced 26 TDs last season, while Jamaal Charles added 18 with his legs. Either Vodrell McGee or Foswhitt Whittaker need to take up the rushing cause. When it comes to defense, Texas returns only five starters, but they have the depth to use linemen in a pass–pressure rotation, so that negative might turn out to be a positive. If Texas prove me wrong and beat Texas Tech, Oklahoma, and Missouri, ending up in a BCS game or even the national championship game, I wouldn't raise an eyebrow in surprise. Last year, they lost by 7 to Oklahoma, by 8 to Texas A&M during a 10–3 season. However (and there's a couple of those), Tech and Oklahoma are both road games, and Missouri will play them October 18, one week after Oklahoma. The other 'however' is the loss of WR Limas Sweed, without whom McCoy's statistics weren't as good as they were in 2006 — a new generation of star receiver must be found.
Tier 3: Texas A&M; Oklahoma State
Mike Sherman arrives at Texas A&M, and the former Green Bay head coach brings a wealth of NFL experience and an offensive reputation with him. The acquisition of an NFL offensive mind suggests an attempt to recruit more NFL–calibre prospects, and that may happen. For now, the Aggies aren't in shape to be too ambitious. QB Stephen McGee hasn't been a special passer so much as an able one with a good set of legs (900 yards and 5 scores on the ground last year), and not much of the offensive line is left from last year. The defense will also be replacing many. RB Mike Goodson and Jorvorskie Lane combined for 20 scores (16 by Lane), giving A&M a thunder and lightning combination that will be a big part of the picture. The chance to go 7–6 again exists, but even with Oklahoma and Texas Tech visiting, ruffling some South Division feathers will be difficult.
Oklahoma State would love to gatecrash the parties above, but that might be too much for this year. They will try to produce numbers comparable to Texas and Texas Tech (well maybe not Tech, nobody's like Tech) thanks to junior Zac Robinson, who accounted for 34 TDs last season as a dual–threat QB, but without Adarius Bowman replicating the same amount of offense will be slightly more difficult, and the defense isn't quite of the level of those teams either. In fact, it went to pieces at times last year and the secondary has been shuffled in search of a magic formula. By the time they play Baylor in their season finale, they may still be fighting for an even record.
Tier 4: Baylor
Baylor, with no conference wins last year and an overall record that has slipped from 5 to 4 to 3, may respond to new coach Art Briles who arrives after turning things around up the road in Houston. True, Baylor have a bad defense, and Briles will have to recruit hard to improve that, but last year's offensive line returns near–complete. Whoever starts at QB (which was still uncertain one week before the season) should have time to make a case for themselves. If Briles just could find an Anthony Aldridge type to run behind that line, he might have something. But that's not yet. There will be no quick fixes for Baylor.