2007 Spring Preview - Analyzing the Big 12

Posted Mar 5, 2007

The Big 12 is poised and ready for a major comeback after an average season with a loaded South and improved North. From the old standbys to teams like Texas A&M and Missouri ready to make a big push, to Bobby Reid and a dangerous Oklahoma State team, the league should be fun.

By Pete Fiutak 
- 2006 Big 12 Spring Analysis
2007 Preseason Lookaheads - Big 12


Colorado   Spring Practice Begins: March 12  Game: April 14
The early spring buzz ... While there were many offensive breakdowns last season, the line wasn't one of them doing a decent job of getting a push for the running game. The pass protection wasn't there, but that had as much to do with QB Bernard Jackson's scrambling as much as anything else. Even so, Jeff Grimes was brought in from BYU to take over the line duties after doing a terrific job with the Cougars over the last three years. Former O line coach Chris Strausser is off to Boise State.
The big spring question is ... Really, how bad was CU last year? Bad, but it's not like the team was totally miserable. The defense was solid considering the offense didn't provide any help, the running game was good, and the kicking game was among the best in the country. The return game was miserable and there wasn't any passing, but the Buffs still lost four games by five points or fewer and blew out Texas Tech. It might not take that much to get to a bowl game.
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback. Bernard Jackson has the mobility and experience, but he was awful throwing the ball. The Buffs were 116th in the nation in passing offense and 114th in efficiency, and had a limited attack since there weren't any viable options other than Jackson. Cody Hawkins, the coach's son and the team's top recruit of 2006, is the future of the passing game, while JUCO transfer Nick Nelson could be a factor if he can make the switch from a shotgun-spread offense to a West Coast attack.
Spring attitude... 2006 is over. Lunatic rants aside, Hawkins is a tremendous coach who isn't going to come up with two lousy seasons in a row. This isn't going to be a Big 12 champion, so the expectations for a big-time turnaround have to be tempered, but there's no reason for another losing season as long as the passing attack is a bit better.

Iowa State  Spring Practice Begins: March 20  Game: April 14
The early spring buzz ... Iowa State got itself a gem. Gene Chizik was the type of defensive coordinator who ends up taking a head coaching job at a big-time superpower or NFL team, but he made the move to Ames early on this off-season and is expected to quickly become a superstar. The program had become stale under Dan McCarney, and now Chizik is being asked to make Iowa State a Big 12 contender. Now.
The big spring question is ... How far does the veteran team have to go to be a contender? Probably not as far as North rivals might like if Chizik works his magic on the defense right off the bat. The offense was miserable all year long hurt most by horrendous line play, but if the D can use all the returning experience with nine returning starters, to be better, there could be a quick turnaround.
The most important position to watch is ... Offensive tackle. Four starters are gone off an offensive line that did absolutely nothing for the running game and allowed a whopping 38 sacks. Aaron Brant and Scott Fisher were big veterans who never progressed to the level expected, and now they have to be replaced on the outside. QB Bret Meyer can be deadly if he gets time to work, so pass protection will likely be the first order of business once practice starts.
Spring attitude... Get tougher. McCarney might have been tough-as-nails and great at getting the most out of his players, but his team got shoved around all over the place last season. Chizik is as intense as they come and isn't going to stand for anything less than getting his D at a high level right away. Unfortunately, he'll need a few recruiting seasons to close the talent gap between ISU and the better Big 12 teams.

Kansas   Spring Football Begins: March 14  Game: April 14
The early spring buzz ... It's the fifth year under head coach Mark Mangino, and while he's made KU football respectable, he and his staff haven't taken things to the level many Jayhawk fans might have liked. He's not on a hot seat by any stretch, but this spring, he has to come up with a winning season and a bowl game, and provide a little bit of hope for being a North title contender in the very near future, or things could start to get a bit testy next year.
The big spring question is ... Has anything been done about the pass defense? KU sold out to get to the quarterback with plenty of success, but the corners were left on an island and got ripped apart deep. Short to midrange passes weren't an issue; it was the deep ball that time and again ruined KU against the better teams. Three starters return to the secondary, including All-Big 12 talent Aqib Talib, but until there's better safety play to provide help, offenses will keep bombing away.
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback. Kerry Meier is the type of player the program can build around, but he had a hard time staying on the field having a variety of injury issues, and Todd Reesing showed a little bit of a spark in the last month of the year. Both can run and both can move the ball, but one has to emerge as the main man this spring or it'll be an interesting summer. Mangino has never been afraid of juggling his quarterbacks.
Spring attitude... Get back to a bowl. If KU can go 6-6 in a rebuilding year, it should be able to get back to the post-season with a not-that-bad schedule. If the quarterback situation is settled early on, and an adequate replacement can be found for RB Jon Cornish, 7-5 is a realistic goal (even if Mangino and his team will shoot far higher).

Kansas State  Spring Practice Begins: March 16  Final Practice: April 21
The early spring buzz ... This is a big spring for a coaching staff that underwent a major overhaul this off-season losing defensive coordinator Raheem Morris to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, along with running backs coach Tim Horton for Air Force and strength and conditioning coach Rod Cole to Texas A&M. Tim Tibesar moves from special teams to defensive coordinator, Frank Leonard takes over for canned tight ends coach James Jones, Mike Kent replaces Cole, and Wes McGriff will handle the defensive backs. It might take a few practices before things run smoothly, especially switching the defense from the 4-3 to the 3-4.
The big spring question is ...
How much better is Josh Freeman going to be? Thrown to the fire as a true freshman, the talented quarterback struggled early on only to explode late. He kept his cool in the win over Texas and was good against Colorado, but he only threw six touchdown passes (all in three games) and 15 interceptions on the year and was mediocre in the final two games. This is his team this spring, and he has to be more consistent to show he can be the leader and playmaker the program can rally around.
The most important position to watch is ... Kicker. The linebacker situation will eventually be fine despite the loss of Zach Diles and Brandon Archer, but the real key to the season could be at placekicker where Jeff Snodgrass is gone after hitting 17 of 24 field goals and all 32 of his extra points. KSU won three games by four points or fewer, and is certain to be in many tight battles again, so someone, possible kickoff man Jared Parker, has to be the man coming out of spring ball.
Spring attitude... If Ron Prince could do that in his first year in what was supposed to be a rebuilding season, what can he and his staff do with a veteran team that should be appreciably better? Outside of the Texas shocker, KSU beat most of the teams it was supposed to, lost to the teams it was supposed to, and turned out a better record than expected. Maintaining an even keel early on is vital with trips to Auburn and Texas, a tough home date against San Jose State, and a rivalry battle against Kansas in the first five games.

Missouri   Spring Practice Begins: March 13  Game: April 21
The early spring buzz ... Jazzed up as the program was last year after a scintillating bowl win over South Carolina, now it's a different attitude after the 39-38 Sun Bowl collapse to Oregon State to close out the year with four losses in five games after a strong start. The 2007 second half schedule isn't all that bad (Iowa State, at Colorado, Texas A&M, Kansas State and Kansas), and the start is nice and light (Illinois, at Ole Miss, Western Michigan and Illinois State), so the program has to maintain its focus during a three-game middle stretch against Nebraska, at Oklahoma and Texas Tech to be in the hunt for the Big 12 title.
The big spring question is ... Will the special teams be better? The offense should be among the Big 12's most productive, and the defense should be solid with seven starters returning, but the special teams have to be far, far better, and could be the difference between a North title and also-ran status yet again. PK Jeff Wolfert was fantastic, but punter Adam Crossett struggled and the return game was non-existent averaging 7.48 yards per punt return and 17.08 yards per kickoff return.
The most important position to watch is ... The right side of the offensive line. Everything is in place from the nation's eighth best offense last season except the line with guard Mike Cook and tackle Joel Clinger gone. There might be some shuffling done this spring, but it would help if senior Monte Wyrick and sophomore Dain Wise could step in and be solid right away. On defense, Sean Weatherspoon has to be ready to take over for Dedrick Harrington in the middle.
Spring attitude... Win the North. It's time. It was time last year. Head coach Gary Pinkel is going into his seventh season with a loaded team with explosion, depth and experience, and he has a good enough schedule, helped by Nebraska coming to Columbia, to be in the Big 12 title game. Anything less will be a major disappointment and might show there's a ceiling on what Pinkel can do.

Nebraska  Spring Practice Begins: March 21  Game: April 14
The early spring buzz ... There's an excitement around the program there hasn't been since Bill Callahan took over for Frank Solich three years ago. The team is loaded with veterans on offense, should be fine in the defensive back seven, and has a schedule that anyone with national title aspirations would drool over. If this isn't the big season the program's been pushing towards ever since it got whacked by Miami in the 2002 Rose Bowl, and at the very least, if there isn't a second straight trip to the Big 12 Championship, there could be some grumblings.
The big spring question is ...
Can Nebraska actually beat the elite? There were four games against top-flight teams (USC, Texas, Oklahoma and Auburn) and Nebraska lost all five, along with a 41-29 clunker to Oklahoma State. To be Nebraska again, the wins have to start coming against the elite; being competitive isn't quite enough. There are only two monstrous games on the slate this season (USC and at Texas), and the Huskers have to at least split.
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback. There's plenty of excitement about the offense's possibilities with Arizona State transfer Sam Keller stepping in at quarterback to potentially provide a talent upgrade over All-Big 12 performer Zac Taylor. However, Joe Ganz, who's been waiting in the wings over the last few years, isn't just going to hand over the job. Keller is a big, NFL type of passer, while Ganz is a smaller, quicker option who knows the offense cold. This might turn out to be more interesting battle than many will make it out to be.
Spring attitude... Time to become a national powerhouse again. The Huskers made big strides in Callahan's second season, and took an even bigger step in year three winning the North and getting to the Big 12 title game. Even so, it was still a mediocre season by past standards going 9-5. Even though the Missouri game is on the road, a second straight North title is a must, and a flirtation with a national title chase, is a realistic dream.


   Spring Practice Begins: March 20  Game: April 14
The early spring buzz ...
There's a little bit of shuffling among the coaching staff that might make a difference right off the bat. Cornell Jackson, who did a tremendous job coaching the New Mexico running backs, was brought aboard to work with a group that led the way to the nation's worst ground game. Part of the problem was the offense, but the talent was also an issue. Losing defensive coordinator Bill Bradley to the San Diego Chargers might not seem like that big a deal, but his defenses were great (at times) at taking the ball away.
The big spring question is ... Will there be any sort of a pass rush? Larry Hoefer, who handled the BU safeties for the last six seasons, will be the new defensive coordinator. While stopping the run might be a major priority, getting to the quarterback will be vital. 11 sacks aren't nearly enough to throw a wrinkle into anyone's passing game. Unearthing a pass rusher this spring is a must or else the D will have to get funky before fall to generate more pressure.
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback. There's work to do on defense and help needed for the offense, particularly on the line, but the fortunes of the Baylor season rest on the quarterback situation. When Shawn Bell played, BU was dangerous. When he was hurt and out, BU wasn't even close. Now he's gone, and while Blake Szymanski has the experience after seeing time late last year, and has the tools to grow into a good one, the real excitement is over JUCO transfer John David Weed, who's 6-5, 235 pounds and the type of passer who can make the Bear attack fly.
Spring attitude... Keep improving. Baylor is stuck. While the program might be far better under head coach Guy Morriss, it just so happens to play in what this season might be the nation's best division. The passing game and the new offense started to take off, and there was some success early on. This won't be a winning season, and it'll take a major upset to be anything other than last place in the South, but that doesn't mean the program can't keep getting better to be more competitive against the top Big 12 teams.

Oklahoma  Spring Practice Begins: March 5  Game: April 8
The early spring buzz ...
After spending the last few months as the Apollo Creed to Boise State's Rocky, and the program that everyone outside of the greater Norman area rooted against during the Fiesta Bowl, the motivation will be there for the defending Big 12 champions to be even better. Nine starters return on offense, eight come back on defense, and kicker Garrett Hartley might be the best in the nation.
The big spring question is ... Who'll be at quarterback? Running back? More than fine with Allen Patrick, Jacob Gutierrez and Chris Brown returning along with the expected emergence of redshirt freshmen DeMarco Murray and Mossis Madu. Wide receiver? One of the best in the country with Malcolm Kelly and Juaquin Iglesias leading the way. The offensive line should be tremendous. Now a quarterback has to emerge to replace the steady Paul Thompson. Junior Joey Halzle has the practice experience as the number two man last season, but he'll have to fight off Sam Bradford and Keith Nichol for the job. The job is as wide open as it gets.
The most important position to watch is ... Defensive end. Along with quarterback, defensive end will be the biggest issue throughout spring ball after losing Larry Birdine, C.J. Ah You, and Calvin Thibodeaux. While they weren't the pass rushing terrors they were expected to be, they were rock-solid pieces of the Big 12's best defense. The secondary should be excellent with all four starters returning, and they could be dominant if they get help from the pass rush.
Spring attitude... Win the national title. Amazingly, the Sooners might even better even after losing their starting quarterback and soon-to-be NFL superstar Adrian Peterson, and the schedule is tailor-made for a national title run with Miami, Missouri, Oklahoma State and Texas A&M all at home, and the road slate (Tulsa, Colorado, Iowa State and Texas Tech) as light as possible. Barring a total collapse, or another fluky Oregon-like loss, it might be a one game season against that team from Austin.

Oklahoma State   Spring Practice Begins: March 5  Game: April 14
The early spring buzz ...
If you want the sleeper for the Big 12 title, Oklahoma State might be it. There's plenty of excitement for a program that gets eight starters back on offense, the entire defensive back seven, and both kickers. This should be an explosive team that cranks out huge offensive numbers and throws a mega-scare into the normal Big 12 big boys, along with Georgia for the season opener.
The big spring question is ... Can the secondary be just a big tighter? By design, the OSU defense gives up big plays to try to make big plays, but if the Cowboy defensive backs can be just a little bit better and a little bit tighter, the coaching staff can take more chances when it comes to generating pressure and flying to the ball. Helping out the secondary would be a steady pass rush from the front four, which is why ...
The most important position to watch is ... Defensive tackle. Four starters are gone, but the ends are fine with Nathan Peterson a terror of a speed rusher who has All-Big 12 potential if he can prove he can handle the full-time starting role. Marque Fountain is also great at getting into the backfield after spending last season rotating with Victor DeGrate. Tackle is the big issue needing JUCO transfer Tonga Tea to shine right away as the leader of an inexperienced, but interesting group. Senior Maurice Cummings and junior Jeray Chatham will likely be the starters coming out of spring ball.
Spring attitude... Don't just be an also-ran. After putting up points as well as anyone in the country and being nasty at getting into the backfield on defense, and with so much young talent returning, anything less than another bowl season and a few wins over some of the better teams are a must. This is about to become one of the nation's new "it" teams.

Texas  Spring Practice Begins: Feb. 23  Game: March 31
The early spring buzz ...
It's Texas. It loses a superstar assistant coach; it gets another superstar assistant coach. Mack Brown didn't go outside the program after losing defensive coordinator Gene Chizik to Iowa State, he upgraded Duane Akina to the full-time main man for the defense after combining forces with Chizik. He might lose three stars in the secondary, but he has the front seven to be fantastic right away. The offense gets almost all the key skill players back, so it might be another national title or bust type of season.
The big spring question is ... What the heck was that with the pass defense? Aaron Ross won the Thorpe Award, Michael Griffin will be a millionaire after the NFL Draft, and Tarell Brown will also be playing on Sundays. So how the heck did this group get burnt so badly so often? Texas wasn't just bad against the pass, it was one of the worst in the nation short, long, and everywhere in between. Much will be made out of the replacement defensive backs, but the overall production can't be any worse.
The most important position to watch is ... Backup quarterback. Considering how the team's Big 12 and national title dreams went into the tank after Colt McCoy hurt himself against Kansas State, and with Jevan Snead transferring, the number two quarterback gig will be vital. McCoy is a burgeoning star, but he'll have to give way reps to get Sherrod Harris and John Charles some good work. Harris is more mobile than McCoy, while Chiles is still learning the ropes after being considered for the receiving corps.
Spring attitude... Win the Big 12 title and hope everything else falls into place. There's no Ohio State on the non-conference schedule (but TCU is a dangerous, dangerous home game in early September), so if the Longhorns make amends for last year's collapse and win the Big 12 championship, they'll likely be in the discussion for a trip to New Orleans. It's not going to be easy playing five of the final seven games away from home.

Texas A&M   Spring Practice Begins: March 19  Game: April 14
The early spring buzz ...
2006 was the bounceback year for the program, and a job saving campaign for Dennis Franchione. Now the excitement is through the roof with all the skills stars back and seven starters back on defense. The win over Texas was great, but getting steamrolled by Cal in the Holiday Bowl put a serious damper on the year and showed how far the program might have to go before it's elite. If everything breaks right, this is the year the program could take that next step to being where A&M fans want it to go.
The big spring question is ... Will there be a pass rush? The defense was decent all season long, but there was little to no push into the backfield finishing last in the Big 12 in tackles for loss while only generating just 20 sacks. While the Aggies will take any overall production after years of poor defensive play, they can't take the next step and become a threat for the Big 12 title unless they start to hit the quarterback on a regular basis.
The most important position to watch is ... Placekicker. There are big personnel losses here and there, but the difference between a good year and a tremendous one might come down to if someone steps in and becomes an adequate replacement for Layne Neumann, who hit 12 of 15 field goal attempts. Matt Szymanski was the backup last year and has a big leg, but he only hit two of five shots.
Spring attitude... Get hot right off the bat. The Aggies should be better, but they'd better be great out of the gate or there could be big problems. Outside of a date at Miami, A&M has a good first half of the season with five home games that all have to be wins. The scheduling gods come down like a hammer with four road trips to Texas Tech, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Missouri before finishing up with Texas.

Texas Tech   Spring Practice Begins: March 21  Game: April 16
The early spring buzz ...
This might be a year things slow down a little bit before blowing up in 2008. With massive replacements needed on the offensive line, the receiving corps, and the defensive front seven, and with the South being far better than in past seasons, it's going to take Mike Leach's best coaching job yet to get his team back to the level Red Raider fans are used to.
The big spring question is ... Who'll step in for the four starters on the offensive line? It might not be all that bad after a little bit of time. New line coach Jack Bicknell has the pieces to work with, but he'll have to play around with things to find the right combination. Marlon Winn has all the talent to be a star at left tackle, while Brandon Carter appears ready to shine at right guard. Right tackle is likely to be the biggest issue  if Rylan Reed and Adrian Archie can't produce right away this spring.
The most important position to watch is ... Wide receiver. 180 catches, 2,171 yards, and 24 touchdown catches are gone with the departure of Joel Filani and Robert Johnson. Danny Amendola is a serviceable target and L.A. Reed and Todd Walker have potential, but for the offense to shine, Michael Crabtree has to turn into a number one target (if Reed isn't ready for the role).
Spring attitude... Business as usual. It might take a year before Tech becomes a major player in the South race, but the offense will still put up its points and there will still be wow moments. However, with all the personnel turnover, this could be a maddeningly inconsistent year.



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