|2005 College Football Preview: Big 12
By Avery Smith
Sports Central Columnist
The Big 12 will once again be a very competitive conference. Oklahoma’s iron grip over the conference will be weakened and upsets will be the rule instead of the exception. Teams like Missouri, Colorado, and Kansas State will not win their division, but should be competitive enough to play the spoiler role. Both the North and South divisions will be close, but there are certain teams that have the potential to have a breakout season. Without further ado, here are the squads that should be the most competitive in the Big 12 conference.
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5. Nebraska (Projected Record: 7-4; League: 5-3)
I have good news and bad news for Nebraska fans. The bad news is that 2005 Cornhuskers will not remind anyone of the Nebraska teams of yesteryear. The good news is that they will win the Big 12 North division (and Bill Callahan will be gone after this season).
If Bill Callahan wants to continue to jog onto Memorial Stadium in years to come, he is going to need Zac Taylor to play like a champion. Taylor, the transfer from Butler Community College, seems to be a better fit for Callahan’s West Coast Offense than Joe Dailey, the Cornhuskers’ previous QB. He had an excellent spring and has shown good touch on his passes, which is a must in the vertical offense Nebraska employs. Of course, screens will also be utilized, due to the talents of Cory Ross.
Cory Ross, Nebraska’s primary running threat, will look to improve on a strong 2004, where he rushed for over 1,100 yards. His size (5-6, 200 pounds) reminds people of a Big 12 legend Barry Sanders, and his rushing skills are underrated. Ross is a multi-dimensional talent who can also catch the ball, as he was third on the team in receptions last year. Speaking of receptions, Husker fans are looking for someone to step up at the wideout position.
The receiving corps are a big question mark in Lincoln this season. There is no one guy that we can earmark to perform at all-conference level, but collectively, they may get the job done. Current starters Terrence Nunn and Isaiah Fluellen will have strong competition from recruits Frantz Hardy, Chris Brooks, and Tyrell Spain. The success of the offense will depend on who can make things happen out of this group, and improve the 81st-rated offense in America.
Another way to improve an offense is by having a solid offensive line. One guy that should provide instant help will be Greg Austin. He’s finally healthy and should be able to help an improving unit. Kurt Mann will be solid as usual and if Cornealius Thomas lives up to his potential, the Huskers offense should improve their output.
The offensive output will need to be increased this season, as the Nebraska defense will prove to be inconsistent in 2005. The Huskers’ defense is talented, but suffered through frustrating lapses last season. When Texas Tech dropped 70 on the Huskers last October, it looked more like target practice for the Red Raiders than an actual football game. Nebraska fans are definitely not looking for a repeat performance, and one guy that can be counted on to play at a high level for 60 minutes is Le Kevin Smith.
Smith, along with Titus Adams, will lead one of the strongest defensive lines in the conference. Smith is an all-conference nose tackle who stuffs the run and has been working on his “bull-rush” skills to get to the passer. Adams is an effective run stopper and loves to get into the backfield to disrupt plays. The key for this unit will be how effective they will be on passing situations, as the secondary will need them to put pressure on the opposing quarterback.
The linebackers will need Stuart Bradley to emerge as a leader. Bradley was second on the team in tackles last year and he’s a Zack Thomas prototype who flat-out makes plays. The other guys in this squad have relatively little experience, but are very talented. JC transfers such as Steve Octavien and Dontrell Moore will be counted upon to produce immediately.
The secondary must improve on a 2004 performance that contributed to the Huskers being ranked 110th in pass defense. The competition for spots is wide open and I think Zack Bowman, a JC transfer from Alaska, will be the man to watch. Bowman possesses the speed and killer instinct needed to play safety in the Big 12. Nebraska would like to play more man coverage in 2005, but their lack of size hinders that possibility. The secondary is a huge question mark, and we will see how it is answered.
The Huskers are a team full of question marks from top to bottom. Bill Callahan has recruited a ton of JC guys who will hopefully help him win immediately. Of course, the cupboards are relatively empty for the following seasons, but Nebraska will never have a problem recruiting so long as they are winning. It should be a very interesting and intriguing 2005 for the folks in Lincoln.
4. Texas A&M (8-3; 5-3)
The Texas A&M Aggies will be the team nobody wants to play in 2005. They have an offense led by an electrifying Heisman candidate in Reggie McNeal and their defense should keep them in games. They will rebound after getting pummeled in the Cotton Bowl against Tennessee. Dennis Franchione’s team has a superb early season schedule and if they don’t look past anyone, they should be 8-0 going into the Texas Tech game. The Ags are my sleeper team in this conference.
Coach Fran has had success just about everywhere he has been. His tenure at A&M will be no different, thanks to Reggie McNeal. McNeal is one of my top-10 Heisman candidates and will take his place on the national stage this season. He is one of those rare quarterbacks who can run and pass effectively. He completed over 58% of his passes last year and ran for over 700 yards. I look for his passing yardage to increase in 2005 as he will trust his teammates more and not need to improvise as much. The person who will do a lot of rushing for the Aggies is Courtney Lewis.
Courtney Lewis must be healthy and play well for the Aggies to be contenders in the Big 12 South division. He has shown flashes of brilliance against lesser opponents, but he had an abysmal end of the year in 2004. He has the talent and the frame to handle a ton of carries and he will have to prove to be a threat so that defenses will not key in on Reggie McNeal.
The Aggies’ receivers will improve in 2005 and will seek some of the spotlight. Earvin Taylor (the Magic Man) will be Reggie McNeal’s primary pass catcher. He is an excellent route-runner, and the chemistry between him and his Heisman quarterback will be much improved. DeQawn Mobley will team up with Taylor and be the A&M deep threat. He has great speed and should have opportunities to make plays on a team that lives by the “busted play.”
Another key to this year’s success will be the offensive line. Last year, A&M really struggled against physical, blitzing defenses like Texas and Tennessee. They allowed an inexcusable 28 sacks, and that must improve this year. Jami Hightower has a perfect name for an offensive lineman, but he has got to get his frame into shape. He was listed at 355, but I’ve heard reports that he was playing north of 370 at times. He has busted his butt his spring and lost the weight, and if he keeps it off he will anchor this squad. Chris Yoder and Cody Wallace will help and if Aldo de la Garza can contribute, A&M’s offensive line will be solid.
Texas A&M has always has always been known for its players on defense. Carl Torbush, the Aggies’ defensive coordinator, wants to make sure that this year is no exception. The defensive line’s motto this season is “size matters.” There is no question that the A&M will have one of the biggest D-lines in the Big 12, but will they be one of the most skilled. Depth will be a concern, but I believe they will be improved with Chris Harrington, Red Bryant, and Jason Jack making strong contributions.
Upperclassmen dominate the linebacking unit this season, and that is often a good thing. Justin Warren is my pick to have a standout 2005, as his talents are suited for the middle linebacker position. His move from outside linebacker will pay dividends this year for Aggie fans. Archie McDaniel and Lee Foliaki will provide senior leadership, blitzing ability, and pass coverage skills (all of these necessary for the A&M to run a successful 4-3 scheme) to this area that could be the X-factor for the defense.
The secondary is will be a concern for Carl Torbush this season. They were 93rd in the country in pass yardage and can’t afford to get any worse. They should be better this season with more experience and talent. The Aggies will play more man defense due to an improvement in the pass rush. Redshirt freshman Danny Gorrer and Broderick Newton possess the size needed to get physical with the opposing receiver. The secondary will be better, and Texas A&M supporters will not have to hold their breath when the other team is in the shotgun.
This will most likely prove to be a rollercoaster of a season for Texas A&M. They should be at least 6-0, if not 8-0, in the early going. If they are lucky, that momentum will carry over into the final third of the season, and propel them to an upset over Texas, Texas Tech, and/or Oklahoma. Franchione and the coaching staff will try and take some of the pressure off of Reggie McNeal and create a balanced attack that can launch A&M to the top of the conference.
3. Texas Tech (9-2; 6-2)
The Texas Tech Red Raiders are the best team in America that no one has ever heard of. Mike Leach, Tech’s head coach, has done a wonderful job of creating a strong program in Lubbock. The offense is simple (Karl Dorrell and Bill Callahan, take notes) and effective due to constant repetition and efficient execution. This season, Leach’s program has a chance to be mentioned with the elite teams of the Big 12.
If the Raiders are to maintain the momentum gained by the whipping of the California Golden Bears in the Holiday Bowl, they’ll need Cody Hodges to have a strong year. Hodges will hope to join the string of recent Tech quarterbacks who have had abundant success in Mike Leach’s “Air Raid” offense. He is a fifth-year senior with experience and a strong arm. The key will be his accuracy as it is vital to the offense. If Hodges can prove that he can throw the ball with precision, the Raiders will roll.
If you haven’t heard of Taurean Henderson before, you will this season. He is a Marshall Faulk prototype —, a back that can do it all for a team. He is super-fast and creates mismatches when he lines up at receiver. Shannon Woods and Taurance Rawls will spell him and give added production as well.
Jarrett Hicks will lead the Raider receiving corps to a banner year in 2005. At 6-4, he creates mismatches and has the route-running ability that all Tech receivers require. Danny Amendola, L.A. Reed, and Joel Filani round out the ubiquitous four-receiver set used in Lubbock. These guys will snare the many spirals out of the West Texas sky and will combine to give Cory Hodges all the options he will need.
Texas Tech’s defense has been steadily improved the last two years and I expect this trend to continue in 2005. The Raider “D” barely gets talked about, but this year, with eight guys returning, they have the opportunity to be one of the better units in the conference. Their defensive line will be the key as teams had a ton of success on the ground. Chris Hudler, the Raider starting nose guard, will be instrumental in closing up the holes opponents have been using to exploit the defense. Seth Nitschmann will also need to continue to improve his already solid run defense, and Keyunta Dawson must put pressure on the passer. If the D-line can accomplish these objectives, Raider fans will be in very good shape.
The linebackers will be led by one of the most intelligent players in the Big 12, Brock Stratton. Stratton is all a conference performer on and off the field, and will have a breakout season. This unit may have more opportunities to blitz this season and John Saldi, Fletcher Session, and Sylvester Brinkley should all benefit.
The reason the backers will be able to blitz more is because the Red Raiders have one of the strongest secondaries in the country. They were 15th in the nation in pass defense and look to improve on that already impressive mark. Khalid Naziruddin and Antonio Hoffman anchor the corners and will press their receivers. Vincent Meeks, last year’s Holiday Bowl MVP, will continue to play excellent at safety and give offensive coordinators a ton of headaches trying to figure out how to move the ball through the air.
This could be the season that Raider fans have been waiting for. There will be a tremendous amount of pressure on Cody Hodges to perform, as he is a major factor in their success. He hasn’t had too much previous game time, but that didn’t stop B.J. Symons and Sonny Cumbie from having superb seasons. As long as they can move the ball like they are accustomed, and stop opponents from wearing out their defense on the ground, they just might come out on top.
2. Oklahoma (9-2; 6-2)
This just might be the season that the Sooner Schooner gets some much-needed repairs. After dominating the conference for much of the new millennium, the Sooners will not have nearly as much talent as they are used to. However, Bob Stoops still has an excellent stockpile of players that can compete with the nation’s best on any given day.
The question on Oklahoma fans’ mind is who will be Jason White’s successor? There are credible arguments for both Rhett Bomar and Paul Thompson. Thompson has some slight game experience and has the nod as far as experience, but I think Bomar will end up being the starter. Bomar, once the quarterback of the scout team, has amazed Coach Stoops’ staff with great mobility and excellent accuracy. The redshirt freshman has all of the skills to succeed, and if he’s practiced handing the ball off to Adrian Peterson, he’ll be just fine.
Adrian Peterson is one of the top three running backs in the country. He possesses an uncommon mix of explosiveness and patience. He knows exactly what hole to hit, and pity be upon that unfortunate linebacker that’s on the other side, because Peterson introduces himself with his helmet. Peterson excelled last year by rushing for almost 2,000 yards, and will probably break that amount this year. He will be asked to shoulder much more of the offensive load due to the departure of Jason White. His durability will be pushed to the maximum, and his performance in November will have a great impact on the Sooners’ future.
Travis Wilson was the unheralded receiver who led Oklahoma in touchdown passes last year. This season, the onus of leading the Sooners to the end zone through the air will be on him. He can handle this responsibility as he has the best hands on the team. The issue for this group will be who else will step up to fill the huge void left by Mark Clayton. Jejuan Rankins has a ton of talent, but has had personal problems, which have translated to dropped passes on the field. If Rankins falters, Quinten Chaney, Lenny Holmes, and super-recruit Malcolm Kelly will also have opportunities to see more playing time.
Oklahoma’s offensive line was superb last season. They gave Jason White all of the protection he could ask for and Adrian Peterson wouldn’t have rushed for 1,925 without them. Depth will be a concern this year, but as long as Davin Joseph, a potential All-American, Kelvin Chaisson, and Akim Millington stay healthy, the Sooners should be fine.
One area where the Sooners all always “fine” is the defense. The OU defense has been spectacular throughout the Bob Stoops era. They have dominated their opponents with an aggressive, hard-hitting brand of in-your-face football. They may not have Roy Williams out there, but they will put a team of guys who play hard every down. The defensive line will still be strong against the run this year as in years past, as they are even stronger at the tackle position with Dusty Dvoracek and Remy Ayodele. The ends won’t be as talented, but Larry Birdine and C.J. Ah You (I love the name) would be stars on about 80 other programs across the country.
Clint Ingram, Zack Latimer, and Rufus Alexander will make an interesting trio at linebacker. Only Ingram has huge breakout potential, but this group just may be better than last season’s. The secondary is the area of concern for the defense as they gave up far too many yards last year. The talent is there, and the question will be how well they use that talent on the field. If the secondary can improve this season, and there’s always a chance if Chijoke Onyenegecha can live up to his huge potential, this defense will live up to the lofty expectations of the folks in Norman.
There are three big games (at UCLA, the Red River Shootout, and at Texas Tech) that will determine the fate of the Sooners. UCLA will be a good litmus test in September as the Bruins are a top-25 team. The biggest test will be on October 8th against Texas in the Red River Shootout. If OU is undefeated and gives the Longhorns another defeat in Dallas, these guys just might run the table.
1. Texas (9-2; 6-2)
I really think 2005 is the year Mack Brown and all the Longhorn fans have been waiting for. This should be the season that they finally defeat Oklahoma and take home the Big 12 South crown. Of course, if they go undefeated or maybe even with one loss, the Horns could even be headed to Pasadena this season. The player that will try to lead them to the promised land is Vince Young.
Vince Young is the most talked about Texas player since Ricky Williams (sorry, Major Applewhite fans). His performance in the Rose Bowl last year against Michigan was awe-inspiring and his running abilities are unreal. His passing abilities have been questioned, but I think he will answer his critics in that area this year. He will throw for over 2,000 yards and if he maintains his 60% efficiency, the Heisman just might fall in his lap.
With all of the emphasis on VY and his throwing ability, people forget that Texas is a team that loves to run the ball. Young will be running, but it will be Selvin Young that will be doing the damage on the ground. Selvin Young, the Longhorns’ junior, will get about 15 touches per game this year and he should be successful. His speed is ridiculous, and now that he’s back from his injury, his endurance is restored and he will be able to handle the exorbitant load Mack Brown loves to put on his backs.
If Limas Sweed is a household name in December, then Texas is probably on its way to Pasadena again. Sweed is another burner with excellent hands who should be the primary Longhorn threat at receiver. Nate Jones has had an excellent spring and will also catch plenty of passes. David Thomas, the starting tight end, will contribute, as he is very skilled and running quarterbacks love to hit big targets.
Every program that is based upon rushing usually has a strong offensive line. That is no exception in Austin as this O-line is probably the best in the country. There are a couple of guys (Justin Blalock & Will Scott) who will be playing on Sundays and the rest of the group is outstanding, as well. Texas will play a bruising, physical game and run their opponents into the dirt.
The Longhorn defense should be extremely successful in 2005. They have nine guys returning and a new coordinator Gene Chizik, who helped orchestrate Auburn superb squad last year. Chizik should be very pleased with his defensive line, as it is one of the best in the country. Rodrique Wright leads a dominating front four, which will excel against the run. These guys can also get after the quarterback and they should wreak havoc on opposing units.
The linebackers are a bit short on experience, but will do their best to replace the huge shadow cast by Derrick Johnson. Aaron Harris was all over the field last year, making 118 tackles, and I expect him to make even more plays this year. Robert Killebrew and Eric Foreman will help Harris keep the ship afloat and keep this group playing to its high expectations.
The Longhorn secondary is one of the best in the conference and should get even better. The starters are all upperclassmen and experience is one of the most valuable assets a defensive back can have. Michael Huff is a guy who can do it all at safety, and Cedric Griffin and Aaron Ross will give most receivers fits on the corners. This bend-but-don’t-break unit will keep everything in front of them and prevent the big play.
I’m sure there have been many prognosticators who have picked Texas year after year, and have gotten burned. Mack Brown is on the hotseat, and there are a couple of games that should determine his fate. If the Longhorns can go into Columbus and knock off Ohio State and defeat Oklahoma in Dallas, they will be in the driver’s seat to win the Big 12. Of course, in this conference, nothing is guaranteed, as every week will be tough. One thing is for certain, though — it will be fun to see who comes out victorious.
This article was reprinted with permission from Sports Central.
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