Last week I looked at the weaknesses of Big 12 North teams. I also stated that the Big 12 North will come down to a finish between three teams - Nebraska, Kansas and Colorado. This article focuses on the strengths of the Big 12 North teams. I did not pick the strengths nor weaknesses based solely on units (offensive line, linebacker, etc) nor on great players, but on what I felt were the most positive characteristics that would help each team to win games, and therefore win the conference division.
The teams are in no particular order of predicted finish - that will come later this summer.
Primary Strength - The Lines
It might have been easy to rank the primary strength as the defensive line with secondary strength as offensive, but it would be both lazy and a little hopeful with regards to the offensive line. While the Husker offensive linemen showed signs they were bringing back memories of "The Pipeline" days of the ‘90s, the fact is they still have a ways to go. It was relatively easy to develop a strong running game when they had a ball control-based passing game last season. This year their will be much more pressure on the offensive line to perform - if they can develop into a strong unit, Nebraska should win the North.
The defensive line is in exellent shape, with potential All-American Ndamukong Suh up front and defensive ends Barry Turner and Pierre Allen bringing pressure from the outside. Sophomore Jared Crick must play well to keep the double teams from Suh. Two highly ranked redshirt freshman, Baker Steinkuhler and Cameron Meredith will add to the rotation.
Secondary Strength - Turnover Margin
It might be an odd pick for a strength, but turnover ration might be the biggest key to a successful Nebraska season. Bo Pelini’s defenses are known for generating turnovers - in his three years at LSU, his defense went from 105th to 58th to 2nd nationally, improving from -9 to even to +20. In his first season at Nebraska, the Huskers finished -11 and dead last in the Big 12. Despite the low finish, Nebraska finished tied for first in the Big 12 North. What happens with improvement can’t be anything bad.
Primary Strength - Offensive Production
Quarterback Todd Reesing, wide receivers Dezmon Briscoe and Kerry Meier and running back Jake Sharp make up the most productive offensive set in school history. Coming into his final season, Reesing already owns over 30 school records, while Briscoe set a school record for single-season receiving yardage with 1,407. As much as Briscoe provides flash, Meier provides clutch, setting a school record for single-season receptions with 97 and a single-game reception record with 14 against Missouri, including the last minute game winning touchdown.
If Sharp sounds anti-climactic, consider that he finished last season with the third-most carries amongst Big 12 running backs - this after Kansas used a running back by committee approach during the non-conference season.
Given this group, Kansas can’t be counted out of any game they’ll play against a Big 12 North opponent.
Secondary Strength - Defensive Secondary
On defense, the Jayhawks are replacing three linebackers that combined for 103 starts and 821 tackles. While that sounds daunting, Kansas will be switching their defensive back to the nickel package, which will somewhat alleviate the loss of experience.
Kansas returns a secondary that remains intact from the last half of 2008. They’re lead by First-Team All-Big 12 safety Darrell Stuckey, who finished second in tackles and with five interceptions. The unit should be better, after finishing third in conference pass efficiency defense despite shuffling starters the first half of the year.
Primary Strength - The Running game
Colorado suffered so many injuries last season, it’s difficult to base any prediction on who started how many times or in what position. However, it isn’t difficult to see that the injuries may be of benefit to this season because of the number of young players getting experience when otherwise they would have been watching.
Another not-so-difficult observation was the talent borne by the pair of young running backs Rodney Stewart and Darrell Scott. Neither have been around long enough to gain much attention - on top of that, both were injured during the season with Scott never being fully healthy and Stewart suffering a broken leg against Texas A&M. Demetrius Sumler got a fair amount of work as a third back, so the depth is there.
Injuries didn’t just kill the running backs last season, but took quite a tool on the offensive line. Looking at averages or rankings doesn’t tell that tale. Despite the loss of Devin Head, the only senior of the bunch, to academics this is the best line unit the Buffs have had in years. Add to that a deep tight end unit and the running game will be fine.
Secondary Strength - Defensive Back Seven
Colorado finished first in conference pass defense last season. While that may drop due to having to retool the defensive line, the linebacking unit is one of the better in the Big 12. Top returning tacklers are linebackers Jeff Smart and Shaun Mohler, and while the Buffs lose three starters in the secondary, the return five players with starting experience. Cha’pelle Brown will get a lot of attention, but it’s Jimmy Smith fans will need to watch. Husker fans will remember him as the player who returned a botched fake field goal for a touchdown last season. Benjamin Burney adds experience after missing lsat season due to injury.
- Kansas State
Primary Strength - Schedule
Bill Snyder might not have much of an overall team to work with in 2009, but he does have scheduling on his side. The non-conference cupcakes will give him a chance to find out who his players are before moving into Big 12 play. The Wildcats have only three conference road games (not counting the neutral site game in Kansas City against Iowa State), and although they’re against Oklahoma, Texas Tech, and Nebraska, they get the rest of their Big 12 North counterparts at home.
If Snyder can find his players, the Wildcats might shock some people.
Secondary Strength - Pass Defense
The Wildcats have a rising star in sophomore defensive end Brandon Herald, who finished as the top freshman in tackles for loss last season. He’ll provide the pressure while the back seven provides the experience. Of the back seven, four projected starters are seniors. Sophomore free safety Tysyn Hartman will gain some notoriety this season.
Primary Strength - The Running Game
Missouri’s offense last season was pass-happy and prolific, but the majority of those players have moved on. The good news for Tigers fans is they have one of the best offensive line units in the conference with three starters returning and a fourth who received plenty of playing time last year. That fourth player in Dan Hoch, who originally committed to Nebraska, but went to Missouri after Bill Callahan’s firing at the end of 2007.
Running back Derrick Washington gained over 1,000 yards last year despite being slowed by injuries late in the season. Washington is a strong runner who’ll be backed up by speed burner De’Vion Moore.
Secondary Strength - Linebacker
It can border on silliness to base a strength on a single player, but Sean Weatherspoon might be that good. He returns as the top tackler in the Big 12 with 155, nearly more than all Husker linebackers had combined. While the unit loses the second leading tackler Christopher Brock (who finished with 105 tackles), the drop off won’t be bad.
- Iowa State
Primary Strength - Overall Athleticism
You wouldn’t know it from their 0-8 Big 12 finish, but the 2008 version of the Cyclones was an improved team relative to their recent predecessors. Between quarterback Austen Arnaud and cornerback/kick returner Leonard Johnson, the team’s overall athleticism was much better than the previous season.
Secondary Strength - Coaching Staff
Gene Chizik’s bolting for Auburn after two lousy seasons might be the best thing that’s happened to Iowa State in a while. Chizik left with a 5-19 record, but replacement Paul Rhoads was just what the Cyclones are looking for - a coach that wants to be in Ames. Rhoads hired offensive coordinator Tom Herman from Rice, and defensive coordinator Wally Burnham from South Florida, both excellent hires in their own regard. Herman’s spread is prolific, while Burnham’s defense will attack. The aggressiveness of both coaches should find Iowa State improved over the past couple of years.
The new coaches come into a good situation. After ten straight losses and a 17-game road losing streak, Cyclone fans will be happy with anything that looks like improvement.