We continue with our Big 12 preview today by looking at my predicted second-place finishers in both divisions: Nebraska and Oklahoma
Predicted finish in '09 (Overall and Big 12 North): Second,8-4, 5-3
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Predicted losses in Big 12 play:at Baylor, Oklahoma, at Kansas
Can build around: The defense. Second-year coach Bo Pelini got great news when behemoth, future NFL talent Ndamukong Suh announced he was coming back for his senior season instead of raking in NFL cash.
He anchors a solid defense with experience returning at every level, including senior DE Barry Turner, senior MLB Colton Koehler and senior S Larry Asante. It was not a great defense last season, giving up 28.5 points per game, including a season-high 62 at Oklahoma and 52 in Lincoln in a loss to Missouri. But the defense should be improved.
On offense, Pelini is looking for a quarterback – most likely junior Zac Lee – but any new quarterback loves a solid running game, and Roy Helu Jr. should help in that area. Helu took a back seat to Marlon Lucky for much of 2008, but Helu and Quentin Castille, who had 810 yards rushing and a 4.5 ypc average last season, both return to provide a solid, 1-2 punch.
There are also three starters back on the offensive line, which will help if the Huskers can find some receivers for Lee to throw the ball to. Nebraska's leading, returning receiver is TE Mike McNeill (32 catches for 442 yards) because the team's top two pass catchers in 2008 – Nate Swift and Todd Peterson – have moved on.
Need to rebuild: The offense has a lot of questions for all the love the Huskers are getting as a favorite in the Big 12 North. For me, it's too many. Lee is seen as the frontrunner at QB, and he's thrown just two passes in his college career. He can hurt you with his legs, but the big question is if he can hurt anyone with his arm?
The lack of experience at receiver is also a huge concern. Helu can catch the ball out of the backfield and will need to stay healthy to help make up for a lack of receiving threats.
Final analysis: People went nuts in Lincoln last year because Nebraska won its last four games against Kansas, at Kansas State, Colorado and in the Gator Bowl against Clemson. Of those victories, the 45-35 decision over the KU was probably the most impressive because Clemson fired its coach (Tommy Bowden) during the season and handed the reins to Dabo Swinney. The losses last year at home to Mizzou (52-17) and on the road at OU (62-28) were staggering.
While I think the defense will be better, it needs to be A LOT better to improve on a 9-4 record (5-3 Big 12) in 2008. And last year, NU had QB Joe Ganz, who I liked a lot, as well as WRs Nate Swift and Todd Peterson. I just don't see a big jump this year. I think Nebraska loses to Kansas in Lawrence this season and tops out at 8-4 (5-3 Big 12) because the Huskers also play at Virginia Tech in the non-conference.
Predicted finish in '09 (Overall and Big 12 North): Second, 11-1, 7-1
Predicted losses in Big 12 play: Texas
Can build around: OU has the returning Heisman Trophy winner – QB Sam Bradford – a loaded running game in DeMarco Murray, Chris Brown and Mossis Madu (with Jermie Calhoun on stand-by). TE Jermaine Gresham and LT Trent Williams are both first-day, NFL draft picks next April. And sophomore WR Ryan Broyles proved to be a solid playmaker last season with 46 catches for 687 yards and six touchdowns behind departed WRs Juaquin Iglesias and Manuel Johnson.
On defense, OU competes with Florida for the best defensive line in the country thanks to roadblock tackles Gerald McCoy and DeMarcus Granger and ends Jeremy Beal, Auston English, Frank Alexander and R.J. Washington. The linebacking corps is led by OLB Travis Lewis, who broke Brian Bosworth's freshman record with 144 tackles in '08, and MLB Ryan Reynolds, who is back from a knee injury suffered in last year's Red River Shootout.
OU coaches think CBs Dominique Franks and Brian Jackson have made big improvement from last year, when the Sooners gave up 252 yards per game through the air.
Need to rebuild: Outside of Trent Williams on the offensive line, OU has some real question marks, especially with redshirt freshman Ben Habern the apparent starter at center. Sophomore Stephen Good looks like the starter at RG with senior Brian Simmons the starter at LG. They are green. OU could call on Jarvis Jones (6-7, 294) to man the RT spot after Jones was kicked off the team at LSU and transferred to Norman.
A learning curve will be required, and OU will get a good test in the opener against BYU in Arlington. BYU has eight senior starters returning on defense this season as a Mountain West Conference favorite.
OU needs some playmakers to emerge at WR or at least for some chemistry to build between the new faces and Bradford.
On defense, OU is starting over at safety, where they might have been a little limited last year. Nic Harris was a downhill safety, and Lendy Holmes just never seemed to live up to expectations.
This season, the Sooners will turn to sophomore Sam Proctor and junior Quinton Carter, who have shown flashes but now need to prove themselves game-in and game –out.
Final analysis: If Oklahoma blows out BYU at the Cowboys' new stadium in the opener, they will pick up a bunch of confidence going into OU's game at Miami, which is still probably a year away. The game in Dallas will have all the storylines you could want: OU wanting payback for last year's 45-35 defeat, and Texas wanting payback for OU being awarded the right to play for the Big 12 title by BCS voters and ultimately winning a third straight crystal bowl.
In the end, I think OU's secondary will cost the Sooners against Texas. Colt McCoy has a 73.4 percent career completion rate against OU. That's beyond impressive. And I think Texas' deep secondary will frustrate Bradford, allowing huge days for players like Sergio Kindle, Alex Okafor and Sam Acho to get to Bradford and rough him up a bit.
Tomorrow: My first-place finishers in both divisions – Kansas and Texas