Big 12 preview: 3rd-place finishers CU and Okie St.

We continue with our Big 12 preview today by looking at my predicted third-place finishers: Colorado and Oklahoma State
Predicted finish in '09 (Overall and Big 12 North): Third, 7-5, 4-4
Predicted losses in Big 12 play:at Texas, Kansas, at Oklahoma State, Nebraska
Can build around: Don't laugh, but I think you can build around QB Cody Hawkins this season now that the offensive line returns four starters.
Hawkins should also get some help from a deep, talented and apparently motivated running back corps that includes Rodney Stewart, Darrell Scott and Demetrius Sumler. The Buffs are going from a no-huddle attack on offense to a power running approach.
Needless to say, if none of this works, Dan Hawkins is going to lose an already fickle fan base and might be out. But the good news for Hawkins is he plays in the Big 12 North, which is two teams deep this season.
On defense, some key losses at tackle (George Hypolite and Brandon Nicolas) have caused Hawkins to move to a 3-4 defense.
CU has a solid linebacking corps, led by Jeff Smart, who had 118 tackles last season. But CU will need big things from some of their top recruits like DT Edward Nuckols, DE Nick Kasa, who decommitted from Florida, and LB Derrick Webb.
If those players provide much needed depth, the defense has a couple playmakers in the secondary in CBs Jimmy Smith and Cha'pelle Brown.
Need to rebuild: With only four starters back on defense, CU's season could fall apart if this move to a 3-4 defense doesn't go well.
And after some arrests and other dodgy off the field matters, Hawkins tried to make his players more accountable by putting them into groups. If one did something wrong, the whole group got punished. These are signs the locker room chemistry isn't great.
CU also lacks depth at receiver after losing Josh Smith, Darrell Scott's uncle, to transfer. And Cody Hawkins has to be a whole lot better than he was last season, when he got benched for then-freshman Tyler Hansen. If this move to a power running game doesn't go well, Hawkins could also be in real trouble.
Final analysis: I really thought Colorado would be further along at this point under Hawkins, who never had a losing season at Boise State and has yet to have a winning season at CU (2-10, 6-7 and 5-7). But this might be the year Hawkins starts to put it together.
Yes, Cody Hawkins appears to be the starter at QB. Yes, the Buffaloes' top receiver last year – Scotty McKnight – had only 46 catches for 519 yards. And yes the defensive line needs an overhaul, but the Buffs play a rebuilding Colorado State and two teams under new coaches (at Toledo and Wyoming).
If CU loses at Toledo on Sept. 11, the Buffs will be headed for 6-6 or 5-7 a.k.a. oblivion. But I have CU winning those three non-conference games and then sweeping this four-game stretch: at Kansas State, Missouri, Texas A&M and at Iowa State. These games happen late enough that Colorado should have some kinks worked out.
Predicted finish in '09 (Overall and Big 12 North): Third, 10-2, 6-2
Predicted losses in Big 12 play: Texas, at Oklahoma
Can build around: The offense. QB Zac Robinson, WR Dez Bryant, RB Kendall Hunter and OT Russell Okung are among the best in the country at their positions.
Robinson threw for 3,064 yards and 25 touchdowns with 10 interceptions last season and ran for 562 yards and eight scores on the ground. Bryant had 1,480 yards receiving and 19 touchdowns, and Hunter averaged 6.5 yards per carry (241 carries for 1,550 yards and 16 TDs). RB Keith Toston is also back after averaging 6.7 yards per carry last season. Perrish Cox and Bryant are two of the most dangerous return men in the country.
On defense, coach Mike Gundy has brought in stud defensive coordinator Bill Young to take over a group that is less talented but more athletic than last year's. Young is one of the best DCs out there, so this is a huge hire.
Okie State's defense has always been physical, and that will only intensify under Young, who has three strong senior LBs anchoring the D – Patrick Levine, Andre Sexton and Orie Lemon.
Need to rebuild: The Cowboys are replacing both guards on the offensive line, All-American tight end Brandon Pettigrew and a couple spots on the defensive line. But the biggest concern is probably in the secondary, where OSU has to replace three starters, including All-Big 12 cornerback Jacob Lacey, now of the Indianapolis Colts (great pickup by the Colts, by the way). OSU is also trotting out a freshman punter.
Final analysis: Oklahoma State's season will be made or broken, in many ways, on opening day, when the Cowboys play host to a rebuilding Georgia. If the Cowboys put it on the Bulldogs, as I suspect, then OSU is pumped with confidence and believes it can slay dragons.
Houston is on the schedule (in Stillwater) the next week, and will be a mild test of a letdown for the Cowboys. Houston is loaded on offense (not so much on defense) and is coached by former OU assistant Kevin Sumlin, who knows his way around the Cowboys.
If OSU is undefeated heading into the conference schedule, it's cupcake-ville the first two games – at Texas A&M and home against Missouri. Then, two tough ones (at Baylor and home against Texas) before a breather (at Iowa State). OSU finishes up with Tech and Colorado at home before going to Norman to close the season.
Make no mistake, Texas' toughest game this season will be in Stillwater. Oklahoma may be better than OSU, but the game in Stillwater will be tougher for UT than playing with half the house in Dallas against the Sooners. The Texas-Oklahoma State game is MY BIG 12 GAME OF THE YEAR. I predict it will finish the same way it did in 2007 – with a last-second FG to win it in a shootout. The difference will be Colt McCoy picking apart that OSU secondary.
Tomorrow: My second-place finishers in both divisions – Nebraska and Oklahoma