We continue with our Big 12 preview today by looking at my predicted first-place finishers in both divisions: Kansas and Texas
Predicted finish in '09 (Overall and Big 12 North): First, 8-4, 5-3
Predicted losses in Big 12 play: Oklahoma, at Texas Tech, at Texas
Can build around: The offense. Lake Travis' Todd Reesing, the Doug Flutie of the Big 12, is back after throwing for 3,888 yards (eighth-best nationally) and 32 touchdowns in 2008. KU returns mighty mite RB Jake Sharp, who ran for 860 yards (4.6 ypc) and 12 touchdowns in 2008.
The Jayhawks also have one of the best receiving corps in the country, led by junior Dezmon Briscoe (92 catches for 1,407 yards and 15 TDs) and former QB Kerry Meier (97 catches for 1,045 yards and eight TDs).
On defense, KU returns three starters on the defensive line in addition to highly touted junior college transfer DE Quinton Woods (6-6, 230), who originally signed with Michigan but failed to qualify academically. Kansas gave up less than 4 yards per carry as a defense last season (3.9 ypc) and should be able to match that or improve on that with the experience returning up front.
KU returns all four starters in the secondary, including first-team All-Big 12 strong safety Darrell Stuckey, who had 98 tackles and five interceptions in 2008.
Need to rebuild: The offensive line has only two starters returning (sophomore C Jeremiah Hatch and sophomore RT Jeff Spikes), and KU lost its entire linebacking corps from last year, which served as a huge source of leadership.
To help fill holes at linebacker, coach Mark Mangino moved sledgehammer RB Angus Quigley to LB, and Quigley has already earned a starting spot. Texas fans will remember Quigley for knocking S Blake Gideon out of the game last year, only to get flattened by S Christian Scott a couple plays later.
Final analysis: The measure of Mangino's recruiting and team-building will come this year because you don't get skill talent like Reesing, Briscoe, Meier and Sharp together on one team very often. If Mangino has recruited enough talent to fill in for that veteran group linebackers from last season (Mike Rivera, James Holt and Joe Mortensen), then Kansas wins the Big 12 North hands down. If not, KU will have to scratch and claw through the a Big 12 South schedule that includes Texas, OU and Texas Tech.
KU will get a test at UTEP on Sept. 12, and I could see that game being a struggle for the Jayhawks because the Miners return 15 starters, including QB Trevor Vittatoe. But I think KU wins at Colorado and at Kansas State before going 0-3 against the Big 12 South.
Predicted finish in '09 (Overall and Big 12 North): First, 12-0, 8-0
Predicted losses in Big 12 play: None
Can build around: It helps to have the most accurate quarterback in the history of college football (Colt McCoy completed 76.7 percent of his passes last season). Receivers Jordan Shipley, who had 89 catches for 1,060 yards and 11 TDs in 2008, Brandon Collins (35 catches for 430 yards and three TDs) and Malcolm Williams (17 catches for 304 yards and three TDs) figure to be among the league's best. The offensive line has plenty of experience, but struggled to run the ball when it wanted to in games last season against Texas Tech and Ohio State. That will have to improve.
On defense, DE/OLB Sergio Kindle wants to lead the country in sacks and should have help on the defensive line in Lamarr Houston, Kheeston Randall and ends Sam Acho and Alex Okafor. The linebackers are the best Mack Brown has had in 12 seasons at UT thanks to Roddrick Muckelroy, Jared Norton, Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho.
The secondary may be the deepest of any team outside of Florida thanks to some blossoming talent in CBs Chykie Brown , Aaron Williams and Curtis Brown as well as safeties Earl Thomas, Blake Gideon, Christian Scott, Nolan Brewster and Ben Wells.
Need to rebuild: Texas needs to avoid any depth issues on the defensive line. While Ben Alexander had a great spring, he's still more geared to stopping the run than the pass (so he'll get some serious work against Oklahoma and Oklahoma State). And we don't know what Derek Johnson, Calvin Howell and Tevin Mims will bring.
The other million-dollar question is how and who will run the football for the Longhorns? Cody Johnson and Foswhitt Whittaker were both dinged in the spring and failed to win the job outright. Vondrell McGee stayed healthy in the spring and was improved, according to coaches, who are also eager to see what Chris Whaley brings to the field.
But if Mack Brown is serious about implementing a power running game, it may make a lot of fans nervous because when Vince Young and Ricky Williams have not been in the backfield, the running game has not always flourished under Brown.
Final analysis: The schedule shapes up really well for Texas, which will be in for the fight of its life against Oklahoma and Oklahoma State and will probably struggle in one other game that no one sees right now (probably Baylor in Waco). But I'm going to take Colt McCoy, who has a career 73.4 percent completion rate against OU (58 of 79 for 709 yards with five touchdowns and one interception) and a career 79.4 percent completion rate (81 of 102 passes for 667 yards and with six touchdowns and four interceptions) against OSU.
McCoy may not match his NCAA record 76.7 percent completion rate for the 2008 season, but it's clear he's money when big stakes are on the line. He's also on a mission after everything that happened last season. On defense, I'm putting my money on Will Muschamp. It's Year 2 of Boom, and that's good news for everyone wearing burnt orange. More familiarity, more ferociousness and more chest-bumping.
I just have a feeling that Texas is going to survive the big games and end up playing Kansas for a second time in Dallas for the Big 12 title. And after winning that game, playing for the national title against Florida, which has a favorable SEC schedule (the Gators' toughest game appears to be at LSU because they don't play Alabama or Ole Miss from the SEC West) and appears capable of getting back to the national title game.