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August 7, 2008

Oklahoma, Missouri lead the way in Big 12

MORE: 2008 Big 12 Unit Rankings

In just 12 years of existence, the Big 12 has produced three national champions.

It could add a fourth this year.

With proven quarterbacks and experienced defenses returning, Oklahoma and Missouri are considered strong contenders to win it all.

But don't count out everyone else. The Big 12 has a history of surprising champions whether it be Oklahoma upsetting Florida State in 2000 or Texas stunning USC in 2005. Could the Longhorns pull off another stunner in '08? Or Kansas? Or Texas Tech?

In the wide-open Big 12, anything is possible.

THE PLAYERS

BEST OFFENSIVE PLAYER: Texas Tech wide receiver Michael Crabtree. He led the nation in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns last season as a redshirt freshman. He caught at least eight passes in 12 of 13 games and scored touchdowns in 10. Crabtree has excellent size, speed and hands, and stands out in a conference filled with star quarterbacks. Some project him as a top-five NFL Draft choice next year if he leaves after the season.

BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER: Missouri free safety William Moore. A returning All-American, Moore excels against the run and pass. He tied for the NCAA lead with eight interceptions last season. He also posted 117 tackles, second-most among Missouri defenders. Moore was at his best in the second half of '07, indicating that he's still improving.

OFFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Kansas State quarterback Josh Freeman. No team's success might be more dependent on one player than Kansas State's is on Freeman. The Wildcats lost their leading rusher and receiver Jordy Nelson, so Freeman who was solid in '07 has to prove he can thrive as the focal point of the offense. He also has proclaimed himself the best quarterback in the Big 12, which is loaded with accomplished passers.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Oklahoma linebacker Ryan Reynolds. Reynolds - who has had injury issues - is projected to move into the middle to replace Curtis Lofton, an all-conference selection. OU figures to be a national championship contender if the defense is sturdy, which magnifies the importance of Reynolds' performance.

PLAYER WITH THE BIGGEST SHOES TO FILL: Kansas cornerback Kendrick Harper. Harper, a senior, has one career interception. He projects as the replacement for Aqib Talib, who had 15 career interceptions and was an All-American, Orange Bowl MVP and the Big 12's only first-round draft choice from last season. That's the definition of leaving big shoes to fill. By the way, Talib is one of just two starters lost from Kansas' '07 defense, so if things go awry, guess where the blame probably starts.

BREAKOUT OFFENSIVE STAR: Oklahoma State wide receiver Dez Bryant. As a freshman last season, Bryant distinguished himself by becoming the No. 2 receiving option to Adarius Bowman. This season, he's expected to be the go-to guy and should be more productive. More than half of his 43 catches last season came in the final four games of the season.

BREAKOUT DEFENSIVE STAR: Texas defensive end Brian Orakpo. He managed only 5.5 sacks last season, but he was hobbled with a leg injury and missed four games. Orakpo, a senior, posted two sacks in the Holiday Bowl victory over Arizona State to indicate what he could accomplish if fully healthy.

BEST OFFENSIVE NEWCOMER: Colorado running back Darrell Scott. In the past, running backs have thrived in coach Dan Hawkins' version of the spread. Now, he has Scott - the nation's top-rated running back prospect. Scott rushed for 2,433 yards and 33 touchdowns as a high school senior at Ventura (Calif.) St. Bonaventure.

BEST DEFENSIVE NEWCOMER: Texas Tech defensive end Brandon Sesay. Red Raiders insiders are hailing Sesay, a junior college transfer who signed with Georgia out of high school, as the premier defensive prospect signed in the Mike Leach era. Sesay figures to bolster the Tech pass rush and add teeth to a defense that typically has gummed at opposing offenses.

THE COACHES

COACH ON THE HOTTEST SEAT: Oklahoma State's Mike Gundy. Last season's post-Texas Tech game tirade still gets attention, but the biggest issue Gundy faces is that Oklahoma State is 18-19 in his three seasons. Big-money donor T. Boone Pickens has set expectations at nine victories. That's a high standard for a team generally picked fourth in the Big 12 South.

BEST COACHING STAFF: The Sooners have won three of the past four Big 12 championships. Case closed.

BEST OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Missouri's Dave Christensen. In each of the past three seasons, he has supervised a no-huddle offense that has ranked at least 24th in the nation in total offense. The Tigers lost heralded quarterback Brad Smith after the 2005 season, but they've retooled with Chase Daniel and gotten better.

BEST DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Texas' Will Muschamp. The Big 12 has become an offensive league, but Muschamp who will be in his first season with the Longhorns is out to change that. Muschamp has overseen defenses that ranked among the nation's top 10 in four of his past five seasons.

ASSISTANT WITH THE BEST CHANCE TO BE A HEAD COACH THIS TIME NEXT YEAR: Missouri's Christensen. Missouri could challenge for a national title this year, which will make an innovative offensive coordinator an attractive choice for a program in need. If Missouri lives up to expectations this season, Christensen could be on a different sideline next season.

THE GAMES

GAME OF THE YEAR: Texas Tech at Oklahoma, Nov. 22. Tech is the rising program. OU is an established power. Many see Tech as OU's greatest threat in the Big 12 South, and the Red Raiders did beat the Sooners last season. But this season, Tech must travel to Norman. The Big 12 South championship could be decided Nov. 22.

Missouri vs. Illinois in St. Louis, Aug. 30
Cincinnati at Oklahoma, Sept. 6
Kansas at USF, Sept. 12
Virginia Tech at Nebraska, Sept. 27
Oklahoma vs. Texas in Dallas, Oct. 11
Missouri at Texas, Oct. 18
Kansas at Oklahoma, Oct. 18
Texas Tech at Kansas, Oct. 25
Texas Tech at Oklahoma, Nov. 22
Kansas vs. Missouri in Kansas City, Mo., Nov. 29
TOUGHEST SCHEDULE: Colorado. The Buffaloes face a four-game stretch against West Virginia, Florida State, Texas and Kansas. And a week later, the Buffaloes travel to Missouri. Of that group, all but Florida State posted at least 10 victories last season. The Buffs also get road trips to Texas A&M and Nebraska.

EASIEST SCHEDULE: Iowa State. If any schedule ever could be considered easy for Iowa State, this is it. The Cyclones' three Division I-A non-conference opponents Kent State, Iowa and UNLV combined for 11 victories in '07. Iowa State also avoids Oklahoma, Texas and Texas Tech in interdivisional play. Of course, Iowa State must play North Division rivals Kansas and Missouri, but at least both have to travel to Ames. Six wins and a bowl berth aren't out of the question.

WORST NON-CONFERENCE SCHEDULE: Can we have a tie here? Kansas State paid its way out of a home game against Fresno State and instead scheduled Division I-AA Montana State, which went 6-5 a year ago. The Wildcats also face Sun Belt Conference bottom-feeders North Texas and Louisiana-Lafayette five combined victories in '07 and travel to Louisville, which was 6-6 last season. And then there's Texas Tech, which plays two Division I-AA opponents Eastern Washington and Massachusetts SMU (1-11 last season) and Nevada, which tied for fourth in the WAC. So which schedule is more embarrassing? It might be a dead heat, with the emphasis on dead.

BIGGEST MISMATCH: Southeast Missouri State at Missouri, Sept. 6. Missouri averaged just under 40 points per game and returns quarterback Chase Daniel, wide receiver Jeremy Maclin and tight end Chase Coffman from that explosive offense. Division I-AA Southeast Missouri State went 3-9 a year ago and allowed 55 points to Tennessee-Martin and Missouri State.

THE PROGRAMS

PROGRAMS ON THE RISE: Colorado. The Buffs improved by four victories in their second season under Hawkins. This season's starting lineup projects to be loaded with underclassmen, including the heralded Scott at tailback.

PROGRAM ON THE DECLINE: Texas A&M. Why expect the Aggies to be better or even as good as last season's team? The offensive line has to be rebuilt, the receivers have been unproductive and the defense front to back is unproven at best. If new coach Mike Sherman can match last season's seven victories, he deserves a contract extension.

IN THREE YEARS, OKLAHOMA WILL BE THE BEST TEAM IN THE CONFERENCE: Why not? The Sooners keep assembling top-10 recruiting classes, and Stoops and his staff keep proving they can develop them and win championships.

FIRST TEAM OFFENSE
QB Chase Daniel, Missouri, Sr.
RB Marlon Lucky, Nebraska, Sr.
RB DeMarco Murray, Oklahoma, Soph.
WR Michael Crabtree, Texas Tech, Soph.
WR Jeremy Maclin, Missouri, Soph.
TE Brandon Pettigrew, Oklahoma State, Sr.
T Phil Loadholt, Oklahoma, Sr.
G Luis Vasquez, Texas Tech, Sr.
C Jon Cooper, Oklahoma, Sr.
G Duke Robinson, Oklahoma, Sr.
T Rylan Reed, Texas Tech, Sr.
FIRST TEAM DEFENSE
E Auston English, Oklahoma, Jr.
T George Hypolite, Colorado, Sr.
T Gerald McCoy, Oklahoma, Soph.
E Brian Orakpo, Texas, Sr.
LB Joe Mortensen, Kansas, Sr.
LB Mike Rivera, Kansas, Sr.
LB Sean Weatherspoon, Missouri, Jr.
CB Jamar Wall, Texas Tech, Jr.
CB Jacob Lacey, Oklahoma State, Sr.
FS William Moore, Missouri, Sr.
SS Nic Harris, Oklahoma, Sr.
FIRST TEAM SPECIALISTS
K Jeff Wolfert, Missouri
P Justin Brantly, Texas A&M
KR Marcus Herford, Kansas

MORE: 2008 Big 12 Unit Rankings

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.



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