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Big 12 Week: Binding Picks, North Division

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1. Nebraska
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Not everybody thinks so, but the Huskers strike me as the dead obvious favorite here again. It seems Bill Callahan has finally brought along the big play talent and general balance the offense lacked his first two seasons, and they're 8-2 against the rest of the North since the Joe Dailey-damaged Season That Must Not Be Named in 2004; that record was 5-0 vs. the division last year, only one of them - in overtime at Kansas - really close. Just as important as getting Callahan's players into the overhauled system, offensively, the defense last year was closer to the turn-of-the-century Blackshirts that competed for mythical championships and ought to be about as good again. I still suspect the rejuvenation on offense is accumulated against sisters of the poor, and the risk averse NFL mind comes too strongly into play against elite competition, when the running game in particular was still ground to a near-hault. But there is no elite competition in the Big 12 North, which hasn't put a team (including Nebraska) in the final polls since 2003. Unless Sam Keller is an out-and-out bust, NU might lose to USC, Texas and one of the other South teams on its schedule (Oklahoma State, which rocked Nebraska's defense in Stillwater last year, or Texas A&M, victim of an improbable comeback in a one-point loss in College Station) again, but it's still the most talented team in the division and ought to have no problem repeating if it takes care of its business therein.

Keller: Also seeking NCAA approval to continue booming fake photography business. Just an all-around talent, this guy.
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If Keller happens to be really good, which anyone who watched him singlehandedly eviscerate LSU and, for a little while, USC back in '05 has to secretly think he will be, one could do some roster cobbling and see the pieces in place for a mythical championship challenge, but they're playing USC and Texas, maybe the two best teams in the country, and I don't see even the platonic ideal of this team pulling off both those games. Even one is a stretch. Still the decisive underdog to the South winner, whoever it is, but BCS conjecture isn't crazy.

2. Missouri
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Love the offense. Not so enthusiastic about the defense. Hate the precedent, as far as winning any kind of title is concerned (i.e., there is none in the last 35 years). Chase Daniel is a "too short" gem who certainly comes off as the real deal, statistically, and there's nothing deceptive about his speed. But all that was also true of Brad Smith, and he never did better than break even within the conference because a) the offense was too one-dimensional (the dimension being Smith) against decent defenses and b) the defense was consistently mediocre-to-atrocious, the kind that could be counted on to look intimidating and fast one week and allow 45 points the next. Daniel might be in a better position than Smith ever was with the rest of the running game - though, as with Nebraska's supposed balance, I have my doubts about the proportion of Tony Temple's 1,000 yards that were gained against Murray State and New Mexico - and is without question a better passer. The youth on defense, though, is working wholesale against advancement to the Big 12 championship - a more veteran group couldn't stop the run last year (4.5 per carry in conference, a slight regression from `04 and `05) and lost the most productive half of its front seven rotation.

This is a potential double-digit winner, but I think they're more likely standing still in the eight-win range.

3. Kansas State
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This ranking betrays my initial cynicism over KSU, because I'm not particularly impressed - the Wildcats started what they no doubt hope is a "resurgent" phase after a couple awful, bowl-less seasons to close the Snyder Era, but last year's 7-6 record included 18-point home losses to Louisville and Nebraska, a 20-point loss at Missouri, a 19-point loss at

Get your shots on Josh Freeman while you still can.
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Kansas and a 27-point loss to Rutgers in the bowl game, not to mention a really inexcusable two-touchdown loss at Baylor. That can be offset to an extent by the close wins against Oklahoma State and Texas, but though I don't have much comment on the first one (OSU, despite the understandable gushing over its offense, was still just a 6-6 team in the regular season, after all), I am positive having watched the game, looked at the numbers and judged the wild circumstances (untimely fumbles, trick plays, a blocked punt, injured quarterback, etc.) that the UT win is one of the genuine flukes of the decade, and given KSU's sorry record against other winners, nothing like it is on the horizon.

But I would have said exactly the same about South Florida and its upset of Louisville before last season, and looked like a fool, and probably would suffer the same fate if I were to ignore the leap uber VHT Josh Freeman is likely to make after an iffy debut ("iffy" is putting it politely: kid's TD:INT ratio was 6:15. Yikes, yes, but it's not going to get worse, if you know what I mean). A quarterback like that, as he's proved already, is worth a headturner or two per year, no matter the motley crew of adequate-at-best talent surrounding him. And speaking of a motley crew, as far as the Wildcats' place in the division is concerned, we are still dealing with a reigning seven-game winner alongside a pair of teams (Colorado and Iowa State) that didn't even combine for that many wins last year. So, with qualms about Freeman's consistency and the defense's regression against the run (allowed about five per carry in conference games besides Baylor, which cannot and barely even attempts to run) duly noted, I'm taking the chalk, as it were.

4. Colorado
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Expectations of improvement from CU are universal and obvious, and the Buffaloes so owned this division under Gary Barnett (four North titles in five years) that it wouldn't surprise me to see them come rocketing back into contention. The defense is fine - it was statistically better across the board last year, in fact, than in 2001, when CU won the Big 12 and finished in the top ten - and the running game somehow managed to flourish with virtually zero passing threat to loosen up a defense. Any defense. The Buffs were still good enough amid the unfolding misery of Dan Hawkins' debut season to beat the pirate crap out of Texas Tech (30-6) and push Georgia to the absolute brink (14-13 in Athens, a game Colorado should have won). There are some issues as far as depth on the offensive line and getting a more consistent pass rush, but the one big, glaring, unavoidable hole in the middle of the tracks is at quarterback, and if the move to coach's son Cody there takes the position to the coveted level of "not hopeless," then the bowl game, she is a beckoning siren.

But I dunno, what was up with Cody Hawkins on the bench when Bernard Jackson was going 9 for 24 with three interceptions against Baylor, or 3 of 14 with an interception at Oklahoma, or 8 of 20 with a pick at Kansas? Those three abysmal performances came in one four-game span in October, after primary back-up Brian White quit the team, and two of them (Baylor and Kansas) were close games that surely would have gone Colorado's way with any semblance of passing threat. But not a peep out of Cody. Either preserving his redshirt year was considered more valuable than attempting to salvage a doomed season, or he remains a sketchy project until proven otherwise. Either way, he's probably an upgrade.

5. Iowa State
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I'm the only prognosticator I'm aware of to date who has the Cyclones out of the cellar, and that may be a reflection of my optimism re: new coaches relative to the rest of the general football-following public's - see my ACC picks for more evidence of my rosy disposition towards regime change. Where the talent exists, I think a coach like Gene Chizik, who's been around nothing but big winners that last few years at Auburn and Texas, can inject some instant enthusiasm into an ossifying environment. He brings a tough defensive pedigree and the offense is apparently moving to a vaguely Purdue-ish sort of quick-hitting spread gizmo, which makes sense with a four-year starting quarterback and five new, likely overwhelmed linemen you don't want trying to overpower people.

Meyer: Not quietly into that good night. Not going out like that.
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The question is, does the talent exist to push back into the six/seven-win range? If you look at last year's effort, no, it definitely does not - before it upset Missouri in the finale, ISU was losing Big 12 games by an average of three touchdowns and hadn't come closer in-conference than 14 points (vs. Nebraska). The defense allowed five yards per carry in league games, the offensive line allowed the most sacks in the conference, the wins came in triple overtime, by one point over a I-AA team and amid various controversy, etc. This team legitimately reeked last year. I keep going back to '05, though, when the situation was exactly the opposite - four of five losses by a field goal, all four Big 12 wins by at least two touchdowns, one of the stingiest run defenses in the conference - and think Bret Meyer and Todd Blythe in the passing game have been close enough to real success in their careers to disdain the moral victories of rebuilding mode. Their class has been in this position before: as freshmen, they were part of the team that rebounded from a 2-10 post-Seneca Wallace disaster to finish 7-5 in the Independence Bowl. There are two keys to repeating the same sort of swing: an immediate impact in the stagnant running game by JUCO savior J.J. Bass, and a Chizik-orchestrated turnaround on the defensive line.

6. Kansas
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I wish to stress at this point the extreme parity in the division behind Nebraska, especially in positions (as assigned by me, that is, in this specific post) three through six. There are no surprises. I go out of my way to say that because Kansas doesn't really deserve this when, after a solid decade of woe, it's actually starting the season at the point - off two straight years at/slightly above .500 - the teams I have immediately in front of it are trying to claw their way back to. KU has the coaching stability Iowa State does lacks, and unlike Colorado goes into the fall settled at quarterback. We're told ad nauseum by the summer magazines and whatever outlet has the chance that alliteratively-named cornerback Aqib Talib is one of the best defensive players in the country.

That may be so - I haven't had the pleasure of judging Talib's elite cover skills, personally - but how do those accolades jibe with the most generous pass defense in the country? In terms of efficiency, that ranking is much better (47th), but five different teams threw for better than 350 yards on Kansas last year. What was Aqib Talib doing while Adarius Bowman was personally hauling in 13 passes for 300 yards and four second half touchdowns in a single, prolific evening? Is it because he broke up so many passes? I take that as an indication teams were throwing an inordinate amount in his direction.

Anyway, I don't mean to pick on poor Aqib or ignorantly suggest he's not all he's made out to be in the press (I'm just asking). A bigger issue than the pass defense is the graduation of Jon Cornish, who had no advance hype last year but quietly led the Big 12 and set the school record for rushing yards in a season, and in so doing kept pressure off the quarterbacks. Most of the time, that was freshman Kerry Meier, who was decent when healthy but closed the year with his two worst games against Kansas State and Missouri. Cornish's emergence was worth about a touchdown more per game than the Jayhawks averaged in 2004 and '05, and whence it came, that production shall return.