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August 21, 2006
Tale of two teams
In recent years the Big 12 North has been a horserace to see whom the Big 12 South champion in the Big 12 championship would slaughter, which Iowa State has dismissed itself due to some missed field goals in crunch time.
But this season two teams in the North stand out above the rest and hope to prove that the northern division isn't a push over any more.
Nebraska seems to finally be back on track after a few dismal seasons in recent years compared to normal Cornhusker standards. Head coach Bill Callahan finally has the west coast offense in place with quarterback Zac Taylor as its centerpiece.
The Huskers have an offense that looks to be very strong behind an experience offensive line with sophomore running back Marlon Lucky running the show in the backfield. They return everyone at receiver and enjoy the return of tight end Matt Herian after sitting out a season due to injury.
After the 2005 season in which the Huskers ranked No. 26 in the nation in total defense, Callahan's bunch hope to improve on that mark as their defense is probably just a step behind South counterparts Texas and Oklahoma, who have two of the best defenses in the nation returning.
If Nebraska isn't the team that tests the South's dominance in the league it could be Iowa State who is returning three of the best skill position players in the conference on offense.
Quarterback Bret Meyer isn't a name that goes unrecognized anymore around the Big 12 as he has proved to be one of the best signal callers in the conference. He and wide receiver Todd Blythe make one of the best quarterback-receiver combinations in college football.
But with offenses focusing on the Cyclone passing game, that also included unheralded receiver Austin Flynn, many teams might forget about senior running back Stevie Hicks who has been a steady runner out of the backfield the last three seasons.
Senior defensive tackle Brent Curvey is one of the best in the conference and will lead a defense that should be good enough to allow the offense to score more points, and possibly give Nebraska a run for Big 12 North supremacy.
But as it has been in recent seasons Iowa State's special teams, namely the kicking game, could have a serious impact on where the Cyclones finish. In each of the last two seasons ISU has been a field goal away from the championship game. Without a proven kicker, the Cyclones will have to rely on their offense to score six instead of crossing their fingers to pray for three.
Both Missouri and Colorado are looking for new quarterbacks to take the reigns after losing huge production at the position.
The Tigers seem to have already found their heir to Brad Smith in sophomore Chase Daniel. With an unheralded defense that is better than most realize, the Tigers could be the North's surprise team if the offense finds a rhythm early in the season.
Colorado is looking for a replacement for departed quarterback Joel Klatt. Senior James Cox and juniors Brian White and Bernard Jackson will battle for the job, but the biggest problem for new head coach Dan Hawkins could be finding who to throw the ball too.
A solid defense could keep the Buffs in games, but the schedule is brutal with road games at Oklahoma and Missouri and a date with Texas before finishing with Iowa State at home and Nebraska on the road.
The battle for the best team in Kansas could come down Nov. 18 when Kansas travels to Manhattan to face Kansas State. New Wildcat head coach Ron Prince has a big rebuilding job ahead of him that will just be getting started this season while the Jayhawks continue to improve but just not as fast as other teams in the division.
With the exception of a possible run by Missouri, this division should come down to a two-horse race between Nebraska and Iowa State.
But with the Cyclones drawing Texas, Oklahoma and Texas Tech from the South with road games to Austin and Norman, expect the Cornhuskers to take the division.
But don't be surprised if it's a few missed Iowa State field goals that get them there in the end.