Ten things to watch for in the Big 12

Updated: August 27, 2003, 6:59 PM ET
By Mark Wangrin | Special to ESPN.com

Ten things to look for in the Big 12 while you're thanking your lucky stars you don't have Guy Morriss' job:

1. Oklahoma State will claim another top five victim
The last two years the Cowboys felled mighty Oklahoma. This year the Cowboys could turn the Big 12 race topsy-turvy without coming within two touchdowns of the incensed Sooners.

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  • Kansas State (Oct. 11) and Texas (Nov. 8) could be top five teams when they venture into Lewis Field. One or both could be slinking out with a loss. OSU scared the Longhorns 17-15 last year in Austin. Over the years they've been able to strike quickly against them but couldn't hang on. If a secondary that's gotten a healthy dose of speed comes together, the Cowboys could be able to control UT's vaunted set of receivers. That makes the game very winnable.

    OSU hasn't come within three touchdowns of the Wildcats in the last three seasons, but if KSU can't fix its pass rush and coverage problems they're certainly vulnerable to a receiving corps that this year will prove it has more than Rashaun Woods.

    2. Iowa State will try to clone Seneca Wallace
    Austin Flynn has had a solid preseason at quarterback, but he can't do what Wallace did for the Cyclones early last year with his arm and his amazing feet -- give an average team a chance to beat the big guys. A tough Big 12 schedule scuttled those hopes in 2002 and it's no different this season, although ISU does get Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas State and Colorado at home.

    An improved defense anchored by tackle Jordan Carstens will help keep ISU in big games -- the Cyclones just won't have the offensive punch to win them.

    3. Roy Williams will block a punt
    Mack Brown has put his talented senior receiver in the middle of the Longhorns punt return team with the expressed purpose of swatting a punt.

    "I'll block five of them,'' Williams said this week. "Y'all can laugh at me, but I will."

    Do that, roll up at least 1,700 yards receiving and a half dozen signature highlight plays and block five punts and Williams has the cachet to become the first wide receiver who didn't return kicks to win the Heisman Trophy. Not that he will.

    4. Gary Pinkel will smile
    Tell the Missouri coach that his team is poised for greatness -- OK, a winning record and a bowl game -- and he's quick to frown and point out that the Tigers won only five games last year.

    This year he's got a faster defense that can tackle, a more experienced Brad Smith at quarterback and a schedule that has three tossup games that the Tigers can win -- Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Nebraska -- at home. Eight wins are not out of the question. Neither is Pinkel's lips curling upward in an unfamiliar fashion. They call it a smile, Gary. Get used to it.

    5. Backup quarterback play will help decide the Big 12 South race
    Jason White's gimpy knees and Chance Mock's headstrong recklessness give cause for Oklahoma and Texas to make sure there's a strong No. 2 ready to go.

    OU's second-best quarterback is Brent Rawls, but only an act of God -- or Bob Stoops, assuming there's a difference in Oklahoma -- will put him in a game before Noah Allen or Paul Thompson. That could cost the Sooners.

    Should Mock lower his shoulder into a linebacker one too many times, Texas will call on sophomore Vince Young, whom many recruiting experts rated above A&M's big-play quarterback Reggie McNeal when they were high school seniors in 2001. Young's passing, woeful early in camp, got sharper as the season approached, but regardless he can still win games with his feet. He may have to.

    6. Nebraska will live up to its informal slogan, "Hit or Miss."
    Unfortunately for the Huskers, it'll be the miss. The Huskers could easily finish fourth in the North, a prediction that could have gotten you run out of Lincoln as a heretic just two years ago. But with an unremarkable offensive line (save for ironically named tackle Richie Incognito, who'll be anything but on this average unit), a below average passing game and a defense that's in denial about its slippage, that's just what will happen. Is another seven-win season a disaster? It is in Lincoln.

    7. Kansas State will be exposed as being overrated as a national title contender
    The first clue? KSU's offense carried it against Cal, a sure sign of Armageddon. Bill Snyder, who's relied on a running game and attacking defense to turn around one of the NCAA's most moribund major college programs, knows this isn't the way it's supposed to be.

    Snyder, whose policy is to not discuss injuries, talked openly of the Wildcats' biggest boo-boos from the opener against Cal -- an ineffective pass rush and an inability to cover in man-to-man schemes.

    KSU's offense will be hard to dismiss, with the one-two rushing punch of halfback Darren Sproles and quarterback Ell Roberson. But if the Wildcats' defense doesn't return to form before the Oct. 4 game at Texas, Roberson may have to outscore opponents with his passing, not a favorable bet for KSU.

    8. Kliff Kingsbury will be confirmed as a product of the system
    This will cause much hand wringing in Lubbock, but it will be good news for the Red Raiders.

    If career backup B.J. Symons can keep the Tech offense humming surrounded by Kingsbury's top five receivers from last year, including dependable halfback Taurean Henderson, Tech has a chance to do better much than the fifth-place South Division finish forecasted by the media. The last three starting quarterbacks coach Mike Leach had -- Tim Couch at Kentucky, Josh Heupel at Oklahoma and Kingsbury at Tech -- all excelled from the moment they stepped under center, giving reason for Symons to do the same. Heck, even the student who came up to receiver Wes Welker recently and started grilling him on the new quarterback unaware that the guy standing next to him was Symons will know his name.

    If Tech can play defense -- any kind of defense -- under new coordinator Lyle Setenich the Red Raiders will spoil somebody's party this year.

    9. Colorado will be ready when Kansas State falters
    OK, the Buffaloes have a long, long way to go and tough road to get there. But they'll be there.

    Look for the Buffs to take a beating in the nonconference schedule that features Colorado State, UCLA, Washington State and Florida State but then do their typical strong Big 12 finish. An Oct. 18 visit to Kansas State will be darn near unwinnable, but the Buffaloes catch Oklahoma and Nebraska at home and avoid Texas and Oklahoma State on the rotating Big 12 schedule.

    An improved defense, perhaps the strongest under Barnett, will carry the load early as quarterback Joel Klatt and an unproven kicking game find their footing.

    10. More nightmares for Mack Brown
    Dennis Franchione will serve notice he's ready to share top billing with Bob Stoops in Mack Brown's nightmares. Or replace him.

    Texas may finally have the mindset to take down the confident Sooners, but that doesn't mean the Longhorns will make the title game, with a road trip to Stillwater on Nov. 8 looms as the Horns' most likely tripwire. Even though many observers feel the Aggies are at least a year away from even approaching Texas' talent on the field, Franchione will inject the attitude that's been missing from this series in UT's three double-digit wins over the Aggies in their last three meetings.

    Over at Baylor, Guy Morriss will be wondering what hit him when the Bears go winless in the Big 12 again and surpass some of last year's records for futility. Be glad you're not him, except on payday. One million dollars a year can take away some of the sting, but he'll still have to watch the Bears play every week. You won't. Be thankful for that.

    Mark Wangrin covers the Big 12 for the San Antonio Express-News.

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