We are exactly one month from the start of fall camp for the Missouri Tigers. Mizzou opens practice on August 5th for what will be the final season of the Big XII Conference as we know it. Over those 30 days, PowerMizzou.com will set up camp like no one else. We will provide Tiger fans with one story a day previewing camp and the 2010 season from every possible angle.
Today, we take a league-wide approach to get our previews kicked off. Here is our list of 30 things that will impact the race to what may be the final Big XII Championship Game. Some of the items are individual players, some are games, some are broader issues. The list is in no particular order of importance.
1. Missouri vs Nebraska
The winner of this game has appeared in the conference title game four years in a row. There is no reason to expect anything different. The Tigers and Huskers are simply head and shoulders above everyone else in the North. Nebraska gets the final conference game between the two at home on October 30.
2. The Red River Rivalry
Like the Tigers and Huskers in the North, when Oklahoma and Texas meet, the South is most often won or lost. Texas A&M appeared in the title game in 1997 and 1998. Since then, it's been the Horns or the Sooners. It is once again the first conference game for each team, on October 2 in Dallas.
3. Texas Tech's Offense
Mike Leach is out and Tommy Tuberville is in. Tuberville was adamant in saying that the spread is what put Tech on the map and he'd stick with it. But will the Red Raiders be able to run it as effectively? Who runs the show, Taylor Potts or Steven Sheffield? The Red Raiders have improved on defense, but they still win games by piling up points. Can they do it as well as they have under Leach for years?
Both quarterbacks were pressed into action sooner than expected last season. Jones had to take over for Sam Bradford early in the season and the Sooners struggled. Gilbert stepped in for Colt McCoy in the national title game, struggled early, but adjusted and nearly led the Longhorns back against Alabama. With both entering fall camp as the man for the first time, which has his team more ready to make a national title run?
The former Nebraska quarterback takes over for Mark Mangino at Kansas after one of the most disappointing and turbulent seasons in Jayhawk history. Gill has a cupboard that is far from fully stocked. Can he make the Jayhawks a threat to take down some of the league's top-tier teams or will Kansas simply be a speed bump as they adjust to a new coach and a new system?
6. The D-Train
As much as the top teams against each other, upsets shape the league race every year. The individual player most capable of delivering one could be K-State tailback Daniel Thomas. Thomas is probably the league's top running back. He doesn't have a ton of help, but the Wildcats went 4-4 in the league last year and Thomas makes them dangerous every week. As he goes, so goes the Cats' season.
Baylor's one-man show lost most of his sophomore season to an ACL tear. The man many have compared to Brad Smith is good enough to win games in the Big XII by himself at times when healthy. But how healthy is he and is he the same player he was pre-injury? Baylor fans hope so or they're headed toward another tough year in the Big XII.
8. The Aggie Offense
Jerrod Johnson may be the best quarterback in the league. Cyrus Gray and Christine Michael give A&M a heck of a backfield. The Aggies showed against Texas they are more than capable of putting up points. Can they put up enough to make a push to threaten Texas and OU in the South?
9. Where are the Wideouts?
Gone from last year are Jordan Shipley, Danario Alexander, Dez Briscoe, Dez Bryant and Kerry Meier. That's a couple of all-conference teams right there. Which team has the talent ready to step in and replace its all-American talent? Ryan Broyles at Oklahoma is the league's best wideout. Who steps up alongside him?
Missouri fans compare Gabbert's sophomore season favorably to that of Chase Daniel and the stats and record back them up. But Daniel went from solid as a sophomore to out of this world as a junior. If Gabbert makes a leap even close to that large, the Tigers may surprise a lot of people. If not, he'll need plenty of help.
Some in Lincoln insist the defense may be better than a year ago. That's a tall task after losing Ndamakong Suh, who may have been the best defensive player the Big XII has ever seen a season ago. Can the Huskers be close to last year's level? They might have to be because as of now, the Big Red has nothing but a big question mark at quarterback.
12. The Hawk's Last Flight?
Colorado could be in its final season in the Big XII. Its coach's future is just as uncertain. Dan Hawkins came in from Boise State prior to the 2006 season with great promise. He has gone 16-32 in the four seasons since. There is little doubt it is put up or shut up time in Boulder.
13. A Cyclone Revival
In his first year, head coach Paul Rhoads led Iowa State to a bowl game...something many thought impossible at the start of the season. With an experienced quarterback and the underrated Alexander Robinson returning, can Rhoads build on the success in Ames and return ISU to the heights of early in the decade when they challenged for division titles?
14. The North's Last Ride
What will the reception be as Colorado and Nebraska make their farewell tours around the league? Will their impending departures have any impact on the atmospheres they encounter from opposing fans? Could it change a close call or two along the way? It's tough to think Dan Beebe wants to see the Huskers in the league title game in their final season in the Big XII...Missouri made plenty of enemies during conference expansion talk, but they have likely gained a lot of fans this season who don't want to see the Huskers in Dallas.
15. Homecoming in Columbia
Gary Pinkel has never beaten Oklahoma. When the Sooners come to Columbia on October 23, many feel it will mark Pinkel's best opportunity. Sandwiched between road games at Texas A&M, Nebraska and Texas Tech, this is the game many Tiger fans have circled as the one that will truly show the direction of Pinkel's program.
16. Texas at Nebraska
Husker fans are still bitter about the extra second they feel the Longhorns didn't deserve in last year's title game. This is the last time the two will meet as conference opponents and both will have plenty riding on the game. The Horns will have two weeks to prepare after the Oklahoma game. Nebraska goes to Oklahoma State and hosts Missouri in the two weeks after the game. Texas could come out of this game either as an overwhelming favorite to make the league title game or with its hopes dead in the water.
17. Kendall is the Hunted
With Zac Robinson, Keith Toston and Dez Bryant all gone from a year ago, Oklahoma State's hopes may ride almost completely on the senior season of Kendall Hunter. Before an injury, Hunter was one of the top backs in America last season. Can he carry the Pokes to another strong season or will OSU fade out of the picture as a contender?
18. Miller Time
We've talked about the A&M offense, but Von Miller led the league in sacks last year and is one of the most underpublicized players in the league. Can Miller help an Aggie defense that has struggled mightily in recent years?
19. Get your Kicks
The Big XII features some of America's best kickers. Alex Henery does it all at Nebraska and Grant Ressel was the country's most accurate for Mizzou a season ago. Could the game in Lincoln come down to the right foot of one of these players? If so, the team doing the kicking will feel very confident.
20. Defensive Rebound?
After putting up video game numbers through 2007 and 2008, Big XII offenses took a step back last season with the likes of Chase Daniel and Sam Bradford out of the league. With McCoy, Robinson and Todd Reesing gone this season, will defenses continue to make improvement or will the replacements wear out scoreboard operators across the league again?
As good as Texas was a year ago, the Horns did nearly everything through the air. Whaley, a 245-pound redshirt freshman, could give Texas the go-to back they haven't had in a couple of seasons. With McCoy and Shipley gone, Texas will need to rely more on the run and Whaley could make that possible.
22. A&M's Freshman Linemen
The Aggie skill position players are as good as any in the league, but the performance of two true freshmen up front may shape the season. Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews have big jobs to do. Joeckel was on campus for spring ball and is likely the starting left tackle in College Station. Big assignment. Is Joeckel up to the task?
23. Who plays QB in Lincoln?
We mentioned it above, but rarely has a team that is mentioned as a conference favorite been so unsettled at quarterback. Zac Lee was up and down last year, Cody Green didn't do much in limited opportunity. There is a lot of buzz that Taylor Martinez could end up as the starter. Who wins the battle? And is he good enough to carry the Huskers back to the title game?
Colorado has had plenty of problems, but none more pressing than the utter lack of a passing game. While the Buffs are still unsettled at quarterback, the Michigan transfer teams with Scotty McKnight to give CU some legitimate targets at wideout. Will it be good enough to rescue an offense that has done little the last few seasons?
25. Defending the Air Attack
The Big XII has become known as a league that fires the football all over. It's tough to win if you can't defend the pass. Nebraska (Prince Amukamara and Alfonzo Dennard) and Texas (Aaron Williams and Curtis Brown) probably have the league's top tandems at corner. Do those players fulfill expectations? Are there hidden gems elsewhere in the league that can make the big plays?
The Oklahoma back is one of the most talented athletes in the league, but he's never been healthy. Still, he has nearly 3,400 total yards and 37 touchdowns in three seasons. If he can stay on the field, Murray could really help the Sooner offense rebound.
As a freshman, Smith tied the Missouri school record for sacks. Some in Columbia are talking about Smith leaving early for the NFL Draft after this season. To have that chance, he'll have to have a big-time season. If he does, how good can the Tigers be?
Oklahoma has dominated the in-state season finale, winning seven straight. When the Sooners and Cowboys meet, will OU be looking to lock up a bid in the league title game? Rivalry games on the final weekend can have a huge say in who gets to play one more time before a bowl game.
29. Texas Grudge Match
The Aggies and Longhorns staged the Big 12's most entertaining regular season game on Thanksgiving night a season ago. The Aggies have hopes that this game could be as big for them as the Horns. Texas may be looking to lock up a second straight shot at the league title. The two play in Austin on November 25th.
30. The Border War
The last three years, Missouri and Kansas have staged some of the best games in college football. In 2007, it was a showdown for the ages won by the Tigers. In 2008, the Tigers won the North, but Kerry Meier crushed them with a fourth-down touchdown in the final 30 seconds. Last year, Grant Ressel booted a field goal to take down the Jayhawks on the final play of Mark Mangino's career. Will Missouri be playing for a shot at the title game or simply for a fourth win in five years over its most bitter rival?
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