The Missouri football team has represented the North in the Big 12 Championship game for the past two seasons.
Granted, the Tigers were waxed by Oklahoma both times, but the power-rich South has won the last five conference titles.
If MU is to make it to Arlington, Texas, site of the 2009 Big 12 Championship, and represent the North for the third straight year, it will have to quickly replace several vital players and coaches who departed in the offseason: quarterback Chase Daniel, wide receiver/return specialist Jeremy Maclin, tight end Chase Coffman, safety William Moore, defensive tackle Ziggy Hood and both coordinators.
Welcome to the Conference Chatter's summer gridiron report, which will pick apart several aspects of each Big 12 team and maybe give you a better idea of what to expect from these squads in 2009. The following is a complete schedule of when each team will appear on the summer gridiron report, which, beginning today, will run every Monday, Wednesday and Friday throughout the month of June.
Big 12 North
Big 12 South
We'll kick things off with the Tigers, who finished atop the North at 10-4 overall (5-3 conference) last season and defeated Northwestern in the Alamo Bowl.
Biggest question mark: Wide receiver. Replacing Maclin, drafted at No. 19 overall by Philadelphia, and his 102 receptions won't be easy. The Tigers' most experienced receivers and presumed starters for 2009 are Jared Perry and Danario Alexander. Perry has been limited in the spring because of shoulder surgery he underwent in January, while Alexander has missed time nursing his surgically repaired knee. How healthy will these guys be when the season rolls around? Also, keep an eye on Jerrell Jackson (a 6-1 sophomore receiver who's drawn minor comparisons to Maclin), Wes Kemp (12 catches, 130 yards, TD in spring game) and Brandon Gerau (11-143 in spring game).
Another question mark relates to the status of five-star recruit Sheldon Richardson, who was supposed to make an immediate impact on the defensive line this year as a freshman. Reports have surfaced that Richardson failed to qualify academically and will have to enroll in a junior college. There's still no official word on Richardson.
Biggest strength: Running back. No secret here: Derrick Washington will need touches. On the ground. Through the air. It doesn't matter. He needs more carries than the 12.6 per game he saw last season, especially for a guy who picks up an average of 5.9 yards per rush. Much of the moderate workload had to do with the obvious presence of Maclin and Coffman. First-year offensive coordinator David Yost (formerly MU's quarterbacks coach) could incorporate constant doses of Washington to take the pressure off first-year quarterback Blaine Gabbert.
Furthermore, Washington played most of last year with a hurt left knee and still managed 1,036 rushing yards and 17 scores. The junior had minor surgery in the offseason and appears healthy for 2009. The Tigers also have the luxury of not rushing Washington (no pun intended; sorry, had to) back into action too early. Sophomore De'Vion Moore has impressed in the spring and could spell Washington whenever necessary.
Breakthrough player: Sophomore QB Gabbert. He has to be in order for the Tigers to win a third consecutive North title. Gabbert, a five-star Rivals athlete and one of the most anticipated recruits in Missouri history, will take over for the most accomplished quarterback in Missouri history in Daniel. Big shoes to fill. Gabbert spent last season as Daniel's understudy and reportedly has a rocket arm. He's blessed with natural size (6-5, 235 pounds), and time will tell if the Tigers stretch the field on a regular basis. Perhaps this hinges on the aforementioned biggest question mark — the receivers.
Coaching stability: Gary Pinkel's job seems incredibly secure, particularly if he can contend with this talented, but inexperienced group in 2009.
Fearless forecast: 3rd in North.
The Tigers have the talent and will be in the mix for another North title, but it seems they're replacing too many skill positions to win the division.
As always, discuss.