With Wednesday's prediction that Nebraska will finish second in the Big 12 North, it's evident I'm taking the Kansas University football team to win the division outright for the first time in school history next fall.
I'll probably be teased around the office and be called a homer for this pick. It's all in good fun. As long as everyone knows Missouri was my choice to win the North last year. Just throwing that out there.
With a plethora of returning weapons on offense, Kansas is a reasonable choice for a North champion. Mark Mangino will be coaching a slew of players with bowl-game experience already under their belts. The operator of the attack, of course, is senior quarterback Todd Reesing.
Quick glance at who could start at quarterback in the North this season: Reesing, Zac Lee (Nebraska), Blaine Gabbert (Missouri), Cody Hawkins (Colorado), Daniel Thomas (Kansas State) and Austen Arnaud (Iowa State). Of this group, Reesing is the only one who's played in a bowl game. He's played in two and he's led the Jayhawks to victories in both of them. Advantage Kansas.
Plus, the Jayhawks have the most talented collection of wide receivers in the Big 12. Dezmon Briscoe, Kerry Meier and Johnathan Wilson form an explosive trio.
And make no mistake: Winning the North will require fireworks on offense. The trend's not going anywhere. Missouri won the division last year with a mediocre defense that ranked 98th in the nation and ninth in the Big 12 in total defense. But the Tigers lit up the scoreboard and were eighth in the country in total offense.
The most explosive Big 12 North offense in 2009 should win the division, and that ought to be Kansas. In combining experience, offensive prowess and a game against Nebraska on Nov. 14 in Lawrence, the pick here is the Jayhawks.
Welcome to the final Big 12 North edition of Conference Chatter's summer gridiron report. Here's a schedule of when each Big 12 team was/will be featured:
Big 12 North
Big 12 South
We'll keep things moving with Kansas, which finished last season 8-5 overall (4-4 conference) with a victory over Minnesota in the Insight Bowl.
Biggest question mark: Offensive line. The Jayhawks have a combined 25 starts from two guys returning on the line this season. Sophomore Jeff Spikes, who started 13 games last year, will stay at right tackle. Sophomore Jeremiah Hatch, who started 12 games last season, will move from left tackle to center, his natural position.
Spikes and Hatch have high ceilings and must grow fast and act as anchors for the line this season.
Until the line proves it can protect Reesing on a regular basis, those 25 returning starts will be a concern, though. To put this number in perspective, Oklahoma had 131 returning starts from the O-line on its Big 12 championship team last year. KU's 25 starts are the lowest returning number in the Big 12.
Adding to the uncertainty will be the ability of Tanner Hawkinson, the projected starting left tackle, to protect Reesing. Left tackle is the most important position on the line because it protects a quarterback's blind side. Hawkinson began his career as a defensive end and a tight end before committing to play on the O-line. For KU's sake, the Jayhawks better hope he stops moving around. He played well in the spring game.
The starting guards will be a battle between juniors Carl Wilson and Sal Capra (started in the spring game), and freshmen Trevor Marrongelli and John Williams (second string in spring game).
Ben Lueken's playing status remains unknown. The sophomore was hospitalized in April after being struck by a vehicle at the Jayhawker Towers. He was released from the hospital a few days later. Lueken appeared in nine games last season and was expected to start somewhere along the line this season. Mangino hasn't commented on Lueken's playing status for 2009.
Biggest strength: Wide receivers. Plural.
Briscoe has an NFL future and should post All-American numbers this year. Tough to imagine any improvement from a campaign of 92 catches, 1,407 yards and 15 TD's. But Briscoe's still only a junior and one of the best receivers in the country. I doubt offensive coordinator Ed Warinner is going to allow Briscoe to settle on last year's production.
Wilson is a captivating talent and proved in the spring game (7 catches, 133 yards, TD) he's ready for action.
Meier's really what makes the KU offense keep moving the chains, though. He may not crack an All-American list, but he's the most valuable component of the receiving corps. Meier caught 97 passes last season: 55 went for first downs, eight went for touchdowns. His background in playing quarterback also gives Warinner an option to throw in the occasional trick play. Last time that happened, Meier tossed a 32-yard touchdown strike to Briscoe in the third quarter of the Insight Bowl.
Breakthrough player: Jake Laptad, defensive end. Laptad showed flashes of getting to the quarterback last year with seven sacks. He shouldn't really be double-teamed too much with the presence of junior college transfer Quintin Woods on the other end, and Caleb Blakesley and Jamal Greene controlling the middle. Defensive line could be an overlooked strength of the Jayhawks' defense next season. With that in mind, Laptad could be a breakout candidate to approach 10 sacks.
Coaching stability: Very safe. Mangino is locked up in his current contract until 2012, but should be around after that as well, if he chooses. The 2007 AP coach of the year enters his eighth season on Mount Oread with one of the safest coaching jobs in the conference.
Fearless forecast: 1st in North.
By the end of the season, I'm expecting Kansas and Nebraska to battle it out for North supremacy. If the Jayhawks and Huskers are the primary threats to win the division, the location of the Nov. 14 game (in Lawrence) becomes significant in picking a North champion. Should KU prevail, it would hold the tiebreaker against Nebraska and gain an extra game of wiggle room. This was almost too close to call, but I'm rolling the dice with the Jayhawks.
As always, discuss.