Around the Big 12: Northern Division

As conference play gets set to take front stage, let's take a spin around the conference to see how some of our colleagues are doing so far this season.  We'll start in the Northern Division.

Missouri Tigers (4-0)

Raise your hand if you predicted a 4-0 start from Missouri. I didn't, either. There was talk that Chase Daniel could be good right away, but the sophomore has been more than adequate, tossing 9 touchdowns against just 2 interceptions. It's not just Daniel that's helped the offense score nearly 35 points per game. The rushing game has been robust, as well, with 841 total yards, 11th best in the nation.

For all the nice offensive numbers, though, the big surprise has been on defense, where the Tigers are allowing just 9.3 points per contest, good for 10th nationally, and only 175 yards per game, best in the country.

As impressive as all this is, are the Tigers a bit of a - pardon the pun here - paper tiger? Maybe. The Tigers' four opponents thus far are all dreadful on offense; only Mississippi has shown any ability to rush the ball this season. Defensively, all four of Missouri's opponents have struggled mightily.

Still, the strong start is welcome in Columbia, where Tiger fans are trying to move past the seasons of wasted potential that marked the Brad Smith era. After Missouri hosts winless Colorado on Saturday, the defense will get its chance to prove itself in road trips to Lubbock and College Station. Win those and the Northern Division title may just be within reach.

Nebraska Cornhuskers (3-1)

The Huskers didn't have much luck moving the ball against Southern California two weeks ago, but they've had no trouble dominating their tune up games. The Huskers averaged a whopping 560 yards of offense against Louisiana Tech, Nicholls State, and Troy, in equal parts pass and run. In Los Angeles, though, Bill Callahan's crew managed a paltry 211 yards of total offense - only 68 on the ground (36 attempts).

The Southern California defense might be the best Nebraska faces this year, but there's no question that the defenses in the Big 12 much more closely resemble USC's than those of the three small schools Nebraska blew away. The good news for Nebraska is that Zac Taylor is looking very, very comfortable in the West Coast offense, helping him to a gaudy 178.3 passer rating through four games.

The best news for hopeful Husker fans is that the schedule sets up very favorably for them the rest of the way. Nebraska draws both Texas and Missouri at home, and its stiffest road test will be in Ames against Iowa State. If Nebraska can take two of those three games, there's little reason to believe they won't be playing for the Big 12 title in December.

Iowa State Cyclones (2-2)

After a thorough defeat in Austin, the Cyclones get to try to rebound at home against Northern Iowa - their second statute-mandated football game of the year. The Cyclones will be favored to win that one, of course, but they'll probably be underdogs in the next three games against Nebraska, at Oklahoma, and against Texas Tech. The team's division title hopes rest on that three game stretch, in which they'll need to win two of three. If they lose two, three losses will likely put them out of the race for the North crown.

Can they do it? It won't be easy, but this team is still better than most. The offense has plenty of talent and a strong offensive line. The defense, though, is another story, where the Cyclones are a disappointing 98th in the country in total yards allowed, right in between California and Hawaii. That's not good company to keep.

For the Cyclones to win the North division scram, that unit will have to improve dramatically, but they don't appear to have the players for it. The secondary is severely depleted after losing a majority of their best talent to graduation. It may be another year just short for Iowa State.

Kansas Jayhawk (3-1)

The Jayhawks are pretty much the median of the 2006 college football season thus far. The defense is 52nd in total yards; the offense 49th in yards gained. They're 40th in scoring offense; 50th in scoring defense. The Jayhawks sit in the middle of the pack across the board, and the bad news is that they've played some pretty lousy competition thus far.

The 'Hawks under Mangino have been a maddening team, playing strong football at home and well below average outside Lawrence. Are Kansas fans in store for more of the same? Perhaps so. The Jayhawks only trip on the road resulted in a 37-31 loss to Toledo.

Mangino gambled by giving freshman Kerry Meier the starting quarterback job, but his four interceptions were instrumental in sparking Toledo's win. The switch was made to senior Adam Barmann for Kansas' home tilt with South Florida the following week, and he responded by completing 25 of 35 passes for 273 yards. He never found the end zone, but he didn't turn it over, either, and the Jayhawks earned the win.

Kansas will have a huge opportunity to earn the inside track in the north this Saturday when they visit Lincoln. The Huskers are solid favorites, but last year's Kansas team whipped Nebraska soundly in Lawrence, 40-15. Don't bet on that kind of game again, but a win for Kansas makes them serious division title contenders. The rest of the schedule looks manageable: the Aggies and Buffaloes visit Lawrence, while the Jayhawks close out the season on the road at Missouri. If Nebraska stumbles, that season finale may just be the one to watch.

Kansas State Wildcats (3-1)

A typical early season slate for Kansas State: Don't leave Manhattan. Don't play anyone good.  

Well, that was true through three games, anyway. The fourth game brought Louisville to town, and it was ugly. The Cardinals ran over, through, and around Wildcat defenders en route to a 224 yard day rushing the football. Only three Louisville turnovers (2 fumbles and an INT) kept the score reasonably close, but it was, for all intents and purposes, a blowout.

There's not much shame in getting blown out by Louisville these days, but it was still a sobering reminder that this team is a good ways from competing nationally. What about in the Big 12? Don't hold your breath, Wildcat fans. The offense is pretty lousy. The Wildcats erupted for 221 yards of rushing against Florida Atlantic, but Florida Atlantic has the worst rush defense in the country. Against everyone else the rushing attack has been pedestrian, while the passing game is virtually non-existent.

All told, Kansas State's in for some long Saturday afternoon games this fall as Big 12 teams take turns out-rushing, and defeating, the Wildcats.

Colorado Buffaloes (0-4)

There is a bit of hope in Boulder following the near victory in Athens last week. There's also some hope in the numbers: the Buffs are 16th in the nation in rushing yards allowed at just over 75 per game. It's the pass defense that's betrayed them, allowing over 230 yards per game, and six of the eight touchdowns scored.

If Dan Hawkins can sort out the pass defense, then.... well, he'll still have a long way to go on offense, where Colorado has been miserable. They've scored just three touchdowns - none through the air. They're 113th in the country in total offense, an eye-opener for any Dan Hawkins team.

Before we bury the hatchet too deeply in Colorado, let's remind ourselves tha the players are ingesting a wildly different system than that of departed Gary Barnett. Hawkins' offensive attack hasn't come together yet, but the man has proven ability coaching offense, so we should expect some improvement. Still, the offensive personnel just isn't there right now. In all likelihood, Hawkins will need two years to get this offense near where he wants it; in the interim, Colorado fans will probably have to settle for enjoying relative improvement each week. Which is not such a bad thing, is it?

--PB--

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