In case anyone was confused, of course the headline comprising the title of this post is a rhetorical question. No matter how bad the North champion is in comparison to the South champion, someone will be sent to Dallas to meet the winner (or winner*) of the South division.
That said, the Big 12 North may be as wide-open as it has ever been this season. It may be as bad as it's ever been, perhaps rivaling 2004, but that's another story for another day. With players reporting for fall camp and practice beginning this week, the question on everyone's mind is, of course: Who is going to win the North? Yesterday, I listened to Kevin Keitzman and Jack Harry, with nominal input from Danny Clinkscale, discuss this question at length on 810 WHB's Between the Lines.
Several teams can claim a legitimate shot at winning the North this season. Nebraska fans consider winning anything and everything associated with football their God-given birthright, so of course they expect to win the division this year. Down the river in Lawrence, KU has an entire advertising campaign titled "History Awaits." This would be an accurate slogan if the beaks were to win the division, as they remain grouped with Iowa State as the only two programs who have never won a single North crown. Missouri has won two straight North titles and rightly feels a bit slighted when relegated the status of afterthought in discussing the North. Out in Boulder, Dan Hawkins has tried to clarify his "10 wins and no excuses" comment, but there's still a feeling that the Buffs are a wildcard in the North this season.
When I initially considered this question sometime last spring, my knee-jerk reaction was that the North was probably Nebraska's for the taking this season. That sentiment may have arisen as much from my desire to see anyone other than KU win the North as my belief that Nebraska really was going to be a good team. But the more I thought about it, the more I could make an argument for, as well as against, any of the contenders.
My initial belief in Nebraska was based on the fact that some solid defensive playmakers like Ndamukong Suh and Barry Turner return for the (sort of) Big Red. Additionally, I figured that their main competition, KU, would probably wilt again under the weight of a crushing conference schedule against the South. However, further research indicated that the schedule argument could be made against Nebraska, too. The Huskers get the pleasure of trips to Lubbock and Waco, not to mention a visit from Oklahoma. That's not exactly the UT/OU/TTU gauntlet that faces KU, but it looks to me like a recipe for, at best, a 1-2 stretch against the South. Hell, if Robert Griffin and his cast of characters in Waco are as improved as their victory-hungry fans think they are, the trip to Waco is no sure thing, either.
In addition to the scheduling component, I had to consider the riotously funny exchange between Nebraska blogs and Missouri correspondent Mike DeArmond of the KC Star, and an insightful comment made to me last week by Bill C. of Rock M Nation. One of the big knocks against Missouri is that they lost their quarterback and two playmakers in WR Jeremy Maclin and TE Chase Coffman. Of course, Nebraska didn't face such similar losses. Except for losing QB Joe Ganz and WRs Nate Swift and Todd Peterson. Considering that Missouri was a demonstrably better football team than Nebraska the last two years, and has been on at least equal footing since about 2003, you can't simply eliminate Mizzou and elevate Nebraska on those grounds. Thus, my belief in Nebraska started to fade.
Onward, then, to the other fashionable preseason pick: KU. The beaks didn't face the loss of skill-position players like NU and Mizzou, as they return
Sodd Todd Reesing at QB, Jake Sharp at RB, and Dezmon Briscoe at WR (at least as long as KU's crackerjack academic support staff makes sure he actually shows up at his classes this summer and fall). However, the beaks did face substantial losses on the offensive line -- which really wasn't much of a strength last season anyway -- and at linebacker, where all three starters from last season graduated. On top of that, everyone knows about the southern gauntlet KU faces this season, with trips to Austin and Lubbock and what is sure to be a pleasant visit to Lawrence from the Sooners. On top of that, KU faces Mizzou on a neutral field and gets to go to Boulder and visit a Colorado team it didn't exactly beat convincingly last season.
On Between the Lines yesterday, Keitzman came to the conclusion that the real wildcard in the North this season is Colorado, and I agree. If last season was an injury-addled aberration for the Buffs, they could be a contender in the North this season. Phil Steele agrees with that sentiment, and I'll generally follow Steele before I'll follow most partisans or regular journalists. But again, there's someting unsettling about relying on Cody Hawkins and Tyler Hansen at QB, and outside of the running back tandem of Darrell Scott and Rodney Stewart, there aren't a whole lot of playmakers on offense. And that's to say nothing of the decimated defensive line.
Finally, that brings us to Mizzou. I'm sure some of you think that, because I'm discussing them last, this is the team I've picked to win the North. Not so, my friends. I can't pick a team that lost so much firepower from the last few seasons and that will be featuring 25-30 freshmen and sophomores in the two-deep to win the division. However, Gary Pinkel and the Tigers have a few things going for them that the other North schools don't. First, they're in a relatively stable situation as compared to the other divisional contenders, and they've been in that relatively stable condition at a higher level than the other divisional contenders. Yes, they lost their coordinators, and that's always a concern. However, they promoted from within and, by doing so probably have a better chance of maintaining continuity. Second, their recruiting has been mostly on par with that of the rest of the Big 12 North the last few seasons. Couple that with the fact that Missouri has been getting better production out of the players they've recruited, and you can't write the Tigers off just like that. On the flip side, the schedule isn't especially favorable, as Mizzou faces trips to Boulder and Manhattan and a neutral-site game with KU. Getting Nebraska at home is an obvious bonus.
You may have wondered why I didn't talk about K-State, given that this is a K-State site and I've already expressed my inability to control my inner-irrational fandom about the upcoming season. The most optimistic part of me does see a scenario where, if everything breaks in our favor and the new coaching staff gets this team together early, we could
surprise shock flabbergast the world and win the North this season. Of course, that's if everything goes right, and experience tells us that it's the rare situation in life where literally everything falls one's way. As you'll see later this week or next week when we post our projections for Bill Snyder's first year in the second go-round, none of us are predicting a division title for the Cats.
Anyway, my conclusion is that I really don't have a damn clue who is going to win the North this season. It's entirely possible that we may have our second season in a row in which a three-way tiebreaker decides a division champion, because I could see Nebraska, KU and Mizzou/Colorado all going 5-3.
I will, however, almost guarantee that there'll be at least one really big surprise in how the North turns out this season. Maybe Nebraska will be a juggernaut. Or maybe they'll realize how much they miss Ganz/Swift/Peterson and Bo Pelini will be on the hot seat after a disappointing season. Maybe Blaine Gabbert will be as good as advertised and Mizzou will roll to a third-straight division crown. Or maybe he'll endure first-year struggles, they'll have no decent replacement for Maclin/Coffman, and the defense will continue to suck (outside Sean Weatherspoon) and the Tigers will have their worst conference season in several years. Maybe KU will collapse under the weight of its own schedule and go 3-5 (we could only be so lucky). Maybe Colorado has its breakout season. Maybe everything breaks in K-State's favor and we're planning a surprise trip to Dallas this fall. Maybe Iowa State...never mind.