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July 20, 2008KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Monday marks the first day of the Big 12 Media Days in Kansas City, with Nebraska, Missouri, Texas A&M and Texas Tech kicking things off. Though plenty will be covered during the three-day annual event, here are some of the biggest story lines around the conference heading in:
1. Quarterback Paradise
There's no question that the faces of the Big 12 heading into the '08 season are the same ones seen lined up under center. With Heisman Trophy candidates like Missouri's Chase Daniel, Texas Tech's Graham Harrell and Oklahoma's Sam Bradford highlighting this year's list of signal callers, there won't be any shortage of offensive firepower. All in all, the conference returns 10 starting quarterbacks, including six with more than one year of starting experience. All together, the 10 returning starters have a combined 121 starts.
2. The Emergence Of Texas Tech
While the Red Raiders have always been solid bunch under head coach Mike Leach, this just might be the year they take the program to the next level. Heading into the season, Tech is being tabbed as a legitimate threat to not only contend the Big 12 South, but also for a conference title. Led by the likes of Harrell and All-American receiver Michael Crabtree, the Red Raiders will once again boast one of the nation's elite offenses. But what may separate this season's squad from previous years is the play of the defense. First-year defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill has brought a new attitude to the defense, which showed good promise last season.
3. Keeping Up With The SEC
For the past eight years or so, the SEC has widely been considered college football's premier conference, especially with Florida and LSU winning the past two national championships. But coming into this season, it appears the Big 12 is gaining a little ground. With traditional powers like Oklahoma and Texas now paired with upstarts like Texas Tech, Missouri and Kansas, the Big 12 seems to be more loaded top to bottom than ever before. Last year, the Big 12 went a combined 90-64, while SEC teams went 94-59. Granted, the SEC still boasts consecutive national titles, but the Big 12 has closed the gap every year, and this year should be no different.
4. Freshman Star Power
A slew of new faces appear to be poised to make significant impacts in the conference this year, led by Colorado's Darrell Scott. Named the Big 12's preseason newcomer of the year, Scott was the unanimous No. 1-ranked player in California and the top-ranked running back in the country last year, and was the No. 6 overall player in the 2008 Rivals.com top 100. But the list goes further for the Big 12's standout freshmen. Baylor Robert Griffin could very well see immediate playing time at quarterback for the Bears, who are looking to replace '07 starter Blake Szymanski. Griffin stands as one of the highest-profile recruits in Baylor history, as he ranked as the No. 4 dual threat quarterback in the class of 2008.
5. Big 12 North: Contenders or Pretenders
After years of dominance by the Big 12 South, the North finally leveled the playing field last season with the emergence of Missouri and Kansas and national title contenders. But the question now is whether 2007 was merely a flash-in-the-pan season or an actual start to a power shift within the conference. Missouri and Kansas both lost several key starters on both sides of the ball, the South figures to be even deeper with the rise of Texas Tech as a conference title contender. However, new coaching staffs at Nebraska and Iowa State and a stellar recruiting class by Colorado should help the North's cause, though only time will tell how much.
6. Coaching Carousels
Three new coaches making their Big 12 head coaching debuts this season in Nebraska's Bo Pelini, Baylor's Art Briles and Texas A&M's Mike Sherman. Pelini, a former defensive coordinator at NU in 2003, rejoins the Huskers after serving as the defensive coordinator at Oklahoma and LSU. Nebraska fans are banking that Pelini and his staff can revamp a defense that was simply dismal in 2007, ranking last in the Big 12 in total defense, scoring defense and run defense while allowing 40 or more points in six games. Briles takes over at Baylor after helping guide the Houston Cougars to four straight bowl games. Prior to his arrival, the Cougars had won just eight games from 2000-2003. At A&M, Sherman joins the Aggies after coaching in the NFL for the past eight seasons. Sherman was former offensive line coach at A&M from 1989-93.
7. Offensive Explosion
The dramatic increase in offensive production in the Big 12 was undeniable last season. With many of the conference's teams adapting variations of the spread offense, Big 12 teams lit up scoreboards and filled box scores with stats and points. The conference had seven teams ranked in the top 20 nationally in total offense, including five of the top 10. It also had three teams in the country's top 20 in rushing, and five top-20 teams in passing. As a result, seven Big 12 teams ranked in top 25 in scoring offense. Needless to say, teams will be looking to do anything possible to improve their play defensively this season.
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