In conjunction with CBS Sports, the folks at The Ralphie Report are organizing the official SB Nation 2009 Big 12 Conference Preview. What follows is Rock Chalk Talk's "outsider's" look at the 2009 , much like you'd find in many preseason magazines across the country.
Overview: After two years on the periphery of the Big 12 Championship Game, this would appear to be the year for the Jayhawks to finally capture a Big 12 North title and become the obligatory punching bag for the South Champion. A tough schedule, though, may prevent them from winning the North yet again.
Offense: As is the trend in the Big 12, the strength of the Jayhawks is the offense. It starts with Todd Reesing, the QB that fits this team and its current standing in college football perfectly -- overlooked because of warts, but still given some respect. Of course, the job is easier when you have (arguably) the Big 12's best receiver in Dez Briscoe and some of the best hands in all of college football in Kerry Meier to throw the ball to. Add in a solid third option in Jonathan Wilson, a solid-if-unspectacular runningback in Jake Sharp and a young, improving offensive line, led by returning starters C Jeremiah Hatch and RT Jeff Spikes, and you have one of the better offenses in the country. It should have no trouble scoring points, no matter the point -- it's just how consistently it can score more of them.
Defense: The defense is led by FS Darrell Stuckey, a legitimate All-American candidate at FS, with some supporting stars in CB Daymond Patterson, DE Jake Laptad and LB Arist Wright. Kansas will use the 4-2-5 as its base defense, particularly against pass-heavy teams that are so prevalent across the Big 12, with Chris Harris playing the rover position. With one less linebacker, the onus will fall on the defensive line to stop the run -- particularly the interior guys, like Richard Johnson Jr., Darius Parish and Jamal Greene. They have the tools, but none have lived up to their potential quite yet. Former RB Angus Quigley has looked good at LB so far in fall practice, and may end up starting beside Wright, although Justin Springer remains the favorite as long as he heals as planned.
Special Teams: Save kickoff returner, the Jayhawks are returning every meaningful specialist in special teams. Punter Alonso Rojas is back for his second year, after closing out the regular season with a monstrous effort against Missouri. Kicker Jacob Brandstetter will also be returning for his second season, and word is that he's added some yards on to his kickoffs. And punt returner Daymond Patterson is back and ready to rock, as is long snapper Kayl Anderson. As for the kickoff returner void, there are numerous names vying for the job, including All-American candidates Briscoe and Stuckey.
Who We'll Miss The Most: On offense, the interior offensive line. They weren't stellar by any stretch of the imagination, but they were solid enough, and it's better to have an expected solid than a batch of incoming unknowns. On defense, without a doubt, LB James Holt. He was, for parts of last season, the sole pass rush on the Jayhawks, and he was downright stellar at it. His linebacker mates, Mike Rivera and Joe Mortensen, will be missed as hell, but not as much as Holt -- after Stuckey, he was the defense's second best player in 2008.
Exciting, New Faces You Should Know: On offense, there's a couple. RB Toben Opurum is probably the favorite to back up Jake Sharp and receive a dose of carries a game, and he's the real deal -- he was recruited by Notre Dame, people. He played in a spread system in high school, so he should have a quicker learning curve than most. There's also Erick McGriff, the son of the Crime Dog Fred McGriff, at the wide receiver position that has a chance to see the field early on. After the top three (Briscoe, Meier, Wilson), it's anyone's for the taking, and Erick has looked fabulous thus far. Oh, and don't forget about Bradly McDougald -- he could see snaps at WR or kick returner, or even both.
On defense, watch out for JUCO transfers Quintin Woods on the defensive line and Calvin Rubles in the secondary. Woods will, hopefully, provide a competent pass rush opposite Laptad, while Rubles should see some playing time in a secondary that will be heavily depended on.
Best Case Scenario: We aren't going undefeated, so give up the pipedream. However, like I mentioned in the overview, the Big 12 North is a perfect goal -- a big enough accomplishment that it'd be a success, but not too big that it seems unreachable. So, in the Best Case, Kansas goes into the Big 12 Championship Game with, oh, a 10-2 record. It's possible. We're almost assuredly losing in Austin (although weirder things have happened), and that just means winning three of the following: @ Texas Tech, vs. Oklahoma, vs. Nebraska, vs. Missouri (Arrowhead). Not unreasonable. We lose in the Big 12 Championships Game, but still end up in the Cotton Bowl and win it against SEC Team X.
Worst Case Scenario: The defense sucks, Todd Reesing gets hurt and Mark Mangino gains even more weight. We slip up not once, but twice in the non-con, then continue against a brutally tough Big 12 slate. 5-7 and bowlless. Don't even bring it up.
My Prediction: As common sense would dictate, I'll go somewhere in between "best" and "worst". I'll go on record with a 9-3 mark -- undefeated in the non-conference slate, then slipping up thrice in the Big 12 (@ Texas, vs. Oklahoma and @ Texas Tech, in case you were interested). It's just enough to beat out Nebraska via tiebreaker to make it to the Big 12 Championship Game, wherever it's being played, only to lose by a large margin. But for all of our troubles we get sent to the Holiday Bowl, where we beat Pac 10 Team X.