Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Nebraska was my early favorite to win the North Division, mainly because of its improving defense working under Bo Pelini and the Cornhuskers' formidable depth in the backfield.
I've also always said I would reserve a chance to change my mind depending on what happens throughout preseason camp.
Nebraska's abrupt dismissal of Quentin Castille over the weekend for an undisclosed violation of team rules is that big of a hit for the Cornhuskers.
Now, I'm barely slightly toward Kansas, despite the Jayhawks' fearful cross-divisional schedule and that rebuilt defense that has always given me pause.
Castille would have been an important weapon for the Cornhuskers, mainly because he provides depth and a bruising nature to a team looking for that identity.
He was a revelation in the Gator Bowl when he barreled over and through Clemson for 125 yards and nearly 7 yards per carry. More of the same was expected this season, particularly as he kept his weight down and appeared ready to take off where he finished the 2008 season.
Roy Helu Jr. still might be one of the best running backs in the North Division. But the Cornhuskers are going to be asking a lot out of him. He's bulked up from his playing weight from last season and appears to be susceptible to hamstring pulls because of the added weight and muscle. That's not a good sign for a Cornhusker team that doesn't feature an experienced back behind him now.
Even more, he and Helu would have been an ideal tandem. They would have reminded fans of Nebraska's glory days, bringing a physical presence to the Cornhuskers in a league where offense has been marked by passing in recent years.
But as much as anything, the bruising 235-pound Castille offered a nice change of pace from Helu and the other back. He could come in and plow through defenders for a few series while Helu was resting on the sideline. The fact that he is such a physical back would have made him ideal for the Cornhuskers' ball-control offense -- even with his past reputation as a fumbler.
The Cornhuskers will be asking for a huge contribution from Rex Burkhead, a talented freshman from Plano, Texas. They also have sophomore walk-on Austin Jones, the half-brother of Nebraska wide receiver Melenik Holt. Also in the mix will be redshirt freshmen Collins Okafor and Lester Ward and freshman Dontrayevous Robinson. Wide receiver Marcus Mendoza has also moved back to running back as well.
Whether that's enough to get the Cornhuskers through an extended injury in the backfield is anybody's question. But it's definitely sliced into Nebraska's slim margin of error that I gave them when I made them my preseason favorite.
The North Division was going to be tight anyway. And it's just gotten tighter. You can make a point that any of four teams -- Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri and Colorado -- could win it with enough breaks. The Cornhuskers just sustained the biggest early hit of the preseason.
The loss puts some pressure on Nebraska offensive coordinator Shawn Watson, who in my mind, is one of the best coordinators in the nation.
Watson saw a lot of his 2001 Colorado team in what he had with the C
ornhuskers when Castille was there. That Buffaloes' squad won the Big 12 title with journeyman quarterback Bobby Pesavento starting. They were able to win -- claiming huge upset victories down the stretch against Nebraska and Texas -- thanks to a similar power running game keyed by Chris Brown and Bobby Purify.
Now, the Cornhuskers are going to be asking a lot out junior-college transfer Zac Lee. I know some will say he's started junior college football games before. But he still has never faced a hostile crowd like the one he will be facing in his first two road games when the Cornhuskers visit Virginia Tech on Sept. 19 or in their Oct. 8 conference opener at Missouri.
It will be a huge task, particularly without one of his biggest offensive weapons.