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Big 12 comes down to big four
By Terry Bowden
Special to BCSfootball.com
Bowden's Weekly Chat Show

Most of the annual talk over which college football conference is the best is a bunch of bunk.

Year in and year out, every conference in the BCS finds a way to distinguish itself from all the other conferences. One year the Big 10 has the most teams in a bowl and the SEC has the most players drafted; and the Pac-10 has the best non-conference record; and the ACC has the national champion; and the Big East has Michael Vick and so on and so forth.

Heck, they're all good.

But in 2001, the conference that is the strongest from top to bottom and has the most teams capable of getting to the national championship game is the Big 12. Four teams in the league have an outside shot of making it to the Rose Bowl, and as many as eight teams have a chance to go bowling.

As competitive as the conference is, it will still be basically a four-horse race for the conference championship. That boils down to Texas and Oklahoma in the South Division and Nebraska and Kansas State in the North. Or is that Oklahoma and Texas in the South and Kansas State and Nebraska in the North? Regardless, it's going to be tight.

Big 12 South
When you look at all the key variables, you'd have to say that Texas has the best chance to win the South Division and the Big 12 Championship. The three most important factors in winning a championship -- relative strength of talent, relative strength at quarterback, and relative strength of schedule -- favor the Longhorns over any other team in the entire conference.

Head coach Mack Brown understands the importance of recruiting. He signed a bunch of great athletes when he coached at North Carolina and he has done the same thing at Texas. The stars are too numerous to mention, so let's just say Texas will not be "out-athleted" on any Saturday this year.

At quarterback, Texas may have not one, but two of the best signal callers in the league in Chris Simms and Major Applewhite. Now that the rotation has been worked out between the two, last year's controversy becomes this year's blessing.

The biggest factor in Texas' favor may be the schedule. Playing Colorado at home, Oklahoma at a neutral site in Dallas, and not playing Nebraska or Kansas State at all is as good as it gets in the scheduling department. In fact, if the Longhorns can pull out a victory against the Sooners in the Red River Shootout, then a year-ending tussle with Texas A&M at College Station won't even be a factor. That is, unless you want to go to the Rose Bowl.

After saying all this about Texas, I still won't be shocked if Oklahoma finds its way back to the Big 12 Championship. Winning has a way of leading to more winning and Oklahoma hasn't lost in a long, long time.

However, as everyone knows, quarterback Josh Heupel is gone and his replacement, Nate Hybl, has never started a game. This is not the end of the world for Oklahoma but it is the end of their hopes for a championship repeat. The Sooner offense is based on short, accurate passes to a lot of different receivers and experience at QB is a prerequisite for success.

Texas Tech, Oklahoma State, and Baylor are all on the upswing in the South Division and only Texas A&M seems to be at a crossroads in their program. The Aggies are on the verge of falling out of the upper echelon of the Big 12.

Big 12 North
Nebraska will ride the back -- and hopefully the arm -- of quarterback Eric Crouch to the North Division title. Unfortunately, Nebraska's strength at QB also seems to be their weakness. Although the 'Huskers led the nation in rushing last season, they no longer have the dominant I-back in the backfield. Crouch was their leading rusher in 2000.

For Nebraska to be more than just a divisional champ in the Big 12, they need to find a big-time back. Last season's back up, Dahrran Diedrick, or troubled Thunder Collins may be the answer. With the running backs, the downfield passing game must develop. They don't need to pass more often, they just need to pass more effectively.

Defenses will commit too many men to the line of scrimmage to stop a superior running attack and you must be able to throw the ball over their heads. That is what Nebraska did so well when they won three National Championships in the '90s. With a question mark at I-back, an unproven group of wide receivers and three new starters on the offensive line, this may be a little too much to ask in one season.

The Cornhuskers have K-State and Oklahoma at home this year, and open the season with eight very winnable games. Notre Dame in Lincoln will be the toughest. If Colorado finds a way to get their act together by the end of the season, the finale in Boulder could also be a real knee-knocker.

Kansas State is breaking in a new quarterback, has eight new starters on defense, and plays an extremely tough schedule. Playing at Oklahoma and at Nebraska is enough by itself to guarantee a number two spot in the division.

The reason I give the Wildcats a chance to win the North is their head coach. Bill Snyder finds a way to win 10 or 11 games every year. Kansas State doesn't rebuild, they reload. He has even fired back at all the people who have criticized his soft non-conference schedule with a season opener at Southern California. I think I'd have taken the criticism.

Colorado has the talent to further shake things up in the Northern Division, and don't forget about Iowa State, who finished last season 9-3. Missouri has some new blood in former Toledo head coach, Gary Pinkel, and Kansas is in a do-or-die situation for coach Terry Allen, who is 18-27 in his four years with the Jayhawks.

Terry Bowden was the head coach at Salem College, Samford University and Auburn University. He is ABC's college football studio analyst and contributes regularly for BCSfootball.com.

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