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July 7, 2009

Big 12 previews: 4th-place finishers Baylor and Mizzou

We continue with our Big 12 preview today by looking at my predicted fourth-place finishers: Missouri and Baylor

MISSOURI

Predicted finish in '09 (Overall and Big 12 North):
Fourth, 4-8, 2-6

Predicted losses in Big 12 play:Nebraska, at Oklahoma State, Texas, at Colorado, Baylor, Kansas (in Kansas City)

Can build around: There are only a few proven products on this year's team, including RB Derrick Washington, who had 19 touchdowns last season (17 on the ground and two through the air) as well as 1,036 yards rushing (5.9 ypc).

Washington will certainly help as Mizzou breaks in new quarterback Blaine Gabbert and three new starters on the offensive line. Senior WRs Jared Perry, who had 41 catches for 567 yards last season with four touchdowns, and Danario Alexander, a 6-5 target, both missed the spring because of offseason surgeries. But both are expected to take up for the loss of Mizzou's top three receivers (Jeremy Maclin, Chase Coffman and Tommy Saunders).

On defense, LB Sean Weatherspoon, a star third-year starter, figures to be an awards candidate and NFL talent after leading the team with 155 tackles last season.

Need to rebuild: Gone are Chase Daniels, Maclin, Coffman and eight senior starters from last year's defense, including hard-hitting S William Moore and DT Ziggy Hood, who is now backing up Casey Hampton in Pittsburgh. And don't forget the loss of amazingly accurate K Jeff Wolfert.

Throw in the fact that both the offensive and defensive lines are breaking in three new starters, and you're basically starting over in Columbia this season.

Even Gary Pinkel's offensive and defensive coordinators are new as OC Dave Christensen is now the head coach at Wyoming, and DC Matt Eberflus accepted an assistant job with the Cleveland Browns. Pinkel promoted from within (QB coach David Yost is now OC and LB coach Dave Steckel is now DC). Rebuilding with first-year coordinators is a huge red flag.

Final analysis: Pinkel had one winning season in his first four at Missouri before Chase Daniel took over at QB and helped Mizzou go 37-16 the last four years, including a 12-2 year in 2007. Now, Pinkel begins life without Daniel. Only Pinkel knows how well he's recruited or if his new assistants can get everything out of a bunch of new starters.

On paper, it's all a mystery (and frightening) for Tigers' fans. I think it will be rough for Pinkel this season, and we'll see how much he's learned as a head coach in the good days, including two contract extensions, the last four years.


BAYLOR

Predicted finish in '09 (Overall and Big 12 North):
Fourth, 8-4, 5-3

Predicted losses in Big 12 play: at Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas

Can build around: Art Briles took Houston from nowhere to four bowl games in five years, and accelerated his chances for success at Baylor by recruiting QB Robert Griffin, who completed 59.9 percent of his passes and threw a Division I-A record 209 passes without an interception to start his career.

Throw in WRs Kendall Wright, David Gettis and Mikail Baker and RB Jay Finley, and the offense has some weapons. Baylor went from 113th to 21st in rushing nationally last season, much of that because of Griffin's legs keeping defenses on their heels. Center J.D. Walton is a huge asset on an offensive line that needs rebuilding. On defense, Baylor has Penn State transfer Phil Taylor (6-4, 355) at defensive tackle, and Briles thinks he's one of the best DTs in the country.

The linebackers are two-deep, headed by tackle machine Joe Pawelek, who had 128 tackles and six interceptions last season. Baylor is also loaded at safety with seniors Jordan Lake and Jeremy Williams (Lake has 217 tackles the last two seasons).

Need to rebuild: It all starts up front, and Baylor has huge question marks on both lines. And that's not where you want questions if you're trying to end 13 straight seasons with a losing record.

Briles went and signed three junior college transfers to help replace tackles Jason Smith and Dan Gay. If those players don't work out, Baylor is in trouble on the O-line and will be relying on Robert Griffin to run for his life this season, which could cause a sophomore slump. On the D-line, Baylor has no sign of a pass rush, which means it will have to blitz to get pressure - always dicey.

Final analysis: The schedule is full of potholes and opportunity. The Bears open at Wake Forest, which looks like a loss. Then, Baylor gets a rebuilding Connecticut in Waco followed by winnable games at home against Northwestern State and Kent State.

If Baylor is going bowling this season, it will have to win on the road at Iowa State and at Missouri, a team it nearly beat last year in Waco with Chase Daniels and Co. still playing for the Tigers. I think Baylor wins both of those games and pulls my BIG 12 UPSET OF THE YEAR over Nebraska in Waco on Oct. 31.

I like Baylor to win at Texas A&M and to upset Texas Tech in Arlington at Cowboys Stadium on Nov. 28. Obviously, if Griffin doesn't have protection without Smith and Gay on the line like he had last year, he could slide and Baylor's season could collapse. I'm betting that Briles found enough help on the O-line to let Griffin create some things offensively.

Tomorrow: My third-place finishers in both divisions - Oklahoma State and Colorado


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