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Spring football: Nebraska's time, more burning Big 12 questions

Depending on which conference expansion rumor you've read most recently, the Big 12 may soon be without Texas and/or Nebraska and/or Missouri and/or Colorado. It may be adding TCU. Or it may be staying exactly as is. Nobody knows.

The coming Big 12 football season is equally shrouded in mystery. The usual suspects, Texas and Oklahoma, are attempting to replace a bunch of stars. Nebraska lost its biggest star of the decade (Ndamukong Suh), but may be even better. Texas Tech and Kansas both forced out their most successful coaches in recent memory. Colorado brought back its least successful coach of the past 30 years. Texas A&M could be on the verge of a huge breakthrough, or it could go 6-6 again. Oklahoma State could take a step back without Zac Robinson, or it could produce its best team in years.

And good luck predicting the direction of Missouri, Kansas State, Iowa State or even Baylor, any of which could be significantly better or significantly worse.

Let's begin with the two teams that squared off for last year's title.

It's been 11 years since the Huskers last won the Big 12, a remarkable drought considering just how dominant a program Nebraska was at the time of the league's inception. They couldn't have come much closer last year in coach Bo Pelini's second season -- one fateful second ultimately allowed Texas to kick that game-winning field goal against the Huskers in the Big 12 title game. A 33-0 Holiday Bowl rout of Arizona gave Nebraska its first 10-win season in six years and reinforced just how successful it could have been had it produced even a remotely adequate offense to go with its indisputably dominant defense.

While Nebraska loses its once-in-a-generation defensive tackle, Suh, most believe Pelini will still field another championship-caliber defense. Pierre Allen, Jared Crick and several other cogs from last year's unit are back, and Pelini and his brother (defensive coordinator Carl) have had three years now to groom their young talent.

For the Huskers, it's all about developing a more productive offense, a chore made more challenging this spring due to the absence of last year's starting quarterback, Zac Lee, who enjoyed a breakthrough performance in the bowl before undergoing surgery to repair an elbow injury that bothered him during the season. Will sophomore Cody Green use the extra reps to his advantage? And what of the Huskers' anemic rushing attack from last year? Will more experience up front and in the passing game create opportunities for I-back Roy Helu? Nebraska fans certainly hope the offensive "explosion" from the Holiday Bowl wasn't just a big tease.

Unlike four years ago, when then-freshmen Colt McCoy and Jevan Snead battled well into August for the right to succeed departed star Vince Young, Texas' quarterback of the future is no secret. Fans across the country got an unexpected early glimpse of rising sophomore Garrett Gilbert when he was forced to step in for the injured McCoy in the Longhorns' BCS Championship game loss to Alabama. Despite throwing four interceptions and enduring a nightmarish first half, the 6-foot-4, 212-pound Gilbert -- ranked behind only USC's Matt Barkley among quarterbacks in the 2009 recruiting class -- showed a strong arm and signs of progress when he threw two long touchdowns in the second half to bring Texas within three points.

The bigger question may be the pieces surrounding Gilbert. Gone (after six years) is all-everything receiver Jordan Shipley, who caught 116 passes last season, and two all-conference offensive linemen (Chris Hall and Adam Ulatoski). And while Texas returns its entire stable of running backs from last season (Tre Newton, Cody Johnson, Vondrell McGee, Fozzy Whitaker and D.J. Monroe), none were overly productive in Texas' McCoy-dominated offense.

In an effort to recapture the type of downhill running game Texas enjoyed back in the days of Ricky Williams, Cedric Benson and Jamaal Charles, offensive coordinator Greg Davis says Gilbert will line up more frequently under center than McCoy (who worked almost entirely out of the shotgun). Davis will use the spring to see whether one of his tailbacks (most likely the speedy Newton) can emerge as an every-down back and which of Texas' returning receivers (Malcolm Williams, James Kirkendoll, John Chiles and Marquise Goodwin) will help fill the considerable void left by Shipley.

Everything that could go wrong did go wrong last fall for Bob Stoops' team, which endured its most losses (five) since his 1999 debut season. Injuries to Sam Bradford, Jermaine Gresham and several linemen decimated the Sooners' offense and made it tough to read too much into Oklahoma's unexpected downfall from the BCS title game in 2008 to the Sun Bowl in '09.

There will be no convenient excuses this fall, however, as rising sophomore quarterback Landry Jones now has a full season under his belt. Jones is coming off a huge bowl performance against Stanford in which he went 30-for-51 for 418 yards and three touchdowns, and the potential exists for Oklahoma to return to its old high-flying ways with the return of running back DeMarco Murray, receiver Ryan Broyles and several young linemen who got thrown into the fire last season.

Stoops' bigger questions this spring are on defense, where he must replace standouts McCoy, Auston English, Dominique Franks and Ryan Reynolds, among others. The irony of Oklahoma's offensive implosion last season was that it came during a year when the Sooners finally produced the type of elite defense that had eluded them for most of the five years since former coordinator Mike Stoops' departure. Reclaiming the South won't be as simple as outscoring people like OU did in '08; the Sooners will need to maintain some continuity from last year's defensive performance.

The hiring of a former standout SEC coach won't automatically soothe the pain felt by Texas Tech fans over the school's controversial decision to fire Mike Leach. Tuberville surely sensed that last January when, upon his arrival, he announced his intention to retain the type of wide-open offense for which the Red Raiders became synonymous during Leach's tenure.

It was a surprising pronouncement from a guy who preached power football throughout nearly his entire time at Auburn, and who in fact met his demise in large part because of a failed experiment to install the spread offense in 2008. Even more puzzling, as his offensive coordinator Tuberville hired 29-year-old Neal Brown, formerly of Troy -- the same place from which Tuberville plucked the ill-fated Tony Franklin two years earlier.

Tuberville and Brown have said there will be slight "tweaks" to the offense -- more run-pass balance, less checks at the line by the quarterbacks, some new formations, etc. -- but for the most part, they don't want to mess with success. To that end, Tuberville pushed back the start of spring practice two weeks (to March 20) so that quarterback Steven "Sticks" Sheffield has more time to heal from foot surgery. Sheffield, who helped ignite Tech's offense during its Alamo Bowl win over Michigan State, and Taylor Potts, whom Sheffield replaced in that game and during an early-season stint in which Potts was hurt, figure to wage a heated fight for the starting job.

A brief recap of Kansas' nightmarish fall: 1) Members of the football team get in a scuffle with members of the basketball team; 2) After starting 5-0, Kansas loses seven straight the rest of the way; 3) Somewhere in there, a player accuses coach Mark Mangino of abusive behavior, several ex-players allege much the same, the school launches an investigation and Mangino eventually resigns. You know, that sort of thing.

The only good to come out of the whole mess is that Gill, one of the nation's hottest mid-major coaches while at Buffalo, returned to the conference he once electrified as a player at Nebraska. His long-term goal is to turn the Jayhawks -- who have regressed considerably since a breakthrough 12-1 season and Orange Bowl victory in 2007 -- into a more consistent North Division contender. In the short-term, it may take everything in his power to keep KU from dipping further.

Quarterback Todd Reesing and receivers Dezmon Briscoe and Kerry Meier -- the cogs of KU's prolific offense the past two seasons -- are all gone, and the defense provided little cause for enthusiasm last year. But Gill may initially build around the defense, where he has an experienced coordinator (Carl Torbush) and seven returning starters, while developing a new quarterback, either Kale Pick or juco transfer Quinn Mecham.

MORE BURNING QUESTIONSPac-10: Can Lane Kiffin maintain USC's dominance?ACC: Will a nationally elite team emerge?Big East: Can Pitt dethrone Cincinnati?Big 12: Is it finally Nebraska's year?Big Ten: Can Pryor pick up where he left off?SEC: What's happening at Florida?THE REST: Can Boise break the glass ceiling?

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