HOW THEY'LL FINISH
CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIP GAME: DEC. 4 IN ARLINGTON, TEXAS TEXAS OVER NEBRASKA
Best offensive player
QB, Texas A&M, Sr.
He can run (506 yards in 2009), pass (3,579 yards) and score (38 total touchdowns). Now Johnson (left), who is 10--14 in two seasons as a starter, just needs to win.
Best defensive player
DT, Nebraska, Jr.
After a productive 2009 (73 tackles, 15 tackles for loss, 9½ sacks), the 6' 6", 285-pound Crick takes over for Ndamukong Suh as the team's disruptive inside force.
True freshman to watch
This 6' 5", 238-pound Parade All-America (and son of former Dallas Cowboy Jim Jeffcoat) is just one of the blue chippers of another top-five Longhorns class.
Coach on the rise
In '09 the first-year coach directed Iowa State (2--10 in '08) to a 7--6 record and an Insight Bowl win. This year, though, the team adds Texas, Oklahoma and Utah to its schedule.
Coach on the hot seat
The buyout ($3 million) was too much for the athletic department to fire Hawkins after a fourth straight losing season. A fifth straight could get him the ax.
PLAYERS TO WATCH (Top performers from unranked teams)
DE-LB, Texas Tech, Sr.
One year after leading the team in tackles (88), this two-year stalwart at middle linebacker becomes a hybrid pass rusher in Tech's new 3--4 scheme.
QB, Missouri, Jr.
The highly recruited Gabbert threw for 3,593 yards and 24 TDs last year, his first as the starter, but must find a new top target with Danario Alexander gone.
QB, Baylor, Soph.
The Bears' hopes rest on this dual-threat dynamo, who sat out most of 2009 with a right ACL tear, a year after passing for 2,091 yards and rushing for 843.
DE-LB, Texas A&M, Sr.
Playing the Joker position in the Aggies' new 3--4 package, Miller, the nation's sack leader in 2009 with 17, will drop into coverage more this season.
RB, Kansas State, Sr.
Thomas, a 6' 2", 228-pound juco transfer, quietly put together one of the country's most prolific rushing seasons of '09, leading the Big 12 with 1,265 yards.
Texas Tech hasn't had a 1,000-yard rusher since 1998, but with new coach TOMMY TUBERVILLE planning to run the ball more than Mike Leach, running back BARON BATCH(below) could pass that mark. Tuberville says he will speed up the tempo of games by using the NASCAR offense (his version of the hurry-up) for 20 to 30% of the snaps. . . . Both Tech, under new defensive coordinator JAMES WILLIS, and Texas A&M, under new coordinator TIM DERUYTER, have switched from the 4--3 to the 3--4. Any change is good for the Aggies, who were 105th in total defense last season. . . . Kansas sophomore quarterback KALE PICK, who as a backup last year threw for 22 yards, is the favorite to replace Todd Reesing. Meanwhile coach TURNER GILL has instituted a curse-free zone at practice, one season after the man he replaced, Mark Mangino, was ousted, in part, for alleged verbal abuse of players. . . . Oklahoma State will look much different on offense this year. Not only do the Cowboys lose receiver Dez Bryant and quarterback Zac Robinson, they also have a new coordinator in DANA HOLGORSEN, who has experience in Texas Tech's and Houston's pass-heavy attacks.
STEVEN LEIJA/SOUTHCREEK GLOBAL