Oklahoma State's players certainly appreciate that the media thinks highly enough of the Cowboys to pick them to win the Big 12.
But they don't want to buy into the hype, especially coming off an 8-5 season in which Oklahoma State started three different quarterbacks and settled for a trip to the Heart of Dallas Bowl.
Coach Mike Gundy said preseason expectations are often based on who's returning at quarterback, and he's decided that senior Clint Chelf and sophomore J.W. Walsh will each see action Saturday as No. 13 Oklahoma State opens against Mississippi State at Reliant Stadium in Houston.
Gundy has repeatedly declined to specify which one will be the primary signal-caller, saying Chelf and Walsh each deserve shots to seize the job. Both played significant roles last season, helping the Cowboys produce the nation's third-ranked offense, including the sixth-best passing attack.
Chelf was chosen Most Valuable Player of the Heart of Dallas Bowl, while Walsh was voted the Big 12's Freshman of the Year by the conference's coaches.
"We're going to play both guys," Gundy said. "That hasn't changed since the spring. Both quarterbacks have improved. I don't really know any other way to say it, than what I've been saying the last five months. Both guys have been doing a good job, we're glad we have them and they'll both get a chance to play."
Gundy would not say who would get more snaps.
"It would be hard for me to predict reps, but I don't think either one of them will be a backup for the first game," Gundy said. "We have two quarterbacks with relatively the same amount of experience, so we're obligated to give both the opportunity to play in the game. We feel that they can each provide something for the team to give us the chance to be successful this year."
Chelf started the final five games in 2012, completing 60.4 percent of his passes for 1,588 yards and 15 touchdowns, including 197 yards and three touchdowns in a 58-14 victory over Purdue on Jan. 1.
Walsh completed 66.9 percent of his passes, piling up 1,564 yards and 13 touchdowns while also rushing for seven scores.
Gundy also pointed out that Oklahoma State would only need to make minor tweaks on the offensive game plan depending on which quarterback was on the field.
"We have the same offense, but we try to play to the strengths of whoever's in there," Gundy said. "Both quarterbacks have continued to improve and play well."
Oklahoma State must also shore up its defense if it hopes to earn its second Big 12 championship in three years. The Cowboys allowed an average of 47.2 points in their five losses last season, including 59 to Arizona and 51 to Oklahoma in a wild Bedlam game.
New defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer, who was promoted after serving as Oklahoma State's linebackers coach, gets the task of fixing the problem.
"It's a process," Spencer said. "... We just keep pressing on the guys that yesterday is over and to win tomorrow."
The defense's first test comes against a Mississippi State offense that is led by senior quarterback Tyler Russell. But Russell, who passed for 2,897 yards and 24 touchdowns in helping the Bulldogs go 8-5 last season, will be throwing to several new receivers and there are also new faces on the offensive line.
"You feel the ability is there, no doubt," offensive coordinator Les Koenning said. "I mean we feel we're very proud of the receivers we've brought in. I think it's how quick they can retain and how quick they can get on the field, how quick they can feel comfortable in what they're doing."
Mississippi State's four previous season openers under coach Dan Mullen have been laughers, with the Bulldogs beating overmatched opponents by an average of nearly 44 points.
Humor might be harder to find Saturday, as this matchup brings the potential for a galvanizing victory, but also the risk of a humbling loss.
Mullen said playing such a difficult opponent isn't necessarily a problem, but poses different challenges. In easier openers, he could slowly work freshmen into the playing rotation and in situations where they'd likely find success.
That's a luxury he won't have against the Cowboys. He estimated that "six or seven" freshmen would make the trip and many would be on the field regardless of the situation.
"It's a little harder in this game," Mullen said. "This is what amounts to a big-time game right from day one. So you're treating this game like you would a game in November when you're competing for a conference championship. It's at that level."
The game is a chance for the Bulldogs to prove they can play with one of the country's best teams. Mississippi State started last season 7-0 but lost five of its last six games, including all four against ranked opponents.
Both teams are used to having success in season openers. Oklahoma State has won five straight while Mississippi State has won four in a row.
"It's all about what you do once you get on that field, so Aug. 31 and on we've got to prove every day, every game, that we're really No. 1 (in the Big 12)," Oklahoma State wide receiver Josh Stewart said. "And that's what we plan on doing."
- Sports & Recreation
- American Football
- Mike Gundy