Oklahoma State has enjoyed back-to-back 10-win seasons and is coming off its first outright conference title since 1948, when it was in the Missouri Valley Conference.
Last season marked just the fifth time in its history that Oklahoma State won 10 games, and the Cowboys never have had three 10-win seasons in a row. Can the Cowboys win 10 again with an offense that returns only two fulltime starters?
One thing Mike Gundy has proved since he has been coach is that he knows all about high-powered offenses. This season, though, he has to replace two first-round picks (QB Brandon Weeden and WR Justin Blackmon) and three starters off one of the nation's best lines.
The defense has eight fulltime starters back, lending hope that it can improve. While the Cowboys forced a nation's-leading 44 turnovers last season, they also surrendered 456.8 yards per game, which was 107th nationally.
Last season: 12-1 overall, 8-1 in Big 12 (1st in league)
Coach: Mike Gundy (59-30, 8th season)
Returning starters (minimum 7 starts last season): Offense (2) – TB Joseph Randle, G Lane Taylor. Defense (8) – CB Brodrick Brown, LB Alex Elkins, CB Justin Gilbert, LB Caleb Lavey, LB Shaun Lewis, FS Daytawion Lowe, T Nigel Nicholas (moved to E), T Anthony Rogers. Special teams (1) – K/P Quinn Sharp.
Fast fact: Oklahoma State is coming off the most successful back-to-back seasons in school history. The Cowboys won 11 games in 2010, then had their most successful season ever in 2011, finishing with 12 victories.
TBs Joseph Randle, who rushed for 1,216 yards and 24 TDs, and Jeremy Smith, who rushed for 646 yards and nine scores, form a potent 1-2 punch and should help the new quarterback ease into the job.
The hard-working Randle is a favorite of the coaching staff – heck, West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen, who was the Cowboys' coordinator when Randle signed, was raving about him during the Big 12 Media Days – and came through in a big way in 2011, his first season as a starter. He scored at least one TD in every game but two and had eight contests in which he scored at least twice. He's a solid receiver, as well, catching 43 passes. Randle had six 100-yard games last season, and Smith added two more (against Texas and Oklahoma).
The new quarterback will be true freshman Wes Lunt, a four-star recruit from Rochester, Ill., who enrolled early and went through spring practice. Lunt is a big guy (6 feet 4/211 pounds) with a nice arm, and in his final two seasons of high school in Rochester, a town of about 3,000, he threw 75 TD passes and just eight interceptions. He beat out redshirt freshman J.W. Walsh and junior Clint Chelf during the spring.
Talk about a big change in experience: Lunt turns 19 on Oct. 7 and Weeden turned 28 during the 2011 season.
Blackmon's departure obviously hurts, too; he had 121 receptions for 1,522 yards and 18 TDs. Oklahoma State also lost No. 2 receiver Josh Cooper, who had 71 catches. The leading returning receiver is senior Tracy Moore, who had 45 receptions last season and has 73 in his career. It's laughable to think he can come close to replacing Blackmon by himself; that means the Cowboys need some former background guys to become spotlight players. Senior Isaiah Anderson, sophomore Josh Stewart and redshirt freshmen Torrance Carr and David Glidden will get opportunities to show they can be playmakers. So will JC transfer Blake Jackson, a three-star signee who should start, and true freshman C.J. Curry. Jackson is a big, physical (6-3/238) receiver who had 16 TD receptions for Scottsdale (Ariz.) CC last season.
G Lane Taylor is the only fulltime starter returning on the line; he will be a four-year starter for the Cowboys and should be one of the top offensive linemen in the Big 12. His running mate at guard is expected to be sixth-year senior Jonathan Rush, who started every game in 2010 and the first three games last season before being lost with a knee injury. Each of the other three starters also is an upperclassman: senior C Evan Epstein, senior T Michael Bowie and junior T Parker Graham. Bowie and Graham each started five games last season, so Epstein, who began his career at Air Force, is the only real unknown. There is little proven depth.
While it's hard to see Oklahoma State forcing 44 turnovers again, it's also hard to see the Cowboys being as gracious with the yards allowed this season because they have eight full-time starters back on this side of the ball.
The rush defense is a huge issue; the Cowboys were gashed to the tune of 184.9 yards per game, 90th nationally. The improvement must begin up front.
Cowboys coaches are hoping for a big season from JC transfer Calvin Barnett at tackle. He was a four-star recruit out of high school and signed with Arkansas; he didn't qualify academically and ended up at Navarro CC (Texas). He was a three-star recruit out of junior college and went through spring ball with the Cowboys.
He should line up next to returning starter Anthony Rogers, a junior who made 21 tackles last season. Also in the tackle rotation will be junior Davidell Collins and sophomore Christian Littlehead
Nigel Nicholas was a starting tackle last season but has been moved to end; he had 10 tackles for loss last season and should be an added physical presence against the run. Seniors Cooper Bassett and Ryan Robinson (like Nicholas, a Georgia native) and junior Tyler Johnson are in the hunt for the other starting job. Bassett is a converted tight end who moves well.
All three starting linebackers return: senior Alex Elkins and juniors Caleb Lavey and Shaun Lewis. Elkins had an especially strong season after transferring in from junior college, finishing with 90 tackles, five tackles for loss, an interception and two pass breakups. Lavey and Lewis combined for 135 tackles, 12 tackles for loss and three interceptions. Elkins (6-3/230) was a high school pitcher who didn't play football until his freshman year in junior college.
Three starters return in the secondary, including active CBs Brodrick Brown and Justin Gilbert; that duo combined for 127 tackles, 10 interceptions and 25 pass breakups. Oklahoma State was second nationally with 24 interceptions, three behind North Carolina State.
FS Daytawion Lowe returns after leading the Cowboys with 97 tackles; he added an interception, five pass breakups and three forced fumbles. The new starting strong safety will be junior Lavocheya Cooper or junior Shamiel Gary, a Wyoming transfer who made 94 tackles in 2010 and sat out last season. Gary, an Oklahoma native, made 192 tackles in two seasons at Wyoming. Depth looks good in the secondary.
Senior Quinn Sharp might be the best punter in the nation. He also is one of the best kickers. He averaged 46.3 yards per punt last season (third nationally) and owns a career average of 45.8 yards. Last season was Sharp's first as the Cowboys' kicker and he was 22-of-25 on field-goal attempts, with a long of 46. In addition, Sharp led the nation with 61 touchbacks on kickoffs, 23 more than anyone else in the nation.
Gilbert is an electrifying kick returner; he averaged 27.0 yards on 26 attempts and took two back for scores. Though Gilbert also might be used as the punt returner, that job likely will go to Glidden, a little guy (5-7/171) who had four TDs on kick returns as a high school senior.
One notable spot for improvement is on the coverage teams; both reeked last season, with the Cowboys 108th in kickoff return defense and 98th in punt return defense.
Five of the first seven games are at home, including a monster showdown Sept. 29 against Texas; the outcome could determine the course of each team's season.
The Cowboys also get TCU, West Virginia and Texas Tech at home, but must go on the road to face Kansas State, Oklahoma and Baylor.
The opener deserves mention. It's against FCS member Savannah State, which has 16 total wins since moving up to the FCS ranks from Division II in 2002. The Tigers have won a combined two games in the past two seasons, and Oklahoma State will be their first-ever FBS foe.
This is one of the more interesting teams nationwide. The Cowboys lost a ton of prime offensive talent, but still should have a potent unit. And you figure a defense that routinely was roasted last season will make some strides, if only because eight starters are back.
Still, replacing Blackmon and Weeden is a daunting task. And going with a true freshman at quarterback? But Gundy has grown as a coach in the past few seasons (he needs four wins to become the winningest coach in school history) and it's unlikely the Cowboys will slide that far.
Oklahoma State has the look of an eight- or nine-win team, and it's hard to overstate how important the showdown with Texas is for both teams. An Oklahoma State win – in a season in which the Cowboys are reloading – would go a long way toward establishing the Cowboys as a league title contender again. An Oklahoma State loss? Well, that might go a long way toward showing that Oklahoma State is bound for the middle of the Big 12 pack.
The recruiting side
Average recruiting ranking for past five years: 31st nationally
The buzz: Oklahoma State has relied on the state of Texas, and the Houston area specifically, quite heavily over the past few years. But with the class of 2012, the Cowboys really struggled in Houston after losing assistant coach/area recruiter Joe DeForest to West Virginia. Oklahoma State signed only three players from the area and none were highly recruited. Coach Mike Gundy hired assistant Van Malone from Tulsa this offseason to help re-establish the team in the Houston area going forward. – Rivals.com
QB Wes Lunt. Oklahoma State moved to the "Air Raid" offense two seasons ago, and Weeden was the perfect fit. Now, Weeden has moved on to the Cleveland Browns, but the quarterback position remains the key to the offense. During spring drills, Lunt emerged as the choice of Gundy and coordinator Todd Monken. Coaches said Lunt gave them the best opportunity to continue running the offense as they have done the past two seasons. If he remains healthy, Lunt should put up good numbers in a potent offense. – Jeff Johnson, OState.com
For more on Oklahoma State throughout the season, check out OState.com
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