Yes, the Cowboys deserved to play LSU in the BCS Championship Game, and yes, they finally broke through the Oklahoma/Texas stranglehold on the Big 12. But they lose an all-timer of a receiver who was special even at a place that’s great at cranking out all-timer receiver types, and they lost a first-round NFL draft pick quarterback who didn’t get nearly enough credit for all the success.
However, Oklahoma State has become such a factory under Mike Gundy that there’s little worry or concern over not having Justin Blackmon or Brandon Weeden around anymore, and while the system doesn’t make the player, there’s more talent where they came from. Gundy has been able to put together good enough teams to be in the conference title chase on a regular basis, and now, after breaking through and winning the Big 12 championship, the program has the credibility to show that it might be here to stay.
Oklahoma State has found its niche, and unlike now-SECers Texas A&M and Missouri, who had been knocking on the door for years, and Texas Tech, which came close but never quite took things to another level, the Cowboys earned enough stripes to be taken seriously as a true threat for the conference championship on a regular basis. Now the key will be to maintain a consistently high level after winning 41 games in four years and 23 in the last two.
Texas isn’t going to be down for forever and Oklahoma isn’t going away. The key for the Cowboys will be to maintain a consistently high level of play, and as long as they’re able to keep the offense rolling and continue to put up ridiculous numbers on a consistent basis, they need to be put in the same category as the Sooners and Longhorns.
But as good as the Cowboys have been and even with the good talent waiting in the wings, it’s still going to be a bit of a reloading season. Yeah, losing Weeden and Blackmon really will sting a bit, especially with the team going really, really young in some key spots.
The coaching staff is going to sink or swim with true freshman Wes Lunt at quarterback, and while he has a world of upside and looks like he might be the next big thing, he’s still wet behind the ears and he won’t have the luxury of Blackmon as a receiving target. Making matters even more difficult will be a line that has to replace four starters. On the plus side, the rushing tandem of Joseph Randle and Jeremy Smith will be good enough to carry the offense for a while, and the line and receiving corps should be able to patch holes in a hurry.
What to watch for on offense: The receiving corps. All the focus and attention will be on Lunt, but he’ll be fine if his receivers are strong. However, losing a go-to playmaker like Blackmon – along with the underappreciated Josh Cooper – will be a problem unless a few of the promising prospects turn into major producers from the start. There was a thought that it could be Michael Harrison, but he’s off the team, meaning Charlie Moore needs to show that his strong spring game wasn’t just a one-shot deal. Josh Stewart has all the tools to become a key part of the puzzle, but is he a No. 1 guy? Blackmon didn’t exactly come from out of the blue, but no one expected that. The Cowboys need another star to rise up.
What to watch for on defense: The pass rush. It’s hard to be disruptive and force all the turnovers and mistakes like last year’s defense did without a good, strong, consistent pass rush. The problem is that most of the stars of last season are gone. Former tight end Cooper Bassett has the upside and athleticism to be the one who picks up the slack, but Nigel Nicholas is a speed rushing prospect who could dominate in a specialist role. Former JUCO transfer Ryan Robinson is another pure pass rusher who showed a little bit of promise last year, while former Anaheim Angel Tyler Johnson is a mature, talented option who could shine if he stays healthy. It will take a village to make up for the loss of Richetti Jones and Jamie Blatnick.
The team will be far better if: It keeps owning the turnover margin. Keep taking the ball away and don’t give it up, and you’ll win lots of games. LSU finished second in the nation in turnover margin. Houston and Wisconsin tied for fourth, and Kansas State was ninth. Alabama, Oregon, Boise State and Michigan were all in the top 25. In all, 17 teams that finished with double-digit wins also finished in the top 35 in turnover margin. Only eight teams had a margin of 1.00 or better; LSU’s was 1.43, and Oklahoma State’s was a whopping 1.62, taking the ball away 44 times while giving it away 23 times. It’ll be harder with a true freshman quarterback, but it’s not like Weeden was always careful with the ball.
The schedule: The Cowboys have a lot of work to do to rebuild and reload after coming so achingly close to playing for the national title, but they have the schedule to come up with another great run if, and it’s a huge if, they can get by Texas in late September. Savannah State and Louisiana won’t be a problem, and Arizona is still going to be figuring out what it’s doing under Rich Rodriguez on Sept. 8. And then comes the week off to prepare for Texas. Win that, and with at Kansas and Iowa State to follow, 6-0 is possible before a home date against TCU and a trip to Kansas State. Traveling to Oklahoma is a problem, and closing out the year at Baylor isn’t a plus, but OSU gets Texas, TCU, and West Virginia in Stillwater. It also gets a revenge game against Iowa State at home has a terrific stretch from Sept. 15 to Nov. 3 with just one road game.
Best offensive player: Junior RB Randle. Running backs can be statistical machines in the Mike Gundy offense, and Randle is showing he can be dangerous around the goal line, an occasional workhorse, and good out of the backfield for the passing game. With so many new parts to the passing puzzle, he’ll have to be steady and reliable to give the Cowboys even more consistency for what should be another good year for the ground attack. While another 26-touchdown season might be asking for too much, he needs to hit the 1,000-yard mark again and score at least 15 times. He has the quickness and talent to handle the responsibility.
Best defensive player: Senior cornerback Brodrick Brown. While he doesn’t look like he’s built to take a pounding as a big hitter, he’s one of the best tackling defensive backs in the Big 12. He has also shown he can make big things happen with the ball in the air breaking up 15 throws last season to go along with five picks. Fast enough to have been a part of the OSU track team, wheels aren’t a problem, and with 145 tackles over the last two years, toughness is hardly an issue.
Key player to a successful season: Freshman QB Lunt. It’s not like there aren’t other options. J.W. Walsh was a nice recruit last year with good mobility and a solid arm, and Clint Chelf was the main backup last season and looked the part when he got his chances. But there seems to be something special about Lunt, a two-time Illinois state champion who can fire away with a gunslinger’s mentality. However, to be the Oklahoma State quarterback demands making the easy throws on a regular basis, spread it around, and keep the chains moving. Obviously, the more true freshman mistakes he can avoid, the better, but Brandon Weeden threw his share of picks and he was as mature as college quarterbacks come.
The season will be a success if: The Cowboys win ten games. With Texas, TCU and West Virginia at home, and the really tough road games at Kansas State and Oklahoma, there’s no reason to expect anything less than a double-digit victory season. Even though the program has become a bit of a factory, there’s still plenty of turnover to deal with in key spots. Winning the Big 12 title again isn’t totally out of the question, but it would take several major breaks to get in the hunt. The needle is pointing up for the near future, so if OSU can go 9-3 in the regular season and win the bowl game, everything will be set up for a potentially strong 2013.
Key game: Sept. 29 vs. Texas. The Longhorns always seemed to have a hold on the Cowboys, but that changed with two double-digit victories over the last two seasons. But now Texas should be stronger with the defense as good as it was last season and with far more production sure to come from a maturing offense. With a week off to prepare and rest up for the conference opener, OSU can set the tone for the season by coming up with a big home win before getting another week off to heal up.