Preseason countdown: No. 13 OK State

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Fine, so Oklahoma State technically get to print up 2010 Big 12 South Champions T-shirts. Now it’s time to actually win something.

Oklahoma ended up winning the Big 12 title last season, raining on what was one of the most successful seasons in Oklahoma State football history. (Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas A&M finished in a three-way tie atop the division at 6-2, but the Sooners got the nod to go to the conference championship game.)

Now there’s no excuse for Oklahoma State not to win the whole shooting match. And that means the BCS Championship Game, not just the Big 12 title.

Oklahoma State

The Cowboys lost two games last year. One was to a Nebraska team that’s off the schedule and in the Big Ten, and the other was against Oklahoma.

This year’s Bedlam showdown — again — is in Stillwater. Oh, sure, going on the road to face Texas A&M and Texas might seem daunting, and going to Texas Tech should produce a shootout. But if everything goes as planned, this really and truly should be one of the best teams in the nation, and it really and truly should be good enough to bomb away anyone and everyone on the slate

How good was the Oklahoma State offense? It hung up 41 points in each of the two losses. How good will the offense be? Just about everyone is back from an attack that averaged 520 yards and 44 points per game.

Out of all the big question marks throughout the college football world, one of the biggest might be about the new offensive coordinator. Dana Holgorsen, the mastermind who helped make an already great offense special, is now the head coach at West Virginia. Successor Todd Monken has to show that he isn’t going to screw around with what worked. With the talent returning, though, anyone could be the offensive coordinator and the big numbers would still come.

Quarterback Brandon Weeden is on the Chris Weinke plan, using his leadership and his 27-year-old maturity to be the ring leader and triggerman for the high-octane attack, and he’ll have 10 days to throw with all five starters returning up front.

Running back Kendall Hunter is gone, but the receiving corps will be among the best in America with Biletnikoff winner Justin Blackmon leading a devastatingly athletic group. Of course, the fireworks weren’t a problem last year and the Cowboys didn’t win anything.

Texas is going to come roaring back sooner than later. The program has too much talent, too much money and too much exposure thanks to its new network to not be the Big 12’s signature star. Texas A&M might be loaded with veterans, Missouri is better than you think, and Oklahoma might be the No. 1 team in America, despite the loss of linebacker Travis Lewis. But no one will have the firepower that Oklahoma State brings. Just like 2008 Oklahoma outbombed everyone and everything in its path on the way to the BCS Championship Game, Oklahoma State might do the same.

The special teams should continue to be outstanding if star punter Quinn Sharp can handle the place-kicking duties, and the defense will be great if all the top athletes can do just enough to keep offenses from going ballistic. But this season is all about offense, offense, offense.

Auburn was able to get from out of Alabama’s shadow with its epic 2010 national championship season, and now it’s time for Oklahoma State to push aside the big brother down the road and be in the hunt for the national title.

And if the team finally gets a Big 12 title along the way, that wouldn’t be a bad thing.

What to watch for on offense: The running backs. All five starters are back up front, and there’s talent waiting in the wings. Weeden was hardly touched last year, and now he’ll be one of the nation’s most productive passers with Blackmon and one of college football’s best receiving corps to throw to. Can the running game continue to rock with Hunter gone? He leaves with 4,181 career rushing yards and 37 touchdowns, and now it’s up to Joseph Randle and Jeremy Smith to provide the punch early on to take the heat off of Weeden. Monken spent last year coaching the Jacksonville Jaguars' receivers, and he’ll make sure the passing game rocks, but he needs to hand the ball off, too.

What to watch for on defense: The linebackers. With the offense Oklahoma State has, all the defense has to do is get off the field on a regular basis, and that means the linebackers have to come up with key stops. Orie Lemon cleaned up everything that came his way, and a lot of big plays that didn’t, with 133 tackles, 2.5 sacks and nine tackles for loss. It was his linebacking corps and he dominated at times, but now he’s gone, as are the team’s top defensive tackles. Someone has to make things happen up the middle. Caleb Lavey is a great-looking prospect for the middle job, but he’s relatively unproven and it’s asking a lot for him to be Lemon right away. Shaun Lewis is a burgeoning all-star on one side, but LeRon Furr has to be all over the field from the weakside.

The team will be far better if: It can keep teams under 40 points. That doesn’t seem like a lot to ask for; the offense should crank out six touchdowns on a regular basis. The problem is that the defense, while athletic, will have its normal lapses of production and will give up big numbers here and there. While almost everyone has a bad record when allowing 40 points or more, even with the devastating offense to keep up in any shootout, Oklahoma State was 0-2 last year when allowing 40 points or more, and it’s 0 for 9 going back to a 49-45 win over Texas Tech in 2007. Over that same span, the Cowboys are 36-5 when they give up 39 points or fewer.

The schedule: The Cowboys have one game against Louisiana-Lafayette to tune up for Arizona in what might be a fun shootout, and a trip down the road to Tulsa will be a firefight that should produce 100 points. The hope will be for the team to be battle-hardened enough to handle a huge Big 12 opener at Texas A&M before getting a week off. Getting four Big 12 road games in six weeks is bad, and playing at Texas, Missouri, and Texas Tech, not to mention the earlier battle with the Aggies, isn’t fair. Although the Oklahoma rivalry is in Stillwater, the Cowboys will be coming off of road trips to Lubbock and Iowa State.

Best offensive player: Blackmon. Is it possible for Blackmon to possibly improve on his 2010 season? No, but he has the quarterback in place and the help around him to be unstoppable once again. Big, strong, and tough, he was always open and always found ways to make plays in a frighteningly consistent season. Even with the 20 catches for 260 yards and two scores in 2009, he showed the acrobatic ability and the upside to potentially be great, but no one saw 111 catches for 1,782 yards and 20 touchdowns, with more than 100 yards and a score in every game.

Check out's take on Oklahoma State's upcoming season.

Best defensive player: Senior strong safety Markelle Martin. Lewis might be close, and a pass rusher such as Richetti Jones or Jamie Blatnick could be the playmaker, but Martin is the leader and the star of the ultra-athletic defense. At 6-foot-1 and 192 pounds, he has good size to go along with 4.4 speed and guided-missile hitting ability. After coming up with 55 tackles with three picks, including a 62-yard score against Arizona, he’s ready to make more noise on a national scale. Don’t be shocked if he’s on the All-America short lists.

Key player to a successful season: Offensive coordinator Monken. Middle linebacker Caleb Lavey has to come up with a big year, and tackles Christian Littlehead and Nigel Nicholas have to shine, but no one will have more pressure on his shoulders, and no one has to do more, than Monken. He has to try to keep the machine from slowing down. With all the talent that’s returning, if there are problems with this year’s offense, it will be blamed on Monken. He spent the past three years coaching receivers for the Jacksonville Jaguars, and he handled the passing game at LSU for a few years and was a part of the offensive coaching mix under Les Miles at Oklahoma State. Now, Monken has to be not only good, but he has to make the right calls for an offense that has the talent to be among the top three in America.

The season will be a success if: Oklahoma State wins the Big 12 title. It’s actually harder now to win a championship with a nine-game conference slate instead of needing to win just a six-game division to play for the title, but the Cowboys are talented enough to pull it off. Getting through the season unscathed will be next to impossible with road games at Texas A&M and Texas, not to mention the home game against the Sooners, but 11-1 and a BCS appearance is attainable.

Key game: Dec. 3 vs. Oklahoma. There might be a sense that Oklahoma State has hung tough with the Sooners over the years, mainly because of high-profile upsets in 2001 and '02, but it has been a while since the rivalry tipped toward the Stillwater side. Since shocking Oklahoma with a 38-28 win in 2002, Oklahoma State has lost eight straight and has been bombed on time and again. Beating Texas A&M in College Station would be big, and getting by Texas in Austin is always something to get fired up about, but if Oklahoma State finally wants to come up with a Big 12 title, it needs to put a halt to the losses to the Sooners. Played on Dec. 3, it will be right up there with several other conference title games.

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