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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 16: Oklahoma State

How do you know when a program has arrived? You can stand away from the action and just look at the won-loss record, but can you pinpoint the actual day a team really arrives? You can with Oklahoma State, in my mind: Oct. 11, 2008 — Cowboys 28, then-No. 3 Missouri 23. It wasn’t that people weren’t already paying attention, seeing that the Cowboys opened that season 5-0 and were coming off back-to-back bowl berths. It was more a case of people standing up and really taking notice of a program that had, slowly but surely, developed into a B.C.S. contender under Mike Gundy. That was just the beginning: Oklahoma State went on to win nine games that fall, nine more in 2009 and a program-record 11 in 2010. Arrived? Oklahoma State’s crashed the party, and there’s no reason to think the Cowboys won’t hang around for the foreseeable future.

Conference
Big 12

Location
Stillwater, Okla.

Nickname
Cowboys

Returning starters
14 (9 offense, 5 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 69

2010 record
(11-2, 6-2)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 13

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 3
    La.-Lafayette
  • Sept. 8
    Arizona
  • Sept. 17
    at Tulsa
  • Sept. 24
    at Texas A&M
  • Oct. 8
    Kansas
  • Oct. 15
    at Texas
  • Oct. 22
    at Missouri
  • Oct. 29
    Baylor
  • Nov. 5
    Kansas St.
  • Nov. 12
    at Texas Tech
  • Nov. 18
    at Iowa St.
  • Dec. 3
    Oklahoma

Last year’s prediction

Now, as for my concerns with this year’s squad. The first, as noted, is the relative inexperience on both sides of the ball. A new face under center — not a huge deal, to be fair — a lack of explosiveness at wide receiver and a nearly brand new offensive line, for starters. There is talent here, but I expect some growing pains. There’s a similar story on defense: Lemon’s healthy return — hopefully — will boost the linebacker corps, but the secondary is a concern. There is easily enough talent in Stillwater for the Cowboys to return to bowl play, perhaps even maintain the streak of seven-win seasons. I think we’ll see a slight decline in 2010, however.

2010 recap

In a nutshell Score. Score in victory, score in defeat. Just score. When Oklahoma State did go down in 2010 — and the Cowboys only lost twice — it went down swinging, scoring points in bunches and forcing the opposition to keep pace. Dictating the tempo: that’s just what Dana Holgorsen does — or did, rather, as he took his wares to West Virginia after Oklahoma State’s dominant bowl win over Arizona. What a season it was: a star turn by a relatively unknown wide receiver; a star turn — or return — by a once-heralded running back; and a star turn by a former minor league baseball pitcher, the oldest starting quarterback in the country. There should be no animosity surrounding Holgorsen’s departure for the hills of West Virginia, not when the new job stands as a promotion. And not when one thinks of all that Holgorsen did for O.S.U. in 2010. This was the best team in program history. How many teams could you have said that about in 2010?

High point Looking back, the most impressive win was a 38-35 victory over Texas A&M on Sept. 30. Not sure if that was truly the high point, however. What about a win over then-No. 21 Baylor on Nov. 6, followed a week later by a win in Austin over the Longhorns?

Low point A shootout loss to rival Oklahoma to end the regular season. With a win, O.S.U. would have taken the Big 12 South, played for the conference title and, if things had gone its way, played for the national title. It’s a long way down from the B.C.S. to the Alamo Bowl, though Oklahoma State was still proud of its season.

Tidbit It was a banner year for Oklahoma State, which won 11 games for the first time in school history. The Cowboys also won 10 games in the regular season for the first time; notched six wins in conference play for the second time, joining 2009; went undefeated on the road for the first time since 1945; finished in the final top 10 for the first time since 1984; had three all-Americans; and starred the Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year, Special Teams Player of the Year and Coach of the Year.

Tidbit (Bedlam edition) The Bedlam Rivalry is as one-sided as a deep, bitter, in-state rivalry can be: Oklahoma holds an 81-17-7 edge over the Cowboys. Oklahoma State won back-to-back games from 2001-2 but hasn’t won a game since, dropping eight straight — and that’s only the program’s third-longest such drought in the series, behind 11 straight losses from 1904-16, 16 straight from 1977-92 and 19 straight from 1946-64. Not surprisingly, the more lopsided defeats over the last eight years have come in Norman. The offense disappears on the road, averaging only 13.3 points per game in the last four losses in Norman; the Cowboys have averaged 34.5 points per game over their last four losses in Stillwater.

Former players in the N.F.L.

22 K Dan Bailey (Dallas), TE Billy Bajema (St. Louis), OT Brady Bond (Baltimore), WR Dez Bryant (Dallas), DE Ugo Chinasa (Carolina), CB Perrish Cox (Denver), DE Chris Donaldson (Green Bay), OT Corey Hilliard (Detroit), WR Kendall Hunter (San Francisco), OT Charlie Johnson (Minnesota), CB Jacob Lacey (Indianapolis), LB Orie Lemon (Dallas), DT Ryan McBean (Denver), DT Swanson Miller (New Orleans), OT Russell Okung (Seattle), DE Juqua Parker (Philadelphia), TE Brandon Pettigrew (Detroit), CB Ricky Price (Kansas City), QB Zac Robinson (Detroit), DE Antonio Smith (Houston), RB Keith Toston (St. Louis), DT Kevin Williams (Minnesota).

Arbitrary top five list

F.B.S. coaches as college quarterbacks, with team
1. Steve Spurrier, Florida.
2. Turner Gill, Nebraska.
3. Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State.
4. Steve Sarkisian, B.Y.U.
5. Jeff Tedford, Fresno State.

Coaching

Mike Gundy (Oklahoma State ’90), 47-29 after six seasons with the Cowboys. The program has made clear and steady progress over this span, going from 1-7 in Big 12 play in 2005 to 12-4 over the last two years. The Cowboys had been mired in a string of two consecutive seven-win seasons from 2006-7, when it had showed flashes of brilliance but remained unable to beat the top-rated teams on its schedule. That did not completely change in 2008 – O.S.U. did defeat one top five team – though it was obvious that the Cowboys had made great strides since the 2007 season. Progress continue from 2008-9 before the Cowboys skyrocketed into the national title hunt last fall. Gundy was a four-year starting quarterback for the Cowboys (1986-89), and remains one of the most successful (back-to-back 10-win seasons in 1987-88) and productive quarterback in team history. Gundy entered the coaching ranks immediately after his graduation, taking on the Oklahoma State receivers coach job and skipping the normal graduate assistant apprenticeship that usually accompanies the move into full-time coaching. He remained at his alma mater through 1995, moving up to the quarterbacks coach (1991-93, 1995) and offensive coordinator (1994), before spending one year at Baylor, coaching the quarterbacks and four more at Maryland (receivers from 1997-98, quarterbacks from 1999-2000). He returned to his alma mater in 2001 as Les Miles’s offensive coordinator, a position he held through the 2004 season; he was promoted after Miles left for L.S.U. in early 2005. After experiencing a 37-82-2 record as an assistant from 1990-2000, Gundy has gone 67-46 as both an assistant and head coach since coming back to Stillwater in 2001. With his familiarity with the program and his growing success as the head coach, Gundy is a long-term fit with his alma mater.

Tidbit (coaching edition) There are three new coaches on Gundy’s staff, all on the offensive side of the ball. The most notable is former Jacksonville Jaguars quarterbacks coach Todd Monken, who replaces Holgorsen. Oklahoma State will ask Monken to run the same offense, which was smart, but Monken is undergoing the same learning curve as a true freshman, in some ways. But he’ll bring some of his N.F.L. sensibilities to the job, which makes him an intriguing addition. Monken is no stranger to the college game or to Stillwater, having coached under Les Miles from 2002-4 before joining him at L.S.U. from 2005-6. O.S.U. also added former Air Force running backs coach Jemal Singleton to the same position and Kasey Dunn, formerly of Southern Mississippi, as wide receivers coach.

Players to watch

Remember when we didn’t know what Oklahoma State was going to get on offense? Ah, those heady pre-Holgorsen days… I remember them well. Any questions about the health of this offense were put to bed, I don’t know, five minutes into 2010. Scoring? The Cowboys did this as well as anyone. Big plays? One, two, five, ten — we ran out of fingers. Passing? From end zone to end zone with ease, behind one of the great stories of the season at both quarterback and wide receiver. Monken’s S.A.T.-like cramming for the Air Raid offense yielded another fine performance in the spring game, and while there’s a big difference between April and September there’s no reason to think Oklahoma State won’t continue to score with — and on — anybody.

Senior quarterback Brandon Weeden’s just a great story. The former minor league pitcher, who turns 28 in October, brought a big-league arm and big-league production to this offense in his first season as the starter. Weeden showed signs of his potential as a reserve in 2009, especially in a win over Colorado, but really burst forward in a breakout 2010: 4,277 yards and 39 scores while hitting on 66.9 percent of his attempts. He was the Big 12’s first-team quarterback, growing more and more comfortable as the year progressed and really only faltering once, in Oklahoma State’s loss to Oklahoma. The idea that Weeden is continuing to develop under center after his long hiatus from the game — and his three years as a reserve, from 2007-9 — has many putting his name forward for an even greater 2011, perhaps putting together a Heisman-worthy campaign. I can see that. How good are the quarterbacks in the state of Oklahoma?

What makes the engine run: is it the quarterback who makes the receiver great or vice versa? Regardless of where you stand on this chicken-or-egg argument, you must agree that both Weeden and junior Justin Blackmon are among the best players in the country. The deep well of superlatives for Blackmon runs dry, so just sit back and chew on this: he played in 12 games last fall, missing one game for a violation of team rules; he made at least five receptions in each game; he had at least 105 yards receiving in each game; he caught at least one touchdown in each game. My goodness. When the dust cleared, Blackmon made 111 receptions for 1,782 yards and 20 touchdowns. Like former Texas Tech receiver Michael Crabtree, Blackmon’s physical gifts transcend this high-octane offense. There’s no better receiver in the country. How good are the wide receivers in the state of Oklahoma?

Blackmon’s far from the only weapon at receiver, though he’s clearly the most integral piece of the puzzle. He’s joined at outside receiver by senior Hubert Anyiam, whose numbers stumbled last fall due to injuries. But he was a key option when healthy in 2009, and Blackmon himself has pointed out Anyiam for a big senior season. Senior Josh Cooper (68 receptions for 736 yards) is back at inside receiver, as are senior Colton Chelf (11 for 200) and junior Tracy Moore (17 for 212). There’s no lack of depth, not when you add in options like Isaiah Anderson (12 for 216), Michael Harrison (14 for 135) and Charlie Moore. Depth and the nation’s best receiver? Pitch and catch, all day long.

The offensive line might lack the franchise-style left tackle, but this should be Gundy’s best group yet. One year after bringing only 12 career starts to the table, Oklahoma State has all five starters back in the fold. Like the offense as a whole, the line exceeded all expectations last fall. The only spot where you find competition is at left tackle, where incumbent starter Nick Martinez is neck-and-neck with JUCO addition Michael Bowie. It’s a win-win situation: either Martinez’s experience wins out or Bowie’s too good to keep off the field. It’ll be status quo the rest of the way. Senior Jonathan Rush is at left guard, all-conference candidate Grant Garner at center, two-year starter Lane Taylor at right guard and senior Levy Adcock, one of the Big 12’s best, at right tackle.

The defense took a step back statistically in 2010, but there’s a very simple excuse for the decline: after finishing 16th nationally in time of possession in 2009, last season’s prolific attack had O.S.U. rank 110th in that category. So the defense saw more of the field, which is partly to blame for a drop to 61st nationally in scoring. Was that the only reason? It’s the biggest one, in my mind, and the offensive explosion also led opponents to throw more and more in an attempt to catch up. In short: 14th nationally in yards per play allowed in 2009, 28th in 2010.

For the defense to continue its solid stretch of play under third-year coordinator Bill Young, Oklahoma State must replace nine pretty key contributors, four along the line. The interior of the line must be rebuilt following the departures of starters Shane Jarka and Chris Donaldson. This is the biggest question mark facing O.S.U. heading into 2011: there’s little experience here, even less proven depth, and the Cowboys will rely on several new faces to plug the gap. One of the two starters will be junior Nigel Nicholas (13 tackles, 2 sacks), a converted end, who has beefed up to about 290 pounds in advance of his assignment. Who joins him? It’ll be either redshirt freshman Christian Littlefield, sophomore Anthony Rodgers or JUCO transfer Maurice Hayes, with several incoming freshmen also in the mix. It’s not a great situation, though Nicholas could help matters by growing into his new position. Again, this is the biggest trouble spot on the roster.

The answer at end is simple. After splitting time in the starting lineup opposite Ugo Chinasa last fall, seniors Richetti Jones (34 tackles, 4.5 sacks) and Jamie Blatnick (27 tackles, 5.5 sacks) will be Oklahoma State’s starting tandem. After years of standing in the background, Jones will have an opportunity to live up to his billing. What you see at end is an altogether different scenario than the one playing out inside: Jones and Blatnick are experienced, proven commodities who should maintain this team’s consistent pass rush. Depth comes from JUCO transfer Ryan Robinson, who has already impressed.

The position battles underway in the back seven are also worth following. The biggest hole is found at middle linebacker, where O.S.U. has three candidates to replace all-conference pick Orie Lemon, a multiple-year starter. This looks like a competition that won’t be decided until the end of the month, but sophomore Caleb Levy would get the call if the season started today. One thing is certain: it’ll be a sophomore in the middle. If not Levy, the Cowboys would call on LeRon Furr or former walk-on Tyler Johnson, another former minor league baseball player. Sophomore Shaun Lewis (58 tackles, 8 for loss, 3 interceptions) is a rising star on the strong side; he’ll take on a big leadership role for this new-look front seven. Yet another sophomore, Joe Mitchell, is the favorite to take over on the weak side, but keep an eye on JUCO transfer Alex Elkins. Once again, steady senior James Thomas (49 tackles) will provide depth.

The secondary moves forward without all-conference cornerback Andrew McGee, last year’s team leader with five interceptions. It’s vital that junior Brodrick Brown (77 tackles, 2 interceptions) build upon his strong debut season in the starting lineup. Not big, Brown toughness belies his build, and he has play-making ability, as illustrated by his absolutely ridiculous sideline-tip-to-interception against Oklahoma. Can he carry the mantle as Oklahoma State’s top cornerback? It’s a tough world out there in the Big 12, and how Brown steps up will define this pass defense. He’s joined on the opposite side by sophomore Justin Gilbert, who was a reserve last fall but made an enormous impact in the return game — 26.8 yards per kickoff return, taking two back for six.

Markelle Martin and Johnny Thomas, both seniors, return at strong and free safety, respectively. No issues here. Both are productive: Martin made 55 tackles and 3 interceptions, Thomas 63 tackles and 3 picks. Martin’s a three-year starter with national award aspirations. This is the deepest position group on the roster, though much of this depth is of the younger variety. One leading reserve is sophomore Daytawion Lowe, a former top recruit who missed last season due to injury.

Who replaces Dan Bailey? I’m not going to go into the fact that he was the Big 12 Special Teams Player of the Year and the Lou Groza Award winner — wait, I will for a moment. Bailey was awesome, no doubt about that. But the fact that Nebraska’s Alex Henery didn’t take home both pieces of hardware was the biggest travesty of last year’s award season. Anyway: Bailey leaves a big shoe to fill, as the Cowboys tasted nothing but consistency at kicker over the last few years, especially in 2010. His replacement will be either redshirt freshman Bobby Stonebraker or junior Quinn Sharp, who doubles as one of the Big 12’s best punters.

Position battle(s) to watch

Running back Oh, to have such problems. Not to discount what Oklahoma State’s going to miss with Kendall Hunter; you don’t easily replace 1,548 yards and 17 scores, to put it lightly. But what the Cowboys have coming up the wings are two very impressive sophomores, both of whom flashed lead-back ability in small doses a year ago. One is Joseph Randle, Hunter’s primary understudy in 2010. With Hunter getting most of the touches, Randle had to make an impact in other ways: he did so by making 37 receptions for 427 yards, both totals good for fourth on the team. And not to say that Randle didn’t make plays on the ground, as his 453 yards rushing was good for second on the team. His primary competition will be Jeremy Smith, who rushed for 261 yards and 7 scores as a freshman. Can the two co-exist? Without a doubt. They would compliment each other well, with Randle the burner and Smith capable of moving the chains. Smith has already illustrated a nose for the end zone, scoring one touchdown in each of Oklahoma State’s last four games. But could one carry the load by his lonesome? That’s a great question. For all his talents, it’s one thing for Randle to be a change-of-pace back, making 81 carries, to taking on a Hunter-like load at 271 carries. A third option might be true freshman Herschel Sims, one of the nation’s most coveted running backs recruits from the last recruiting cycle. For now, Sims is running third behind the sophomore duo.

Game(s) to watch

The meaningful games come on the road, minus the regular season finale against Oklahoma. If history is any indication, O.S.U. will bring its offense to Bedlam; then again, if history as our guide, the Sooners will come out on top. There’s a nice test at home against Arizona followed by road games against Tulsa, Texas A&M, Texas, Missouri and Texas Tech. Reaching another 10 wins in the regular season is going to be tough.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Can the offense keep up its prolific pace? That’s the big question for Oklahoma State in 2011, and here’s the short answer — yes. Sort of. What you won’t see, in my mind, is further growth. The progression that would have taken place had Holgorsen stayed for another year won’t occur, as while Monken brings a nice resume — complete with college experience, complete with three years in Stillwater — he is a newcomer to this offense. But the pieces are in place to continue the high level of play: Weeden is superb, as is Blackmon, and the offensive line should be best of the Gundy era. So what’s the problem? There aren’t any major issues, in my mind. Some may point to Monken as a concern, but he’s not, in my opinion; Monken’s no Holgorsen, but he’s going to do fine with the weapons at his disposal. And the defense won’t be great, just good enough to lift O.S.U. to nine wins. The real issue is this schedule, which sends the Cowboys on the road to face Texas A&M, Texas and Missouri, three teams in Oklahoma State’s stratosphere, below Oklahoma. In my mind, this fact, not the offense, will be what limits O.S.U. to nine wins in the regular season. Would that be fine with a fan base rapidly growing familiar with the top half of the Big 12? I would hope so; it’s rare that a program could replace an offensive mastermind and maintain a nine-win clip, and I think I’m on the conservative end of the spectrum when it comes to projecting Oklahoma State’s final record. If 9-3 isn’t enough, take pride — and great pleasure — in watching the nation’s best quarterback-receiver combination go to work every Saturday. One, or maybe both, will be in the Heisman mix. How good are the football teams in the state of Oklahoma?

Dream season The Cowboys keep climbing up the ladder. Last year’s 10-win regular season leads to a 12-win regular season — that means 12-0, undefeated, atop the Big 12 and playing for a national title.

Nightmare season Even with all these weapons, the offense disappoints. And that’s one of the biggest disappointments in the F.B.S. at large, right alongside a 7-5 team in Stillwater.

In case you were wondering

Where do Oklahoma State fans congregate? Three solid options for Oklahoma State football chatter: Orange PowerGo Pokes and O-State Illustrated. You can find additional coverage at the Web site of The Oklahoman.

Word Count

Through 105 teams 329,236.

Up Next

Who is No. 15? Tomorrow’s institution did not begin admitting women into the student body until the same year the Dow Jones climbed above 1,000 points for the first time.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. Art Director says:

    Tomorrow we’ll read about future SEC member Texas A&M

  2. Matt says:

    #15 is Notre Dame.

    The year is 1972

  3. percolating says:

    Sounds like Notre Dame to me.

  4. Jeff says:

    Notre Dame is up next!

  5. Xenocide23 says:

    Pretty sure its Notre Dame and not Texas A&M.

  6. Dontel says:

    There’s no better receiver in the country than Blackmon? I think Alshon Jeffery will have something to say about that my friend.

  7. michael says:

    200,000,000 dollars will put you in the top-25 a lot more often. Plus, T. Boone did it without violating anything!

  8. Patrick says:

    It’s not Texas A&M.

    A&M first admitted women in 1963 or 1964. Somewhere in that time frame.

    Dow didn’t crack 1000 until early 70′s.

  9. [...] Lengthy OSU preview by Paul Myerberg that includes a fun “best current NCAA coaches who used to be college QBs” list. (Pre-Snap Read) [...]

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