No. 32: Oklahoma State
By Paul Myerberg // Aug 4, 2012
It’s time to stop and smell the roses, which makes sense: Oklahoma’s state flower is the rose, after all. Oklahoma State has won 41 games over the last four years, the second-most in the Big 12. The Cowboys own the Big 12’s best record during conference games since 2009. Last fall, the program notched its first Big 12 championship and its first outright championship since 1948, when it took home the Missouri Valley Conference crown. The Cowboys just won 12 games in a season for the first time in program history; they ended the season ranked third in the final A.P. Poll, the highest end-of-season ranking in school history. In November, O.S.U. held leads of 10-0, 24-0 and 44-3 before cruising to a 44-10 win over Oklahoma – only the Cowboys’ 18th win in the rivalry, but certainly the most satisfying. Oklahoma State should take some time to appreciate all that has been accomplished over the last four seasons, and doubly so when it comes last fall’s wonderful success. But don’t wait too long: September’s coming fast, and being elite once comes with a price – everyone expects you to do it again.
13 (5 offense, 8 defense)
Last year’s ranking
- Sept. 1
- Sept. 8
- Sept. 15
- Sept. 29
- Oct. 13
- Oct. 20
- Oct. 27
- Nov. 3
at Kansas St.
- Nov. 10
- Nov. 17
- Nov. 24
- Dec. 1
Last year’s prediction
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.
In a nutshell Most didn’t believe in O.S.U. early, as while the Cowboys opened 5-0, with two wins in Big 12 play, they needed some help against Texas A&M and looked sloppy at times against Louisiana-Lafayette and Tulsa. The Cowboys’ bandwagon didn’t start filling up until Oct. 15, when O.S.U. went into Austin and simply strolled through a 12-point victory over the Longhorns. O.S.U. did the same at Missouri a week later; a week after that, the Cowboys dealt Baylor and Robert Griffin III a crushing, one-sided defeat. Even after losing to Iowa State in double overtime – that one loss that won’t soon be remembered – O.S.U. rebounded in time to annihilate the Sooners, making a very strong case for being partnered with L.S.U. in the B.C.S. National Championship Game. While Alabama took its place, and deservedly so, seeing how the Tide manhandled the Tigers, the Cowboys quietly went about their business in beating 11-win Stanford in the Fiesta Bowl. Quite simply, this was the greatest team in program history.
High point The 44-10 win over Oklahoma. What made the win so incredible, in a way, is that it was so unsurprising; everyone knew on Monday that O.S.U. would beat the Sooners, with the only question by what margin. That was followed by a Fiesta Bowl win over the Cardinal, which was amazing for several reasons, one more than others: O.S.U. scored 41 points despite having possession of the football for less than 19 minutes.
Low point The loss in Ames. What happened? O.S.U. forced its fair share of turnovers, as always, but the Cowboys’ offense followed suit with five turnovers of its own. That gave Iowa State ample opportunities to force overtime, and another interception in the second frame cost O.S.U. a shot at playing for the national title.
Tidbit Oklahoma State is only of only six B.C.S. conference programs to have won at least nine games in each of the last four years. The rest: Virginia Tech, Nebraska, West Virginia, Oregon and Alabama. That’s some pretty good company. Oklahoma State’s record over this span, 41-11, is the fourth-best best of this group, trailing Alabama (48-6), Oregon (44-9) and Virginia Tech (42-13) but ahead of Nebraska (38-16) and West Virginia (37-15).
Former players in the N.F.L.
27 OT Levy Adcock (Dallas), WR Hubert Anyiam (Carolina), K Dan Bailey (Dallas), TE Billy Bajema (Baltimore), WR Justin Blackmon (Jacksonville), DE Jamie Blatnick (Denver), WR Dez Bryant (Dallas), DE Ugo Chinasa (Detroit), WR Josh Cooper (Cleveland), CB Perrish Cox (San Francisco), OT Corey Hilliard (Detroit), RB Kendall Hunter (San Francisco), OT Charlie Johnson (Minnesota), CB Jacob Lacey (Detroit), LB Orie Lemon (Dallas), S Markelle Martin (Tennessee), OT Nick Martinez (Washington), DT Ryan McBean (Baltimore), DT Swanson Miller (New Orleans), OT Russell Okung (Seattle), DE Juqua Parker (Cleveland), TE Brandon Pettigrew (Detroit), QB Zac Robinson (Cincinnati), DE Antonio Smith (Houston), S Johnny Thomas (New Orleans), QB Brandon Weeden (Cincinnati), DT Kevin Williams (Minnesota).
Arbitrary top five list
Big 12′s quarterback-receiver combinations, 2008-11
1. Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon, Oklahoma State.
2. Landry Jones and Ryan Broyles, Oklahoma.
3. Graham Harrell and Michael Crabtree, Texas Tech.
4. Colt McCoy and Jordan Shipley, Texas.
5. Todd Reesing and Kerry Meier, Kansas.
Mike Gundy (Oklahoma State ’90), 59-30 after seven 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 20-5 over the last three 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 continued from 2008-9 before the Cowboys skyrocketed into the national title hunt over the last two seasons. 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 quarterbacks 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’ 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 79-47 as both an assistant and head coach since coming back to Stillwater in 2001. Thanks to the way he’s rebuilt O.S.U. after the last four years, Gundy has moved into the elite class of coaches in college football.
Players to watch
Hey, you can’t have it both ways – you can’t complain that Oklahoma State’s starting quarterback is too old and then, one year later, complain that he’s too young. One of the spring’s great surprises throughout college football was Gundy’s decision to name true freshman Wes Lunt, who enrolled early, as the Cowboys’ starter. Surprising for many reasons, mind you, with none bigger than the fact that Lunt had been on campus for only four months before stepping into some of the largest shoes in college football; while slightly overlooked nationally, Brandon Weeden cemented his place as the finest passer in school history with a fantastically superb senior season.
It’s simple: Lunt earned the job. Now he has to hold onto it. Lunt was able to move ahead of redshirt freshman J.W. Walsh and junior Clint Chelf by not only outplaying that pair during the spring but also illustrating the highest ceiling – Gundy looks at Lunt as not only the team’s best option in 2012, but also the sort of passer who could serve as the face of this offense over the next four seasons. What Gundy had to love about the rookie during the spring was ability to digest the team’s playbook on the fly; that’s not as easy as it sounds, particularly for a freshman who have otherwise been preparing for his senior prom.
Expect some growing pains, expect a decline in production from the passing game – remember who Lunt is replacing – but also expect steady progress from the freshman throughout the season. Lunt is the most prolific passer in the history of Illinois high school football; he’s a pass-first quarterback moving into a pass-first system, and that he has a very strong working knowledge of this offense bodes well for his progress as a first-year starter. I also like what the Cowboys’ two backups bring to the table: Walsh is more mobile, meaning he could see the field in certain situations, and Chelf knows this offense as well as an player on the roster – even if he doesn’t play, he’ll help tutor Lunt through the season’s inevitable ups and downs.
Yet another sign that times are changing: O.S.U. lost one of the most touted running backs in school history – Herschel Sims left the program in July – yet retains enough talent, burst, explosiveness and production to feature one of the best backfields in college football. There’s a one-two punch here that merits your attention, as one of the two has the potential to factor into the Heisman mix at some point over the next two seasons. That would be junior Joseph Randle, who after gaining 453 yards in a secondary role in 2010 burst onto the scene with a sophomore campaign pulled straight out of Stillwater, circa 1988: Randle had 1,216 yards and 24 touchdowns, the latter total good for fourth in the country.
Randle alone is outstanding, and he should put together an even more impressive junior season due to the change at quarterback – while Gundy and offensive coordinator Todd Monken won’t tweak the system, look for Randle to get more touches in the running game. But O.S.U. goes deeper than just one lead back; Jeremy Smith must be the smash to Randle’s dash – he’s technically the Cowboys’ short-yardage back – but he chipped in with 646 yards and 9 scores on a team-best 7.1 yards per carry. Here’s your top pair, with fullback Kye Staley leading the way through the hole, and few teams can churn off yards in bunches better than Oklahoma State. Sims’ departure does open up an opportunity for another back to steal 30 or 40 carries, with sophomore Desmond Roland (95 yards) likely taking this a nice step up the depth chart.
The Cowboys’ quest to replace a pair of all-Americans along the offensive line – and three starters altogether – took a hit earlier this week, when would-be senior Michael Bowie, a former JUCO transfer and the projected starter at left tackle, was dismissed from the program for a violation of team rules. While O.S.U. was always going to be stronger inside than out, losing Bowie deals a major blow to the offensive line’s overall potential; now, instead of returning clear-cut options at left and right tackle, Gundy and offensive line coach Joe Wickline must return to the drawing board.
Begin with what we know: Jonathan Rush and Lane Taylor, both seniors, will start at left and right guard, respectively. They’ll be flanking a new starter, with senior Evan Epstein, who steps in for all-everything center Grant Garner. Epstein, a former Air Force transfer, must at least come close to matching the sort of consistency and leadership Garner offered over his sterling career in the starting lineup. So what does O.S.U. do at tackle? While the lineup won’t be cemented until close to the start of the season, look for junior Parker Graham to move from right to left tackle, where he started a pair of games last fall – starting five games altogether. But Bowie’s departure does mean that O.S.U. will turn to an inexperienced lineman at right tackle, likely sophomore Daniel Koenig, who didn’t see much game action on offense last fall.
Statistics should be used like a lamppost, it’s said. It’s also said that certain statistics and numbers can be tweaked to suit your purposes. Take last year’s defense, for instance. I could say that O.S.U. ranked 107th nationally in total defense, allowing an average of 456.8 yards per game. I could also say that O.S.U. faced a total of 1,089 plays, the most of any defense in the country. I could say that O.S.U. ranked 61st nationally in scoring defense; I could also say that O.S.U. allowed only 25.4 points per game during league play, the best average in the Big 12. I could also say that the Cowboys forced 44 turnovers last fall, the most of any team in the country, and that it’s nearly impossible for any defense to maintain that sort of pace. I could then combat that point by saying that O.S.U. has finished no lower than 11th in the F.B.S. in forcing turnovers in each of the last three seasons.
Funnily enough, that three-year period coincides directly with Gundy’s hiring of coordinator Bill Young – the architect of the Cowboys’ opportunistic, bend-but-don’t-break defense. Young’s most impressive feat as this team’s defensive leader was convincing his group that the ends justify the means: O.S.U. doesn’t try to be Texas, knows that it won’t ever rank among the best defenses in football, but rather simply does whatever it has to do to allow one fewer point than its teammates on offense score over the span of 60 minutes.
Still, it’s going to be hard for O.S.U. to match last season’s 44-turnover total. But like N.C. State, a team previewed earlier this week, O.S.U. has clearly adopted the sort of the mindset that leads to a high number of takeaways; in other words, this defense won’t simply go from leading the nation in turnovers to ranking dead last, or even outside the nation’s top group. Given that the Cowboys are deeper up front and more experienced along the back seven, even a slight drop in this group’s ability to force turnovers shouldn’t find O.S.U. taking a significant nosedive in scoring defense – and when push comes to shove, the Cowboys just want to allow one fewer point than the opposition.
Don’t look for a great pass rush from this front four, especially with Jamie Blatnick and Richetti Jones gone, but O.S.U. should play with the run with greater consistency than it did a season ago. The Cowboys’ handful-plus of options at tackle allowed Young – who also coaches the line – to move senior Nigel Nicholas (35 tackles, 10.0 for loss) outside to end, where he’ll compete with fellow senior Cooper Bassett (17 tackles, 4.0 for loss) for a starting role. O.S.U. is hoping for a big year out of senior Ryan Robinson, a former JUCO transfer who stands as the team’s most dynamic end coming off the edge. Keep an eye on converted linebacker Tyler Johnson, a potential pass-rush specialist in certain packages. The Cowboys also added four end prospects during the most recent recruiting cycle.
So Nicholas moves outside – O.S.U. shouldn’t miss a beat. While Nicholas was a disruptive interior linemen, the Cowboys will look to go bigger at tackle. Look for the two most experienced tackles, junior Anthony Rogers (21 tackles) and sophomore Christian Littlehead, to continue splitting snaps at one tackle spot. Both could start – with Littlehead’s size guaranteeing him a major role even as a backup – but O.S.U. is excited about the potential of Calvin Barnett, a JUCO transfer who enrolled in time to participate in spring drills. Overall, the defining characteristic of this group is some of the best depth of Gundy’s entire tenure: Rogers, Littlehead and Barnett will lead the way, but look for redshirt freshman Mike Mustafa, junior Davidell Collins and sophomore James Castleman to rotate in and out of the lineup over the span of 60 minutes.
The entire back seven returns intact, minus strong safety Markelle Martin, a three-year starter. This secondary doesn’t rebuild, however; it reloads. The Cowboys tout one of the nation’s best cornerback pairings in the country in senior Brodrick Brown (68 tackles, 5 interceptions) and junior Justin Gilbert (59 tackles, 5 interceptions – Brown, a three-year starter, is a strong contender for Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year honors. The only issue at cornerback, if you want to dig deep enough, is that O.S.U. has some health issues along the second tier of the depth chart. The Cowboys will need full seasons out of senior Andrae May and junior Larry Stephens, even if neither is going to earn a starting nod – unless Brown or Gilbert goes down, in which case O.S.U. could be in some trouble.
The only surprising development in the secondary, if you can even call this a surprise, is that junior Shamiel Gary is trailing junior Lavocheya Cooper for the starting nod at strong safety. I thought that Gary, a freshman all-American at Wyoming in 2009, would slide right into Martin’s shoes and join junior Daytawion Lowe (team-best 97 tackles) in the starting lineup. He may still, though Cooper holds the edge as the Cowboys ramp up fall camp. With that pair embroiled in a position battle, O.S.U. was able to move junior Zach Craig over to free safety, giving this defense a very nice two-deep at both spots.
One year later, O.S.U. has very few questions at linebacker. Last summer, this was a huge position of concern: Shaun Lewis (61 tackles, 9.5 for loss) was the only returning linebacker of consequence, and Young was moving forward with a fairly raw and unproven starting cast. Today, O.S.U. is locked in with Lewis on the strong side, senior Alex Elkins (90 tackles, 5.5 for loss) on the weak side and junior Caleb Lavey (74 tackles) in the middle. You can easily make the case that this is the best linebacker corps in the Big 12. Yeah, what a difference a year makes.
The concern is simple: O.S.U. fails to force as many turnovers and the defense suffers a monumental collapse. Tie that in with an offense in transition and you can see why the Cowboys are going to have a hard time making another run for the Big 12 crown. But keep a few things in mind: O.S.U. has been forcing turnovers at a high clip for three years running; the line is deeper than it was a season ago; the linebackers are very good; and the secondary hold yet another season of big-time experience. It’s a guessing game, projecting turnovers, but the Cowboys have enough weapons to improve defensively even with a lower total of forced turnovers.
What can’t Quinn Sharp do? He was an all-American at punter in 2010. An all-American at kicker in 2011. A first-team all-Big 12 pick at both spots last fall. And before I forget: O.S.U. also gets a touchback on more than half of Sharp’s kickoffs. Sharp might be the best kicker in the country; he might also be the best punter; he might also be the biggest weapon on kickoffs. No matter how you cut it, he’s an all-American. The Cowboys have another threat in the return game with Gilbert, who leads all active players with four career kickoff returns for touchdowns.
Position battle(s) to watch
Wide receiver I’d say that there’s no Justin Blackmon on the roster, but I also said two years ago that there was no Dez Bryant on the roster; we know how that turned out, with Blackmon going from little-known reserve to the finest and most accomplished receiver in college football. It’s not just Blackmon that O.S.U. must replace, however, but also Josh Cooper, Hubert Anyiam and Colton Chelf – the entire quartet combined for 56.1 percent of the Cowboys’ receptions and 60.0 percent of the team’s touchdowns. The lack of proven production is troublesome, and doubly so when considering the new starter under center.
The good news is that O.S.U. has its two best targets at outside receiver, the money-making position on this offense. By virtue of this system, seniors Tracy Moore (45 receptions for 672 yards) and Isaiah Anderson (28 for 315) are going to have big statistical seasons – especially Moore, who has the best combination of talent and experience. But whether Moore or Anderson can demand attention, like Blackmon, will decide the overall explosiveness of this passing game. Behind this pair at outside receiver are junior Charlie Moore, who was terrific during the spring, and true freshman C.J. Curry, who enrolled early.
The Cowboys are rebuilding from scratch at inside receiver. The likely starters, should spring results hold, will be sophomore Josh Stewart (19 for 291) and JUCO transfer Blake Jackson. One thing to like about Stewart is that he brings great speed and athleticism to the position; while his predecessor, Josh Cooper, was nothing if not steady and reliable, the Cowboys could use more big-play ability in the slot. While Jackson is entirely unknown, he does have the sort of body and build to be a nice target for Lunt over the middle of the field. There’s potential all over this group, but one thing is pretty clear: O.S.U. is starting a true freshman quarterback and rebuilding at receiver, two factors that point to an overall drop in production in the passing game.
Game(s) to watch
There’s a great opportunity for a strong start. Oklahoma State opens with three should-be wins, with Arizona the only opponent during non-conference play that could theoretically give O.S.U. some trouble. That’s followed by Texas at home, Kansas on the road and Iowa State at home, and the Cowboys should win at least two of three there – and I do think that Gundy can find the right buttons to push in advance of the rematch against the Cyclones. The schedule kicks into overdrive in the second half: T.C.U., at Kansas State, West Virginia, Texas Tech, at Oklahoma, at Baylor. Few teams close with a harder stretch. The one thing you do like is the idea that O.S.U. should be hitting its stride offensively over the second half; what you don’t like is the fact that at least four of those teams are going to win eight or more games.
Season breakdown & prediction
In a nutshell This is a rebuilding season for Oklahoma State. There will be no B.C.S. bowl, no Big 12 title, no continued flirtation with a national championship. This happens when you experience such personnel transition, and not merely in Stillwater but also in Norman, and not merely in Norman but across the country, at every program that believes itself to be one of those very few teams that can compete for national championships every September through December. O.S.U. is not going to play for any major hardware in 2012, but that this team holds some potential for another unpredictably successful season once again underlines a key fact: Gundy has really made O.S.U. into a nationally relevant program.
So here’s what we know: O.S.U. is not going to be as dynamic offensively as it was a season ago. From Weeden to Lunt at quarterback, from a veteran leader to one of the most unproven quarterbacks in college football. There’s going to be a drop off at receiver, unless Moore bursts through or one of the younger targets makes a Blackmon-like climb from nothingness to the top of the depth chart. The offensive line is in flux where it really matters, at tackle, and is relying on Epstein to match that sort of leadership and consistency Garner supplied at center. For now, the only area on offense where the Cowboys seem improved compared to a season ago is at running back: Randle and Smith are outstanding.
With these losses, why should Oklahoma State be any sort of factor nationally? Because there’s an offensive system with proven results, and there’s enough talent – albeit mostly inexperienced, sometimes frighteningly so – for O.S.U. to make some noise once the youngsters, Monken and Gundy get on the same page. In addition, this defense has proven itself to be one of the most opportunistic in the country; add this mindset to a deeper front four and you have the makings of a more complete defense, perhaps.
But the Cowboys are in transition, and being in transition in this new-look Big 12 – one that might lack a true national title contender but goes deeper than any conference in the country – is not a recipe for success. The offense is going to take some lumps. Lunt will shine at times; at others, the true freshman is going to look like, well, a true freshman. The defense is obviously improved, but are the Cowboys good enough to shut down T.C.U., West Virginia, Oklahoma? Not yet. Again, it’s a rebuilding year. Take some solace in the idea that a decade ago, a rebuilding season in Stillwater meant 3-9. Today, rebuilding means an eight-win finish in one of the nation’s best conferences.
Dream season O.S.U. does last season one better, youth be damned: the Cowboys go 12-0 in the regular season, beating Oklahoma by another 34 points, and land a berth in the B.C.S. title game.
Nightmare season The young Cowboys just aren’t ready. Arizona takes O.S.U. down a peg in September; Iowa State follows suit, again; and the Cowboys go on to lose another five Big 12 games to finish the regular season at 5-7 overall, 3-6 in conference play.
In case you were wondering
Where do Oklahoma State fans congregate? Three solid options for Oklahoma State football chatter: Orange Power, Go Pokes and O-State Illustrated. You can find additional coverage at the Web site of The Oklahoman.
Oklahoma State’s all-name nominee DT Christian Littlehead.
Through 93 teams 372,117.
Who is No. 31? Over his nine seasons with the program, the finest coach in tomorrow’s school’s history led teams that allowed an average of 7.5 points per game.
Tags: Alex Elkins, Anthony Rogers, Big 12, Bill Young, Brodrick Brown, C.J. Curry, Caleb Lavey, Calvin Barnett, Evan Epstein, Isaiah Anderson, J.W. Walsh, Jeremy Smith, Jonathan Rush, Joseph Randle, Josh Stewart, Justin Gilbert, Lane Taylor, Mike Gundy, Nigel Nicholas, Oklahoma State, Quinn Sharp, Ryan Robinson, Shamiel Gary, Shaun Lewis, Tracy Moore, Wes Lunt
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