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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. 69: Oklahoma State

When not helping build a winner in Stillwater, T. Boone Pickens doubles as a scarecrow.

Perhaps it’s time we start giving Mike Gundy a little bit of credit. Look beyond the ranting and the raving, the gelled hair, the often perplexing lack of interest in his own defense — though that group is in good hands, to be fair. What we saw last year from Gundy was a coach coming of age: despite dealing with injuries, suspensions, off-field distractions and a significantly weaker offense, the former Oklahoma State quarterback led the Cowboys to within a single victory of a B.C.S. bowl. Gundy’s a man, yes. He’s also growing into a very good coach.

Conference
Big 12, South

Location
Stillwater, Okla.

Nickname
Cowboys

Returning starters
10 (6 offense, 4 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 15

2009 record
(9-4, 6-2)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 16

2010 schedule

  • Sept. 4
    Washington St.
  • Sept. 11
    Troy
  • Sept. 18
    Tulsa
  • Sept. 30
    Texas A&M
  • Oct. 8
    at La.-Lafayette
  • Oct. 16
    at Texas Tech
  • Oct. 23
    Nebraska
  • Oct. 30
    at Kansas St.
  • Nov. 6
    Baylor
  • Nov. 13
    at Texas
  • Nov. 20
    at Kansas
  • Nov. 27
    Oklahoma

Last year’s prediction

But I can’t shake the feeling that even with this tremendous offense, Oklahoma State will struggle increasing upon its win total from a season ago. Not that there’s truly anything wrong with that: the Cowboys are only one year removed from ending a frustrating string of seven-win finishes, and a 6-2 finish in Big 12 action would represent the program’s best conference record since the league’s formation. So here’s my prediction: 9-3, 6-2 in the Big 12, with losses to Georgia, Texas and Oklahoma.

2009 recap

In a nutshell It would have been easy to write off Oklahoma State early into last season, when the team lost both of its returning all-American offensive skill players — one to injury, another to suspension — before entering the heart of Big 12 play. It would have been easy; it also would have been foolish. The Cowboys persevered, cobbling together an often makeshift offense to go with a significantly improved defense, and entered the season finale needing only a victory to potentially earn a B.C.S. berth. A rivalry loss to Oklahoma may have ended those major bowl hopes, but it did little to lessen how impressed I was with the resolve of a team often criticized for rolling over when faced with adversity. More adversity is on the way, unfortunately.

High point A 24-10 win over then-No. 13 Georgia on the season’s first weekend was terrific at the time, though the Bulldogs eventually fell far short of their preseason expectations. The Cowboys won eight of nine from Sept. 19 – Nov. 19, including six of seven in Big 12 action.

Low point The Cowboys did not bring a good enough effort against Houston on Sept. 12, trailing by 17 at the half against an inferior opponent. The game should serve as a valuable lesson to the program and its coach going forward: bring your game, no matter the opponent. Oklahoma State’s hot two-month stretch was brought to a screeching halt in a Bedlam Game loss to Oklahoma and a Cotton Bowl loss to Ole Miss to end the season. The Cowboys scored 362 points through its first 11 games, seven points in its final two.

Tidbit A few notes about Mike Gundy. His 36 wins through five seasons ranks third all-time in Oklahoma State history, trailing his former coach, Pat Jones (62 victories), and Jim Lookabaugh (58). His career winning percentage of .571 ranks fourth in school annals; that winning percentage matches Les Miles’ four-year mark with the Cowboys. O.S.U. has won 20 of its last 29 games after posting an 11-13 mark over Gundy’s first two seasons. Finally, Gundy has led Oklahoma State to four consecutive seasons with at least seven wins, a school record, as well as four consecutive bowl trips, also a school record.

Tidbit (defense edition) Oklahoma State made significant strides on defense last fall, helping it overcome decreased production on offense. Under the direction of first-year defensive coordinator Bill Young, the Cowboys went from 93rd nationally in total defense in 2008 to 31st (332.5 yards per game); from 76th nationally in scoring defense to 31st (21.7 points per game) — that was the 11th-best improvement in the country; and allowed only 95.8 yards rushing per game, a new school record.

Former players in the N.F.L.

23 TE Billy Bajema (St. Louis), OG Brady Bond (San Diego), WR Dez Bryant (Dallas), CB Perrish Cox (Denver), OG Noah Franklin (Carolina), OT Corey Hilliard (Detroit), OT Charlie Johnson (Indianapolis), CB Jacob Lacey (Indianapolis), OG Andrew Lewis (Kansas City), DE Ryan McBean (Denver), DT Swanson Miller (Cleveland), OT Andrew Mitchell (Cincinnati), OT Russell Okung (Seattle), DE Juqua Parker (Philadelphia), TE Brandon Pettigrew (Detroit), S Ricky Price (Kansas City), QB Zac Robinson (New England), RB Dantrell Savage (Kansas City), DE Antonio Smith (Houston), RB Keith Toston (St. Louis), DT Kevin Williams (Minnesota), DT Jamal Williams (Denver), WR D’Juan Woods (New Orleans), LB Donovan Woods (Dallas).

Arbitrary top five list

Brands of bottled water
1. Poland Spring.
2. Dasani.
3. Fiji Water.
4. Aquafina.
5. Evian.

Coaching

Mike Gundy (Oklahoma State ’90), 36-27 after five 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 11-5 over the past 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. Last fall represented even more progress. Gundy was a four-year starting quarterback for the Cowboys (1986-89), and remains the most successful (back-to-back 10-win seasons in 1987-88) and productive quarterback in team history. He still holds the program record for career passing yards (7,997), and ranks second all-time in touchdown passes (54) and total offense (7,749). Gundy entered the coaching ranks immediately after his graduation, taking on the Oklahoma State receivers coach job, 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 (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. After experiencing a 37-82-2 record as an assistant from 1990-2000, Gundy has gone 56-44 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 good fit with the Cowboys.

Tidbit (coaching edition) I raved in last year’s preview about Oklahoma State’s addition of Bill Young as defensive coordinator; all Young did in his first season back in Stillwater was put together the O.S.U. defense in more than a decade. New year, same story: Oklahoma State hit another home run when it added Dana Holgorsen to run its offense. Holgorsen most recently served in the same capacity at Houston, when he piloted an attack that paced the country in total and scoring offense a year ago. Simply put, there was no better hire in the F.B.S. this past off-season. Holgorsen is a star.

Players to watch

Who will have the wonderful opportunity to sling the ball around in Holgorsen’s offense? Junior Brandon Weeden will supplant Zac Robinson, one of the finest quarterbacks in school history, after serving as the No. 2 under center in 2009. What does Weeden bring to the table? While the former minor league pitcher will not hurt teams with his legs — which Robinson did very well — he has a big-time arm, and should be extremely successful in this new spread passing attack. He has enough experience to lessen the inevitable growing pains in his new role: he threw for 248 yards and 4 scores last fall, leading the Cowboys to an important come-from-behind win against Colorado late in the year.

Kendall Hunter’s 2009 season was greatly hampered by a foot injury suffered early in the year, preventing him from even approaching his wonderful, all-American sophomore numbers: 1,555 yards and 16 touchdowns. He slid to 382 yards and a single score a year ago, unfortunately. If healthy, he’s a dangerous threat. Hunter should be back to 100 percent; of course, his role will be slightly diminished in this new offense. Hunter, now a senior, will be spelled by another diminutive back, sophomore Travis Miller, while freshman Jeremy Smith will try to have an immediate impact.

There’s no Dez Bryant-type receiver on the roster, a pass-catcher who can single-handedly draw the attention of opposing secondaries. There will be some experience here, however, especially given the development of junior Hubert Anyiam in Bryant’s stead a season ago. Anyiam finished the year with 42 receptions for 515 yards — both totals good for best on the team — with 29 of those grabs coming over a mid-season four-week span. As that total suggests, Anyiam must be more consistent: he made only seven receptions over the final four games of the year. The junior will grab one of the two outside receiver spots, with the other starting nod perhaps falling to sophomore Justin Blackmon, who made 20 catches for 260 yards in 2009. Blackmon has good size and speed, and should flourish in this offense. Junior Josh Cooper and sophomore Tracy Moore will fight for snaps at inside receiver, with youngsters like Charlie Moore and Justin Horton looking for their first meaningful action on the college level.

Much will depend on the health of senior Orie Lemon, whose blossoming career was sidelined by an A.C.L. tear suffered shortly before the start of the 2009 season. Lemon had a breakout 2008 campaign, posting a team-best 90 tackles (4 for loss) after earning little game action over his first two years in Stillwater. He’s still recovering from that knee injury, which limited him during the spring, but Lemon should be close to 100 percent when the Cowboys take the field in September. It is vital that he’s ready to go — and back to his productive self — when conference play begins. Lemon will be flanked by experienced outside linebackers Justin Gent and James Thomas, important reserves a year ago. If Lemon is unable to go, look for Oklahoma State to turn to Tolu Moala, a former JUCO transfer.

The secondary has some holes to fill. It helps to return a player like Markelle Martin, a junior, who played very well after being inserted into the starting lineup three games into last season. While a presence against the run, Martin is strong against the pass, as shown by his 11 pass breakups a year ago; that total was good for second on the team. While Martin will return at strong safety, a player like sophomore Daytawion Lowe has the opportunity to break into the starting lineup at free safety. A wonderful athlete — and a highly-regarded recruit — Lowe will face off against Johnny Thomas in an effort to earn significant playing time.

It’s hard not to be at least slightly concerned about Oklahoma State’s health at cornerback. While sophomores Brodrick Brown and Aundrae May are top-level athletes, neither has landed the game experience — they are sophomores, after all — to be considered sure things on the outside. Look for some struggles early, particularly with O.S.U. facing off against teams like Tulsa, Texas A&M and Texas Tech over the first half of the season. Another sophomore, Malcolm Murray, will factor into the mix as the team’s nickel back, as will freshman Devin Hedgepeth, who joined the program in time to participate in the spring.

Senior Ugo Chinasa has all-conference potential, as shown a year ago: 30 tackles (9.5 for loss) and 6.5 sacks. Chinasa does most of the heavy lifting in the pass rush, though Richetti Jones, who due to injuries has not developed into the player some expected him to be, added three sacks in 2009. Look for Jones to continue to be an important performer in passing situations, though Jamie Blatnick (28 tackles, 1.5 sacks) will start opposite Chinasa. Seniors Chris Donaldson and Shane Jarka will man the interior of the line, with Donaldson starting on the nose. Jarka played well as a reserve last fall, posting 18 tackles and 1.5 sacks as a member of the rotation.

Position battles to watch

Offensive line The Oklahoma State offensive front was really good in 2010, opening up holes for yet another 1,000-yard rusher and limiting opponents to only 12 sacks, the sixth-best total in the country. Of course, O.S.U. must supplant all-American left tackle Russell Okung on the blind side, not to mention fellow senior starters Noah Franklin, Andrew Lewis and Brady Bond. The lone returning starter is sophomore Lane Taylor, who started the final 11 games at right guard. Taylor could move to center, replacing Lewis, which would allow former JUCO transfer Anthony Morgan to step in at right guard. Junior Levy Adcock, used sparingly last fall, will get the first shot at the right tackle spot. The big question, obviously, is who will take over for Okung on the blind side. The job will go to another former junior college transfer, Nick Martinez, who makes the move from guard to tackle in 2010. As a former tight end, Martinez might have the athleticism to excel at left tackle. The stiffest competition might be at left guard: junior Jonathan Rush currently stands atop the depth chart, but it might be difficult to keep highly-touted redshirt freshman Brandon Webb off the field. There’s plenty of talent here; it’s just a matter of gaining experience.

Game(s) to watch

The Bedlam Game with Oklahoma, as well as Big 12 games against Kansas State, Baylor and Kansas. Winning the former will be too much to ask; if O.S.U. plans to return to bowl play, it must sweep the latter trio. The Cowboys have the good fortune to open up with four games in Stillwater, though only one game — Washington State — looks eminently winnable.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell I think the streak of seven-win seasons ends at four. Worse yet, I have these Cowboys staying home for bowl play for the first time since 2005, Mike Gundy’s first season as the head man in Stillwater. Before taking on my issues with this year’s team, here’s some good news: as I wrote above, I simply love the Holgorsen hire. While Oklahoma State is a bit too young, a bit too inexperienced to compete in the Big 12 in 2010, that won’t last for long; the Cowboys will be back. 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.

Dream season Oklahoma State exceeds expectations by repeating last season’s 9-3 mark, again taking six games in Big 12 play.

Nightmare season Even with question marks on both sides of the ball, this team’s 3-9 finish is a disappointment.

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.

Up Next

Who is No. 68? Our next program has had as many double-digit loss seasons since 1996 as bowl trips in its history.

But I can’t shake the feeling that even with this tremendous offense, Oklahoma State
will struggle increasing upon its win total from a season ago. Not that there’s truly
anything wrong with that: the Cowboys are only one year removed from ending
a frustrating string of seven-win finishes, and a 6-2 finish in Big 12 action would
represent the program’s best conference record since the league’s formation. So here’s
my prediction: 9-3, 6-2 in the Big 12, with losses to Georgia, Texas and Oklahoma.

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Comments

  1. Noefli says:

    Duke?

  2. Jeff says:

    1. Poland Spring.
    2. Dasani.
    3. Fiji Water.
    4. Aquafina.
    5. Evian.

    You have to try Voss. Absolutely the best and coolest bottle ever too.

    http://www.instablogsimages.com/images/2009/06/16/voss-h2o-o2-bottle_03_cLMf7_17621.jpg

    Paul: I’ve never had Voss. Bottle looks cool. Probably expensive though. I’ll try Voss if I ever see it.

  3. M Meyer says:

    If the next one’s not Duke, I’ll be shocked, but you never know. Anyway, it seems like Duke was great just post WWII… the question is whether bowl games were around then.

  4. dan lefevour says:

    Think your off on Oklahoma St, teams better than 69.

  5. Jeff says:

    It does look expensive, but it’s only ~$2 a bottle

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