Philadelphia, PA – 2011 SEASON IN REVIEW: The Cowboys used a potent offense to score one big win after another last season, resulting in a 12-1 record (8-1 in the Big 12) and narrowly missing a chance at playing for the BCS National Championship.
Riding the coattails of the record-setting pass-catch combo of QB Brandon Weeden and WR Justin Blackmon, Oklahoma State throttled the competition to the tune of 387.2 passing yards and 48.7 points per contest.
OSU blasted the likes of Louisiana, Arizona and Tulsa in non-conference action, and showed their mettle by gutting out a one-point decision against Texas A&M (30-29). Double-digit wins over Kansas, Texas, Missouri and Baylor followed, and the Pokes won a wild one at home against Kansas State (52-45) before ripping Texas Tech (66-6) on the road.
With only two games left in the regular season, it appeared that coach Mike Gundy's club was on a collision course with bitter rival Oklahoma for the Big 12 Conference crown, but the Iowa State Cyclones threw a wrench into that plan, upsetting the visiting Cowboys in a 37-31 overtime affair.
Oklahoma State took out its frustrations against the hated Sooners two weeks later, whipping them in a 44-10 final, setting up a Fiesta Bowl matchup with Andrew Luck and the Stanford Cardinal. That game wound up going to overtime as well, with the Cowboys earning a hard-fought 41-38 victory.
OFFENSE: Weeden's successor will likely be freshman Wes Lunt, although the youngster, while talented in his own right, isn't expected to light the world on fire right out of the chute. However, he shouldn't have to as the Pokes are expected to feature the run game even more prominently than they did last year when they averaged 158.6 ypg and scored 36 rushing TDs. Joseph Randle is back for his junior campaign after amassing 1,216 yards and 24 scores in 2011, while fellow junior Jeremy Smith could receive his share of carries as well after tallying 646 yards and 9 TDs.
Gundy knows his new signal-caller will experience some growing pains, but is confident in Lunt's ability nonetheless. "Wes has to understand his role and that he's got a number of players that can really help him get the ball to those guys, not try to do too much."
He continued, "He can't put a lot of pressure on himself. You can't perform well in any sport playing under pressure."
Replacing Blackmon, a two-time Biletnikoff Award winner, is impossible, but there is talent in the OSU receiving corps, which includes seniors Tracy Moore and Isaiah Anderson, as well as junior Blake Jackson and sophomore Josh Stewart. Moore is the top returning receiver after grabbing 45 balls for 672 yards and 4 TDs as a junior.
The offensive line will have to play well to help make the transition to a new quarterback that much easier, and with all five starters expected to be seniors, including standout guards Lane Taylor and Jonathan Rush, that should be an area of strength for the team as the season moves along.
DEFENSE: Stopping the opposition hasn't exactly been the Cowboys' forte of late, as the defense permitted 456.8 ypg last season, with more than 271 ypg coming through the air. The unit ranked 107th in total defense, so there is certainly room for improvement.
Despite their troubles at times, Oklahoma State ranked No. 1 in turnover margin (+21) a year ago, and that same type of opportunistic effort will be needed if the defensive unit is to show any significant signs of improved play.
Expect guys like senior Nigel Nicholas and junior Anthony Rogers to anchor the defensive line, while all three starters at linebacker are back for another run. The secondary boasts the return of three starters, including leading tackler Daytawion Lowe (97 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT), and the defense as a whole should be in good shape, provided each guy pulls his weight and avoids the kind of mistakes that can cost a team dearly.
Corners Brodrick Brown and Justin Gilbert combined for 10 picks last year, and six of the team's top seven tacklers are back.
Gundy is optimistic his defense is going to be much better this year. "We have recruited toward some depth on defense and speed. And we're hoping that it's going to work out well for us. But we feel better now, or I feel better now than I have about our defense since I've been the head coach."
SPECIAL TEAMS: Senior Quinn Sharp is back to serve as both the team's kicker and punter once again, and he was named the Big 12 Special Teams Player of the Year in 2011. Gilbert is a serious homerun threat in the return game as evidenced by the four TDs he has scored on kickoff returns over the past two seasons.
OUTLOOK: OSU takes on Savannah State, Arizona and Louisiana in its first three games, setting the stage for the conference opener at home against Texas on Sept. 29.
Overall, the Pokes will play six of their first eight games at home, with their toughest road tests coming at Kansas State, Oklahoma and Baylor -- the last two being the final games of the regular season.
There is little chance the Cowboys will put up the kind of gaudy offensive numbers they did last year, but that's not to say they still won't have a successful campaign. With better balance expected on offense, and the defense being hyped early as a more cohesive unit, getting Gundy the four wins he needs to become the all-time winningest coach in school history won't be a problem. Posting double-digit wins again however, could be.