The Oklahoma State Cowboys enjoyed their best season in school history last year, and with a revamped roster they begin their journey to try and repeat as Big 12 Conference champions when they take on the Savannah State Tigers this Saturday to open the 2012 season.
The 2011 campaign was one of transition for FCS member Savannah State. It was the Tigers' first year as a member of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference as well as their first year under the tutelage of head coach Steve Davenport. It was a rough season to say the least, as the Tigers finished just 1-10 and 1-7 in the MEAC, with their lone win coming on Sept. 24 at North Carolina Central, 33-30.
Oklahoma State's season, on the other hand, was nothing short of spectacular, cruising to a 12-1 overall record and an 8-1 mark in the Big 12, with signature wins coming against nationally-ranked foes Texas A&M (30-29), Texas (38-26), Kansas State (52-45) and Oklahoma (44-10). The Cowboys ultimately missed out on the national championship game thanks to a stunning loss at Iowa State on Nov. 18 (37-31 in 2OT), but the Mike Gundy-led squad was still good enough to qualify for its first-ever BCS bowl game, where they took down Stanford in a wild Fiesta Bowl, 41-38 in overtime.
This game marks the initial meeting between Savannah State and Oklahoma on the football field.
The Savannah State offense was rather ineffective a season ago, scoring 10 points or fewer in seven of its 11 games.
Antonio Bostick takes over as the starting quarterback for the graduated Alfred Defilippis. Bostick saw plenty of action in 2011, although his numbers were anything but impressive (.394 completion percentage, 3 TDs, 8 INTs), and he will see plenty of competition from backup Victorian Hardison.
"The job's Antonio's but jobs have been taken away in the past," Davenport said. "So if (Hardison) keeps working and keeps making plays, we're going to give him an opportunity to play."
Sheldon Barnes (184 yds, 5.6 ypc) and Cincinnati transfer Isaiah Nearor will battle for carries without last year's leading rusher Justin Babb in the fold, although running behind four new starting offensive linemen may prove difficult, especially against a defensive line as fast and strong as Oklahoma State's.
Both of the Tigers' top receivers return, as Dylan Cook (28 rec, 281 yds, 1 TD) and Brian Lackey (15 rec, 353 yds, 3 TDs) give their quarterback reliable options down the field.
The Savannah State defense gave up 40 points per game last year, but there are plenty of fresh faces this year to hopefully give the unit a spark.
The defensive line should be the strongest component, as it returns Wayne Burden (6 TFL), James Briscoe (6.5 TFL), and Leroy Cummings (9.5 TFL, 6 sacks). Broderick Sellers is the top returning linebacker (46 tackles).
John Wilson (60 tackles, 1 INT) is the most experienced player in the secondary, although help is on the way in the form of juco transfers Javon Moore and Somali Smith.
Oklahoma State's offense relied on the record-setting duo of QB Brandon Weeden and WR Justin Blackmon to post an incredible 387.2 passing yards and 48.7 points per game in 2011, but with both superstars moving on to the NFL, the offensive production for this season remains a question mark.
Coach Gundy will roll with a true freshman at quarterback in Wes Lunt. While it's impossible to expect Weeden-like production out of the chute, Gundy insists that he in no way needs to simplify the offense for the youngster.
"He's shown signs of being intelligent enough and smart enough to be able to handle (the offense)," Gundy said. "We feel like it's better for Oklahoma State football that we give it all to him and see how much he can handle in the early part of the season."
The loss of Blackmon certainly leaves a gaping hole in the receiving corps, but it is not completely devoid of talent. Tracy Moore (45 rec, 672 yds, 4 TDs) returns and will likely be Lunt's favorite target, although Isaiah Anderson, Blake Jackson and Josh Stewert also bring a lot to the table.
A heavy dose of the run game is expected to take pressure off Lunt. Lost in the shuffle of the passing game in 2011 was the outstanding play of tailback Joseph Randle (1,216 yds, 24 TDs) and to a lesser extent Jeremy Smith (646 yds, 9 TDs), and both return this season. Turnover on the offensive line could slow their production however, as guard Lane Taylor is the only returning starter.
The OSU defense struggled in terms of yardage allowed in 2011 (456.8 ypg), but the unit made big plays when it mattered most, ranking first in the nation in turnover margin (+21), and plenty of impact playmakers are set to return.
Cornerbacks Brodrick Brown and Justin Gilbert are two important pieces to the big-play puzzle after combining for 10 interceptions a year ago. Safety Daytawion Lowe (team-leading 97 tackles) also returns to a very strong secondary.
Nigel Nicholas (10 TFL) and Anthony Rogers (2.5 TFL) are expected to anchor the defensive line, while returning linebackers Alex Elkins, Caleb Lavey and Shaun Lewis all ranked in the top-five in terms of total tackles last season.