Athlon's College Football top 25 countdown for 2012 continues with No. 19 Oklahoma State. The Cowboys are the defending Big 12 champs, but must replace quarterback Brandon Weeden and receiver Justin Blackmon.
Can Oklahoma State Repeat as Big 12 Champs with a True Freshman Quarterback?
David Fox (@DavidFox615)
Mike Gundy, with some help from T. Boone Pickens’ bank account, has turned Oklahoma State into a program built to last. Two years ago, the departure of Zac Robinson, Dez Bryant and Russell Okung was reason for concern. Then it was the departure of offensive coordinator Larry Fedora a year later. By 2011, the names and faces had changed but the results were among the best in school history with Brandon Weeden, Justin Blackmon and offensive coordinator Todd Monken leading the way last season. I believe in Oklahoma State’s ability to replace talent in offensive personnel, but starting a freshman quarterback may be pushing the limits of the system Gundy has built in Stillwater. For the last four seasons, Oklahoma State has had the benefit of starting juniors and seniors at quarterback (Weeden and Robinson). Gundy hasn’t started a freshman since his first season in Stillwater, when the Cowboys went 4-7. The quarterback rotation in 2005 didn’t end until 2006 when Gundy benched Reid and settled on the sophomore Robinson. During the offseason, selecting Lunt after the spring clearly is a more decisive outcome than what Gundy had in his early years, but that doesn’t mean Lunt is going to put up results like Weeden and Robinson did as veterans, particularly in a league where he stands to be the only freshman starting quarterback. The Big 12 projects to have five senior starting quarterbacks and one junior. Only two of those six (Baylor’s Nick Florence and Kansas’ Dayne Crist) are not returning starters, but they still have starting experience in previous seasons. Oklahoma State will be a bowl team with a freshman quarterback. The Cowboys, however, should adjust their expectation level as Lunt goes through some early bumps.
Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
Not a chance. The good news is Oklahoma State is close to entering "reloading" status rather than "rebuilding." But in a league with elite coaches and so many quality football teams, it seems virtually impossible for the Pokes to repeat. This is a solid football team with eight- or nine-win potential, but replacing Brandon Weeden, Justin Blackmon and the majority of the offensive line without missing a beat is a tall order. Mike Gundy has his offensive installed and transitioning from one quarterback to the next has proven to be possible. But Wes Lunt is almost a decade younger than Weeden was when he took over for Zac Robinson. The transition won't be nearly as smooth.
Key swing games against Texas, TCU, West Virginia, Texas Tech and Iowa State all come at home. But that is as daunting a home slate as there is in the league, so running that gauntlet unblemished seems unlikely — something I feel the Cowboys would have to do in order to win the Big 12. The road schedule, with the exception of the Bedlam Series, is very manageable as Okie State visits Kansas, Kansas State and Baylor along with Oklahoma. A 4-1 home mark and a 3-1 road record feel like the maximum upside for this team. The great news for Oklahoma State football fans is that, thanks to Gundy's coaching and hefty financial contributions from one major booster, this team is in a position to replace a handful of the greatest players in school history and still target a 7-2 league record. A remarkable statement for a team coming off its first outright conference championship since winning the Missouri Valley in 1948 (co-champs of the Big 8 in 1976 and the MVC in 1953).
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
It’s not easy winning a Big 12 title with a true freshman quarterback, but I think Oklahoma State can certainly contend in 2012. The Cowboys have won at least nine games in each of the last four seasons, including 11 with a first-year starter (Brandon Weeden) in 2010.
A factor working in Oklahoma State’s favor is the rest of the conference. Oklahoma is expected to be the preseason favorite, but the Sooners finished 2-2 over the final four games of last season and must replace receiver Ryan Broyles. Texas is climbing back into contender status, but can the Longhorns get consistent quarterback play? West Virginia will be a factor in its first year of the Big 12, but its offensive line is a question mark, and the defense is breaking in new co-coordinators.
Another positive for Oklahoma State is the return of eight starters on defense. Sure, the Cowboys might give up some yards, but led the nation in takeaways last year. The line needs to find replacements for ends Jamie Blatnick and Richetti Jones, but the rest of the defense is solid. And with a true freshman quarterback, the defense may have to carry the team early in the year.
While Lunt will have his growing pains, he will be surrounded by a solid supporting cast. Running back Joseph Randle is one of the best in college football, and Tracy Moore, Josh Stewart and Isaiah Anderson form a quality trio at receiver. Replacing Levy Adcock and Grant Garner on the offensive line won’t be easy, but there’s enough experience to keep this unit playing at a high level.
The schedule also sets up favorably for Oklahoma State, as it has winnable games against Savannah State, Arizona and Louisiana-Lafayette in the first three weeks. After a bye week in Week 4, the Cowboys host Texas in Stillwater, then have an off date in Week 6, followed by games against Kansas and Iowa State. The schedule is backloaded with TCU, Kansas State, West Virginia and Oklahoma in the last half of the season, and that should give Lunt plenty of time to get comfortable as the starter.
Even though Oklahoma State suffered some key losses, I wouldn’t write this team off from contending for the Big 12 title in 2012.
So it looks like coach Mike Gundy has decided to go with true freshman Wes Lunt as the successor to Brandon Weeden under center for Oklahoma State. No one can expect Lunt to do what Weeden did last season (4,727 passing yards, 37 TDs), especially with electric wide receiver Justin Blackmon having joined Weeden as first-round picks in last month's NFL Draft. But have no fear Cowboys fans, Lunt doesn't need to put up Weeden-like numbers this fall because your beloved team has all the pieces it needs to repeat as champions of the Big 12.
On offense, the running game should be pretty strong with Joseph Randle and Jeremy Smith leading the way. The duo combined for more than 1,800 yards and 33 TDs on the ground alone in 2011. The Cowboys also bring back plenty of experience along the offensive line and in the receiving corps to help Lunt settle into the starter's role. Even without Weeden and Blackmon and some other key players, the offense should still be able to point a fair number of points on the board, although it probably won't result in nearly 49 points a game like last year's team produced.
The 2012 team's strength may actually be the defense, which has not been the case in Stillwater in recent years. The Cowboys return eight starters on defense, including all but one from its back seven. Cornerbacks Brodrick Brown and Justin Gilbert, safety Daytawion Lowe and linebacker Shaun Lewis are the standouts on the defense, which also has plenty of depth up front. Stopping the best offenses in the Big 12 is next to impossible, but sometimes all that is needed to turn the tide in your favor is to slow them down. This Cowboys' defense appears to have the horses to do just that, but can the unit do so consistently?
The true tests for this team will come when the offense is matched up against one of the conference's better defenses like Texas (Sept. 29, Big 12 opener) or Oklahoma (in Norman on Nov. 24) or when the defense is tasked with slowing down the Big 12's most potent offenses. To that end, the Cowboys' 2012 title hopes may come down to how well the defense holds up in November when it has to face West Virginia, Texas Tech (both at home) and the aforementioned Sooners on consecutive Saturdays.
Last season, the Oklahoma State offense finished near the top of the Big 12 in the major offensive categories, including first in both total and scoring offense. On the other hand, the defense finished fourth or lower in the major defensive categories, with the exception of pass efficiency defense (2nd). With a true freshman running the show on offense, no one should be surprised to see the Cowboys' rankings fall on offense.
The key, however, will be with the defense. If the defense capitalizes on its experience and plays up to its potential, the unit's improvement should be reflected in the conference rankings. As long as the defense finishes in the top half of the conference in a majority of the defensive categories then I think the Cowboys have a pretty good shot at making it two Big 12 titles in a row, even if their starting quarterback is 16 years younger than last year's.
Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
I do not see Oklahoma State repeating in the Big 12 with any of the quarterbacks on the roster. Wes Lunt may be a star one day, but the Cowboys lost too many stars to contend for the league crown this season. Mike Gundy does have several returning starters and has built OSU into a perennial Top 25 program, but players like Justin Blackmon, Levy Adcock, Brandon Weeden and Markelle Martin were on an All-America level. That attrition, along with the loss of all-conference performers Grant Garner and Jamie Blatnick, projects the Cowboys to take a step back from the 11- and 12-win seasons from the past two years.
Gundy and staff have instilled an expectation of winning in Stillwater, and there are still All-America caliber players at Oklahoma State like running back Joseph Randle and cornerback Brodrick Brown. The offense has solid potential, and the defense did a great job of forcing turnovers last year despite finishing 107th in the country. I see the Cowboys finishing anywhere from third to fifth in the Big 12 in 2012.
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