Sans superstars, Cowboys try to repeat as Big 12 champs
By Nicholas DeLorenzo, Associate College Football Editor
Sports Network (Philadelphia, PA) - Over the years, the BCS has been shrouded in controversy for notoriously leaving deserving teams out of its national championship game.
In 2011, that team was Oklahoma State.
The Cowboys put together arguably their best season in program history last year, opening up with 10 straight wins while rising to No. 2 in the national polls, its highest ranking ever. Though they lost a 37-31 double-overtime affair at Iowa State on November 18, they managed to bounce back with a 44-10 romp of rival Oklahoma in the regular-season finale, claiming their first Bedlam Series win since 2002, and their first-ever Big 12 Conference championship.
The 11-1 record may have been good enough to advance to the title game in previous years, but the BCS determined that Alabama and LSU would play for the national championship, relegating OSU to the Fiesta Bowl. Still, the Cowboys took full advantage of their first BCS bowl bid by defeating Stanford in dramatic fashion (41-38 in overtime) to conclude the 2011 season with a 12-1 record.
Though it was unable to prove itself as the best team in the country, it was no doubt a fantastic year for Oklahoma State, and it will look to build upon that success as the 2012 campaign inches closer. But one huge obstacle lies in the way, as few teams can claim to have lost as much offensive talent this past off-season as the Cowboys.
The Cowboys' high-powered offense, which ranked third in the nation in total yards per game (550) and second in points per game (48.7), fired on all cylinders in 2011 thanks in large part to quarterback Brandon Weedon, who set nearly every school passing record by completing 409-of-565 pass attempts (.724) for an astounding 4,727 yards and 37 touchdowns. The veteran gunslinger's accomplishments were so great that the Cleveland Browns selected him with the 22nd pick in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft, making him the oldest player ever to be selected in the first round at 28 years old.
As if losing the best signal caller the school has ever had wasn't bad enough, OSU also goes into this season without the nation's top receiver in Justin Blackmon, who was taken by the Jacksonville Jaguars with the fifth overall pick. Blackmon finished the 2011 regular season with 122 catches, 1,522 yards, and 18 touchdowns, picking up his second straight Biletnikoff Award as the country's best wide receiver. Blackmon capped off his college career with Fiesta Bowl MVP honors, hauling in eight balls for 186 yards and three touchdowns in the win over Stanford.
Conventional wisdom says that losing two skill players of elite caliber is too much for an offense to overcome in one off-season, especially considering the keys to this once-dynamic offensive machine are being handed over to a true freshman in quarterback Wes Lunt. Still, head coach Mike Gundy likes what he sees in the youngster and has full confidence that he can do the job.
"Wes is the best player to lead our football team," Gundy said. "We like our system. We like the ability to play fast. We like the ability to throw the ball down the field effectively but also run the football. Wes gives us the best opportunity to stay consistent with our style of play."
Lunt is just a few months removed from throwing for 3,650 yards and 31 touchdowns for the Illinois State Champions at Rochester High School. He graduated high school in the winter, allowing him more time in camp to earn the job.
"I'm overwhelmed," Lunt said. "It's such a humbling experience. I know that we're still going to compete through summer and two-a-days, so it's not over."
Luckily for Lunt, the Cowboys retain a few vital pieces from the record-setting 2011 offense. Running back Joseph Randle had a spectacular sophomore season, rushing for 1,248 yards and adding 43 catches for 266 yards as a receiver out of the backfield. He scored an eye-popping 24 rushing touchdowns, which was second only to former OSU standout Barry Sanders, who tallied 37 scores in 1988. If the Cowboys hope to have success in 2012, Randle will need to be even better.
While there is no one quite on the level of Blackmon in this year's receiving corps, OSU still has a handful of viable pass catchers to give Lunt a boost, including Tracy Moore (45 receptions, 672 yards, four touchdowns), Isaiah Anderson (28 receptions, 315 yards, four touchdowns), and redshirt freshman Torrance Carr. The Cowboys also added freshman Dominic Ramacher, one of the nation's highest-rated tight end recruits, who could play an immediate role as Lunt's safety valve.
With a less-potent offense, Gundy's defense is also going to need to play at a higher level this season. The unit allowed 24 or more points in 10 of 13 games last year, and it will need players like Daytawion Lowe (97 tackles, three forced fumbles), Brodrick Brown (five interceptions), and Shaun Lewis (61 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss) to raise their level of play.
There are plenty of teams on the doorstep hoping to dethrone the Cowboys, as Kansas State, Baylor and Oklahoma all won 10 games last season. Perennial powerhouse Texas anticipates a bounce-back year, and newcomers West Virginia and TCU might have something to say before this season is all said and done.
Although Oklahoma State remains the conference champs until someone else knocks the Pokes from their perch, there appears to be too much to overcome for anyone to realistically expect them to reach another BCS bowl game.
06/20 09:55:48 ET