Monday, August 22, 2011

Big 12 college football countdown: Oklahoma State

The program

The history of Oklahoma State football is one of some successes, usually involving Mike Gundy in one way or another, but also an unending pursuit of their mighty in-state rival, the Oklahoma Sooners. It is the Cowboys' misfortune to have as a rival one of the historically most successful programs in the nation. The series is called Bedlam, and it's certainly produced some wild games, dating back to a mad scramble for a lose ball in a frozen creek in Guthrie, Okla., in 1904, before Oklahoma was even a state. (The wind blew a punt backwards and out of the end zone.)

With the Mad Hatter himself, Les Miles, coaching the team, Oklahoma State scored massive upsets of the Sooners in 2001 and 2002, derailing OU's national title hopes both years. The 2001 win in Norman, when OSU was a 27-point underdog, was one of two times Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops has lost a home game. But to the chagrin of orange-clad Cowboy fans, Oklahoma owns a commanding 82-16-7 lead in the series. (At my first Mizzou Homecoming game, in 2004, MU students chanted, "Sooner rejects!" at OSU. Of course, the Cowboys rallied from a 17-0 deficit to beat Mizzou. And don't get me started on the 2008 Tigers-Cowboys game in Columbia.)

Oklahoma State does have 10 conference titles in football, although only two came as member of the Big 8/12, in 1926 and 1976 (co-champs). From 1928 to 1958, Oklahoma State was a member of the Missouri Valley Conference, going to that league instead of the Big Six when the old Missouri Valley Intercollegiate Association split.

Despite the single shared conference title over the last half-century, Oklahoma State has had its moments. They won 10 games in 1984 as well as 1987 and 1988, when Gundy was the team's quarterback. That 1988 season was the sublime Barry Sanders' Heisman Trophy-winning season. Gundy, now the team's coach, led the team to its fourth double-digit win total ever last fall, winning 11 games. Trouble is, in three of OSU's seasons of 10+ wins, Oklahoma has won at least a share of the conference title. In another unfortunate turn, a joint investigation by OSU and the NCAA after the 1988 season revealed multiple NCAA violations during these seasons.

But the Sooners' successes only make it sweeter when the Cowboys beat them. The Cowboys have plenty of history and identity of their own. They have Sanders and Thurman Thomas, all that bright orange and prolific offenses under Gundy, their coach who made a national splash with his "I'm a man! I'm 40!" rant. They have Pistol Pete, fans seemingly right on top of the field and super-donor T. Boone Picken$. They play in Stillwater, which just sounds like a mythical location in a Western. As Gundy leads another Cowboy team with a lofty preseason ranking, he continues his efforts to make his alma mater a powerhouse and, in the more immediate future, take the Cowboys over the BCS bowl threshold.

Best player ever

Barry Sanders, RB
All-time school rushing leader Thurman Thomas and Mike Gundy are certainly options here, but for sheer single-season brilliance, I'll take Sanders. His 1988 season was the stuff of legend, maybe the best season by any player in college football history. Sanders, showcasing that breathtaking running style that would make him an NFL legend, set college football records with 2,628 rushing yards in a single season. He also had 3,249 total yards He scored 39 touchdowns, including 37 rushing, also a record. He led the nation by averaging 7.6 yards per carry and over 200 yards per game. Four times he ran for over 300 yards that season as the Cowboys won 10 of 12 games... and Sanders won the Heisman.

2011 outlook

Coming off the program's first-ever 11-win season last year, the Cowboys and their fans have high hopes for 2011. Quarterback Brandon Weeden, who turns 28 in October, and sensational receiver Justin Blackmon both chose to return rather than declare for the NFL draft. Last year there were no expectations nationally, with most picking OSU about fifth in the South, but now the Cowboys are on the national radar.

Weeden led the Big 12 in passing efficiency last year, and was second to OU's Landry Jones in passing yards, with 4,277. Blackmon won the Biletnikoff Award as the nation's top receiver last year. He can be a near unstoppable playmaker, last year racking up 111 receptions, 1,782 yards and 20 touchdowns. Those yard and touchdown figures led the Big 12, and his reception total was second... to Sooner Ryan Broyles.

The team does lose dynamic running back Kendall Hunter, but sophomore Joseph Randle should be at very least a serviceable replacement; he averaged 5.5 yards per carry on 85 rush attempts last year. The team also lost offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen, but head coach Mike Gundy drives the offensive bus. He's not particularly coy that he often talks with offensive players or studies formation photos while the defense is on the field. He has trust in defensive coordinator Bill Young, who's had several coaching stops but a good track record.

How high OSU goes may hinge on the defense, given the expected prowess of the offense. OSU's great season was helped significantly by winning the turnover battle (+12 in turnovers last year), and they have a few defensive playmakers, such as safety Markelle Martin, cornerback Brodrick Brown and linebacker Shaun Lewis, co-defensive freshman of the year in the Big 12 last season.

Overall, however, its a fairly average defense. Not really any gaping holes, but not close to dominant. Some of the stats are skewed against the OSU defense given how quickly they OSU offense scores and how opponents are often playing catchup. But it can't be totally dismissed that last year OSU was sixth in the Big 12 in points allowed and eight in yards allowed per game.

The big question: Can the Cowboys make it to their first-ever BCS bowl game? Sure, they'd love to get there by dethroning Oklahoma and securing the Big 12's automatic BCS berth. The Dec. 3 season-ending Bedlam game will be huge. It will also be played in Stillwater for the second year in a row, a gift of a schedule quirk due to the new look of the Big 12 (10 teams, every team plays every other team).

However, as good as the OSU offense is, the schedule is brutal. Five of the nine conference games are on the road. As for the other four best teams in the league, OSU has to play at Texas A&M, at Texas and at Missouri... over the course of four weeks. (The other game in that stretch? Against Kansas at home. Frustrations will be taken out.) Then OSU gets that home game against Oklahoma. A November trip to wacky Lubbock won't be a picnic. And the high-powered OSU offense could look a lot less smooth on a November Friday night in Ames, Iowa. So, while I think OSU has the talent to challenge for a conference title or at-large BCS berth, I could see that monster schedule upending those hopes. But we'll see. Reigning Big 12 Coach of the Year Mike Gundy's a man. Still.

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