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June 20, 2008
THE SCHEME: The no-huddle spread offense that Oklahoma State uses has been extremely productive. The Cowboys ranked seventh in the nation in total offense last season, but this season they have to show they can flourish without former offensive coordinator Larry Fedora - who's now the coach at Southern Miss. The Cowboys will implement the pro-set and I-formations at times, and plan to use more zone reads to take advantage of junior quarterback Zac Robinson's running skills.
STAR POWER: The Big 12 was loaded at tight end last season, but the conference coaches voted senior Brandon Pettigrew the best in the league. He has 70 career catches, half of which came last season. He had a game-winning, last-second touchdown catch against Texas Tech. Some NFL scouts consider Pettigrew, a 6-foot-6, 260-pounder, a possible first-round draft choice.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Junior tailback Beau Johnson could emerge as the replacement for Dantrell Savage. Johnson rushed for almost 1,800 yards as a sophomore at junior college national champion Butler County (Kan.) Community College last season. That includes a 288-yard outburst with four touchdowns in the national championship game. He was ranked as the No. 4 junior college running back in the country.
IT'S HIS TIME: Junior wide receiver Jeremy Broadway has talent, but has had injury problems and hasn't raised his game. He has shown flashes of being an effective receiver, but last season's 13 catches for 125 yards were career-highs. He had a strong spring, but has to prove he can be just as strong in the fall.
STRONGEST AREA: Robinson is one of the nation's best dual-threat quarterbacks. In fact, last season he joined Florida's Tim Tebow and Central Michigan's Dan LeFevour as the only quarterbacks to pass for at least 2,800 yards and rushed for at least 800. He had a school-record 3,671 yards of total offense last season.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Sophomore wide receiver Dez Bryant, who had 43 catches a year ago, is the Cowboys' only proven receiver. Bryant has to show he can excel as the primary option now that Adarius Bowman is gone. No other Oklahoma State wide receiver had more than 13 catches last season.
OVERVIEW: Seven starters return from an offense that averaged 486.3 yards and 34.6 points in 2007, so there are plenty of reasons to be excited in Stillwater. Of course, there also are a few reasons to be apprehensive. While Robinson, Pettigrew, Bryant and four starting linemen are back, the Cowboys must replace the production of Bowman at wide receiver and Savage at tailback. Those two accounted for 2,278 yards and 17 touchdowns a year ago. Perhaps newcomers such as Johnson and/or holdovers such as Keith Toston - who rushed for 631 yards in 2006 - can ease Savage's loss. Bowman figures to be harder to replace. Still, perhaps the biggest loss is Fedora, who turned the offense into one of the most productive in the country.
THE SCHEME: The Cowboys' base defense is a 4-3 scheme that easily can switch to a 4-2-5; the Cowboys refer to one of their outside linebackers as playing the "Star" position, a hybrid strong safety/outside linebacker. No matter the alignment, the Cowboys need to upgrade their pass defense. OSU ranked 113th in the country in that category last season.
STAR POWER: Although they struggled against the pass, the Cowboys received solid play from senior cornerback Jacob Lacey, who raised his level of play and showed signs of becoming a lock-down corner. He grabbed five interceptions last season – three against Texas – and returned one for a touchdown. Lacey also was credited with 14 pass breakups.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Six junior college transfers were signed to bolster the defense, and tackle Swanson Miller may have the best chance to make a major contribution. Miller registered 15.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks last season at Butler County (Kan.) CC. Miller, a 6-4, 300-pounder, gives the Cowboys much-needed bulk up front.
IT'S HIS TIME: Junior linebacker Patrick Lavine has been good. In fact, he has started each of the past two seasons and accumulated 151 tackles. But the Cowboys need him to be even better to shore up a questionable unit. He's moving from the middle to one of the outside spots.
STRONGEST AREA: How suspect is the Cowboys' defense? Well, consider they were horrible against the pass last season – and that the secondary appears to be the strength of the defense. All four starters return in Lacey, senior free safety Ricky Price, junior cornerback Perrish Cox and junior strong safety Andre Sexton. But there will be some changes: Sexton is moving to the "Star" linebacker position, Price is switching to strong safety and Cox could lose his starting spot to junior Terrance Anderson. The new free safety could be senior Quinton Moore, who has some starting experience. Junior college transfer Lucien Antoine also is in the hunt for the job.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: The defense overall is a problem. But to be more specific, the line – which will have three new starters – potentially is a huge problem if some newcomers don't pan out this season. The Cowboys were mediocre against the run and had just a so-so pass rush last season (22 sacks). To make matters worse, the players who produced the majority of those sacks are gone.
OVERVIEW: Although six starters return, the Cowboys ranked just 102nd in total defense last season. Unless significant improvement is made, bettering last year's seven-win total will be difficult. The hope is that junior end Derek Burton, who posted 3.5 sacks in mainly a backup role last season, emerges as a consistent sack threat. Help also is needed at linebacker. Lavine is a returning starter but he's changing positions.
The one area where there are few questions is special teams. Oklahoma State's unit can match up with almost any team in the nation. Senior punter Matt Fodge averaged 42.4 yards per attempt and had 13 kicks downed inside the 20-yard line last season. Sophomore Dan Bailey was just 2-for-4 on field-goal attempts, but consistently put his kickoffs into the end zone. He'll compete for the starting job with incoming freshman Quinn Sharp, the top-rated kicking prospect in the nation. Perrish Cox is among the premier return specialists in college football. He was one of three players in the nation to score a touchdown via kickoff and punt returns in 2007.
Coach Mike Gundy's post-game tirade after a victory over Texas Tech brought a lot of attention to Oklahoma State, but the team needs to draw attention for better reasons. The Cowboys need to improve their defensive line and receiving corps. With that in mind, Gundy brought in defensive line coach Glenn Spencer (out of football last season) and receivers coach Trooper Taylor (Tennessee) to bolster those units. Taylor, also recognized as one of the country's premier recruiters, has mentored several receivers who have gone on to the NFL. Taylor will share coordinator duties with Gunter Brewer, who was promoted after Fedora left. Cornerback coach Jason Jones, who coached cornerbacks at Tulsa, also was added to the staff. With new coaches, there are some unknowns. Offensive line coach Joe Wickline is regarded by some as the best coach at Oklahoma State, regardless of sport.
There is the potential to get off to a fast start, and the Cowboys better take advantage of it. Following the season-opener in Seattle against Washington State, the Cowboys return to Stillwater for three consecutive games. They face Houston, Missouri State and Troy, with the last of that trip offering a chance for redemption for last season's debacle against the Trojans. The going gets considerably tougher afterward. The Cowboys travel to Texas and Texas Tech – where they haven't won since the inception of the Big 12 – and also play at Missouri and Colorado. They also play host to Texas A&M, which is 9-2 against the Cowboys in Big 12 play, as well as Oklahoma. Even more worrisome: The Cowboys, who have struggled in pass defense, face eight opponents that ranked among the top 40 in passing offense last season.
Pressure may be building on Gundy. Back-to-back seven-win seasons are OK, but Cowboys supporters want more. Prominent booster T. Boone Pickens, who has made multimillion dollar contributions to the athletic program in recent years, is on record saying he expects nine victories this season. That's possible, but it would require the Cowboys posting an upset or two. Robinson's ability to run and pass and Pettigrew's presence would seem to ensure the offense will remain productive. But questions about the defense will persist. And if the defense continues to struggle, getting to nine victories will be difficult. In that case, Gundy's job security may be in question.
Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.