Big 12: Andre Sexton
2009 conference record: 6-2
Returning starters: Offense (4), Defense(4) P/K (2)
Top returners: DE Ugo Chinasa, RB Kendall Hunter, WR Hubert Anyiam, S Markelle Martin, K Dan Bailey, P Quinn Sharp
Key losses: QB Zac Robinson, OL Russell Okung, RB Keith Toston, WR Dez Bryant, LB Donald Booker, CB Perrish Cox, LB Andre Sexton, LB Patrick Lavine, S Lucien Antoine
2009 statistical leaders (*returners)
Rushing: Keith Toston (1,218 yards)
Passing: Zac Robinson (2,084 yards)
Receiving: Hubert Anyiam (515 yards)
Tackles: Donald Booker (99)
Sacks: Ugo Chinasa* (6.5)
Interceptions: Patrick Lavine (5)
Three spring answers
1. Learning the offense: Oklahoma State looks on schedule in learning new offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen’s spread attack, one he used to coordinate the best offense in college football at Houston last season. Brandon Weeden is the unquestioned starter after the spring, including a nice finish in the spring game when the junior threw four touchdown passes.
2. Kendall Hunter: New ends, different means. Coach Mike Gundy estimates Hunter will touch the ball around 250 times next season, but he won’t be doing it on the ground. Instead, he’ll be catching the ball in space, using his shiftiness to make defenders miss and pile up yards for the Cowboys. Holgorsen says Hunter is even better than he thought, and they’ll both want to prove it in the fall after Hunter’s disappointing 2009 season.
3. He’s no Lemon. Defensive coordinator Bill Young believes linebacker Orie Lemon is the best middle linebacker in the country, and Lemon had one of the best springs of any player on the Cowboy defense. He missed the entire 2009 season after tearing his ACL in fall camp, and will be ready to get back on the field this fall.
Three fall questions
1. Will Weeden be the next Keenum? At Houston under Holgorsen, Case Keenum threw for almost 1,500 more yards than the second-best in football in 2009. No one’s expecting Weeden to throw for 5,600 yards in 2010 (or throw it almost 700 times), but if he can elevate his status to one of the conference’s best quarterbacks, Holgorsen will have another impressive bullet on his resume and the Cowboys will have a few more wins.
2. Can the O-line assert itself? Will it have to? The offensive line is replacing the NFL Draft’s No. 6 pick and four-year starter Russell Okung, along with three other starters. Will they be good enough to get Holgorsen’s offense humming? With the system’s quick-release passing, it might not have to hold for long.
3. Can the Cowboys exceed expectations in a rebuilding year? After falling short of the South title in 2009 with Zac Robinson, Dez Bryant (at least part of the time) and Okung, expectations are measured in what’s somewhat of a rebuilding year for the Cowboys. They have a great chance to parlay a 4-0 non-conference record into a bowl game, but how many more wins will the Cowboys have in conference? Only the fall knows.
Weak: Offensive line
Oklahoma State must replace four starters on the offensive line, including likely top 10 pick LT Russell Okung and SI cover boy C Andrew Lewis. (Yes, that counts.) Left guard Noah Franklin and right tackle Brady Bond also don't return.
For Oklahoma State to be successful, they'll need the new line to gel with a first-year starter at quarterback. Kendall Hunter returns with hopes of a big year, but if the line plays poorly, he'll have to do it with plenty of shovel passes.
Juniors Nick Martinez, Levy Adcock and Jonathan Rush join senior Anthony Morgan as new starters this spring, and last year's lone returning starter, Lane Taylor, moves over to center to begin spring practice. Taylor began 2009 near the bottom of the depth chart, but took over at right guard during his freshman season.
Runner-up: Linebacker, where Oklahoma State loses quality linebackers in Andre Sexton, Donald Booker and Patrick Lavine.
Strong: Kicking game
Punter Quinn Sharp and kicker Dan Bailey could both be in for big years. Sharp was named All-Big 12 honorable mention as a freshman, when he averaged 45.1 yards on 67 punts, the second-best average ever for an Oklahoma State punter and fifth in the nation. He also had 35 touchbacks as a kickoff specialist.
Bailey will be a four-year starter at kicker and has not missed any of his 131 extra-point attempts in over almost three seasons since becoming starter as a freshman. Perhaps most importantly, he's 24-of-26 on kicks inside 40 yards. He also has a career-long of 51 yards.
More Weak & Strong:
1. Texas (14 starters back: 6 offensive, 7 defensive, 1 special teams). Garrett Gilbert got a head start on replacing Colt McCoy with his considerable playing time in the national title game, an invaluable learning experience for a young player. The Longhorns return most of the defense that improved in its second season under Will Muschamp. The biggest chores will be for offensive coordinator Greg Davis, who has to boost running game production and find a replacement for record-breaking wide receiver Jordan Shipley.
2. Nebraska (18 starters back: 8 offensive, 8 defensive, 2 special teams). Bo Pelini has the Cornhuskers positioned for a potential top-10 preseason ranking. Most of the offensive weapons will be back from a unit that sputtered down the stretch before breaking out in the Holiday Bowl victory. Quarterback Zac Lee will miss some of spring practice as he recovers from postseason surgery. Cody Green and Kody Spano will get most of the work until Lee returns. Nebraska coaches think the defense can be better this season, even without the up-the-middle strength of Ndamukong Suh, Phillip Dillard, Larry Asante and Matt O’Hanlon.
3. Oklahoma (15 starters back: 9 offensive, 4 defensive, 2 special teams). The Sooners overcame a debilitating run of injuries last season to finish with a flourish, knocking Oklahoma State out of a BCS game and winning the Sun Bowl in their final two games. Landry Jones will be infinitely better in his second season as a starter and Ryan Broyles and DeMarco Murray may be the best one-two receiving/running back combination in the conference. Bob Stoops will be facing a big renovation on defense where key players like Gerald McCoy and Dominique Franks left early for the NFL draft. Look for Travis Lewis to be the key to a defense that will need to improve by the time Big 12 play begins if the Sooners are to have any hope of claiming a seventh Big 12 title this season.
4. Missouri (19 starters back: 9 offensive, 9 defensive, 1 special teams). The Tigers will miss Danario Alexander and linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, who were arguably the best players at their positions in the conference last season. But Blaine Gabbert is back for a second season as starting quarterback and some talented recruits are expected to emerge on defense. A key for the Tigers’ success will be a more productive running game and consistency from the offensive line. Improvement on both will be critical for coordinator David Yost during the spring.
5. Texas Tech (15 starters back: 7 offensive, 6 defensive, 2 special teams). New coach Tommy Tuberville immediately will have to sort through a potentially difficult decision at quarterback between Taylor Potts and fan favorite Steven Sheffield. New coordinator James Willis hopes to install a 3-4 defense that should be a haven for athletic linebackers. But the group’s success will hinge on replacing Jamar Wall at cornerback and finding some pass-rushing threats to replace Brandon Sharpe, Richard Jones and Daniel Howard along the front.
6. Texas A&M (19 starters back: 8 offensive, 9 defensive, 2 special teams). With Jerrod Johnson, Jeff Fuller, Uzoma Nwachukwu and Christine Michael back, the Aggies shouldn’t have trouble scoring points, although the line needs to do a better job of protecting Johnson. But the Aggies’ success will depend on the returning starters quickly taking to new coordinator Tim DeRuyter’s teachings. The group was blistered for at least 35 points in seven games last season and allowed at least 30 points in two other games. So needless to say that even with nine starters back, DeRuyter has his work cut out.
7. Kansas (16 starters back: 7 offensive, 7 defensive, 2 special teams). New coach Turner Gill inherits an uncertain quarterback situation, but has the framework for a strong running attack with all of his starting linemen back, along with Toben Opurum and heralded back Brandon Bourbon as running threats. The Jayhawks will need to fill in for the loss of Darrell Stuckey in the secondary, but new coordinator Carl Torbush should find the elements for a blitzing, attacking defense among the returnees. But the biggest reason the Jayhawks might be bound for a bowl game in Gill’s first season is swapping Texas, Texas Tech and Oklahoma for Texas A&M, Oklahoma State and Baylor in their cross-divisional schedule.
8. Iowa State (13 starters back: 8 offensive, 4 defensive, 1 special teams). Paul Rhoads returns most of the offensive weapons that led the Cyclones to the Insight Bowl, most notably quarterback Austen Arnaud and running back Alexander Robinson. But the team loses all of its starting linebackers; veteran coordinator Wally Burnham will be challenged to cobble together a serviceable unit. The Cyclones could actually be a better team in 2010 but post a worse record. A tougher schedule featuring nonconference games against Utah, Iowa and Northern Illinois and the addition of South Division powers Oklahoma, Texas and Texas Tech will make last season’s bowl trip much tougher to duplicate.
9. Oklahoma State (10 starters back: 4 offensive, 4 defensive, 2 special teams). The Cowboys must find replacements for key players like Zac Robinson, Keith Tosten, four offensive linemen (including Outland finalist Russell Okung) and six of their back seven on defense. New offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen finds an uncertain quarterback situation but will lean heavily on a healthy Kendall Hunter. A manageable nonconference schedule should have them in bowl contention, but this should be a step back from Mike Gundy’s last two teams.
10. Kansas State (15 starters back: 7 offensive, 6 defensive, 2 special teams). The Wildcats missed out on a bowl trip last season only because they scheduled two FCS teams, but they surprisingly challenged for the Big 12 North title up to their last game of the season. It might be tougher to do that this season, although Daniel Thomas will provide the foundation on offense. Carson Coffman has the inside track at quarterback, but keep an eye out for Oregon transfer Chris Harper at either that position or wide receiver. Players like Jeffrey Fitzgerald and John Houlik will be missed on defense, but all four starters are back in the secondary.
11. Colorado (16 starters back: 8 offensive, 7 defensive, 1 special teams). Dan Hawkins’ seat is the hottest in the Big 12 and arguably in college football after missing a bowl for a second straight season last year. Tyler Hansen returns as the starting quarterback, but the Buffaloes need to find some help in the backfield with only three scholarship backs in spring practice. The defense was young last season and should be improved, but will miss the leadership provided by Jeff Smart and Cha’pelle Brown. A bowl trip likely will be necessary to save Hawkins’ job and a tough nonconference schedule featuring games at California and against Hawaii and Georgia will prove troublesome even before Big 12 play begins.
12. Baylor (14 starters back: 6 offensive, 6 defensive, 2 special teams). The Bears’ hopes of stopping the conference’s longest bowl drought will hinge largely on the health of Robert Griffin, who is recovering from knee surgery that forced him to miss the final nine games of the 2009 season. New offensive lineman “Big” Robert Griffin will have to protect his quarterback if coach Art Briles has any hope of making a bowl trip. Jay Finley and Kendall Wright are underrated offensive threats, but the Bears will miss key defensive leaders like Joe Pawelek and Jordan Lake who were stalwarts for several years.
Defensive line: After losing starters Jason Lamb and Trey Bryant and having Phil Taylor and Earl Patin entering their senior seasons, the Bears need to add immediate depth. Xavier Ruben and Anthony Gonzales will help shore up the deficiencies and the Bears still are in the hunt for top prospects like Carlos Thompson and Byran Jones.
Secondary: Starters Jordan Lake and Jeremy Williams have graduated and four juniors in the two-deep roster will start their senior seasons. Coach Art Briles has already lured surprising strength in the defensive backfield with Ahmad Dixon, Tyler Stephenson and Prince Kent. That trio makes it one of the finest positional groupings for Baylor in recent history.
Robert Griffin’s redshirt season has lessened the immediate need at quarterback: With Griffin now having three years of eligibility remaining, recruits now see only a two-season window to play. But another Robert Griffin should help the Bears as well. Baylor coaches see the other Griffin, a junior college transfer from Coriscana Junior College, being able to contend for the starting position at right tackle from his first day in the program.
Running back: With Chris Brown graduating and DeMarco Murray entering his senior season, the Sooners need some producers at the position. Bob Stoops has never hesitated to playing top freshman players in the past if they can help. Don’t be surprised if top recruits like Brennan Clay and Roy Finch get an early chance in 2010 with the Sooners.
Receiver: Ryan Broyles is entrenched in the slot, but the Sooners are looking all over for pass catchers who can challenge existing players. Recruits Kenny Stills, Joe Powell, Julian Wilson and Sheldon McClain all should challenge this summer to battle their way into the rotation.
Defensive tackle: Injuries and NFL declarations have riddled the Sooners’ depth at the postion. Gerald McCoy will leave early for the NFL draft with JaMarkus McFarland ready to take over. Adrian Taylor was set at the other position, but his nasty ankle injury sustained in the Sun Bowl has depleted the Sooners’ depth. Redshirt sophomore Casey Walker and four incoming freshmen are all that is in place as far as depth at the critical position.
Offensive line: The Cowboys lose four senior starting offensive linemen from the Cotton Bowl team, including the left side of their offensive line in tackle Russell Okung, guard Noah Franklin and center Andrew Lewis, as well as right tackle Brady Bond. Mike Gundy needs some immediate help at the position, both from existing players and incoming ones.
Defensive tackle: Starters Swanson Miller and Derek Burton both will graduate and top backups Shane Jarka and Chris Donaldson both will be senior this season. Defensive coordinator Bill Young needs to find some defensive linemen who can challenge for playing next season.
Linebackers: Young also will have to rebuild this group after the underrated group of Andre Sexton, Donald Booker and Patrick Lavine helped sparked the Cowboys’ surprising defensive growth last season. All will be gone this season, putting pressure to add some more contributors to add to the returning mix of players including James Thomas, Tolu Moala and Justin Gent.
Defensive end: With Sergio Kindle graduating and Sam Acho and Eddie Jones both entering their senior season, the Longhorns need a talent boost here. It also just happens to be the position where top target Jackson Jeffcoat would immediately fill the rather sizable hole.
The left side of the offensive line: Tackle Adam Ulatoski, guard Charlie Tanner and center Chris Hall combined for 114 starts during their careers.The Longhorns has some strong arriving talent, but they’ll still miss the leadership and savvy that this trio provided over the years.
Quarterback: Even with Garrett Gilbert seemingly entrenched as the Longhorns’ quarterback of the future, the Longhorns added depth with the commitments of Connor Wood and Colt’s little brother Case McCoy. It will make for some interesting competition this spring and fall as the rotation sorts itself out.
Defensive end: The Aggies received a huge boost when Von Miller announced he would return for his senior season, but A&M needs to prepare for his departure -- particularly after losing starting defensive end Matt Moss and Miller’s backup Matt Featherston as departing seniors from 2009.
Tight end: Starter Jamie McCoy graduated and top replacements Kenny Brown and Craig Raschke both will be seniors next season. Adding at least one player would be beneficial as the Aggie coaches hope they can find a combination blocker/receiving threat at the position like McCoy was.
Offensive tackle: The Aggies lose bookend senior starters Michael Shumard and Lee Grimes. They do have Stephen Barrera and Danny Baker in the depth chart but would like more depth to help the line develop.
Defensive line: The Red Raiders’ biggest need is at defensive end where all three players in the two-deep roster -- Brandon Sharpe, Ra’Jon Henley and Daniel Howard were seniors. At defensive tackle, Richard Jones departs as a senior and Colby Whitlock will be a senior next season. New coordinator James Willis needs to find some productive players in the trenches quickly.
Linebackers: Starters Bront Bird and Brian Duncan will be back as seniors next season, but Tech loses departing starter Marlon Williams on the other side. They need some depth to help build for the future at the position.
Quarterback: Taylor Potts and Steven Sheffield will wage one of the closest-watched battles for playing time in the nation during the spring and summer. But both will be seniors, meaning the Red Raiders need to prepare for their departure by grooming some young talent like Scotty Young, a recent commitment at the position.
But there were still enough top producers to fill out a team of top performers from the conference's 4-4 bowl season.
Here's a look at my top performers:
QB Landry Jones, Oklahoma: Passed for career-best 418 yards and added three passing TDs to direct Sooners’ Sun Bowl victory over Stanford.
RB Alexander Robinson, Iowa State: Rushed for 137 yards -- his sixth 100-yard game of the season -- to pace Cyclones’ victory over Minnesota in the Insight Bowl.
RB Baron Batch, Texas Tech: Rushed for 100 yards, scored two TDs and produced six receptions for 85 yards in Red Raiders’ comeback victory in the Alamo Bowl over Michigan State.
WR Jordan Shipley, Texas: Overcame slow start to produce 10 catches for 122 yards and two TDs against Alabama, becoming Texas’ leading career receiver.
WR Ryan Broyles, Oklahoma: Produced career-best totals of 13 receptions, 156 receiving yards and also matched career high with three TD receptions to help beat Stanford in the Sun Bowl.
TE Trent Ratterree, Oklahoma: Grabbed three receptions for 86 yards, including pivotal 38-yard catch that was Jones’ longest pass of game in Sun Bowl victory over Stanford.
OL Ricky Henry, Nebraska: Helped Cornhuskers dominate in the trenches in biggest Cornhuskers' bowl victory since 2000.
OL Kelechi Osemele, Iowa State: Dominant effort helped Cyclones claim first bowl victory since 2004 and only third bowl victory in school history.
OL Jacob Hickman, Nebraska: Cornhuskers’ center set the tone for easy victory over Arizona.
OL Brandon Carter, Texas Tech: Colorful lineman helped Tech roll up school bowl-record 31 first downs, 579 total yards against Michigan State.
OL Trent Williams, Oklahoma: All-American moved from tackle to center and didn’t miss a beat in the Sooners’ Sun Bowl triumph.
DL Sergio Kindle, Texas: Had his best game of the season with eight tackles, 2.5 sacks and 3.5 tackles for losses against Alabama.
DL Pierre Allen, Nebraska: Set the tone for Nebraska’s pass rush with two sacks, four tackles, forced a fumble and notched a quarterback hurry in the Cornhuskers’ shutout over Arizona -- first for a Big 12 team in a bowl game in conference history.
DL Christopher Lyle, Iowa State: Insight Bowl defensive MVP produced five tackles, including two for losses and one sack to lead Cyclones’ victory over Minnesota.
DL Rajon Henley, Texas Tech: Four tackles, four quarterback hurries, one sack against Michigan State.
LB Phillip Dillard, Nebraska: Produced team-high seven stops, broke up one pass in Cornhuskers’ shutout over Arizona.
LB Ryan Reynolds, Oklahoma: Produced 12 tackles (three solo, nine assists), two quarterback hurries and one tackle for loss against Stanford.
LB Andre Sexton, Oklahoma State: Produced 10 tackles, two interceptions and one tackle for a loss in Cotton Bowl loss to Mississippi.
DB Matt O’Hanlon, Nebraska: Earned Holiday Bowl defensive MVP honors with five stops, a 37-yard interception and a pass broken up against Arizona.
DB Ter’ran Benton, Iowa State: In his first game back after recovering from mid-season broken leg, notched five tackles and game-clinching fumble recovery in Cyclones’ Insight Bowl victory over Minnesota.
DB Jamar Wall, Texas Tech: Produced six tackles, broke up two passes and one interception against Michigan State.
DB Quinton Carter, Oklahoma: Notched eight stops (five tackles, three assists) and added an interception in Sun Bowl victory over Stanford.
P Quinn Sharp, Oklahoma State: Averaged 50.2 yards per punt on his eight punts, including four punts inside 20 in Cotton Bowl.
K Alex Henery, Nebraska: Converted all four field goals of 47, 50, 43 and 22 yards to set the Holiday Bowl record. His big night gave him a Nebraska single-season record of 24 for the season.
RET Niles Paul, Nebraska: The Holiday Bowl offensive MVP amassed 94 yards in returns, including a 49-yard kickoff return and a 28-yard punt return. He also added four catches for 123 yards, including a clinching 74-yard TD grab from Zac Lee.
How the game was won: Ole Miss took advantage of six Oklahoma State turnovers on consecutive fourth-quarter possessions to blow the game open. The Rebels got the ball back via interceptions by free safety Kendrick Lewis on consecutive drives, followed by back-to-back fumble recoveries and then interceptions by Patrick Trahan and Fon Ingram during a run in which the Rebels scored the game’s final 14 points.
It’s notable: Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt becomes the first coach to win back-to-back Cotton Bowls since Lou Holtz at Notre Dame in 1993 and 1994.
Turning point: With about 9 minutes remaining in a tie game, OSU had the ball on the Ole Miss 19-yard line and appeared poised to claim the lead. Ole Miss defensive tackle Jerrell Powe looked to have obviously jumped offsides on a snap as he charged past OSU center Andrew Lewis before the snap was completed. Feeling that he had a free play, Robinson threw to the end zone, where he was intercepted by Lewis in the end zone. The Cowboys unraveled from that point in the game.
Player of the game: Oklahoma State’s defense was gearing to stop Ole Miss running back Dexter McCluster. And it still didn’t matter. McCluster rushed for 185 yards on 34 carries, including touchdown runs of 86 and 2 yards to account for both of the Rebel’s offensive touchdowns. He also produced five receptions for 45 yards, becoming the first player in Southeastern Conference history to account for 1,000 rushing yards and 500 receiving yards in the same season.
Unsung hero: Patrick Trahan capped the victory with two pivotal fourth-quarter plays. He recovered a fumble by OSU wide receiver Hubert Anyiam and returned it 34 yards for a touchdown to give the Rebels a 21-7 lead. He then provided an interception on OSU’s next possession to ice the victory.
Stat of the game: The two teams combined for 12 turnovers, but it didn't top the Cotton Bowl record of 13 that was set when Alabama claimed a 29-21 victory over Texas A&M on Jan. 1, 1942.
What it means: Oklahoma State failed to tie a school record with a 10th victory. The Cowboys’ late collapse in the final two games was a disappointment, but OSU overachieved considering their injury and suspension losses over the course of the season. The Cowboys lose key players like Robinson, Russell Okung, Keith Toston, Perrish Cox and starting linebackers Andre Sexton, Donald Booker and Patrick Lavin next season. But they will try to rebuild around a retooled offense that will should be centered around running back Kendall Hunter, who looked to regain his form Saturday after struggling with injuries all season.
Ole Miss didn’t achieve its preseason goal of contending for an SEC championship, but the Rebels claimed back-to-back 10-win seasons for the first time since 1959 and 1960. And they likely will have Jevan Snead back for another season as well.
A loss to Texas killed the championship hopes. And the Cowboys saw their BCS at-large hopes fade away after dropping a disappointing 27-0 loss to Oklahoma to finish the regular season.
The season was still a good one for coach Mike Gundy and the 9-3 Cowboys, who finished second in the Big 12 South and earned a Cotton Bowl berth.
It was a season in which Gundy showed his coaching mettle in overcoming the loss of top playmaker Dez Bryant for most of the season after he was suspended for improper dealings with an agent. Top 2008 Big 12 rusher Kendall Hunter was injured early in the season and had trouble regaining his form until late in the campaign.
New defensive coordinator Bill Young cobbled together an improved defense that ranked sixth in the nation against the rush and in the top 40 in pass efficiency defense, scoring defense and total defense.
The Cowboys had two of the Big 12’s top defensive playmakers in linebacker Patrick Lavine (five interceptions) and cornerback Perrish Cox.
Quarterback Zac Robinson overcame injuries much of the season but provided inspirational leadership for an offense that was good enough -- but struggled against top defenses like Texas and Oklahoma.
It was a good season for the Cowboys, but one in which they just didn’t have enough talent to overcome all of their critical offensive losses.
Offensive MVP: RB Keith Toston
With an offense losing its way after the loss of key producers Dez Bryant and Kendall Hunter, the Cowboys leaned on Toston throughout the season. He was ready for the challenge, rushing for 1,177 yards to rank second in the conference and scoring 11 touchdowns. Those numbers are particularly remarkable considering he was a backup for the first two games of the season. Toston produced the top rushing game in the Big 12 with 206 yards against Iowa State and the third-best with 172 yards against Colorado.
Defensive MVP: CB/PR Perrish Cox
One of the Big 12’s premier cover corners had a big senior season, leading the nation with 19 passes defensed and snagging three interceptions. He also ranked 25th nationally in punt returns, including a 67-yard return for a touchdown against Colorado. Cox’s strong play enabled him to become a semifinalist for the Thorpe Award.
Turning point: Oct. 17 vs. Texas A&M
The Cowboys had a difficult week leading up to their trip to College Station as Zac Robinson lost his grandfather to cancer and the team learned that Bryant would miss the rest of the season with an NCAA-mandated suspension. With Robinson having the words "Press On" written in lamp black under his eyes, the Cowboys rebounded to claim a 36-31 victory. That triumph helped them earn a 6-2 Big 12 conference mark that was a school record for conference victories.
The Cowboys will have a tough matchup with Mississippi in the Cotton Bowl, a rematch of the 2004 Cotton Bowl they lost to the Rebels. A victory would enable the Cowboys to likely finish in the top 15 nationally and wrap up their first 10-win season since 1988. The Cowboys lose many of their key players heading into next season like Russell Okung, Robinson, Toston, linebackers Andre Sexton and Lavine and Cox. It will be a difficult rebuilding job in the South Division, but confidence gleaned from two strong seasons should help Gundy in his team's transformation.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Mike Gundy was already worried about Houston only a few minutes after notching an impressive victory over Georgia last week.
The Cowboys' conquest sent fans celebrating into the streets of Stillwater after arguably the biggest nonconference victory in school history. It pushed Oklahoma State to No. 5 in the most recent AP media poll -- their highest national ranking in nearly 25 years.
|Joe Nicholson/US Presswire|
|Mike Gundy didn't spend much time savoring the program's big win over Georgia.|
That accomplishment only makes the Oklahoma State coach more wary that he won’t let his team overlook the underrated Cougars, the consensus preseason favorites of Conference USA’s West Division.
“Our toughest game will be our next one," Gundy said. "This team coming in here next, they'll be ready to play. They're not going to be concerned with [OSU's victory over Georgia]."
Other Oklahoma State teams have struggled in previous situations. But Gundy hopes his senior-laden team led by players like quarterback Zac Robinson, linebacker Andre Sexton and cornerback Perrish Cox should help this team refocus after the breakthrough triumph against the Bulldogs.
“You just never know as a coach,” Gundy said. “You always worry about the next game after you had a big win. There was so much put into this last one. But we do have some (veteran) guys that should be able to help with that.”
Gundy’s concern is understandable considering the Cougars’ last trip into Stillwater last season.
Houston quarterback Case Keenum blistered the Cowboys for 468 yards of total offense -- most by an Oklahoma State opponent last season -- to boost the Cougars to an early lead. But Dez Bryant produced four touchdowns during a wild spree of 49 Oklahoma State points during the final 31:23 of the game that sparked a 56-37 triumph.
“What we had to do to beat them last year reminded us about how tough they are,” Bryant said. “It was a tough game and we’ll be ready for them.”
Coming into the season, the Cowboys were a fashionable outside pick to challenge the Texas/Oklahoma logjam that has resulted in 10 straight Big 12 title-game appearances for either the Longhorns or Sooners. Their defensive effort against Georgia is a strong indicator that the Cowboys won’t be as reliant on shootouts as they have been in previous seasons.
The opening-game victory came despite a lackluster performance by the Oklahoma State offense and special teams. Those presumed strengths sputtered as the Cowboys won because of a sterling defensive effort.
After allowing Georgia to score on its opening possession, the Bulldogs were limited to a field goal the rest of the game as they produced only 177 yards.
That effort has given the Cowboys confidence they will be ready for another shot at containing Keenum’s high-powered offensive attack. The Houston quarterback led the nation in total offense last season and picked up where he left off in the Cougars' season-0pening win over Northwestern State by accounting for five touchdowns.
"The stakes are way higher now," Oklahoma State defensive tackle Shane Jarka told the Tulsa World. "We've set a standard for the defense now, and we can only go higher. We're not going back."
The defensive performance provides Gundy with some assurance about his team, despite the challenges he expects from the Cougars on Saturday.
“Offensively, we played very sloppy,” Gundy said. “The special teams played sloppy. But we were still able to find a way to win the game which is important. Our team is starting to learn how to win.”
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
STILLWATER, Okla. -- I had the chance to focus on Georgia quarterback Joe Cox, who looks ready for the approaching Oklahoma State game.
Cox was struggling with flu-like symptoms late this week and arrived later than the rest of his teammates. But he appeared flushed as he threw on the sidelines during the Bulldogs' pre-game workouts in the humid conditions at the game.
The Bulldogs also will play without Caleb King, who is struggling without a hamstring injury and won't play in Saturday's game.
As expected, Oklahoma middle linebacker Orie Lemon will not play. He's out with his team without pads with shorts and a giant brace on his right knee. He'll be replaced by senior Donald Booker in the Oklahoma State starting lineup.
Despite rumors to the contrary earlier this week, Oklahoma State quarterback Zac Robinson, linebacker Andre Sexton and cornerback Perrish Cox all are dressed and appear ready to play.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
We caught up with Oklahoma State linebacker Andre Sexton for a few minutes earlier this week before the Cowboys’ big opener Saturday against Georgia. Here are some of his thoughts heading into the game.
How has it been getting back to the media earlier this week after the blackout a couple of weeks ago?
|Andre Sexton is well aware of the hype surrounding Saturday’s game.|
What have you been reading on Facebook about the game? Anything interesting?
AS: I had to update my status as soon as Georgia was coming. Everybody is commenting on it. People are saying they can’t wait for the game. I can’t blame them. I’m getting great support from people all over. I’m getting excited, too.
I know you’ve never really minded the media obligations. What was it like to spend those 10 days just concentrating on football?
AS: We put a lot of work in practice during that time and everybody was relaxed and cool. It was a little difficult doing your stuff on the field and then spending the next 30 to 45 minutes doing your media stuff. With the week off, it gave us the opportunity to stay focused about our game coming up and get ready for the challenges we’ll be facing against Georgia.
What do you think you’ll see from Georgia? Do you think they will try to physically pound the ball right at you?
AS: I definitely think so. With their young quarterback [Joe Cox], I think they will try to run the ball down our throats and see if we can stop them. We are going to have to be fundamentally sound and physical enough to put ourselves in good situations to see what they can do in the long-yardage situations. That will be a key for us.
A lot of people are saying this might be the biggest opening game in the history of your school and one of the biggest games ever played on your campus. Do you agree?
AS: I think everybody here is ready for the challenge. We’ve been hearing about all of this for so long. We’re ready to prove ourselves and change the way we are perceived. Everybody sees the new stuff at the stadium. All of our new surroundings have changed the way that people are looking at Oklahoma State. The next step is building our defense. We’re going to take it personally to try to do it.
Some of your teammates have vowed to be tougher after some of your struggles in the second half against Oregon in last season’s Holiday Bowl. Is this a ‘put up or shut up game’ for the program?
AS: I think it’s obvious for us to prove that we are a real program. This is a chance to try to change what people saw in that bowl game. They saw we were physically overmatched in the second half. We want to try to change that.
How much have you been thinking about this game?
AS: That’s something we’ve been working on from the first day we started our offseason work. We’re getting antsy about it.
What has the arrival of Bill Young (Oklahoma State’s new defensive coordinator) meant to your defense?
AS: He hasn’t had to talk much to the defense as a whole. Coach Young has focused on the defensive line, which is where he has done wonders. He’s simplified things to show them how to destroy blocks and create constant pressure.
The thing that hurt us last year was that we would get into the backfield and then we couldn’t finish. With the defensive line’s help this year that won’t be a problem.
He’s also talked to us about being consistent for four quarters. Coach Young being here has helped. But we also know what it takes. And we’re going to put it together on Saturday.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Oklahoma State quarterback Zac Robinson was amazed during an outing last weekend at the excitement his team’s upcoming game with Georgia already was generating.
Ticket scalpers had set up shop on the streets of Stillwater, six full days before Saturday’s kickoff.
“This is the earliest I’ve ever seen anybody doing that,” Robinson said. “It was amazing to see that kind of interest so early in the week. I just started laughing when I saw it.”
Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy learned about that early buzz when he took his oldest son, Gavin, to Wal-Mart late one night last week. While there, it seemed fellow customers were more interested in his football team than finding bargains at the store.
“In Stillwater, everywhere you go, that’s all everybody is talking about,” Gundy said. “Everybody that walks by, that’s all they talk about. It’s good there’s a lot of excitement in the community.”
Such attention isn’t unexpected for a game that is considered to be the biggest season-opening game in school history. A record crowd of nearly 60,000 is expected to attend the game at the recently refurbished Boone Pickens Stadium.
The Cowboys’ lofty preseason national ranking is the highest in school history. They are receiving unprecedented national attention as many perceive them a contenders for the Big 12 South title.
“I think everybody is ready for the challenge,” Oklahoma State linebacker Andre Sexton said. “We’ve been hearing about it for so long that we need to step up and show what we’ve got as a program. We’re ready to prove ourselves to the nation and how we are perceived.”
The Cowboys started turning heads last season when they started 8-1. But they fell apart late, dropping four of their last six games including a disappointing 42-31 loss to Oregon in the Holiday Bowl.
Since then, Gundy has hired veteran defensive coordinator Bill Young to retool a defense that allowed 56, 61 and 42 points in three late losses last season and ranked last in the conference in sacks. Young is revered in the Big 12 after serving as the architect of the Kansas defense that helped boost the Jayhawks into the Orange Bowl in 2007.
The return of Robinson, wide receiver Dez Bryant and Big 12 leading rusher Kendall Hunter also have helped boost excitement to a fever pitch.
"I've not been in a situation where we've had this much national attention," Gundy said. “I do worry about it. I don’t know what we can do other than practice hard and stay focused as a staff."
Gundy has also faced challenges this week after starting cornerback Perrish Cox was arrested for driving with a suspended license and tight end Jamal Mosley quit the team after he was slapped with a restraining order by a Stillwater woman.
And most significantly, middle linebacker Orie Lemon suffered a torn knee ligament in Monday’s practice that could cause him to miss the upcoming season.
Despite those issues, Gundy is eager to gauge his team in what could be a huge statement game for his program.
A victory will stamp them as a legitimate Big 12 South contender. A loss means they are just another overhyped team in the preseason.
“There’s no question [the preseason attention] affects you. It just does,” Gundy said. “There’s been more coverage, more talk and excitement than any time since I’ve been around and I go back to the mid-1980s.
“All that can factor in. But I just hope when we kick it off on Saturday, everything will settle down and the guys will go out and play hard.”
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
STILLWATER, Okla. -- Veteran defensive coordinator Bill Young has brought an attitude change to Oklahoma State that seems to mesh well with his group's veteran players.
His old-school mentality and gentler approach stand in contrast to the high-intensity, frenetic attitude that former defensive coordinator Tim Beckman employed with the unit last season.
"Coach Young brings in this laid-back mentality where the players can play more freely and not be worried about making mistakes and getting yanked off the field," Oklahoma State senior linebacker Andre Sexton said. "He comes and coaches us in a nicer way than the previous coach did. I think the players have been adjusting to that well."
Sexton said that Beckman's attitude caused Oklahoma State defenders to play tentatively at times because they were worried about his reaction to the mistakes. He said Beckman's attitude was like that of a pit bull when he was coaching.
"It's kind of hard to get comfortable in game situations when you are worried too much about making mistakes and not able to play in a natural rhythm," Sexton said. "Coach Young does that to us. That's something that we as players need because everybody adjusts to different things."
Beckman has moved on to the head-coaching job at Toledo. But experience gained under Beckman, as well as the gentler coaxing from Young, should have the Cowboys better prepared this season.
Oklahoma State's defense wore down late last season, allowing an average of nearly 585 yards per game in late-season losses to Texas Tech, Oklahoma and Oregon that dropped them to 9-4. The Cowboys started the season 8-1.
"Last year, we had a lot of success early in those big games, but as the season went on, I don't know if we're quite ready to tackle the rest of them," Sexton said. "This year, with that experience we gained and what we've learned going through it along with Coach Young, I think we'll be better prepared."
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
STILLWATER, Okla. -- One of the revelations for Oklahoma State this Fall has been the growth of middle linebacker Donald Booker, who is thriving in new coordinator Bill Young's retooled defense.
Booker, a former junior-college All-American at Navarro Junior College, had trouble getting acclimated last season, making only 32 tackles in 13 games for the Cowboys as a junior.
"He typifies what happens to a lot of junior college players," Young said."They come in after playing in a relatively simple system and now they are in one that's a lot more complex. They are playing with guys who are bigger and faster and stronger. It's tough for them sometimes to get settled."
But Young's new defense has brought out some of the productivity that helped make Booker one of the nation's most heralded junior-college recruits in 2007, when he led the nation with 161 tackles.
Added to returning nucleus of senior starters Patrick Lavine, Orie Lemon and Andre Sexton, it's helped make the Cowboys' quartet of linebackers a pleasant surprise for Young in his early work with the Cowboys defense.
But Booker, a physical 5-foot-11, 235-pounder who has always turned heads with his hitting, has the kind of ability that could provide more of a physical presence to the middle of the Cowboys' defense.
"It's too bad he doesn't have three years to play with us rather that two," Young said. "That ideally would have let us bring him the first year and just get him ready."
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
IRVING, Texas -- Oklahoma State is considered to have one of the nation's most prolific offenses.
But the Cowboys' hopes of being able to challenge for their first Big 12 South Division title and first BCS bowl berth will hinge on the development of a defense that struggled last season.
Veteran Bill Young returned to his alma mater to try to help stabilize a unit that allowed opponents an average of 44 points per game in the final four games last season. The Cowboys ranked 93rd nationally in total defense, 107th in sacks and 109th in pass defense.
OSU coach Mike Gundy can see a difference in his defense's attitude working with Young.
"He came in with a lot of experience and maturity," Gundy said. "I know a lot of our players were excited about his attitude and his the way he approached our team. The confidence that he exemplifies when he talks to the players and and the way he carries himself in the staff room amongst the coaches has been very good for me."
The addition of Young has also helped the confidence of the Cowboys, too.
One of the major reasons for his quick popularity was the simplicity that he approached in installing his defense.
"He didn't change the terminology," OSU linebacker Andre Sexton said. "He stayed with our scheme to make it easier for the guys who have been in the system for a couple of years. Now, we don't have to think as much."
Young is well known in the Big 12 for his transformation of the Kansas defense, where he helped lead the Jayhawks to the Orange Bowl in the 2007 season. He earlier served as defensive coordinator at a variety of major programs, including Ohio State, Oklahoma, USC Trojans and most recently, Miami.
"I know sitting in the staff room, there at times can be a lot of egos involved in coaching," Gundy said. "But he certainly doesn't have one. I think that's really been a plus for our program."
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
IRVING, Texas -- Watching the video of the Holiday Bowl isn't a very pleasant for Oklahoma State linebacker Andre Sexton or many of his teammates.
The Cowboys still cringe when they watch Oregon charge through them in the second half to claim a 42-31 comeback victory, ripping though their defense for 307 rushing yards and 7.7 yards per carry as the Ducks charged back from a 10-point halftime deficit.
"It really was embarrasing," Oklahoma State linebacker Andre Sexton said. "It really was embarrasing because that quarterback (Oregon's Jeremiah Masoli) made our players look like they had never made a tackle before. That was pretty sad."
But that disappointment helped spur a tougher attitude for the Cowboys all spring. Sexton said that late collapse has spurred them throughout their workouts.
"You get back to the fundamentals of tackling," Sexton said. "You've got to take away what you can and continue to grow and get motivated for the next season. It's been emphasized every day during spring ball. We've gotten back to smash-mouth football -- the roots of good hard-nosed football."
OSU coach Mike Gundy said that having another team dominate his team late in the game brought a significant attitude change for his team.
"What happened to us against Oregon is they hit harder than we did and were tougher than we were in the fourth quarter," Gundy said. "Up front they beat us on both sides of the ball. As a staff we were very disappointed in ourselves in our preparation. And our players were disappointed they outhit us in the fourth quarter."
That game has sparked a point of emphasis for the Cowboys over the last several months.
"I was a quarterback, but I always played with Pat Jones," Gundy said. "Toughness and discipline and structure and being hard-nosed is important to me. That's not been an issue of us being outhit most times. We've been a tough football team, but we weren't in that football game."
One OSU player who Gundy can't fault in that game was OSU quarterback Zac Robinson, who sustained a separated shoulder early in the third quarter but remained in the game.
"I threw about 50 in the game and probably 20 of them came after the injury," Robinson said. "It hurt every time and I had no arm strength. My arm was done after that. I could throw it 35 yards, but it didn't have much zip on it."
Despite the injury, Robinson was determined to remain in the game and was there until the end as he threw a career-high 50 passes.
"I just kept struggling through it and telling them I was fine," Robinson said, chuckling.