Bobby Reid grew up late last season, developing a sense of maturity that was missing in his first two seasons of college.
The Oklahoma State quarterback said the change came after he was benched late in the Cowboys' loss to Oklahoma. Reid had been injured earlier in the game and thought he was ready to re-enter the game. While cameras caught Reid pouting along the OSU sideline about not going back in, backup Zac Robinson nearly led the Cowboys to a late comeback victory over the Sooners.
"It was a time of the game I felt like I should have been back in," Reid said. "I was mad, and my emotions took over. I shouldn't have let it show, but it happened."
After the game, Reid met with OSU offensive coordinator Larry Fedora and coach Mike Gundy to explain his feelings. The clear-the-air session helped Reid and his coaches get on the same page.
"After that, my relationship with coach Fedora got better," Reid said. "He didn't like a few things I had done, and I didn't like a few things that had happened. When we got together, it wasn't a coach and a player talking, but more like two men who were sharing their feelings."
Reid was back in the starting lineup for the Cowboys' Independence Bowl game against Alabama. The new confidence helped him engineer a late 34-31 victory, a success in a tight situation like those his team had struggled with on several occasions earlier in the season.
That late comeback and the return of most of his offensive weapons has Reid eager about the start of spring practice and what his team can accomplish this season.
"There's a buzz you can tell around campus, and there's a lot of excitement around our team," Reid said. "But when it comes to reality, we still have a lot of work to do. We're still excited about the bowl game and how we finished. But even with all of the young guys coming back, we still have a lot of hard work to do."
The bulk of OSU's offense returns -- including 100 percent of the rushing and passing yards and 75 percent of the Cowboys' receiving yards. Only wide receiver D'Juan Woods is gone among the major contributors who helped the Cowboys produce 35.2 points (seventh nationally) and 409.8 yards per game (16th nationally).
OSU's biggest area of improvement last season came at quarterback, where Reid finally fulfilled the promise many predicted when he was one of the top recruits ever attracted to the school.
Reid passed for 2,266 passing yards and 24 touchdowns and rushed for 500 yards and five more scores last season. He finished as the nation's 16th-best passer and was voted by coaches as the winner of his team's outstanding offensive player award.
Those strong numbers are a big improvement from his injury-riddled freshman season, when he completed only 48.1 percent of his passes and threw more interceptions (four) than touchdown passes (two).
"He was in a difficult situation when he got here," Gundy said. "He was one of the top five recruits in the country, and everybody expected him to everything fast. He got better last year, but what we accomplished last season is over with."
The improvement was particularly noticeable to Reid during film study in the offseason. He said his early work didn't compare with his performance later in the season.
"I made a big jump when I looked at the film of the first game to what we looked like against Alabama," Reid said. "I've been watching my cutups [film study] and saw how I held the ball or how I could have done things differently early in the season. Towards the end of the year, I started understanding how things are. It showed. I was pretty happy with my development."
Reid's productivity mirrored that of the OSU offense. The Cowboys improved by 15 points and 85 yards per game from 2005 to last season. OSU joined Boise State as the only team nationally that averaged more than 200 yards rushing and passing last year.
As much excitement as Reid may have taken from last season's 7-6 finish, he realizes how close the Cowboys were to accomplishing something very special. OSU lost four games in which it had a chance to win the game on the final play.
Gundy has used the close losses as one of his primary teaching points throughout the winter.
"There's no doubt we were really only about six minutes away from winning 10 games last year," Gundy said. "We use that to make our players realize how close we came to winning the South Division. We want to put ourselves in position to win those kind of games."
The Cowboys have gravitated to that mantra, emphasizing their near misses as they prepared for the spring.
"Everything we did was based on those six minutes," Reid said. "[Strength coach Rob Glass] emphasized it in every drill we had -- six minutes for this or that. It made us work harder and really stuck in our heads. Guys were [angry] about how close we were last year and the fact we didn't quite get there. We really used it to hype us up."
A big spring will be important as the Cowboys prepare for a difficult 2007 schedule. Included in their first three games will be tough road games at two opponents who made bowl trips last season, Georgia and Troy.
As much firepower as the Cowboys have coming back, their season will depend on the improvement of the defense, which returns seven starters but has ranked no higher than 64th in total defense nationally since 2000.
A major change will come with the arrival of defensive coordinator Tim Beckman, most recently the cornerbacks coach at Ohio State and before that defensive coordinator on Urban Meyer's staff at Bowling Green.
Beckman inherited a defense that returns all its starters in the secondary and at linebacker, but it will have to rebuild with four new defensive linemen. Former defensive coordinator Vance Bedford has moved on to Michigan, where he is defensive backs coach.
"There were times in our positions that we didn't see things the same way," Gundy said. "When we decided to go in different ways, it was as much my fault as it was his. It made my job miserable at times, but I'm sure it did for him, too. But with coach Beckman, we wanted high energy and enthusiasm at practice. It's worked well for us so far."
Gundy hopes the shift at the top will result in a more physical defense that will have an aggressive bent that was missing at times last season.
"We want to be a tougher football team," Gundy said. "That starts with the way the defensive team plays. I want the other team to know they have been hit when we strike them. We want our defense to chase the ball, hit and block. I want a tough defense that will force plays."
The Cowboys are in the middle of an on-campus construction boon funded by gifts headed by billionaire OSU supporter T. Boone Pickens, who donated $165 million to the school's athletic program last year.
"Things are moving fast with our facilities, and we've been able to put together a couple of strong recruiting classes back-to-back," Gundy said. "They are aware they are going to have some of the best football facilities, and winning has started making a difference. The excitement level around the program is higher than it has been before."
Pickens flatly predicted when interviewed on the sideline during the Independence Bowl that the Cowboys one day would be frequent participants in the Bowl Championship Series. That would be a huge step for a program that has made just one trip to a current BCS bowl -- an appearance at the 1974 Fiesta Bowl long before that bowl was considered among the most prestigious postseason games.
Even with that pressure, Gundy is excited about the future of his program.
"That's exactly what you want -- people who are involved to support the team. We want them to think the same way we do," he said. "We have a plan to develop into a consistent Top 25 team that plays in BCS bowls. With the addition of our new facilities and the commitment we have, we've got a way to get there. And if we stay on track and not get in a hurry, we'll develop into a Top 25 team. It can happen."
Tim Griffin covers the Big 12 for the San Antonio Express-News.