Despite uncertainty at quarterback, the departure of a 1,400-yard rusher, two new coordinators and a defense with sufficient holes, Oklahoma State will enter the 2013 season as the favorite to win the Big 12. There's no arguments here.
The Pokes were selected as the No. 1 team in in the Big 12’s preseason poll—the prognostication of 43 media members trying to forecast the nation’s most unpredictable conference.
Las Vegas is also on board with this prophecy, unfazed by the uncertainty. OK State is listed as a robust, two-touchdown favorite over Mississippi State in Week 1 and is the odds-on favorite to win the conference.
This preseason praise, of course, means nothing. College football’s obsession with rankings, watch lists and forecasts well before a single pass is thrown has proven its uselessness time and time again. But with Oklahoma State, this buzz signifies a respect that has been building for some time.
At a time where seemingly everyone—sorry, Kansas, but you’re excluded from this group hug—could potentially win the conference, picking a favorite is a challenge. OK State has issues, certainly, but so does every team in the Big 12.
Not every other team has the same track record of being fully operational regardless of who walks through the tunnel.
Production in Gundy’s up-tempo, air-friendly offense has practically become assumed. In the past three seasons, four Oklahoma State quarterbacks have combined to throw for 110 touchdowns and 43 interceptions. Over this stretch, OK State has scored an average of 46.48 points per game, putting them behind only Oregon in this department.
Perhaps even more staggering, the offense averaged 7.04 yards per play during this three-year span—a number rivaled only by conference neighbor Baylor.
The versatility of this potent offensive attack was on display during the 2012 season when three quarterbacks threw for at least 1,000 yards. Clint Chelf and J.W. Walsh both eclipsed this mark last year, and they will battle it out for the vacant starting job once fall practice begins.
Chelf appears the likely candidate to get the starting nod, although nothing is final. Aside from playing in a favorable offensive system, the starting quarterback will have one of the best targets in the nation to throw to.
Wide receiver Josh Stewart is poised to build upon his incredible production after hauling in 101 catches for 1,210 yards and seven touchdowns in 2012. If there’s stability at quarterback, don’t be surprised to see even more production.
Replacing running back Joseph Randle is without question the team’s biggest concern on offense and perhaps overall. Operating in this pass-heavy offense, Randle totaled more than 2,600 rushing yards and 40 touchdowns the past two seasons. This production has to be replaced, and Jeremy Smith and Desmond Roland will be tasked with grabbing the baton.
Although there is much to live up to, both backs are capable and experienced in the offense. Each averaged more than five yards per carry in 2012 and totaled 12 touchdowns combined.
Mike Gundy will be tasked to ensure the offense runs as usual, although he now has surprising company. Mike Yurcich was named offensive coordinator this winter, and if you’ve never heard of him, clearly you’re not following Shippensburg University football close enough.
It’s in Pennsylvania, by the way.
Yurcich was the offensive coordinator at the Division II power, and his offenses put up monster numbers—especially through the air. His rapid climb to the Big 12 has a, “It’s crazy enough that it just might work” feel to it, which could explain the hire.
Defensively, Oklahoma State returns seven starters from a group that gave up 28.2 points per game a season ago. After forcing 44 turnovers in 2011, that number was cut in half to 22 last year, and five of the 22 came in the team’s blowout bowl win against Purdue.
Glenn Spencer will move from linebackers coach to defensive coordinator—yet another significant adjustment for a team undergoing an overhaul.
Linebackers Shaun Lewis and Caleb Lavey will be the strength of the team, although there are questions elsewhere.
The defensive line will graduate a handful of players, and while the secondary will remain almost entirely intact, it has to play better.
The defense won’t be elite, and it doesn’t have to be. An improvement from the past season seems plausible, and that might be all it takes.
The most intriguing aspect of Oklahoma State’s season is actually out of its control, although the schedule sets up very favorably. A significant portion of his team’s toughest matchups will come at home.
Oklahoma State is 29-6 in its own building since 2008, and Kansas State, TCU, Baylor and Oklahoma will all play at Boone Pickens Stadium in 2013. In a season of unknowns, this could be the tipping point for one team.
The most intriguing matchup of the season—at least on paper—is a Nov. 16 showdown on the road against Texas. This could serve as a pseudo-Big 12 title game if both play to form. Then again, a handful of other teams featured prominently in the Big 12 poll—including Oklahoma, TCU and Baylor—could be in the driver’s seat at this point.
Oklahoma State’s roster still has major questions to be answered, and the revamped coaching staff is still adapting to new roles. Even with talent going through the system like a revolving door, however, Gundy has been able to thrive.
Uncertainty will be the theme of the conference in 2013, which is welcomed in Stillwater. At this point, it's almost the norm.