With the 2012 college football season right around the corner, Rant Sports continues its countdown of the best teams in the nation. We’ve now reached the No. 19 team in the country the Oklahoma State Cowboys.
A season ago the Cowboys were an upset loss to Iowa State away from playing in the national championship game. They won the Big 12 for the first time, played in and won the Fiesta Bowl and finished as the No. 3 team in the nation. As they enter the 2012 season they are without their two best offensive weapons from last year, quarterback Brandon Weeden and wide receiver Justin Blackmon, but they still have a high powered system and the right players to lead it.
The offense was staggeringly good last season averaging 48.6 points per game while scoring at least 52 points in six of their games. 28-year old Weeden was a big factor in that production, but now that he’s gone to the NFL, it will be a much younger QB leading the charge in 2012. True freshmen Wes Lunt enrolled at Oklahoma State in January and now he finds himself trying to replace the elder statesman but he seems up to the task. He finished off his second straight Illinois high school state championship, a game in which he connected on 31-of-39 passes for 506 yards, and arrived in Stillwater as one of the premier high school senior prospects ready to compete. Lunt was able to win the starting quarterback job during spring practices after beating out junior Clint Chelf and redshirt freshman J.W. Walsh. Although the Cowboys lost 10 years of age between starters Lunt makes up for experience with immense talent. He is a solid pocket passer and will never have a hard time seeing over the offensive line due to his 6-foot-5 frame. He has the ability to make any throw on the field and has a quick release. Obviously there will be a learning curve and some growing pains but Lunt is more than capable leading the Cowboys’ offense.
One of the best things to provide a young quarterback is a great running game and the Cowboys have a good one. Junior Joseph Randle returns after a stellar sophomore season in which he ran for 1,216 yards, 24 touchdowns and finished fourth in the nation with 26 total touchdowns. Randle doesn’t have to do all of the heavy lifting himself as junior Jeremy Smith shared the duties and ran for 646 yards and nine touchdowns last season. The one-two punch should help ease the transition for Lunt and do their part to keep the Cowboys’ offense running at a high pace.
The Cowboys not only have to replace two-time Biletnikoff award winner Blackmon but they also lost their second leading receiver in Josh Cooper. Their leading returner at wideout is senior Tracy Moore who caught 45 passes for 672 yards and four touchdowns. Senior Isiah Anderson also returns after catching 28 passes last season so there is still experience for Lunt to work with. Lunt won’t have the comfort of throwing to an All-American receiver but the offensive system allows for the ball to be spread around. Everyone in Stillwater thought they wouldn’t find another Dez Bryant but then Blackmon was waiting in the wings. It’s more than possible for that to happen again but for now they lack some depth at wide receiver.
One of the best things for a young quarterback to have is a veteran offensive line keeping the defense at bay and giving him some time in the pocket. Well that’s the case for this year’s squad as they return four starters with plenty of experience. They are led by senior Lane Taylor who has three years starting experience and he’s joined by the other returning starters. Jonathan Rush, Michael Bowie and Parker Graham. The lone lineman without much starting experience is senior center Evan Epstein who transferred from Air Force but he had a good spring and should be fine with the veterans around him leading the way.
The defensive line lost two of their best players from last season in sack master Jamie Blatnick and his defensive end partner Richetti Jones. They won’t have a totally empty cupboard as senior Nigel Nicholas returns along with the addition of junior college All-American Calvin Barnett; Nicholas will move to defensive end to make room for Barnett at tackle. Senior Ryan Robinson occupies the other defensive end but there is a ton of depth all around for guys to get playing time. Cooper Bassett and Tyler Johnson will split time at the end positions while Anthony Rodgers and Chris Littlehead will share time at nose guard.
Three starters return at linebacker including their No. 2 and No. 3 leading tacklers from last season. Senior Alex Elkins and junior Caleb Lavey finished last year with 90 and 74 tackles respectively. The other starter will be junior Shaun Lewis who will be in his third season at the top of the depth chart. Other backers who should receive some playing time will be Joe Mitchell and Ryan Simmons. The linebacking corp should be the strength of this defense and with a lot of depth they have the potential to be one of the best in the Big 12 for year’s to come.
Arguably their best defensive playmaker is in the secondary in junior safety Daytawion Lowe. He finished last season as their leading tackler with 97 stops. He will be accompanied by two other starters, senior cornerback Brodrick Brown and junior cornerback Justin Gilbert. Brown and Gilbert led the team with five interceptions each last season and are two of the best in the conference. The other starting safety will be junior Lavocheya Cooper who has the least amount of starting experience out of all of the defensive backs.
It will be hard to follow up their season from a year ago but their goal is to maintain their high level of play and compete for another Big 12 championship. Obviously the young offense will need time to get comfortable and they will have to figure out what works for them and what doesn’t. The defense should improve from their 107th ranking in total defense from a season ago and will benefit from an offense that won’t score as quick as last year.
Their schedule allows for some time to get familiar with their new players as they start off against FCS school Savannah State (1-10 in 2011), Arizona (4-8) and Louisiana (9-4), and then Cowboys get a week off. After their first three games it will allow the coaches to evaluate their squad and make any additional changes. Their late season schedule is a lot tougher but if they get off to a strong start it will give the young guys some confidence moving forward.