College football is back and the 2014 season begins exactly where the 2013 campaign ended for Oklahoma State – AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
While the setting will be the same, very little else will look familiar for OSU's orange-clad faithful.
Coming off a disappointing Cotton Bowl loss against Missouri, OSU returns the fewest lettermen of any major conference school in the country, meaning there will be plenty of fresh faces all over the field learning how to play alongside one another in live-action situations. There are always growing pains that come with such a substantial personnel overhaul.
That inexperience and inevitable learning curve makes the opponent all the more tasking.
Lining up opposite the Pokes will be the best team in America: Defending national champion and preseason No. 1 Florida State.
If there was ever a time to play Savannah State instead, this would be it.
Let's get to the matchup:
Key Matchups and Storylines
1) OSU defensive line vs. FSU offensive line
Oklahoma State's defensive line is the unquestioned strong point of the defense entering the season. The d-line has the luxury of quality depth and speed on the ends and proven commodities on the inside. And best of all, there is experience across the board, which can't be said for the seven defenders lining up behind them.
Defensive tackle James Castleman (6-2, 300, Sr.), DT Ofa Hautau (6-2, 290, Sr.), DE Jimmy Bean (6-5, 250, Jr.) and DE Sam Wren (6-2, 255, Sr.) make up not only one of the Big 12's most experienced defensive fronts, but also one of its best and there are plenty of quality players behind them on the depth chart.
However, it could prove difficult for OSU to use this strength to its advantage in this matchup.
The reason being is this: Florida State has the best offensive line in the country and it really isn't even close.
FSU returns virtually everyone from last year's line that made life easy in the pocket for Heisman-winning freshman Jameis Winston and also paved the way for a rushing attack that averaged a whopping 6.7 yards per carry.
Senior left tackle Cameron Erving leads the crew of upperclassmen, all of whom have potential NFL futures. Erving is a projected top-10 pick in next May's draft and many believe the 6-foot-6, 310-pound anchor to be the best offensive lineman in the country.
Next to Erving on the line is the best pair of guards not currently playing their football on Sunday's in massive seniors Tre Jackson (6-4, 330) and Josue Matias (6-6, 325), the former of whom is expected to be a first-day selection in the draft. Both are considered to be in the top five at the guard position nationally.
FSU is unlikely to start a non-senior at any of its five positions against Oklahoma State and will have insurance with arguably the country's top tight end in Nick O'Leary providing capable blocking and a dangerous receiving option. Oh, and running back Karlos Williams is a load at 6-foot-1, 225-pounds plowing through the holes in the line.
OSU's defensive front will have to play mistake-free, darn-near-perfect football on Saturday to counter the Seminoles' machine in the trenches.
2) OSU Receivers vs. FSU's Ronald Darby and P.J. Williams
Marcell Ateman said he expects this year's receiving corps to contend for recognition as the best receiving corps in the nation. Well, Ateman and Co. will get a chance to test that theory right out of the gate on Saturday.
Not only is Florida State's corner back duo of Ronald Darby and P.J. Williams arguably the country's best one-two punch, but both FSU shutdown corners are projected to be taken in the first round of next year's NFL Draft. This is, in all likelihood, the best secondary OSU will face all season and is the nation's best entering the season.
But there is something working in the Cowboys' favor and that's size. Ateman (6-4, 210) and Jhajuan Seales (6-2, 200), Brandon Sheperd (6-1, 195) and Austin Hays (6-2, 185) will be manning things on the outside and can create matchup issues for the Noles because, despite their tremendous level of skill, Darby and Williams are at a disadvantage in the measurables, coming in at 5-foot-11 and 6-foot, respectively. And both come in under the 200-pound mark.
If Ateman, Sheperd and Seales are serious about being the leaders of one of the nation's best crops of receivers, this is a dream setup to make a statement.
3) Jameis Winston vs. OSU's youth
Winston is no veteran himself but he did become the youngest Heisman Trophy winner in history a season ago after putting up ludicrous numbers en route to a national championship.
And he could – maybe even should – pose the biggest individual threat to this youth-laden OSU defense that it will face all season.
Despite his knuckle-headed behavior in the offseason, Winston's extremely intelligent on the field and will make defenses pay for even the slightest misstep or miscommunication. And, with a slew of new starters feeling each other out in OSU's back seven, mistakes are likely to happen.
If Winston is on his A-game, this could be a tough one to watch for OSU fans. However, OSU has a lot of talent and if junior cornerback Kevin Peterson and linebacker Ryan Simmons can get their units on the same page and execute defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer's plan to perfection with a little push from the big guys up front, well, Winston is only human.
4) Tyreek Hill Effect
It's pretty common sense but one of the best ways for the Cowboys to level the playing field is with explosive plays spinning out of Mike Gundy's tried and true system. Tyreek Hill might fit the bill better than anyone on the offense to pull off the “big play” and he has yet to play a snap for the Pokes.
Florida State's gigantic defensive line and dynamic athleticism at linebacker could make for some tough sledding for north-south bruiser running back Desmond Roland and an o-line adjusting to life after Joe Wickline. Add that to the fact, as previously mentioned, that the Seminoles have arguably the top cornerback tandem in college football and moving the ball could become an uncharacteristically arduous task for Oklahoma State.
And with OSU's most reliable defense probably being offensive ball control, struggling on the ground and in the mid-level passing game is a recipe for things spiraling out of control.
This is where Hill comes into the equation.
Hill wasn't named the Big 12 preseason newcomer of the year for nothing and his coaches and teammates have praised him routinely throughout fall camp for his knack for the spectacular.
Bottom line: Hill is good. Really good … and FSU knows it, seeing as how the Seminoles offered him a scholarship. Hill's world-class speed and dual-threat abilities as a receiving option out of the backfield give the Pokes an explosive playmaker who could prove to be the difference if OSU is able to make a game of this.
5) J.W. Walsh must seize the opportunity
There are probably more pressing key matchups that this in the short term against the Seminoles but this one sets up OSU's potential for success down the road: If J.W. Walsh wants to end all the quarterback speculation, he needs to impress in Jerry World.
Walsh doesn't have to be Johnny Football or anything, but he does need to prove he can put the offense on his back and make the plays to entrench himself in the starting role moving forward.
Walsh's game experience and natural leadership deservedly landed him the No. 1 spot but, if the Pokes are going to have their first wire-to-wire starter since Brandon Weeden, this is as good a place as any to cement his status.
Walsh has the respect of his teammates and coaches, but he'll need to demonstrate improved accuracy and consistency and he needs to do it against arguably the best defense he'll see all season.
Because of the aforementioned inconsistencies, he has a relatively short leash with a lot of the Cowboys' fan base. If Walsh stumbles and turns it over, expect the Daxx Garman and Mason Rudolph rumblings to start early.
· Oklahoma State has won six straight season openers and 9 of its past 10. OSU has also won 11 of its past 13 games in the state of Texas.
· Florida State leads the all-time series 3-1 but the schools haven't played since the 1985 Gator Bowl. OSU's lone victory came in 1958 when the Pokes beat FSU 15-6.
· A win for the Cowboys on Saturday would be their first ever against a team ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press poll. OSU is 0-10 all time in meetings with the nation's top-ranked team. However, OSU has beaten a defending national champion on two occasions, both coming against Oklahoma (1976, 2001).
· Florida State has won 16 games in a row, including a 14-0 romp to the national title last season.
· OSU has 59 victories since 2008, ranking eighth nationally.
· Oklahoma State has 69 players from Texas. Florida State has zero.
· OSU has scored 20 or more points in 52-straight games. That streak leads the nation and is just 10 behind USC's NCAA record 63-game streak from the mid-2000s. That streak could be in serious jeopardy against an FSU team that allowed just 12.1 points per game in 2013.
· The Cowboys aren't strangers to knocking off highly-rated teams. OSU has three victories against top 5 teams since 2008, beating No. 2 Missouri in '08, No. 4 Stanford in the 2012 Fiesta Bowl and No. 3 Baylor last season. OSU also has 15 victories against ranked teams in the Gundy era.
· Florida State returns a ton of key players from a team that ranked No. 2 nationally in scoring (51.6 ppg) and No. 1 in scoring defense (12.1). Its average margin of victory in the 2013 regular season was 42.7 points per game, not including a 45-7 trashing of Duke in the ACC Championship game.
· OSU running back Desmond Roland didn't officially take over the starting role until the seventh game of the season but still went on to lead the team with 811 yards and led the Big 12 with 16 total touchdowns.
Coach Mike Gundy on the challenge of coaching a young team:
“You know, it's kind of double-edged there. You have times you get a little frustrated because there's so many young players out there, but then also it's very enjoyable to watch them progress and develop. It's a different year for us. We have a lot of players that are inexperienced and they're learning on the run, so we bring them along just like we did the last group.”
Offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich on Tyreek Hill's involvement in the offense:
"It's a lot of fun having Tyreek out there. He's a very explosive athlete, and he's also a very skilled young man with a great attitude. It's a lot of fun having him. He's an easy-going guy, but he takes his job very seriously at the same time. I can't say that I know him as well as Coach Singleton, but he seems like he is very business-like and has a great demeanor about him. He's a very fast guy, he's good in the open field and he can cut. He's got some juke to him, as well as some great straightaway speed."
Defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer on the leadership displayed by junior linebacker Ryan Simmons:
"Ryan hasn't disappointed me one day throughout camp. His preparation for the game, his preparation for camp and his preparation for practice – they're all what you want to see in a leader. We've even tested him a few days out there, but he's consistently been a guy who gets the job done. He has earned that distinction with the rest of the team."
Linebacker Ryan Simmons on what stands out to him the most about FSU's offense:
“Jameis Winston. He is the control of that offense. The offensive line is great. Everything works around Jameis and the o-line. That whole interior area is top of the line.”
Defensive tackle James Castleman comparing Florida State to other OSU opponents in his career:
“I think that this team as a whole will probably be one of the better teams we will ever face. I also think this team offensively, their o-line and receiver corps, will be probably the best we will face. This offensive line is probably the biggest all around. They average around 310 pounds, so that's the biggest I've ever seen since I've been here. I'm excited to play against them. I'm excited to play against the Heisman winner. I'm excited about all of it.”
Fullback Teddy Johnson on his mindset heading into a matchup with the defending champions:
“We like this chance we have. We want to show the country that what we're able to do, so we're really excited to play Florida State on opening night.”
It has been several years since the Cowboys have been outclassed to this degree on the field. That speaks volumes about how far this program has come under Mike Gundy and there is plenty of unproven talent from years of solid recruiting for OSU to make this game interesting. OSU has the element of surprise on its side with a new-look roster, however, this is shaping up as a tough learning curve for a young group of Pokes against a juggernaut of a Seminole team with its sights set on back-to-back national titles. If Florida State is taking this game seriously and shows up on-point, it could be tough sledding for OSU.
Florida State 45, Oklahoma State 24