Football season is upon us and we'll be previewing Oklahoma State's 2014 opponents over the next two days, starting with the first six on this season's slate:
Biggest game: Dec. 6 at Oklahoma
Most difficult game: Aug. 30 vs. Florida State
Trap game: Sept. 13 vs UTSA
Toughest stretch: Nov. 1 – Dec. 6 (at Kansas State, vs. Texas, at Baylor, at Oklahoma)
Aug. 30 vs. Florida State (Cowboys Classic in Arlington, Texas)
Mike Gundy has not shied away from expressing his displeasure with high-profile nonconference matchups. He's been far less vocal in his stance so far this time around, but it's unlikely starting off the season against the defending national champions in a rebuilding year has softened his stance on the issue.
Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston has made numerous negative headlines in the offseason but there is no denying his talent on the field and he will likely provide quite the headache for Glenn Spencer's youthful defense.
Winston's 44 touchdowns and 4,057 yards as a freshman guided the Seminoles to a perfect 14-0 mark in which they had no regular season game decided by fewer than two touchdowns – ouch. He'll be operating behind a mammoth offensive line that has four players currently projected to be selected in next year's NFL Draft.
One bit of good news for OSU is that the Noles will be breaking mostly all new skill-position players, with only receiver Rashad Greene and tight end Nick O'Leary returning, but O'Leary is arguably the nation's premier returning tight end.
The defense will be under new leadership with coordinator Charles Kelley and he inherits a wealth of NFL-caliber talent on a D that ranked No. 1 in points allowed (12.1) and passing yards (156.6) nationally in 2013. The strength of the defense is at the corner position where incumbents P.J. Williams and Ronald Darby are projected to be the No. 1 and No. 2 cornerback prospects in next year's NFL Draft and sophomore Jalen Ramsey is still in a position battle to potentially start over one of them; suffice to say J.W. Walsh and Co. will have their work cut out for them. But the top-level talent doesn't end there, as DE/DT Mario Edwards Jr. is also projected to be a first-round pick and is physically dominant player in the trenches.
The Noles' only “weaknesses” on defense are at linebacker and safety, where they will be plugging in new starters at four of the five positions.
Lou Groza Award-winning kicker Roberto Aguayo is back after a 21-for-22 season but there are still plenty of questions to be answered at the punter position but, fortunately for the Seminoles, they don't punt very often after averaging 51.6 points per game in 2013.
Sure, they had some personnel losses from last season's squad but the vast majority of key playmakers return and they welcomed one of the nation's most lauded recruiting classes, setting FSU up for a legitimate run at back-to-back national titles.
Sept. 6 vs. Missouri State
While not providing a much excitement for a home opener, this matchup should provide welcomed relief after a doozy of an opener against the Seminoles. Missouri State has become a familiar FCS foe for the Pokes, as this will mark the fourth meeting between the schools since 2003.
And OSU should have no trouble moving to 7-0 in the all-time series against the Bears. Not much is expected of Missouri State this season, as the Bears are slated to finish ninth in the 10-team Missouri Valley Conference. MSU went 5-7 last season but improved considerably late, winning four of its final five games and has plenty of tools in place to exceed expectations in 2014.
Even though MSU is nowhere near OSU's talent level, it's certainly no Savannah State either.
The Bears' defense returns five starters led by preseason All-American safety Caleb Schaffitzel, who is already a two-time All-American and was the 2012 National Co-Defensive Back of the Year. Schaffitzel led the Bears in tackles (111), interceptions (4), as well as recording seven pass breakups and a sack.
All-America junior center Robert Booker spearheads an offense that returns seven starters and has plenty of FCS-level star power. Wide receiver Julian Burton is a dynamic playmaker and led the Bears in receptions (52 rec, 4 TDs) and was also one of the top-ranked return specialists in the nation a season ago. Quarterback Kierra Harris (1,220 yards, 6 TDs, 9 Ints) will take over the quarterback duties full time after splitting time last season and has also proved himself to be a dual-threat option with nine rushing touchdowns in 2013, which led the team. Speedster Ryan Heaston, although injury plagued, is another explosive threat and one of the most dynamic backs in the FCS when healthy, averaging 5.6 yards per carry last season.
Sept. 13 vs. UT-San Antonio
Get used to seeing the Roadrunners, Cowboy fans. Last year Oklahoma State beat UTSA in a closer-than-anticipated 56-35 decision in San Antonio. Now comes Round 2 in the three-games-in-three-years series.
UTSA suffered a huge loss with the graduation of Eric Soza, the only starting quarterback in the history of the young football program. That's the only real bad news for the Roadrunners, who won five straight games to finish last season, and this matchup could shape up to be much closer than OSU fans want it to be in Boone Pickens Stadium.
UTSA returns a whopping 38 seniors and a ridiculous 21 starters from last year's squad, resulting in its place as a vogue pick to contend for the Conference USA championship in just its fourth year of existence.
Quarterback Tucker Carter is expected to take over under center and played well in his limited time last season, completing 23-of-33 passes for 190 yards and a touchdown. Tailback David Glasco is expected to carry a lot of the offensive load as the team's returning rushing leader but OSU bottled him up in a big way in 2013, limiting him to just six total yards on 1.5 yards per carry. The receiving corps is arguably the team's top position group and it is undoubtedly its deepest, returning the top 10 pass catchers from last season's squad. The o-line returns all five starters – four of whom are seniors – and the unit is led by guard Scott Inskeep, who has appeared on several early NFL draft boards.
The defense returns 10 starters and the unit improved considerably late in the year, allowing just 15.2 points per game in the team's five-game winning streak to end the year. The deep, experienced unit will be led by safety Triston Wade, who led the team with 84 tackles and a pair of interceptions en route to second-team All-Conference honors in 2013.
Sept. 25 vs. Texas Tech
Oklahoma State has owned the Red Raiders in recent years but Tech is experiencing a resurgence under second-year coach Kliff Kingsbury and this Thursday-night matchup could turn into an offensive showcase.
The Red Raiders finished a surprising 8-5 in 2013 thanks largely to its aerial attack, which ranked second in the nation, averaging 392.8 passing yards per game. Tech finished with the No. 8 overall offense in the country in Kingsbury's first season at the helm in Lubbock, however, the Raiders stumbled late in the year, losing five of their final six after a 7-0 start.
Six fulltime offensive starters return, highlighted by quarterback Davis Webb, who is coming of a 403-yard, four-touchdown bowl performance in Tech's 37-23 Holiday Bowl victory against Arizona State. He'll be flinging it to two pint-sized returning receivers in 5-foot-6 Jakeem Grant and 5-foot-11 Bradley Marquez. The two new starters at receiver are highly-touted sophomores D.J. Polite-Bray and Reginald Davis. Tech's coaching staff has raved about the receiving talent for the majority of the offseason, even calling it potentially the fastest receiving corps in school history, which is a bold statement.
Per usual, there are a bevy of question marks surrounding the defense entering the season. Only three starters return from a unit that ranked 84th overall nationally and the Raiders will be relying heavily on newcomers to deliver right off the bat. JUCO transfer nose tackle Rika Levi will have a lot of weight on his shoulders to anchor the d-line and he certainly has the frame for it at 350 pounds. Levi is expected to be the best of four JUCO transfer expected to contribute immediately on the line. Converted running back Kenny Williams and veteran Pete Robertson will be counted on at the linebacker spots to help in the second level of a defense that will have an entirely new secondary and two other newcomers at linebacker.
Tech doesn't have much trouble scoring and has a reliable kicker to aid them in their efforts, returning senior Ryan Bustin, who is coming off a 23-for-27 campaign.
Oct. 4 vs. Iowa State
Have you noticed a trend yet? This will be OSU's fourth-consecutive home game on the heels of a neutral-field opener against FSU. The quartet of the Pokes home games in the stretch are certainly winnable and OSU will likely be favored in all four, setting the stage for a potentially strong start in an anticipated rebuilding season.
OSU cruised past the Cyclones last season in a 58-27 decision and the year proved to be a disappointing one for ISU, as the team slipped with a 3-9 record. Coach Paul Rhoads has been feeling a little more pressure as a result and he went out to make an impact move in the offseason and did just that in hiring former Kansas coach Mark Mangino as offensive coordinator.
That hire has infused much-needed optimism in Ames and Cyclone fans are excited to see how Mangino can work with quarterback Grant Rohach, who led ISU to back-to-back wins to finish the season with consecutive 300-yard passing performances. Former starter Sam Richardson is still expected to compete for the job, making for an interesting position battle in fall camp.
But whoever ends up under center will have plenty of weapons at his disposal, highlighted by running back Aaron Wimberly (567 yards), tight end E.J. Bibbs (2nd-team All-Big 12), wide receiver Quenton Bundrage (9 TDs) and gigantic South Florida transfer receiver D'Vario Montgomery (6-foot-5).
The Cyclones defense will be in a rebuilding mode with just four returning starters. The interior of the defensive line is particularly sketchy, as only two players on the roster have even played in a Division I game. All-Big 12 honorable mention defensive end Cory Morrissey will be counted on to aid in the crucial development of the line.
Linebacker Luke Knott returned from injury to partner with senior Jevohn Miller for an underrated one-two punch at linebacker, while Nigel Tribune emerged as one of the conference's top corners as a freshman in 2012.
Mangino's impact on offense and the young but mostly unproven talent on defense make the Cyclones a difficult team to peg for the upcoming season but they should be much improved.
Oct. 11 at Kansas
The Pokes first true road game comes more than a full month into the season and, fortunately for the Cowboys, it probably won't be much of a test. Kansas improved to 3-9 last season and snapped its 27-game Big 12 losing streak but still has a long way to go in its efforts to become competitive in the league.
In an effort to make progress in this respect, coach Charlie Weis, who is 4-20 in two years in Lawrence, stepped back from play calling duties, hiring John Reagan to install a no-huddle attack. The success of that attack will fall largely upon the shoulders of sophomore QB Montell Cozart. Cozart is a dynamic runner but his passing skills still need a lot of polishing before a spread attack could really flourish.
Making this task even more daunting is the lack of proven playmakers to utilize. Miami (Ohio) transfer receiver Nick Harwell is being counted on to provide a reliable target and diminutive senior Tony Pierson is guaranteed to benefit from a more wide-open approach.
The secondary is undoubtedly the strength of the defense heading into the year and this defense could take significant strides with nine returning starters. Corner Dexter McDonald and safeties Isaiah Johnson and Cassius Sendish should provide a nice blanket in pass coverage, allowing KU's front seven plenty of room to operate. The highly-experienced linebacking corps is anchored by second-team All-Big 12 performer Ben Henney.
This is easily the most experienced team Weis has had in his short stint in Lawrence and it's likely the best but there is still a long row to hoe.