College football season is upon us and over the next two days we will take a look at what awaits the Cowboys on the field in 2013. Part one will preview the first six games on the Pokes' schedule.
8/31 vs. Mississippi State in Houston
When most people think of the SEC, one of the first things to pop into your head is likely the ground-and-pound, three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust approach to offense. This isn't the case with Mississippi State and the Bulldogs' spread offense under coach Dan Mullen will be a test for the re-vamped OSU defense on a national stage in Week 1.
But the good news for the Pokes is that Mississippi State might run the spread, but it doesn't do it nearly as well as the Cowboys or several other Big 12 programs. MSU ranked 79th in total offense and 60th in scoring offense at 29.5 points per game, for example.
Quarterback Tyler Russell is a natural fit for the spread and had a nice season in Starkville as a junior, throwing for 2,897 yards and 24 touchdowns with just 10 picks. However, his production dipped significantly against stronger competition in the latter half of the season and he'll be breaking in an entirely new crop of wideouts and a new tight end against the Pokes. Don't expect there to be instant chemistry, which should play right into OSU's hands on defense.
Because of the lack of proven options at receiver, expect 1,000-yard running back LaDarius Perkins to see a lot of action behind an experienced o-line. OSU will have a much better idea of how good its defensive line and linebackers will be after this game.
Mississippi State has shaken up its defense quite a bit in the offseason, both in the coaching staff and in personnel. MSU has sported a quality SEC defense the past few years but it lost both starting corners to the NFL, leaving a major weakness against OSU's greatest strength in its receiving corps.
This is clearly a much tougher test to open the season than Savannah State presented a year ago but this is a matchup that leans favorably to the Cowboys and should provide a quality victory on a national stage.
9/7 at UT – San Antonio
Conference USA newbie UTSA will host the Cowboys for not only the school's home opener, but also the biggest game in the program's short two-year history. Expect the Roadrunners to be amped for this game but that doesn't necessarily mean the Pokes have much to be concerned about.
Former OSU assistant and Miami national champion coach Larry Coker is 12-10 in two years with UTSA and welcomes back 19 starters from last year's eight-win team. But eight victories will be a far more difficult feat for the Roadrunners in 2013, as the team will play its first full FBS schedule.
Quarterback Eric Soza is the face of the team and the dual-threat signal caller has made his mark by playing relatively mistake-free football. He might not be the most accurate with a 59 percent completion rate, but he seldom makes big errors with only three interceptions against 20 touchdowns a year ago. He was also the team's third-leading rusher in 2012. UTSA has a balanced offensive approach, ranking 64th nationally in passing and 63rd in rushing, but doesn't return anything at the skill positions that should pose any viable threat to the Cowboy defense. In fact, UTSA's leading returning receiver would have ranked sixth at OSU in yards last year, and that's only 50 yards better than Tracy Moore who missed the majority of the season with an injury. That's not a knock on the team as much as it's a reflection of a young, upstart program being pitted against the projected Big 12 favorite.
The UTSA defense figures to offer even less of a challenge despite returning seven starters to a unit that allowed 380 yards per game in a schedule mixed with FCS, D-II and low-level FBS schools. The Roadrunners didn't fare well against FBS competition for the most part, giving up 34 points to Rice, 52 to San Jose State, 48 to Utah State and 51 to Louisiana Tech in a four-game losing skid. The Cowboys shouldn't have any trouble moving the ball or putting up points in this predictable blowout.
9/14 vs. Lamar
Cowboy fans have to wait until mid-September for the home opener but, unfortunately, it's against low-level FCS participant Lamar. For the second-straight week the Pokes will be playing a program that's existed for less time than Tracy Moore and Jeremy Smith have spent in Stillwater. Lamar is entering its fourth season and hasn't gotten its feet under it just yet, which shapes up poorly for a trip to Boone Pickens Stadium.
The Cardinals went 4-8 last year and just 1-6 in Southland Conference play. In its two games against FBS schools, Lamar lost by a combined 94-2 margin against Louisiana-Lafayette (who OSU beat 65-24) and Hawaii (who went 3-9). Remember Savannah State? This is the 2013 edition.
9/28 at West Virginia
The Pokes will have a bye week after Lamar before opening the conference schedule on the road at West Virginia. Morgantown is a tough environment, but Dana Holgorsen's team lost a lot from last year's disappointing 7-6 team. No more Geno Smith, no more Tavon Austin or Stedman Bailey. With arguably the conference's worst defense, those losses on offense have many projecting the Mountaineers to rival Kansas for cellar-dweller territory in the Big 12 standings.
In addition to the skill position losses, WVU also has three new offensive linemen to break in and three new position coaches on offense. It all shapes up as a recipe for a growing process that doesn't bode well for early season meetings with OU and OSU. Holgorsen's air-raid attack should always be cause for concern – remember when he guided Houston to an upset victory against OSU in 2009? But, with that said, OSU's revamped defense should be able to hold it in check.
And speaking of defense, West Virginia offers very little in that department. The Mountaineers ranked 114th in scoring defense, 118th in passing and 108th overall in 2012. Holgorsen responded by firing his cornerbacks coach and also replaced former OSU assistant Joe DeForest at defensive coordinator with former Tulsa assistant Keith Patterson. Expect the defense to be improved but only because it has nowhere to go but up.
WVU might be able to keep this score respectable because of its ability to score but this game could end up similar to last year's 55-34 OSU victory.
10/5 vs. Kansas State
The last time K-State traveled to Stillwater to face a Cowboy team in the Big 12 title hunt it ended up being quite a show. Brandon Weeden threw for 502 yards, the defense stood tall to deny KSU in the red zone as time expired, and there was even an earthquake following the 52-45 OSU victory. It's going to be hard to top that but this game has a lot of the same elements to it.
This, other than MSU to a point, is the Pokes first real test of the season. Sure, the Wildcats' lost QB Collin Klein and nine defensive starters but it is always dangerous to doubt what a Bill Snyder-coached team is capable of, and the cupboard is far from bare. Running back John Hubert and receivers Tyler Lockett and Tremaine Thompson will give new QB Jake Waters nice options and a veteran offensive line will be the anchor of the offense.
The defense is anyone's guess. The unit is always solid in Manhattan but only two returning starters – corner Randall Evans and safety Ty Zimmerman – there is more up in the air than usual. The Cats lost NFL second-round pick Arthur Brown and doesn't have a defensive lineman on the roster who has ever made a collegiate start. In other words, the defense will have to grow up and find its identity fast before coming to Payne County if KSU is going to have a chance of winning. Also, as OSU fans already know, the Pokes will have to keep an eye on Lockett in the return game. He burned OSU for a 100-yard touchdown in 2012 and also had 193 return yards in Stillwater as a freshman.
10/19 vs. Texas Christian
This is a good time for a bye week. Coach Gundy and Co. will have two weeks to prepare for a big showdown with another top contender for the Big 12 title. The Frogs got smoked 36-14 by the Pokes in Stillwater last season and now are forced to play at Boone Pickens Stadium for a second-consecutive year.
Expect a closer contest this time around, as QB Casey Pachall has returned from substance abuse treatment and RB Waymon James is also back after missing 11 games with a knee injury. Both are expected to reclaim their starting roles and significantly upgrade the offensive backfield, complimenting returning starters Brandon Carter and LaDarius Brown at wide receiver.
The offense should be better but TCU has always hung its hat on defense under Gary Patterson. The Frogs return eight starters from a unit that ranked as the Big 12's best defense a season ago. TCU ranked 10th nationally in run defense, 16th overall and 30th in scoring and welcomes back the entire secondary, highlighted by All-American corner Jason Verrett. But Verrett somehow isn't the headliner returning, that honor goes to reigning Big 12 defensive player of the year Devonte Fields at defensive end. OSU proved it could score on the Frogs last season but a re-loaded TCU offense could make things a lot more interesting.
Look for Part 2 on Saturday when we take a look at the heart of the conference schedule