by Chuck Sippl, Senior Editor

Oklahoma State enters the 2011 season as one of the more fascinating teams in the nation, for many reasons.

In most cases, the biggest luxury for a head coach going into an upcoming campaign is the return of a veteran quarterback. That’s usually like having another “coach” on the field. The second biggest luxury is the return of a veteran offensive line—the under-appreciated, but oh-so-necessary engine of the attack, allowing offensive coordinators to broaden and diversify their schemes. By those standards, OSU coach Mike Gundy is in Fat City on offense entering 2011. However, as it so often is for college football teams, it will be defense that tells the final tale for OSU come December.

Unless 2010 was deceptive fluke, Cowboy QB Brandon Weeden figures to be one of the flingingest, slingingest passers in NCAA history this season. Weeden, the former baseball minor-leaguer who turns 28 this October, returns his entire high-quality OL and a loaded receiving corps. Weeden (67%) accumulated 4277 YP in his first season as a starter, with 34 TDP vs. only 13 interceptions. His front wall is led by 6-6 sr. T Levy Adcock, a top NFL prospect, while G Lane Taylor and C Grant Garner aren’t far behind. Plus, juco OLman Michael Bowie impressed so much in spring that he might edge his way into the starting lineup come September.

Meanwhile, the Cowboy WR corps got the best possible news it could receive in the offseason when Biletnikoff Award winner Justin Blackmon (111 recs, 1782 yards, 20 TDC last year) decided to return to school for his junior season. There is lots of depth behind him in veterans Josh Cooper (68 recs. LY), sr. Herbert Anyiam (42 recs. in 2009; limited by ankle injury LY), soph Michael Harrison, and others. New blood is incoming in the form of 5-9 Oklahoma Gatorade Player of the Year David Glidden (who played in a run & shoot offense in HS), and the multi-talented 6-2 Torrance Carr (must overcome some grade issues).

With the graduation of prolific RB Kendall Hunter (1548 YR last season), one might think the rushing element of the OSU attack might suffer. Maybe not. Sophs John Randle (452 YR, 37 recs. LY) & Jeremy Smith (262 YR, 7 TDs) both impressed in their fledgling campaigns, and incoming true frosh RB (with the interesting name for a college back) Herschel Sims has many insiders predicting he’ll make an impact in his first season.

Perhaps the biggest question for the Cowboy attack (44 ppg in 2010, No. 3 in total offense, No. 3 in passing offense) is whether it will miss the innovative offensive designs and playcalls of departed offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen, who—after just a single season in Stillwater—departed to become the HC-in-waiting at West Virginia, and then ended up being the top guy in Morgantown sooner than expected. The new o.c. at OSU is Todd Monken, Jacksonville Jaguar WR coach the last four years. However, before that, Monken spent time with Gundy on the staff of Les Miles in Stillwater. He’s also had stints at LSU and La Tech. Monken is sticking with Holgorsen’s proven system, and admits the very-mature Weeden has helped him learn it!

The big questions are on defense, especially for an OSU team whose 11-2 record in 2010 represents the most victories in school history. In the two losses, OSU scored 41 points apiece in a 51-41 defeat vs. Nebraska and 47-41 setback vs. Oklahoma. Last year’s top defenders—LB Orrie Lemon (133 tackles) & CB Andrew McGee (5 ints.)—are gone, as well as three starters in the front four. Fortunately, co-defensive coordinator Bill Young has a reputation for sculpting rapidly-developing units. And Young does have some solid players to build around. Sr. DEs Jamie Blatnick (5½) & Richetti Jones (4½) combined for 10 sacks LY. Soph LB Shawn Lewis (58 Ts, 3 ints.) was the co-defensive freshman of the year in the Big XII. The secondary has talent and depth with three returning starters, including hard-hitting NFL prospect Markelle Martin. Soph backups CB Justin Gilbert and S Daytawion Lowe both blossomed in spring.

Thanks largely to financier and OSU alum T. Boone Pickens, the football facilities—and thus the recruiting results—in Stillwater have markedly improved in recent years. That means more incoming defensive talent than in the past for Gundy’s team. That’s especially true in the rebuilding defensive front, where juco DE Ryan Robinson impressed in spring. In the potentially-vulnerable interior, 332-pound RS frosh DT Christian Littlehead will be joined by 323-pound juco DT Maurice Hayes. At LB, sophs Caleb Lavey & Tyler Johnson appear ready to contribute.

It will be virtually impossible to replace Groza-Award-winning kicker Dan Bailey, who nailed 27 of 31 FGs LY, including 3 of 4 from 50 yards or more. However, outstanding Cowboy punter Quinn Sharp (46 yards per punt LY), who was also a prep All-American kicker in Texas, will try to do double duty.

Summary...Oklahoma State, although rebuilding on defense and facing a tough schedule (road games at Tulsa, Texas A&M, Texas, Missouri, and Texas Tech), still might have a say in the title chase. That’s partly because the new round-robin schedule of the shrunken, no-title-game Big XII places Oklahoma at OSU for the second straight year in their season finale. Remember, Oklahoma State (6-2 in league play) earned a piece of the Big XII South championship (along with OU and A&M) last season. By December 3 of this year (the date of the Sooner-Cowboy game), OSU’s young defense might have matured just enough to slow Oklahoma, giving the Cowboy offense a good chance to win the game.

Yes, the Sooners have captured eight straight (7-1 vs. the spread) in the Bedlam Series. And Gundy is 0-6 as a Bedlam HC in his six seasons as HC in Stillwater. But if we have learned anything recently about college football, it’s that the season is a “long” one. By Dec. 3, high-scoring Oklahoma State might have a say not only in the 2011 Big XII title, but also in the final BCS picture.

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