STILLWATER, Okla. - Oklahoma State, for the first time, is picked by the media to win the Big 12 Conference. The Cowboys won their first Big 12 title in 2011.
But before diving into league play, Oklahoma State starts the season with a bang. The Cowboys, ranked No. 14 in the coaches’ preseason poll, will face Mississippi State in Houston’s Reliant Stadium on Aug. 31. It’s an important game for Oklahoma State and the Big 12.
"There isn't any question Mississippi State is a big game," Cowboys coach Mike Gundy said Saturday. "The way the BCS is set up and eventually the Final Four, these games factor in. If we as an administration decide to play these games, you have to be ready for that to factor in the nation's perspective of your football team after that game."
The opener is also supplying an interesting twist regarding the Oklahoma State quarterback situation.
Last season, the Cowboys had to start three different quarterbacks – and each wound up throwing for 1,000 yards. Senior Clint Chelf led Gundy’s team to a 58-14 victory in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. Sophomore J.W. Walsh remains; Wes Lunt, who started the season opener as a freshman, has transferred.
But at the end of spring practice, Gundy declined to name Chelf the starter. Gundy said Saturday that if his team was opening against Savannah State (a team it defeated 84-0) instead of a Southeastern Conference foe, a starter would be named.
"I would probably say it's a pretty good chance," he said.
Rare does the gamesmanship in college football seep out of the usual between-games routine. Gundy obviously wants Mississippi State to keep guessing as it prepares for the opener.
"It means a lot," Oklahoma State senior defensive tackle Davidell Collins said. "The Big 12 hasn't been getting recognized. We just want to show what we can do. Besides putting OSU on our back, we want to put the Big 12 on our back and show we're still a powerhouse conference."
The Main Man?
This is the 25th anniversary of Barry Sanders’ Heisman Trophy season. Oklahoma State, led by Sanders, has produced a number of productive running backs. This season, the Cowboys must replace Joseph Randle, who led the Big 12 in 2012 with 1,417 yards.
Senior Jeremy Smith, who has been effective as a backup during his career, says he’s ready to take over as the team’s go-to ball carrier.
“I know I have to go out with the mindset knowing I'm the guy,” Smith said, “which means I have to work harder than any other running back out there, because they believe in me and I believe in myself, too.
“I've had my opportunities. And I'm blessed to be a part of this knowing it's my turn now.”
Randle had 274 carries last season. In three seasons, Smith has a total of 232 carries. He has averaged 6.2 yards per carry and has 25 rushing touchdowns.
“A lot of the carries is based on how the other team plays us,” Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said. “But Jeremy has really developed over the past couple of years. Now, it’s time for him to carry the load. We’ll have to develop a young guy to be the backup, carry it five to 10 guys a game.”
A 300-Pound Punter?
Nope, it’s not gonna happen. But Mike Gundy says it could.
James Castleman is a junior defensive tackle who will team with Calvin Barnett to give Oklahoma State perhaps the best pair of defensive linemen in the Big 12. Castleman, who is recovered after missing spring practice because of a foot injury, has atypical skills for someone who is 6-foot-2 and 296 pounds.
"James will stand right here and throw a perfect spiral 50 yards down the field, just right on the money," Gundy told the Tulsa World. "He's just kind of a freak when it comes to athleticism based on his size. … He could punt for us."
In fact, Castleman was an all-district punter in high school. And two more nuggets about Castleman’s athletic ability: He is the career scoring and rebounding leader in basketball at Amarillo High School and he can perform a standing back flip.
In 2009, Oklahoma State was ranked No. 8 and opened the season at home with a 24-10 victory over 13th-ranked Georgia. The Cowboys followed that up with a loss at home to Houston and finished the season 9-4.
Oklahoma State’s secondary received a boost when Tyler Patmon transferred from Kansas. A three-year starter, he’ll be eligible this season. “He's a guy that has played in the Big 12 already, so he knows what to expect,” safety Daytawion Lowe said. “He knows the offenses that we face. So it's kind of like throw an extra guy in there type of thing.”
Replacing Quinn Sharp won’t be a one-man job. For the past two seasons, Sharp has been Oklahoma State’s kicker, punter and kickoff man. If the Cowboys kicked the ball, it was Sharp’s foot. The candidates to fill the roles include freshman Ben Grogan, Kip Smith a UCLA transfer, plus Bobby Stonebreaker and Michael Reichenstein.
Sophomore corner back Ashton Lampkin on new defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer’s approach:
“Starting from spring to now, Coach Spencer's been pushing, ‘Aggressive, aggressive, aggressive.’ And I mean, that's a DB's dream, to be aggressive. He's given us the option to put that in our toolbox, and we're going to take advantage of it.”
Offensive lineman Parker Graham on line coach Joe Wickline, who is considered one of the best in college football:
“He's very hard on us. He's very loud and he's very in your face. Once you get accustomed to that, getting in the game's not even a problem. The crowd's not a factor. The other team's not a factor. That's just straight through how he coaches and how he approaches the game. He really gets you prepared.”