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By Kendall Webb/College Football America publisher
This is a golden age of sorts for Oklahoma State Cowboys football. In a span of just eight years, head coach Mike Gundy is already the program’s all-time winningest coach with a 67-35 record and has delivered the program’s only outright conference championship since 1953.
It isn’t lost on the Cowboy faithful, however, that seven of those losses have come against the Oklahoma Sooners of Bob Stoops, including last season’s 51-48 nailbiter in Norman. Gundy’s only win vs. the Cowboys’ nemesis came in 2011 when they handed the Sooners a 44-10 beatdown in Stillwater.
But with the game back in Stillwater this year, we think Gundy’s crew could make it two out of three vs. the Sooners. As usual, the Cowboys will have a powerful offense led by senior Clint Chelf, and he’ll have the Big 12’s top receiver, too, in junior Josh Stewart who hauled in 101 passes last year. The Cowboys lose star running back Joseph Randle, but senior Jeremy Smith is capable of stepping in and making some plays.
The defense has seven starters back and is particularly strong up the middle with tackles Calvin Barnett and James Castleman backed up by linebackers Shaun Lewis and Caleb Lavey.
Oklahoma’s history as a conference champion and the dominant force in the Bedlam Series (82-18-7) can’t be ignored, however. The loss of star quarterback Landry Jones is huge, though, and heir apparent Blake Bell only attempted 16 passes last year. It’s likely he’ll spend a lot of time handing off to Damien Williams (946 yards rushing, 11 TD’s), and Jalen Saunders (62-829 yards, 3 TD’s) will likely be a target when he takes to the air. A big experienced line with four returning starters led by senior center Gabe Ikard will help.
If the Bedlam participants don’t settle the Big 12 championship, then it’s likely because it will already be in the hands of the improving Texas Longhorns. It’s only been four years since Texas played for a BCS National Championship, but it is just 22-16 since. Texas should be able to build on last year’s 9-4 finish, however, and the offense should finally gel around junior quarterback David Ash with sophomore Johnathan Gray primed for a breakout season at running back. Receivers Mike Davis and Jaxon Shipley were the top targets last year, and the offensive line features all five returning starters.
The defense will have to recover from a season in which the Longhorns yielded the most yards in school history. Injuries played a role — end Jackson Jeffcoat and linebacker Jordan Hicks were particularly big losses — but the ‘Horns will have to get more from every unit in 2013.
Kansas State took its fan base for an exciting ride last year rolling to a 10-0 start and into the national title conversation before a crushing loss to Baylor knocked it out. Eight starters return to an offense that should be strong again led by receivers Tyler Lockett and Tramaine Thompson. A new quarterback — either Daniel Sams or juco transfer Jake Waters, fresh off a national title at Iowa Western Community College — will direct the attack which will include a heavy dose of senior running back John Hubert (947 yards).
Only two starters return on defense, however, and senior All-American safety Ty Zimmerman will be counted on heavily.
TCU’s initial run through the Big 12 proved to be a challenge for the former Mountain West powerhouse, but it does get senior quarterback Casey Pachall back along with former leading rusher Waymon James.
The defense is where the Frogs will live or die in the Big 12 with nine starters back including All-America prospects Devonte Fields (end) and Jason Verrett (cornerback).
Baylor has made headway in recent years in the Big 12 with three straight trips to the post-season after 14 years of futility, and it should make it four in a row in 2013. Only four starters return on offense, but head coach Art Briles should have his next star at quarterback in junior Bryce Petty. Lache Seastrunk (1,012 yards) is one of the league’s best running backs, and Tevin Reese (53-957 yards, 9 TD’s) leads a talented receiver corps.
The defense returns seven starters and is particularly strong at linebacker where all three starters are back including All-Big 12 candidates Bryce Hager and Eddie Lackey.
West Virginia’s debut season in the Big 12 was a roller-coaster ride, and year two isn’t looking much better. They’ll have to replace NFL draft picks Geno Smith at quarterback and receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey as the only projected returning starters on offense are linemen Quinton Spain, Pat Eger and Curtis Feigt. New quarterback Paul Millard will have to learn quickly to make head coach Dana Holgorsen’s high-flying offense move the chains.
With one of the worst pass defenses in the country, there’s nowhere to go but up and the Mountaineers will count on three returning starters in the secondary among seven overall to make a difference.
New head coach Kliff Kingsbury is a familiar face in Lubbock where he takes over at Texas Tech. A former quarterback for the Red Raiders, Kingsbury’s offensive pedigree should pay dividends where sophomore Michael Brewer should be the program’s latest star quarterback. Running back Kenny Williams (824 yards) will help take the pressure off while he learns the system, and tight end Jace Amaro is the league’s best.
The defense was pretty solid overall in 2012, and with eight starters back led by tackle Kerry Hyder, it should help while the offense gels around Brewer.
Iowa State has only nine combined starters back on offense and defense while Kansas figures to be in the Big 12 basement at least one more year with only six combined starters back from a 1-11 team.