Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy was the first to speak at Big 12 Media Days in July and was quickly asked about the high expectations surrounding his Cowboys.
OSU was picked by league media to win the conference, just ahead of Oklahoma and TCU, earning 15 of 43 first-place votes.
Gundy, entering his ninth season, was just as quick to deflect the lofty predictions as a tribute to past players who have helped Gundy to winning seasons in the Big 12 each year since 2008. The Cowboys went 11-2 in 2010 before going 12-1 in 2011 and winning the Big 12 with an 8-1 mark.
“Being picked No. 1 certainly doesn’t guarantee you the conference championship, we all know that,” Gundy said. “We’ll mention that to our players and be very vanilla. They’ve still got a lot of work ahead of them, but we’re very proud of how far they’ve come and that they have the opportunity. They’ve got to go out and play well.”
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But there’s more to the high expectations than just a reflection of OSU’s recent success. The Cowboys return 10 starters to an up-tempo offense that ranked fourth in the nation with 547 yards a game. They return eight starters to a defense that was sixth in the Big 12. Both units have coaching changes.
Glenn Spencer was named defensive coordinator in January after serving as co-coordinator and linebackers coach the previous two seasons. Mike Yurcich was hired as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach after two years in the same positions at Division II Shippensburg in Pennsylvania.
Gundy said his offense will remain as up-tempo as ever, despite the coaching change.
“It’s difficult to bring a young [recruit] in that’s made a commitment to our program for certain reasons, and then a couple years later things change,” Gundy said. “It can certainly affect him. So we try to stay as consistent as possible in that area. It’s never perfect, but by bringing a coach in and having him adjust to Oklahoma State, we’ve had success. So we’ll continue to move in that direction.”
A year ago, the Cowboys finished 8-5 and 5-4 in the league, impressive considering three players started at quarterback. That’s not the case in 2013. The Cowboys have two proven, talented passers in Clint Chelf and Denton Guyer product J.W. Walsh. Both are likely to play a lot.
Gundy said he won’t name a starter until the Cowboys’ season opener Aug. 31 against Mississippi State at Houston’s Reliant Stadium.
The Cowboys have the most favorable schedule in the Big 12, with, arguably, only one tough road game, Nov. 16 at Texas.
The league’s top returning receiver, junior Josh Stewart, had 101 receptions for 1,210 yards in 2012. The former Denton Guyer teammate of Walsh, is complemented by, among others, senior Tracy Moore, who missed nine games last season with an ankle injury.
“Josh really stepped up for us last year in a big way,” Gundy said. “He had over 100 catches, and he ran the ball some, and he’s been a really good team leader.”
The key for the Cowboys to live up to the hype is defense. Two first-year starters Jimmy Bean and Tyler Johnson will have to step up at defensive end.
Defensive tackle Calvin Barnett was the Big 12’s defensive newcomer of the year and provides an anchor inside. Linebackers Shaun Lewis and Caleb Lavey return and have combined for 58 career starts.
Perhaps an overlooked component to OSU’s season is its kicking game. Longtime field-goal kicker Quinn Sharp of Mansfield Summit is now in the NFL. As closely contested as the top half of the Big 12 should be in 2013, field goals could loom large.
True freshman and Arlington Martin High ex Ben Grogan could hold much of the Cowboys’ fate in his foot.