After losing quarterback Brandon Weeden and wide receiver Justin Blackmon to the NFL draft last month, the Oklahoma State Cowboys are considered by many to be a long shot for the 2012 Big 12 title. But don't count them out just yet; there are ways this team could accomplish exactly that.
Winning a second consecutive Big 12 crown won't be easy for this squad, especially with true freshman Wes Lunt as the starter. However, there are a few key things that can be done to greatly increase the team's chances.
Here are those five things.
The Oklahoma State Cowboys have a stable of healthy, young and productive running backs to lean on. This will be especially important to do with a freshman quarterback who is still learning the Division I ropes.
The Cowboys are one of the few spread passing attacks that also have the ability to power run out of their shotgun sets. It will be important that the trio of Joseph Randle, Jeremy Smith and Herschel Sims get going in games quickly and often.
A true freshman quarterback has a tough time learning how to play at a high level in Division I football. Being constantly on the run will make it even tougher for Wes Lunt.
Luckily for Lunt, it appears that the Cowboys will be able to give him plenty of time to throw. According to Sporting News, the Cowboys are more confident in that aspect of their team than ever, despite losing three starters last season.
With the offense expected to take a dip due to having a freshman quarterback, the defense will need to step up. Last season, this defensive unit was the best turnover-producing unit in the nation. It will need to be even better for the Cowboys to win the Big 12 once again.
Losing difference makers like safety Markelle Martin and defensive ends Richetti Jones and Jamie Blatnick won't help, but the defense is returning everyone at just about every other position. The entire linebacker corps in particular is back, and that group was a big part of producing turnovers last season.
In the offseason, the Cowboys lost associate head coach and special teams coordinator Joe DeForest to West Virginia, where he is now the defensive coordinator. For a team that has consistently been among the nation's best in special teams since DeForest arrived a decade ago, this is a pretty big deal.
It will be important for the coaching staff to divide special teams duties accordingly, as the man they hired to replace DeForest, Van Malone, is not a special teams guru. Quinn Sharp remains on the team from last year, which is a good thing since he was one of the best punters and kickers in college football last season.
Now that Oklahoma State has finally won an outright Big 12 championship, it must play like it has. No more being the little brother who gets beaten up by Oklahoma and Texas both on the field and in recruiting.
This program must continue to fight to become one of the big boys, both on the field and off. Resting on its laurels as the reigning champion is not an option.
Mike Gundy knows this, and he'll keep his squad motivated and hungry for more wins and more trophies.