STILLWATER, Okla. (AP) — For the first time, Oklahoma State heads into the 2012 season with the distinction of being the reigning Big 12 champion.
Even after losing record-setting stars Justin Blackmon and Brandon Weeden to the NFL, the Cowboys aren’t about to lower their expectations for a program that has been on the rise since Mike Gundy took over as coach seven years ago.
Oklahoma State has been picked to finish fourth in the Big 12 this season. Don’t let that fool you. The Cowboys have finished each of the last three seasons higher than they were picked in the preseason poll, and their 20-5 record during that span is the best in league play.
“It’s just really all mental,” defensive tackle Davidell Collins said. “When somebody tells you you can’t do anything, are you going to give up? No, you’re going to go out there and work even harder. It’s just what type of mindset you have.”
In some ways, this season resembles the one two years ago when the ‘Pokes were dealing with the loss of first-round picks Dez Bryant and Russell Okung, starting quarterback Zac Robinson and several other key players. Back then, Weeden and Blackmon were practically unknown and hadn’t yet rewritten the passing section of the school’s record book.
Now, true freshman Wes Lunt is the unknown commodity replacing Weeden while Tracy Moore and others attempt to fill Blackmon’s void in an offense that ranked second in the nation in scoring (48.7 points per game) and third in yardage (545.9).
“I think we’re a good football team. ... I don’t think it’s realistic to expect offensively for things to look like they did last year, especially early, just because you lose two first-round picks,” Gundy said.
Oklahoma State opens its title defense Sept. 1 against Savannah State and has an early test in Week 2, traveling to Arizona in what will be Lunt’s first road game.
“He can only do as much as he can give us at this particular time. He’s not going to step in and play like Brandon Weeden,” Gundy said. “We just want him to give us what he’s got, and the other guys have got to rally around him.”
Lunt should have the benefit of a strong running game, with the backfield tandem of Joseph Randle and Jeremy Smith back after combining for 1,862 yards and 33 touchdowns last season. Offensive line stalwarts Levy Adcock and Grant Garner are gone and tackle Michael Bowie transferred just before training camp, but there are still three experienced starters up front.
Gundy said his offense may make up for the absence of Blackmon and second-leading pass-catcher Josh Cooper with a deep group ore receivers he thinks could be better from top to bottom.
The defense has been touted as perhaps the best ever at Oklahoma State, an athletic group that did its most damage a year ago by leading the nation in takeaways with 44, five more than any other Bowl Subdivision team. There’s a load of experience in the back end, with cornerbacks Brodrick Brown and Justin Gilbert possibly getting help from a third returning starter if Devin Hedgepeth can overcome an Achilles’ tendon injury that ended his 2011 season.
All three starting linebackers also return, and the defensive line hopes to make up for the loss of both starting ends with increased depth and an infusion of young talent.
Having come out on top last season, the Cowboys now understand what it takes to win the Big 12 title.
“We’ve got the same approach,” said Brown, who had five interceptions and a team-best 15 passes broken up last season. “No one’s going to care what we did last year, and we’ve got the same goals this year. If we believe that we can win the Big 12 again, then we’ll go out there and do it.”
Gundy said he understands why Oklahoma State wasn’t picked to repeat as the Big 12 champion after losing such prominent players, yet he used some of the preseason polls as motivation for his team. If departing stars can once again be replaced with a wave of young talent, Oklahoma State plans to be right in the thick of the championship race again.
“It’s a whole new year and you see that every day when you see different people out there,” Randle said. “It’s a whole new year. We don’t have some of the people that we had last year. We have new guys — a lot of talent — but they’re still new.”