Head Coach Mike Gundy of the Oklahoma State Cowboys looks across the field after the game against the Arizona Wildcats on September 8, 2011 at Boone Pickens Stadium in Stillwater, Oklahoma.
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STILLWATER, Okla. (AP) -- Oklahoma State's players certainly appreciate that the media thinks highly enough of the Cowboys to pick them to win the Big 12 Conference this season.
But they don't want to buy into the hype, especially after an 8-5 season in which Oklahoma State started three different quarterbacks and settled for a trip to the Heart of Dallas Bowl.
Coach Mike Gundy said preseason expectations are often based on who's returning at quarterback, and that remains a tightly guarded secret in Stillwater. Oklahoma State must also shore up its defense if it hopes to earn its second Big 12 championship in three years.
"It's all about what you do once you get on that field, so Aug. 31 and on we've got to prove every day, every game, that we're really No. 1 (in the Big 12)," Oklahoma State wide receiver Josh Stewart said. "And that's what we plan on doing."
Five things to watch as the Cowboys try to live up to the expectations:
1. NAME THE STARTER: Gundy has been tight-lipped about his quarterback situation this fall, and he has kept the two candidates for the starting job from speaking to reporters. It's created plenty of intrigue as the Aug. 31 season opener at Mississippi State approaches. Senior Clint Chelf is considered the favorite to start over sophomore J.W. Walsh, though both quarterbacks started at least three games last season. "We all know how important quality quarterback play is to winning games," Gundy said.
2. NEW FACES: Oklahoma State's players should have worn name tags in the spring to make things easier for all the new assistant coaches on Gundy's staff. Gundy had to hire four new assistants, including both of his coordinators. Gundy caught many by surprise when he hired Mike Yurcich from Division II Shippensburg to run his high-powered offense. Yurcich had proven that he could generate points and his stock will rise even more if Oklahoma State can again lead the Big 12 in scoring offense. "I think he's very comfortable with our system now, and I see him being much more aggressive in practice and it seems to be going very well at this time," Gundy said.
3. KEEP RUNNING: Oklahoma State has produced a 1,000-yard rusher every year since 2007, and Jeremy Smith could be next on the list. The fifth-year senior has shown he's capable of breaking long runs when he's healthy, evident by his career average of 6.2 yards per carry. Smith has never been the featured back at Oklahoma State, but he'll get his chance after Joseph Randle decided to leave after his junior season to enter the NFL draft. Smith has insisted that the Cowboys will again lead the Big 12 in rushing. "It's going to be a big year this year, and I can't wait," Smith said. "There's not going to be any drop-off."
4. KICKING IT: Quarterback isn't the only position battle that has gained plenty of attention this fall. The Cowboys are looking for a strong leg to replace the versatile Quinn Sharp, who handled both the kicking and punting duties last season. He made 28 of 34 field goal attempts as a senior to finish as the most accurate kicker in Oklahoma State history with an 84.7 field-goal percentage. That's not easy to replace, but Gundy hopes to come close with freshman Ben Grogan, who was named the starting kicker following a scrimmage last week. "Everybody around here that's watched Oklahoma State football has been spoiled with Quinn, and he brought so much to the table," Gundy said. "But we'll have new guys in there, and it creates uncertainty."
5. ON THE DEFENSIVE: The Big 12 doesn't have a reputation for being a defensive-minded conference, but Oklahoma State must do a better job at slowing down opposing offenses. The Cowboys allowed an average of 47.2 points in their five losses last season, including 59 points to Arizona and 51 to Oklahoma in a wild Bedlam game. New defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer, who was promoted after serving as Oklahoma State's linebackers coach, gets the task of fixing the problem. "It's a process," Spencer said. "And now is the time in camp when a lot people are floating around, and we just keep pressing on the guys that yesterday is over and to win tomorrow."
Predicted finish in the Big 12: First.
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