Coming off a 12-1 SU and 9-4 ATS record and a Fiesta Bowl victory over Stanford, Oklahoma State has plenty of work to do if it wants to return to the national spotlight. The Cowboys have 11 returning starters, but suffered some key losses on both sides of the ball. 

Several college football pundits have OSU pegged to win 12 games again this season although I’m one of those folks who have them winning closer to 10 games this season. A drop off in victories is certainly expected considering the personnel losses from last season.

Mike GundyDon’t get me wrong. The program is on solid ground and Mike Gundy is a good and charismatic head coach with lots of T. Boone Pickens money to spend (on facilities, not players). Don’t completely write off the Cowboys. They did a great job recruiting plus they’ve got 11 returning starters—none though named Weeden or Blackmon. Give Gundy a little time and he’ll have this team hitting on all cylinders just in time for bowl season.

Offense

OSU had the nation’s second ranked passing attack. Duplicating or even coming close to the numbers produced by quarterback Weeden and Blackmon won’t be easy. Forget the presidential race for a moment. The biggest race in Stillwater this year is to find a new quarterback. The Cowboys have two incumbents who are short on size and experience compared to Weeden who threw for 9,004 yards and 71 scores in his two years guiding the Big Orange machine.

Junior Clint Chelf is the early frontrunner to take over behind center. He’s fared well in limited action, throwing for 520 yards and five scores on 34 completions. Although Chelf has the most experience, incoming freshman Wes Lunt – a four-star prospect by Rivals – and redshirt freshman J.W. Walsh will get every opportunity to win the job this spring. Luckily for whoever takes over, the Cowboys have a deep group of running backs that can help take the pressure off the passing attack. Joseph Randle returns to Stillwater after rushing for 1,216 yards and 24 scores last season, and will be expected to challenge for All-Big-12 and All-American honors.

Senior Tracy Moore appears likely to replace Blackmon as the e the go-to receiver as two-time Biletnikoff Award Winner Blackmon is headed to the NFL. Moore is a nice option, but talents like Blackmon don’t come around very often.

Defense

The good news for Gundy is he’s got eight returning starters on defense and that should help keep the Cowboys afloat early in the season. In fact it’s probable that this group should be better across the board in the major statistical categories like scoring, pass, total and rush defense then last year’s squad. The linebacking corps is rock solid headed by Shaun Lewis, Alex Elkins and Caleb Lavey. The secondary will have Daytawion Lowe back at free safety while Shamiel Gary, the transfer from Wyoming has two years of starting experience. Ask Oklahoma State fans to ID the best defensive back on the team and you’ll hear Brodrick Brown’s name mentioned most often. He’s a lock for Big 12 honors and should contend for All-American recognition.

The biggest question on the defense is the line most specifically how to replace Jamie Blatnick and Richetti Jones who combined for 12 sacks last year. Nigel Nicholas has been moved from tackle to help with the depth at end, but the Ryan Robinson, Cooper Bassett and Tyler Johnson need to step up to make it work.

This could be the best defensive backfield in the entire pass happy Big 12 Conference. Brown is the top cornerback and Justin Gilbert isn’t far behind.

Special teams

Returning kicker/punter Quinn Sharp led the nation in kickoff touchbacks and also led the Big 12 in scoring among kickers, accuracy on field goals (20 of 23) and punting average (46.6).

Bottom line

The Cowboys aren’t going to fall off the map, but they’re going to take a step back. Last year, Gundy’s group came within a fraction or two of lining up against LSU in the BCS title game. There won’t be anything close to last year’s thrill a minute ride like fans enjoyed in 2011 but it should still be a good year for OSU in 2012.