<
>

Assessing the contenders: Oklahoma State

Heading into the season, I see five teams in the Big 12 with a realistic chance to win the league. I'll be breaking them down in order (which won't be the same as my post-spring power rankings) of their chances to leave the season with the Big 12 title.

No. 1 on the list was the favorite: Oklahoma

No. 2 was Texas A&M.

Today, we take a look at the third-most likely Big 12 champion: Oklahoma State.

Why the Cowboys will win the Big 12

1. The offensive line. You could point to a lot of reasons for the Cowboys' success in 2011, but it all started up front on the offensive end. OSU's big men entered the season as a patchwork group, but matured into one of the Big 12's best by midseason. They should be even better in 2011 when all five return, and the group adds juco transfer Michael Bowie, who could blaze his way into a spot into the starting lineup. Levy Adcock is the Big 12's best offensive lineman, and Lane Taylor, Grant Garner, Nick Martinez and Jonathan Rush fill out a unit that could block the Cowboys into their first Big 12 title.

2. It has the best pass-catch duo in the country. The distance between Brandon Weeden and Landry Jones is paper-thin, but Justin Blackmon established himself as a cut above Ryan Broyles during the 2010 season, and earned the Biletnikoff Award for his efforts. The pair had a joint news conference to announce their return, and the ensuing celebration was warranted. If Oklahoma State wins a Big 12 title, those two are taking them there.

3. The defense's rapid improvement could continue. OSU has to replace six starters on defense, but returns three starters in a secondary that matured late last season. Look no further than dominant defensive performances against prolific passing offenses like Baylor and Arizona, who the Cowboys blew out. Both safeties, Johnny Thomas and Markelle Martin, are back and make up a unit I named the Big 12's best. Justin Gilbert may be charged with replacing Big 12 interception champ Andrew McGee across from returning starter Brodrick Brown. OSU also held a high-scoring Kansas State offense (33.6 points, third in the Big 12) to just 14 points at home in a big game without Blackmon. There's a lot of turnover, but if you can stop the pass in the Big 12, you're going to be in good position to win the league.

Why the Cowboys won't win the Big 12

1. Todd Monken is not Dana Holgorsen. Monken may be a great offensive coordinator, but for now, we have no idea. What we do know is everywhere Holgorsen has coordinated the offense has become one of the best in college football. Sure, his system is part of it, but so is the effectiveness of his in-game adjustments. Ask Texas A&M and its 21-7 halftime lead in Stillwater. Monken has learned the system, but when things go badly, how will he adjust? One could argue that was one of Holgorsen's best attributes.

2. It hasn't proven it can beat Oklahoma, and has to go to College Station. Most pundits (yours truly included) were willing to overlook history and pick the Cowboys to finally beat an Oklahoma team that hadn't yet proven it could win big games on the road. OSU was favored and playing better football than Oklahoma, whose two losses earlier in the season came to solid Big 12 contenders in night games on the road. OSU, however, allowed its losing streak to Oklahoma to reach eight years and Mike Gundy is still 0-6 against his in-state rival. Additionally, the Cowboys have to go into Kyle Field, one of the most intimidating venues in the league, to face the other Big 12 contender. That's not exactly a recipe for success.

3. The heart of the defense is gone. Markelle Martin is a good leader, but Orie Lemon was the heart of OSU's defense last season, an experienced player that had been through a lot and made it obvious to his teammates how much playing his final season meant to him. Those kinds of things are always a bit intangible, and hard to peg until the marathon of a college football season kicks off. Can the Cowboys replace his leadership?