To begin the season, I see six teams with a legitimate chance to win the Big 12. Today we'll continue our series looking at why each team will or will not win the league. Next up: The defending champs -- Oklahoma State.
Why Oklahoma State will win the Big 12
1. The Cowboys offense is set up for Wes Lunt to succeed. Most importantly, the bulk of the Cowboys offensive line returns, as does coach Joe Wickline. Never underestimate the power of an extra second in the pocket. Those add up over time. He's got arguably the league's best 1-2 punch at running back in Joseph Randle and Jeremy Smith, and though his receivers aren't the most experienced, they're hardly green, and he's got lots of targets who will be productive, starting with Josh Stewart, Tracy Moore and Isaiah Anderson. There's no Justin Blackmon or Brandon Weeden in this offense, but Lunt should do well, and he'll have loads of help.
2. This is becoming a theme: The defense is a lot better than most everyone realizes. Everyone wants to pretend they can write off Oklahoma State without Weeden and Blackmon, while conveniently overlooking that just about everyone else on the team comes back, especially on defense. Defensive linemen Jamie Blatnick and Richetti Jones are gone, leaving a pretty big hole on the defensive line, but the Cowboys have one of the Big 12's best secondaries, and colleague KC Joyner says the cornerback duo of Justin Gilbert and Brodrick Brown is the nation's second best, behind only Texas. Add in a great set of linebackers in Shaun Lewis, Alex Elkins and Caleb Lavey, and you've got a unit that's due a lot of respect. Too many people forget that this unit is the same one that led the Big 12 in scoring defense in conference play last year. Yes, it even gave up fewer points than Texas.
3. The Cowboys know what it takes to win a Big 12 title. Never underestimate the ability of a team that knows what it's like to reach the summit. No, Oklahoma State is not the best team in the Big 12 to begin the season, but it's stocked full of players who know what it takes to be that team. My guess is they're willing to push the rest of the team to that level if the players who need to step up are able to match that effort. You can't duplicate experience, but last year OSU broke the Oklahoma-Texas duopoly that dominated this league. The pieces are in place for the Cowboys to have a reasonable shot to do it again.
Why Oklahoma State won't win the Big 12
1. They're starting a true freshman at quarterback. The offense that Dana Holgorsen brought to Stillwater in 2010 is much simpler than what it ran when Mike Gundy was in charge of the offense piloted by Zac Robinson, but Lunt is still a true freshman. He'll make plays, and he'll make mistakes -- probably too many to ultimately win a title. History is absolutely against him. Only two first-year starting quarterbacks have won Big 12 titles, to say nothing of true freshmen, which has never been done, even if there have only been a handful of true freshmen to start in this league.
2. The turnover avalanche won't be quite as plentiful. Oklahoma State forces turnovers. Period. That's what the defense does. Last season, when the Cowboys forced an FBS-best 44 turnovers, was not a complete aberration. That said, it was still somewhat of an outlier, and in a few of those games, OSU needed every one of the turnovers it forced. OSU forced 34 turnovers in 2010 (fifth nationally) and 30 in 2009 (11th nationally). That's a pretty clear trend since the arrival of defensive coordinator Bill Young. OSU's defense should be very, very good, but it's a little silly to expect another 44 turnovers to roll in this season. No other team in college football had more than 39 last year.
3. The rest of the contenders are more talented. Oklahoma State has a ton of talent, but do the Cowboys have as much as the teams ahead of them in the conference poll? Certainly not Oklahoma. Depending on where you want to see talent, it's close between the Cowboys and West Virginia or Texas when you assess the depth chart from top to bottom. I'd probably lean toward West Virginia and Texas in both of those cases. Last year, OSU had as much talent as any team in the league, if not more. This year, the Cowboys have enough talent to win the league, but they don't have as much as other teams in the Big 12.