Leading up to Week 1 season openers, SDS’ Brad Crawford breaks down the opponents battling SEC squads and what makes them click in marquee out-of-conference matchups.
Aug. 20: TCU (vs. LSU, Aug. 31, 9 p.m., ESPN)
Aug. 21: Washington State (at Auburn, Aug. 31, 7 p.m., ESPNU)
TODAY: North Carolina (at South Carolina, Aug. 29, 6 p.m., ESPN)
FRIDAY: Clemson (vs. Georgia, Aug. 31, 8 p.m., ABC)
SATURDAY: Virginia Tech (vs. Alabama, Aug. 31, 5:30 p.m., ESPN)
SUNDAY: Oklahoma State (vs. Mississippi St., Aug. 31, 3:30 p.m., ABC)
OKLAHOMA STATE COWBOYS
Opens Aug. 31 vs. Mississippi State (Houston)
THE SKINNY: Two seasons ago, Mike Gundy’s program in Stillwater, Oklahoma, would’ve played in the BCS National Championship Game had it not been for a late-November blemish in overtime at Iowa State. The combination of Brandon Weeden to Justin Blackmon was nearly unstoppable in the Big XII and the Cowboys’ offense ranked as one of the nation’s best. Oklahoma State still likes to throw it around with a fast tempo, but took a step back last season (8-5, 5-4) with a new quarterback and a defense that never held up its end of the bargain. With a new-look defense, Oklahoma State’s capable of a double-digit win campaign this fall and is largely considered the Big 12 favorite.
Related: Oklahoma State already talking trash
KEY PLAYER: Senior returner Josh Stewart isn’t Oklahoma State’s biggest receiver at 5-10, 185 pounds, but he’s a big play waiting to happen in the Cowboys’ quick attack. As a junior, Stewart hit triple digits in catches and scored seven times during a 1,210-yard season. He’ll likely be matched up against MSU’s top cover corner in Houston next weekend. If Gundy can work out his quarterback situation, there’s no reason why the Cowboys couldn’t match last season’s 45.7 points per game — third-best in the FBS ranks. Clint Chelf, who started the last five games in the shotgun in 2012, is the probable No. 1 in Mike Yurcich’s rookie season as the team’s offensive coordinator.
WHAT TO WATCH: Much has been made about the improvements Oklahoma State has made on defense during the offseason under new coordinator Glenn Spencer. Known for forcing turnovers, but giving up a ton of first downs in the past, Spencer says the Cowboys’ focus now will be on blitzing and getting off the field. Oklahoma State has several starters back including senior tackle Calvin Barnett and end Tyler Johnson. Johnson led his team in sacks last season while veteran safety Daytawion Lowe was Oklahoma State’s top tackler with 75 stops. How the Cowboys fare against the Bulldogs through the air with senior quarterback Tyler Russell could ultimately decide the opener for both teams. Expect LaDarius Perkins to get his fair share of tries in the ground game as well.
FINAL SAY: Mississippi State has a chance to be a balanced offense this season with six returning starters including the team’s top playmakers Russell and Perkins. The Bulldogs’ hidden strength may be its offensive line, a unit that features four veterans — Blaine Clausell, Gabe Jackson, Dillon Day and Charles Siddoway. With six starters back on defense, that means five players will be tested by Oklahoma State’s speed and tempo. Despite Oklahoma State being a preseason pick to challenge for a Big XII title, MSU should keep this one closer than public opinion thinks. It’ll be an enjoyable one for fans with plenty of big plays from both sides.
Photo Credit: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports