OVERVIEW: Although ultra-successful coordinator Dana Holgorsen left to become the coach at West Virginia, the Cowboys' offense won't be much different from the unit that ranked third in the nation last season. QB Brandon Weeden is outstanding, WR Justin Blackmon may be the best in the country and the line is exceptional. If an effective starting tailback emerges, watch out.
AN INSIDE LOOK
ONE LINGERING QUESTION: QB Brandon Weeden and WR Justin Blackmon form one of the country's most productive passing combinations, but will the Cowboys be as explosive without former coordinator Dana Holgorsen, who now the coach at West Virginia? The teams for which Holgorsen served as coordinator (Texas Tech, Houston, Oklahoma State) always ranked among the nation's top scoring teams, so whether the Cowboys can match their 2010 production without him is a legitimate concern. New coordinator Todd Monken has been learning the system from Weeden. It usually works the other way around.
BEST-CASE SCENARIO: Weeden and Blackmon continue to be the country's most prolific passing combination, while TB Joeseph Randle picks up the rushing slack of the departed Kendall Hunter. And with the defense making considerable strides against the pass, the Cowboys stay in the conference race until the final week of the season. They topple Oklahoma in the "Bedlam" game to win their first Big 12 championship.
WORST-CASE SCENARIO: The rushing game isn't quite as strong, no consistent receiving threat emerges opposite Blackmon and the offense isn't quite as explosive without Holgorsen. The defense continues to struggle against passing teams. In addition, a road-heavy Big 12 schedule takes its toll. The Cowboys qualify for a bowl game with a good, but disappointing, 8-4 finish.
STAT TO KEEP AN EYE ON: Seven opposing quarterbacks passed for more than 250 yards against the Cowboys last season. Four threw for at least 300, including Oklahoma's Landry Jones and Nebraska's Taylor Martinez in dealing the Cowboys their two losses. The Cowboys will face seven opponents who last season ranked among the nation's top 20 in passing offense. Six of them return their starting quarterback.
BACKFIELD: What a difference a year makes, right? This time last year, the Cowboys had uncertainty at quarterback with Weeden replacing Zac Robinson. Then, Weeden threw for 4,277 yards. No uncertainty there anymore. Instead, it's at tailback, where the Cowboys seek a successor for All-Big 12 selection Kendall Hunter, who rushed for 1,548 yards. Sophomore Joseph Randle is expected to inherit that position. He showed flashes a year ago. Now, he has to produce consistently.
RECEIVERS: Blackmon is the latest in a long line of terrific Okie State receivers. He may be the best of the bunch. Blackmon led the nation in receiving yards and touchdowns last season. In fact, his 20 touchdown catches were more than six Big 12 teams. The Cowboys need a reliable secondary receiver. It could be senior Hubert Anyiam, but he has had a few costly drops before. Senior Josh Cooper hopes to build on a 68-catch output.
LINE: Huge All-Big 12 T Levy Adcock, G Lane Taylor and C Grant Garner lead a front that was surprisingly productive in 2010. The Cowboys' linemen paved the way for a running game that averaged more than 174 yards per game and allowed just 10 sacks. The Cowboys attempted 542 passes, so that's one sack in every 54 attempts. Can't ask for much more than that.
OVERVIEW: Coordinator Bill Young is considered among the best in his field. He needs to be. Defense is a sore subject in Stillwater after the Cowboys allowed at least 28 points in seven games in 2010. They were good against the run, but must replace several starters in the front seven. The secondary has experience -- bad experiences. Oklahoma State ranked among the worst in pass defense last season.
LINE: Senior E Richetti Jones arrived in Stillwater as a highly regarded recruit, but has had a so-so career. Maybe he'll go out in a blaze of glory. Senior E Jamie Blatnick has had some off-field issues, but he has been solid on the field. His 5.5 sacks led the team. Though both tackle positions will be manned by new and unproven starters, redshirt freshman Christian Littlehead looks like a good one.
LINEBACKERS: The loss of All-Big 12 selection Orie Lemon, who posted 133 tackles in 2010, leaves a major void in the middle. Three sophomores figure to start. Caleb Lavey (10 tackles last season) will try to take up some of the slack. Strongside LB Shaun Lewis could be a headliner after posting 58 tackles as a freshman and starting the final six games. Joe Mitchell converted from safety to a hybrid weakside linebacker spot.
SECONDARY: The Cowboys' defensive back are aiming for more consistency after a feast-or-famine showing. Oklahoma State led the Big 12 with 19 interceptions in 2010. But the Cowboys were 11th in the conference (and 115th in the nation) in passing defense, allowing more than 275 yards per game. Three-fourths of the starting lineup has full-time starting experience, including all-conference S Markelle Martin. Sophomore CB Justin Gilbert, the newcomer of in the starting lineup, is a big-play threat on special teams. He could be one in coverage, too.
If junior Quinn Sharp proves as adept a kicker as he is a punter, the Cowboys could have the best kicking game in the nation. Sharp is coming off a tremendous 2010 campaign in which he earned All-Big 12 recognition and was a finalist for the Ray Guy Award after averaging 46 yards per boot. He aims to replace the production of reliable K Dan Bailey, who completed his eligibility. Sharp was an all-state kicker in high school. The return teams are dangerous, especially when Justin Gilbert is bringing back kickoffs. He averaged 26.8 yards and scored two touchdowns on returns.
THE RECRUITING SIDE
Average national ranking past five years: 30th
Buzz: Oklahoma State was one of 11 programs that signed more prospects from Texas than its home state in the class of 2011. But the Cowboys had the most dramatic difference of any school: The Lone Star State produced 20 signees, while just two were from Oklahoma. The roster is loaded with Texas prep standouts. Its inclusion in the Big 12, with four Texas schools, has made Oklahoma State appear to recruits as somewhat the same as in-state schools. - BRIAN PERRONI
The loss of two senior starters leaves an opportunity at defensive tackle and Littlehead (6-3/332) is expected to take full advantage. Littlehead, a redshirt freshman, is expected to be a strong run-stuffer, but also has exceptional quickness for his size.
Not much will come easily for the Cowboys, who face Arizona and Conference USA power Tulsa in non-conference games. And that's not even the hard part. The Big 12 offers a grind on the road with trips to Texas A&M, Texas, Missouri and Texas Tech. At least they get Oklahoma in Stillwater.
This could be the kind of season billionaire alum T. Boone Pickens was hoping for when he made multi-million donations to the program. Expectations are high in Stillwater. The Cowboys are unveiling new uniforms and they've started a Facebook page, Weeden2Blackmon, to promote their lethal passing battery. With Weeden, Blackmon and an experienced, proven line, the offense figures to keep putting up big numbers. But the defense also remains a point of concern. Oklahoma State badly needs to improve its pass defense. Its championship aspirations may depend on it.