Four questions for three writers, breaking down the Cowboys as they enter their first bye week and prepare for a crucial Big 12 opener at home against Texas:
1. Through three games, what’s this team’s biggest concern?
Gina Mizell: Other than Wes Lunt’s health? I will go with the depth in the secondary. Devin Hedgepeth’s Achilles injury obviously got overshadowed by Lunt’s knee injury, but that’s a huge blow. First, it’s a tough break for one of the “good guys” on the team. But the Cowboys are suddenly really thin at cornerback with two season-ending injuries (Hedgepeth, Jonovan Griffin) announced in the past two weeks. Andrae May not only needs to come back fully healthy, and soon, but he needs to play quite a bit better than he did in 2011. A lot will be riding on true freshmen Kevin Peterson and Ashton Lampkin. I know the coaches like Larry Stephens at safety, but it might be worth exploring moving him back to corner. And even though the defense played much better against Louisiana-Lafayette, I feel like the strong safety spot and nickel package were exposed against Arizona. Shamiel Gary and Lavocheya Cooper have struggled in pass coverage, and sometimes they’re on the field at the same time. That’s a concern going into the Big 12 season.
John Helsley: Health. Wes Lunt is out — at least temporarily — and key backup corner Devin Hedgepeth is done for the season and possibly his career, suffering another achilles tear. What a tough blow for a kid who seemed to genuinely be an outstanding young man. Starters Alex Elkins and Evan Epstein also missed Saturday’s game and need to get back for the Texas Longhorns in what figures to be an all-hands-on-deck situation in two weeks.
Anthony Slater: Injuries are an issue, but an uncontrollable one. Right now, the most pressing and fixable concern has to be turnovers. And I’m not just talking about the defense forcing more. As a team, Oklahoma State was first in the Big 12 with a +21 turnover differential last season. Through three weeks this year, the Cowboys are at -4, dead last in the conference. That means they not only aren’t taking the ball away (two forced turnovers), but they are giving it up too frequently (five picks and two fumbles). They’ll need to flip both trends if they want to compete consistently in Big 12 play.
2. Who’s the one guy, who hasn’t shown much yet, you still believe will have a huge impact on the season?
Gina Mizell: I’ll go one guy on offense and one guy on defense. On offense, I’m still a believer in Charlie Moore. Not as the Cowboys’ leading receiver, but I think he’ll produce way more than the four catches for 40 yards he has so far. On defense, I still really like Ryan Simmons and was pretty surprised he didn’t play more against Arizona. He’s already shown a good combo of power and speed in the middle and will continue to improve with experience.
John Helsley: Justin Gilbert — kickoff return specialist. Seems like Gilbert hasn’t quite adapted to the new kickoff rules, with a few strong returns mixed in with some mediocre tries. The standards for Gilbert are obviously high, as he carries a respectable 29-yard return average with a long of 61 on nine runbacks. Still, Gilbert is a game-breaker, a guy who gets you on the edge of your seat anticipating every touch. And so far, that special spark is missing. Bet he figures it out, though.
Anthony Slater: Can I say Blake Jackson? I know the guy’s produced two straight 100-yard games with a touchdown, so it’s hard to say he hasn’t had a big impact. But I feel like he’s ready to do more. After three drops polluted his game against Arizona, Jackson caught five for 112 on Saturday, giving the Cowboys his first solid end-to-end performance. And I still felt his size and athleticism went a little underutilized. I mean, they don’t just make 6-foot-3 235-pound athletic freaks every day. And when they do, we usually call them linebackers. Not slot receivers. So I think, if he avoids the dropped passes, Jackson will emerge as Oklahoma State’s go-to target, nearing Justin Blackmon-level production for the next two seasons.
3. JW Walsh was great on Saturday. But can the Cowboys win games against some of the Big 12′s best teams with Walsh quarterbacking?
Gina Mizell: That remains to be seen, obviously. I will admit, Walsh’s arm was much better than I expected Saturday, and I think it improved from the Savannah State game to the ULL game once the coaches cut him loose a bit. I think those back-to-back strikes to Blake Jackson really sparked his confidence. Walsh is a bit of an intriguing prospect against the stout UT defense. On one hand, I think the Longhorns will stack the box and force Walsh to beat him with his arm, and the UT secondary is obviously far superior to ULL’s. He’ll need to be much more accurate than he’s shown during his time in Stillwater so far. But on the other hand, Walsh might have an ability to scramble away from that pressure and use his athleticism to make some plays. I ultimately think a healthy Lunt would give OSU the best chance to beat the ‘Horns, but the extra week should help Walsh and the coaching staff, and will likely force Texas to prepare for two very different styles of quarterback.
John Helsley: Before Saturday, I would have had my doubts. Now, I say absolutely he can direct big wins. Walsh played better than he has as a Cowboy Saturday — better than any less stressful practices or scrimmages — shining in the spotlight with a strong performance. He made some plays with his legs, as expexted, but also was good in the passing game, showing some zip at times. My guess: he’s a gamer. And that’s a good thing.
Anthony Slater: JW Walsh’s ceiling seems to be Zac Robinson. Wes Lunt’s ceiling seems to be Brandon Weeden. At their peaks, I think that’s the kind of Big 12 seasons the two could produce. Robinson was always competitive, but never realistically challenged the upper-echelon for the Big 12 title. Weeden, on the other hand, broke through and won the Cowboys first conference crown. Do I think JW could compete and possibly pull off a couple big wins? Absolutely. But do I think he’d consistently take down the league’s elite? Not in this conference.
4. Who will win the Big 12? Does OSU have a realistic shot? What’s your predicted record and bowl destination for the Pokes?
Gina Mizell: I still like West Virginia to win the conference. I know the Mountaineers haven’t played anybody yet, but that offense looks ridiculously potent, and OSU proved last year that can win in this league. Kansas State had looked really impressive, as well, and that game against OU is obviously huge this weekend. And I’ve been impressed with Texas QB David Ash’s progress from freshman to sophomore year, so you combine that improvement with that nasty defense, and maybe Texas really is “back.” Before the season, I predicted OSU to go 8-4, with losses to OU, WVU and K-State and the toss-up games being Texas, TCU and Arizona. The Cowboys have already lost one of those. At this point, I have to pick Texas next weekend, too. So unless they go on the road and beat OU or K-State or upset Dana Holgorsen and Co. in Stillwater, the Pokes are looking at 7-5. Though 8-4 is obviously still plausible. That’ll put OSU in the middle of the pack in the Big 12 and on track for the Buffalo Wild Wings, Holiday or Texas Bowl. I’ll predict the Holiday Bowl.
John Helsley: My preseason pick was West Virginia and the Mountaineers have done nothing to discourage that opinion. Do the Pokes have a shot? Sure, expect a wild ride through this Big 12 schedule, with a lot of tossups and a lot of so-called upsets occuring every week. The Big 12 champ won’t be unbeaten and may have multiple league losses be the time we get to December. In that scenario, a lot of teams have realistic hopes. I see the Cowboys finishing something like 8-4 and going to the Holiday Bowl to face UCLA.
Anthony Slater: Despite some disciplinary and injury issues, I still like OU. They’ve got an explosive offense and just enough on defense. But check back with me Saturday night. We’ll know a lot more about them after the Kansas State game. As far as the Cowboys, they’ll need a fully healthy and productive Wes Lunt back as soon as possible. But even then, I don’t see them competing for the Big 12 title. The defense is so unpredictable and, in this league, is bound to give up some big games, the kind its offense can’t crawl back out of. Final record and bowl prediction? I agree with both of you, 8-4 and the Holiday Bowl sounds about right.