STILLWATER — This day two years ago, I rolled into Stillwater, unpacked only my essentials (my full trunk for six months provided that evidence) and got tossed into covering the Oklahoma State 2011 football season less than two weeks before games started.
While on this beat, I've seen the best season in school history and a good-but-not-great season that was still handled pretty darn admirably given the quarterback carousel.
This season, OSU is picked to win the Big 12 for the first time in school history.
So, will this season end back at the Fiesta Bowl for the second time in three years, perhaps even in a rematch against Pac-12 power Stanford? Or will this season end more like 2012, with the Cowboys finishing in a logjam in the second tier of the conference, which, as we've seen, can cause them to slip to a postseason dud like the Heart of Dallas Bowl?
Let's look at what could cause each scenario:
Destination: Fiesta Bowl
Depth, depth, depth
The options at the skill positions, particularly at receiver, are aplenty. But coach Mike Gundy is legitimately pleased with his group of defensive tackles for the first time since he's been the head coach (think about this: Anthony Rogers and Nigel Nicholas and occasionally Christian Littlehead were starting at tackle in 2011). There's also solid depth and experience at linebacker and safety. And, of course, Clint Chelf and J.W. Walsh proved the Cowboys also have two solid quarterbacks.
Big 12 landscape
The conference is, obviously, wide open after six teams earned at least one first-place vote in the preseason media poll. The mass exit of top-notch quarterbacks in such a pass-heavy league is much to blame for the uncertainty surrounding the league as we enter the season. But with the returners the Cowboys do have — plus the program's steady climb to national prominence under Gundy — OSU is as likely a champ as any. Additionally, the Cowboys have a very favorable schedule, getting Bedlam, TCU, Baylor and Kansas State at home.
The 2011 unit thrived on forcing turnovers, leading the nation with 44 take-aways. The Cowboys are trying to get back to that aggressive style — tighter coverage, more pressure on the quarterback — under new coordinator Glenn Spencer. If the defense can create just a few more opportunities for the OSU's explosive offense, the Cowboys will be tough to beat.
Destination: Heart of Dallas Bowl
Lack of superstar power
This is no disrespect to Josh Stewart, Calvin Barnett, Shaun Lewis and Tracy Moore, who are all capable of earning All-Big 12 honors by season's end. But Gundy always talks about the “first-round picks” when assessing what separates a good team from a great team. OSU had two in Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon two years ago. That ability to take over games (Weeden in the second half at Texas A&M, Blackmon in the Fiesta Bowl, both at the end of the Kansas State thriller) is rare and special. Does OSU have that type of playmaker in 2013? Maybe. But to the degree of #Weeden2Blackmon? Not at this point.
No Quinn Sharp
Sharp's value as an elite kicking triple threat cannot be overstated. Currently, the Cowboys will have a true freshman (Ben Grogan) kicking field goals and a transfer who didn't play football last year (Kip Smith) kicking off. The punting job hasn't been filled yet. Grogan and Smith were both very highly regarded coming out of high school, but Sharp was as automatic as they come in all three roles.
Two new coordinators
There's no real reason to believe right now that Spencer and Mike Yurcich won't find success in their new roles on the OSU staff. But we won't know for sure until the games start. Granted, Todd Monken was a new offensive coordinator in 2011, and that worked out OK.