Entering his fourth season as Oklahoma State's head coach, the biggest question facing Mike Gundy is whether he can get past 6-6 in the regular season. The answer to that question relies almost entirely on how the Cowboys answer these questions:
Is the defense really better than last year?It is definitely better in two areas: overall speed and depth. Those two improvements should lead to better results on the field, but there are several inexperienced players — either first-year guys or returning players who haven't significantly seen the field — who will be heavily counted on. The biggest key will be the defensive line, which can take pressure off the secondary by providing more of a pass rush than last year's unit. The linebackers have experience and will be considerably faster than last year with Patrick Lavine and Andre Sexton at the outside spots.
How will Oklahoma State replace the production of running back Dantrell Savage?With quantity. Savage anchored the Big 12's best — and the nation's eighth-best — rushing attack. Sophomore Kendall Hunter will be the team's first option at running back after earning playing time as a true freshman, but junior-college transfer Beau Johnson has impressed coaches as well. Junior Keith Toston is coming off ACL surgery, but will still get a shot because of his experience. And a pair of true freshmen, Travis Miller and Kye Staley, stood out during August, enough so that coach Mike Gundy would be comfortable playing either.
Who will develop into the No. 2 receiver opposite Dez Bryant?It's a wide-open race, but the good news is four (or more) players vying for the No. 2 spot are talented if inexperienced. Juniors Jeremy Broadway and DeMarcus Connor, and sophomores Artrell Woods and Damian Davis all could be significant players in the passing game, along with a few others. This is where William Cole will be missed. Truthfully, Brandon Pettigrew is the team's second-best receiving option, but because of his blocking skills, he'll be kept out of several passing plays to provide extra protection for quarterback Zac Robinson. Still, Pettigrew should improve on his total of 35 receptions from last year.
Which is a bigger key to success: defensive improvement or Zac Robinson's health?Robinson's health is deeply important, but for the Cowboys to do better than their 7-6 mark of the last two seasons, the defense must play better. And should Robinson get hurt, defensive improvement becomes more important, because the defense will be asked to keep the Cowboys in the game with a young quarterback running the show. Remember, Robinson was young and inexperienced when he took over for Bobby Reid last year, so all is not lost if he goes down this season. OSU has enough talent on the offensive line, as well as the running back and receiver positions, to take pressure off the backup quarterback. Be sure to watch OSU football with Scott Wright, our weekly video show about the Cowboys every Tuesday on NewsOK.com as well as the Bedlam Nation Conversation every Friday at NewsOK.com.
Tight end Brandon Pettigrew is possibly OSU's second-best receiving threat and should improve on his 35 receptions. by MATT STRASEN, THE OKLAHOMAN