The calendar hasn't yet turned to October, but Oklahoma State's Big 12 opener against No. 12 Texas will go a long way in determining the conference's pecking order.
OSU, the league's defending champ, will aim to show it can stay among the Big 12's elite, despite a shocking defeat at Arizona during nonconference play and the loss of starting quarterback Wes Lunt to a left knee injury.
And after two subpar years by UT's standards, the Longhorns are trying to show they are “back,” paced by a standout defense and a much-improved quarterback in David Ash. UT rolled through its nonconference schedule, highlighted by a 66-31 rout at Ole Miss in its last game.
Expect another wild Big 12 season, with the league's champion unlikely to get through the schedule gauntlet completely unscathed.
But Saturday's prime-time showdown at Boone Pickens Stadium gives both OSU and UT a chance to make an early statement.
Five reasons OSU will win
Two-quarterback effect: Coach Mike Gundy has been keeping the exact diagnosis for Wes Lunt's left knee injury, as well as the expected recovery time, under wraps. That forces Texas to spend time preparing for two very different styles of quarterback — the strong-armed Lunt and the agile J.W. Walsh. And Walsh's scrambling ability against UT's vaunted pass rush might actually benefit OSU against the Longhorns.
Running game: Last season against the Longhorns, the OSU offense was solid, but the running game was spectacular. Particularly special was Jeremy Smith, who burst through two giant holes created by the offensive line for touchdown runs of 74 and 30 yards. So far this season, the Cowboys rank sixth nationally in rushing offense (308.33 yards per game). Solid production from Smith and backfield mate Joseph Randle will take a lot of pressure off whoever plays quarterback for the Cowboys.
Defensive tackles: How good this OSU defense is still remains to be seen, but Calvin Barnett and James Castleman are quickly developing into a formidable duo at defensive tackle. If they can clog the middle of the line against UT running backs Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron, and get pressure up the middle on quarterback David Ash, that will go a long way in slowing down the ‘Horns' offense.
Special teams: In one of the crazier sequences you'll ever see in a college football game, Justin Gilbert and Fozzy Whittaker opened the second half of last year's OSU-UT contest with back-to-back 100-yard kickoff returns for touchdowns. Whittaker's eligibility has dried up, while Gilbert is back and determined to hit the seams faster than in the Cowboys' first three games. Also still around for the Cowboys is kicking giant Quinn Sharp.
Home crowd: The Cowboys have won eight consecutive home games and welcome Texas to Boone Pickens Stadium for the first time since a 41-14 thumping by the Longhorns in 2009. This game is a national broadcast under the lights against a highly ranked opponent that OSU has not defeated at home since 1997. The folks in bright orange will be ready to rock.
Five reasons OSU will lose
Alex Okafor and Jackson Jeffcoat: Arguably the two front-runners for the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Award, Okafor and Jeffcoat are monsters off the edge. The pair has already accounted for 30 tackles (seven for loss), five sacks, 10 quarterback hurries and a forced fumble in 2012. Keeping those guys out of the backfield will be a challenge for inexperienced tackles Parker Graham and Daniel Koenig, and Walsh may be running wild out of necessity.
Superior defense: Okafor and Jeffcoat deserved their own distinction, but Texas sports what's expected to be the top defense in the Big 12 — and obviously a much tougher unit that Louisiana-Lafayette showed Walsh and Co. two weeks ago. Cornerback Quandre Diggs has already tallied three interceptions, while safety Kenny Vaccaro has 20 tackles, one interception, one fumble recovery and three quarterback hurries to lead UT's secondary. Those ‘Horns will force Walsh to prove he can make those throws to the outside receivers, something that, despite his great performance against ULL, he was not able to consistently do.