From breaking in a freshman quarterback to relying on its defense — yes, defense — there are plenty of storylines and intriguing questions prior to the start of football season. Here is Gina Mizell's 5-minute guide to the 2012 football season:
How will Wes Lunt perform?
This is obvious. All eyes will be on the true freshman as he takes over the starting job. Lunt physically looks the part — he's bulked up to about 220 pounds and has the strong, accurate arm to run OSU's spread offense. He's picked the system up quickly. And he's displayed a composed demeanor during practice. But how will he respond in a game situation, like being harassed by Texas' defensive line? To a receiver dropping a pass on a critical third down? To his first rowdy road environment in Tucson in Week 2? No one knows at this point. There's no way of getting around it — Lunt's performance will greatly dictate the trajectory of OSU's season.
Who will be the Cowboys' No. 1 receiver?
OSU lost five of its top eight receivers, including two-time Biletnikoff winner Justin Blackmon. That means a new top target must emerge. Tracy Moore, who has excelled in his transition from the inside to the outside, seems like the logical choice to take on that role. But there are other intriguing candidates, such as spring sensation Charlie Moore, sophomore Josh Stewart, junior college transfer Blake Jackson and a heap of freshmen like C.J. Curry and Blake Webb.
How good is this defense — really?
Coach Mike Gundy proclaims this to be the fastest and most athletic defense he's had since becoming the head coach at OSU. A glance at the depth and experience across the board appears to back up that statement, with eight starters returning on a unit that forced an NCAA-best 44 turnovers a season ago. But this is also a unit that ranked 107th in total defense, a number that may have soured voters who played a role in keeping the Cowboys out of the national title game. This defense should be improved this season, but will it be good enough to carry the Cowboys while Lunt and the offense find its footing?
Will special teams remain special?
Former longtime assistant Joe DeForest, who left during the offseason to become to defensive coordinator at West Virginia, built outstanding special teams units in Stillwater. Two of the key pieces from last season remain in punter/kicker Quinn Sharp and kick returner Justin Gilbert. But a large bulk of the special teams coordinator duties will fall on graduate assistant Ty Linder this season. And what about punt returns? Stewart struggled mightily to field the ball cleanly during the spring finale, and David Glidden has been limited in fall camp because of an ankle injury.
Which freshmen will make an immediate impact?
Receiver and defensive end seem like the likely spot for freshmen to get a shot. Multiple freshmen. Offensive coordinator Todd Monken half-joked that all five true freshman receivers — Curry, Webb, Brandon Sheperd, Austin Hays and Jhajuan Seales — could be thrown into the mix this season. Defensive coordinator Bill Young has been impressed with all four incoming defensive ends, especially Victor Irokansi. Injuries at backup cornerback have given Kevin Peterson and Ashton Lampkin valuable reps during fall camp, which could lead to playing time in the secondary.
5 IMPACT PLAYERS NOT NAMED WES LUNT
* Joseph Randle, junior running back: If it's possible to score 26 touchdowns and be overlooked, Randle was last season, with the star power of Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon grabbing attention. Randle, a versatile threat as a runner and a pass-catcher out of the backfield, will likely be even more important to the Cowboy offense this season as Lunt adjusts to the college game.
* Justin Gilbert, junior cornerback/kick returner: Arguably the Cowboys' best overall football player, Gilbert is a freak athlete and an electric playmaker on both defense and special teams. He snagged five interceptions while continuing to grow as a cover corner last season, and scored two touchdowns on kick returns. If he continues to progress at the same rate, expect an All-Big 12-caliber season from Gilbert — and for him to bolt for the NFL when it's over.
* Alex Elkins, senior linebacker: Elkins was a starter for the Big 12 champs a season ago while mostly playing on instincts and pure athletic ability. A guy who didn't play organized football until an open tryout at Blinn Junior College, Elkins could develop into a scary-good player as he continues to learn the Cowboys' defensive system.
* Brodrick Brown, senior cornerback: A preseason All-Big 12 selection, Brown is a shutdown corner that can make the circus interception. And the 5-8 “Bulldog” consistently does it while being matched up against much taller receivers.
* Quinn Sharp, senior kicker/punter: Yes, a kicker and punter can be an impact player. Sharp excels at both and is a legitimate contender to capture both the Lou Groza and Ray Guy Awards.
5 DATES THAT WILL SHAPE OSU'S SEASON
* Sept. 29: OSU's first conference game — and its first home contest against Texas since 2009 — is huge. Texas is trying to prove its “back,” and there's no better way to do that than knock off the defending Big 12 champs. OSU is trying to prove it has staying power atop the conference, and there's no better way to do that than to immediately take care of a team projected to finish higher in the standings. This is a light week for the rest of the conference, with West Virginia hosting Baylor, Iowa State hosting Texas Tech and TCU traveling to SMU.
* Oct. 6: One of the odd parts of OSU's schedule is the bye weeks that bookend the Texas game. Todd Monken said this summer that he likes it, because it gives Lunt more time to get comfortable in the offense early in the season. It will also allow the Cowboys an extra week to prepare for conference play, and then a chance to step back and correct mistakes immediately after their first Big 12 game. But then OSU has no more breaks until after its regular-season finale at Baylor on Dec. 1. The Big 12's marquee game that week is Texas-West Virginia in Austin.
* Nov. 10: Old friends visit Stillwater when Dana Holgorsen, Joe DeForest and Robert Gillispie come to town with West Virginia in perhaps the Cowboys' most anticipated home game. Kansas State's visit to TCU is another crucial game for the Big 12's pecking order, while OU will try to get revenge against Baylor without RG3.
* Nov. 17: OSU's final home game comes against Texas Tech. But OU will face WVU in Morgantown in what many have already dubbed the Big 12 Game of the Year. Depending on the results of this contest and the OSU-WVU game the previous week, this day could mean Bedlam once again has Big 12 title implications.
* Nov. 24: Mike Gundy finally captured his first Bedlam win as a head coach last season, a 44-10 beat down in Stillwater to clinch the Cowboys' first Big 12 championship. Follow that performance up with a win in Norman, and OSU will likely do more than prove that this series is now a rivalry. It will probably keep the Cowboys in the hunt to capture a second consecutive conference crown heading into the final week of the regular season. TCU also plays Texas in Austin, taking the place of the now-defunct rivalry game between the ‘Horns and Texas A&M.
5 BOLD PREDICTIONS FOR OSU'S SEASON
Charlie Moore, not Tracy Moore, will be Cowboys' leading receiver
As noted above, Moore is the most likely candidate to take over the go-to receiver role. But Moore has a great combination of size and speed — and a savvy ability to adjust to the ball to make the tough catch. His explosion in the spring finale was not a fluke, and backup position on the depth chart is essentially a formality heading into the season. Moore won't put up Blackmon-like numbers, but he'll develop into Lunt's go-to guy.
A starting linebacker will be usurped
Nothing represents the Cowboys' depth on defense more than the linebacker position, where all three starters return and young quality backups sit just behind. The second-teamers — Ryan Simmons, Lyndell Johnson and Nico Orenelas — may actually have more speed, athleticism and upside, which could show by midseason. Simmons is the most likely candidate to break into the starting lineup, overtaking incumbent Caleb Lavey.
OSU will crack top 3 in Big 12 in total defense
The Cowboys don't have a dominant line like Texas, which is expected to feature one of the top defenses in the nation. But OSU's secondary and linebackers gives it a top-notch back seven to counter the Big 12's passing attacks. The Cowboys won't have the best defense in the conference, but it will improve enough to finish in the top 3.
Wes Lunt will throw fewer interceptions in 2012 than Brandon Weeden threw in 2011
One of Lunt's greatest strengths is his ability to take care of the football, as he only tossed eight interceptions total over his final two high school seasons. Obviously, the talent level is a huge upgrade in the Big 12, so freshman mistakes are bound to happen, but Lunt also likely won't take as many risks as Weeden did last season as he grows within OSU's spread system. Weeden threw 13 picks in 2011. Expect 10 or fewer from Lunt.
Quinn Sharp will be a finalist for the Lou Groza and Ray Guy Awards
Sharp is already regarded as the nation's best all-around kicker, but he has never been a finalist for the Lou Groza or Ray Guy Award. That will change this season. Heck, he might win them both.