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.
David Ash: Yes, really. Ash still has a long way to go to prove he's a top-tier quarterback in the Big 12, but he's clearly much better this season than during his freshman campaign of 2011. He's completing 76.4 percent of his passes, has not thrown an interception and was named the Davey O'Brien Quarterback of the Week for his performance against Ole Miss (19-of-23, 326 yards, four touchdowns). With Ash efficient and effective, the Longhorns' offense is no longer one-dimensional.
Turnover margin: Last season, this stat would have heavily favored the Cowboys and their ball-hawking defense in just about every game they played. But so far in 2012, OSU has forced just three turnovers in three games and is minus-4 in turnover margin. UT, meanwhile, is tied for sixth in the nation with a plus-six turnover margin, with seven take-aways (including six interceptions) and just one turnover in its first three games.
Enough is enough: OSU went down to Austin and beat UT in back-to-back seasons. The Longhorns will be eager to return the favor in a road environment where they have found much success. UT has won seven of eight games against OSU in Stillwater, with the Cowboys' only victory coming in 1997.
Berry Tramel's take on OSU-Texas
The Cowboys won in Austin two years in a row, and while they did it with Brandon Weeden at quarterback, they didn't blast the Longhorns with the pass.
Oh, Weeden lit up Texas for 409 yards in 2010, completing 29 of 43 passes in a 33-16 victory. But in 2011, Weeden was 23 of 41 for 218 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions in a 38-26 win.
But in 2010, Kendall Hunter rushed for 116 yards on 23 carries. Last year, Jeremy Smith had 140 yards on seven carries, and Joseph Randle had 68 yards on 17 carries.
Now, with Wes Lunt injured and the Cowboys retooling with backup QB J.W. Walsh, OSU's chances this Saturday against Texas are clear. The Cowboys have to run the ball.
If OSU can get Randle and Smith loose, it opens the passing lane for Walsh, who doesn't have the cannon arm of Lunt or Weeden. Walsh needs the ‘Horns to be preoccupied with the run game.
That only happens if the Cowboys prove they can keep running it on Texas. Otherwise, the Longhorns win, and probably easily.
Jenni Carlson's take on OSU-Texas
Don't look now, but Texas might have another star quarterback in the making.
David Ash has been impressive through three games, throwing for seven touchdowns and completing 76 percent of his attempts. A year after he struggled with turnovers, he has thrown no interceptions.
Ash is the biggest concern for Oklahoma State.
Even though the Texas defense was hyped throughout the offseason, it hasn't been as stellar as expected. Last season, the Longhorns didn't give up a touchdown of longer than 20 yards until the last game of the regular season. This season, they've already give up three.
The defense has been up and down.
Ash has not.
The sophomore isn't ready to replace Vince Young and Colt McCoy as the most successful or most beloved of Longhorn quarterbacks, but he is providing reliable, solid play from a position that has been a bug-a-boo the past two seasons for Texas. When OSU last faced a reliable, solid quarterback, it got drubbed at Arizona.
Beware of David Ash, Cowboys.