We are very fortunate to have a tremendous network of team-specific blogs with whom to work during game weeks. For the season kickoff in Dallas, we are joined by Chris Ross, manager at Cowboys Ride For Free, SB Nation's Oklahoma State site. Chris talks replacing key contributors and the keys to an OSU upset of the mighty 'Noles.
TN: Much has been made of Oklahoma State's losses from last year's team, and understandably so, as these include its quarterback, three wideouts, three offensive linemen, two linebackers, and its top five defensive backs. While this has to be concerning, particularly with respect to a season opener against the top-ranked team in the country, I have to imagine it's a little exciting too, as new heroes are bound to emerge for the Pokes. Who are some newcomers (be they freshmen or new starters) you're particularly excited to see this season?
CRFF: The Cowboys have lost a lot of experience and there's likely to be some growing pains for the Pokes this year. This isn't the first time Gundy's had to replace talent though, and there are some players I can't wait to see on the field. It's being said that JuCo transfer Tyreek Hill is not just a track guy, he's a football player happens to have world class speed. I'm not sure the hype could get any bigger for someone who's never played a down in Division I, but from what we've heard Hill is exceeding all expectations.
Coach Gundy has said that Hill's speed is on a whole other level that anyone he's ever coached. That's ridiculous praise when you realize former OSU corner Justin Gilbert ran the 4th fastest 40 yard dash at the NFL combine this past spring.
The Cowboys have been utilizing the diamond formation for a few years now, and its success relative to OSU's other offensive sets is well documented. The one drawback is personnel the formation requires. Having a player like Hill, who can line up as a receiver or a running back, allows the Cowboys to switch in and out of the diamond more efficiently, making the HUNH that much more effective.
True Freshman James Washington is another athlete people are high on. The true freshman wide receiver out of Stamford, TX is quietly garnering even more buzz among the coaches than Hill. He also brings speed with soft hands, and we were told by our sources Wednesday that he is running with the 8-9 WR rotation the Cowboys plan to utilize in games.
TN: While Oklahoma State retained both of its coordinators, it did lose offensive line coach Joe Wickline to Texas. How are you feeling about the 2014 offensive line with the loss of its position coach and three starters, particularly against an aggressive FSU defense in week one?
CRFF: Replacing staff is something Gundy's had to deal with quite a bit, including replacing both coordinators last season. Replacing Wickline will be no different. His replacement, Bob Connelly, comes in with a ton of experience, but is a bit of a journeyman in the coaching ranks. The real challenge in this situation, however, will be the fact that Wickline left the cupboard bare. Oklahoma State lost some much needed leadership and depth on the line when Travis Cross and Jake Jenkins decided to forego their remaining eligibility after graduation. There's only 4 upperclassmen remaining in the 1st and 2nd string rotations, but Connelly has said he's pleased with the progress he's seen so far.
The new ground for the fans is that we always trusted Wickline no matter what the condition of the line, so there is quite a bit of trepidation with this position group.
TN: Tell us ‘Noles fans a bit about what Mike Gundy and Mike Yurcich like to do stylistically in the Cowboys' offense. How will they look to attack the Seminoles' defense? Which players do FSU fans need to keep an eye on for OSU offensively?
CRFF: In one sense they will be a predictable spread offense, attempting to spread out and stress the defense with variety and speed of play. The offense has been consistently productive on a high level under Gundy, so OSU fans will expect more of the same this season. While the Cowboys have been through many offensive coordinators, Gundy's fingerprints are all over that side of the ball. He is not afraid to experiment and adjust, even in game, to find what works. The one thing we probably aren't going to see is much "power" running given the state of the OL mentioned above. I would imagine we will see lots of stuff on the edges and some quick passes. OSU has had a fair amount of success with the seam route, especially out of the diamond formation.
Regardless, the biggest factor in the success of the offense will be the QB. If Walsh and the backups can't effectively pass the ball, this will be a VERY long day for the Cowboys.
TN: On the flip side, what does defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer like to do on defense? How did he take the Cowboys from 24th in defensive F/+ in 2012 to 6th a year ago? Which personnel group/formation will we see the most?
CRFF: Coach Spencer just kind of unclipped the leash. Last year's defense was the most aggressive we've seen in a while, and I expect to see more of it this year.
Stylistically the Cowboys run a similar defense to Auburn, and there were some things the Tigers did in the first half of the National Championship game that Spencer and staff have been paying close attention to. I'm sure Winston will see some similarly disguised looks against the Pokes.
For the most part I wouldn't be surprised to see some cover 2 early and see how the Seminoles adjust to it. Use the strength of the defense, the line, to hopefully keep the FSU run game in check, and play a little bend but don't break in the secondary. As long as they don't give up the big plays they won't mind a little help from a condensed field to get a stop.
Turnovers will also be key. In the last four years OSU is 48th in turnover margin. If the Pokes can win that battle, they may just have a shot.
TN: The Pokes' defensive backs had great success with physical play against Baylor a year ago, a major part of a great home win for OSU. FSU fans saw teams late in the season disrupt some of Jameis Winston's success by playing physical man converage with his receivers. The ‘Noles' receivers may be even more prone to such disruption this season, as they are relatively unproven behind senior Rashad Greene. Will the Cowboys have the ability to press the FSU receivers in the defensive backfield? Are you comfortable with them doing so with little help over the top if they're forced to commit extra players to the box to slow down FSU's run game?
CRFF: The FSU rushing attack worries me the most. With the state of the defensive backs, the Cowboys cannot afford to bring extra guys to help shore up the run. They are just too inexperienced, and FSU is too good.
This is where the new players at linebacker will be key.
Departed seniors Caleb Lavey and Shaun Lewis were huge in run support. While Ryan Simmons has experience and has moved back to his natural position at middle linebacker, there is not another player with a start and some freshman will see the field. The Star LB position is a hybrid position that is a bit of a wild card here, as Michigan transfer Josh Furman will likely get the nod. The bottom line? If OSU has to start sneaking up a young safety to help, trouble will soon follow.
Two things have to happen to give the Pokes a shot at winning. They have to win first down and score first, preferably with a big play. Momentum will be key, as well as keeping the ‘Noles in passing situations, allowing the secondary to keep everything in front of them. This would give Glenn Spencer the freedom to use some different looks and hopefully keep Winston uncomfortable most of the night.
TN: In which position groups are you most confident? Least confident?
CRFF: I'm most confident in the receivers. They are about as deep as anyone in the country. The defensive line looks good as well, especially on the outside where they are two deep with both size and speed.
I'm most concerned about the offensive line and the secondary. CB Kevin Peterson can put a receiver on an island, but that's only one island in a great big ocean. The rest of the secondary is basically being rebuilt, and we won't know much about them until Saturday evening.
TN: What are your expectations for this 2014 Oklahoma State team?
CRFF: As we near kickoff I'm a little more optimistic than most. I don't think 10 wins is out of the question, but ask me again on Sunday. Realistically the Pokes should finish around 8-4. The defense will take a step back, but it wouldn't surprise me if the offense is a little better than last year. That of course depends on how well the offensive line comes together.
TN: The Pokes are currently about a 17-point underdog to FSU. What will need to happen for the Cowboys to pull the upset? Do you think they'll be able to do so?
CRFF: The Pokes have made an elusive Heisman-winning quarterback with a big arm look silly before. There's also something dangerous about a team that wins as much as the Cowboys do, and being able to play with nothing to lose. As with most big underdogs, a quick start, some big plays, and winning the turnover battle will be important. There's very little room for error for Oklahoma State, but I'm going to stick to my guns and call the upset - Oklahoma State 38, Florida State 31.
Big thanks to Chris and everyone at Cowboys Ride For Free! Be sure to head over there for all things Oklahoma State. Our answers to their questions are here.