Update: Apparently, the Zac Robinson injury is just a "horrible internet rumor." That's great news for the Pokes, and will make you feel a lot better if you bet on Oklahoma State.
Like OU, Oklahoma State has a big non-conference game, and actually a much bigger one. Unlike OU, they get to play at home in Stillwater, but they do face a more dangerous opponent (on paper, anyway): The Georgia Bulldogs. It is perhaps the most significant opening game in OSU history. With preseason hype at unprecedented levels for the Cowboys, this is a big, early chance to prove the doubters wrong and their supporters right.
Unfortunately for Oklahoma State, Mike Gundy apparently didn't like his "man" reflection and broke all the mirrors in his house, because the Cowboys have suffered one heck of a wave of back luck this week. Talk about horrible timing. I had actually just come back from class and saw the news that Zac Robinson might not play, leading to more revisions to this post and making me wonder if I should bother with it in the first place. However, despite the injuries, it is still a big game, so I will still take a brief look at Georgia and how they match up against the Pokes.
Georgia Bulldogs: Under the Radar This Time
Georgia seems far away from their #1 preseason ranking from last season. Finishing the 2007 campaign as arguably the hottest team in the country, they came in to the 2008 season with a lot of attitude and flare. Unfortunately, they could not quite live up to the expectations, losing three times in 2009 (and losing in humbling ways). This preseason, the Bulldogs are ranked #13 in the coach's poll, but they aren't getting talked about all that much this year, losing QB Matt Stafford and RB Knowshown Moreno, among others.
Can the Bulldogs win a big game on the road against a top 10 opponent with a new quarterback and runningback? Let's see what they have:
1. WR A.J. Green
Green is 6'4, 207 pounds, and he can run and jump. Yeah, he's good, and he put together quite a freshman season, catching 56 balls for 963 yards and 8 touchdowns. He will be quite the assignment for the OSU secondary, which isn't impressive to begin with. At least Cowboy fans can be glad that Mohamed Massaquoi is gone.
2. Offensive line
Georgia returns key starters and talent, including tackle Trinton Sturdivant, who missed all of last year with an ACL tear after starting 13 games in Georgia's successful 2007 season as a freshman. The total number of starts in the entire group is an impressive 74 games, with good experience beyond that. This might be Richt's best offensive line during his tenure.
3. Defensive tackle
The Bulldogs have quality depth here led by senior tackle Jeff Owens, who missed practically the entire 2008 season with an injury after starting in 2006 and 2007. Senior Geno Atkins is also well regarded despite a disappointing 2008 year (perhaps partially due to Owens' absence). In 2007, he recorded 7.5 sacks and 41 tackles, and the Bulldogs will be in great shape if these two can return to their old forms.
The linebackers are led by Rennie Curran, who finished the year with 115 tackles (most on team), 3.0 sacks (tied for most on team), and 2 forced fumbles. He is their only star but the other linebackers are solid in their own right and return from last season. Darryl Gamble had 60 tackles, 1 sack, and three passes broken up, and Akeem Dent had 46 tackles, 1.5 sacks, and 2 passes broken up.
1. Running back
Moreno is gone. Now they look a lot like we did last season (and arguably this season), looking for a replacement among a collection of serviceable backs. The leading returning rusher is Caleb King, and behind him is Richard Samuel. Unless somebody comes up as a surprise, it is almost certain that Georgia will not be able to replace Moreno's production.
2. Quarterback experience
It's not exactly fair to call Joe Cox a straight-up weakness, but it is worth noting that although he is a fifth-year senior, he has almost no meaningful experience. He doesn't have near the physical talent that Stafford had, but perhaps he will be more careful with the football. He is credited for being very smart with the ball and having a deep knowledge of the offense.
3. Defensive end
They lack both depth and health here, and they may even move a DT or two over if they must. Justin Houston leads all returning DEs with 2.5 sacks from last year and looks to be their strongest end this season... and he's not even playing against OSU, serving a two-game suspension. Demarcus Dobbs and Rod Battle will therefore be the only two defensive ends with experience this Saturday, and neither had big years last year, with Dobbs notching 2 sacks and Battle managing a mere half a sack.
As far as the secondary is concerned, it doesn't look horrible but it doesn't seem that impressive on paper, "SEC" or not.
What now, OSU?
This would be a good matchup if both teams were at full strength. Unfortunately for the Cowboys, they aren't. A.J. Green will be a tough cover for any defense, and Oklahoma State's Perrish Cox, the only returning player of the secondary, will probably get primary responsibilities against this monster. Cox is going to have to do well... oh wait, I forgot. While he will probably still play, it's a distraction that the Cowboys could do without. If he is held out of the game because of that... well, I guess there's no better way for OSU to break in a new secondary than to put them against a guy like A.J. Green. Right?
Remember Oklahoma State's questions concerning pass rush? They better bring it against a strong Georgia offensive line. With Georgia sporting what may be an rather ordinary running game, they can't let Cox get comfortable and find Green. Both Georgia's O-line and OSU's D-line have been tagged by fans as a source of hope and dominance, and OSU's D-line is going to have to come out on top. Oklahoma State's linebackers were supposed to be the best unit on the defense this season, but that may very well shift to the defensive line now that middle linebacker Orie Lemon is out for the season. If Georgia can establish the running game, it will be very bad news for Oklahoma State, which lacks DT depth and is hurting at linebacker.
Offensively, the load just got a lot bigger on the offensive line. As PB has already noted, there are already questions if the Cowboys will miss do-it-all tight end Brandon Pettigrew more than they want to admit. Add to the fact that they just lost their replacement, it makes that situation worse. That not enough? Zac Robinson now may not play, which puts more emphasis on pass blocking if inexperienced Alex Cate is forced to play. Cate also does not have Robinson's athleticism, so the Pokes cannot rely on him eluding the rush and making plays. Even if Robinson does return, he will likely not be at 100%, further limiting the Cowboy offense. This all sounds fantastic.
The best-case scenario? OSU wins the battle at the trenches and Kendall Hunter has a big game while the Georgia run game falters, forcing Cox to try to win the game with his arm. Zac Robinson can still play and is able to make some plays with his legs while finding Dez Bryant, and he is hardly touched by a meager Georgia pass rush. If Georgia's experienced offensive line can hammer at Okie Lite, it will be a long day for the Cowboy defense and it will put undue pressure on an injured Zac Robinson, or wide-eyed Alex Cate, to win the game.
I initially had OSU winning this game in Stillwater. Now? I have no idea. What a bizarre week. I'll still stick with Oklahoma State, but it's not a very confident pick at all.