Houston, TX (Sports Network) - The 13th-ranked Oklahoma State Cowboys kick off the 2013 season on Saturday afternoon, as they tangle with the Mississippi State Bulldogs at Houston's Reliant Stadium.
Mississippi State enters the new season hoping to play more like it did in the first half of 2012 (7-0), than it did in the second (1-5). The Bulldogs finished an even 4-4 in SEC action, and they are seeking their fourth straight bowl bid.
MSU is 14-2 in non-conference, regular-season games under head coach Dan Mullen, winning each of their last 13 such encounters. Mullen has led his team to victory in each of the previous four season openers, and with his next win will become the first coach in school history to win 30 games in his first five seasons.
It was a roller coaster of a season for Oklahoma State in 2012, the team logging an 8-5 record, which included a 5-4 showing against the rest of the Big 12 Conference.
Under the direction of eighth-year head coach Mike Gundy, OSU has won 67 games, and the Pokes have gone a league-best 20-5 against the rest of the Big 12 since 2009. Oklahoma State is one of only three schools from automatic- qualifying BCS conferences to win at least nine games in each of the last four seasons -- the other two being Alabama and Oregon.
The series between these two teams is knotted at 2-2, and this is the first meeting since 1999 when the Bulldogs prevailed at home in a 29-11 final.
Mississippi State won more games than it lost last year, but the team averaged just over six points per tilt more than it allowed. The squad featured a 1,000-yard rusher in LaDarius Perkins (1,024 yards, eight TDs), a quarterback in Tyler Russell who threw for nearly 2,900 yards, 24 TDs and 10 interceptions, and a receiver in Chad Bumphis who pulled down 58 balls for 922 yards and 12 scores.
Bumphis is the only one not back for this season, and both Perkins and Russell will try to take their respective games to the next level in an effort to get the Bulldogs off on the right foot once again.
As for the Mississippi State defense, it ranked in the top half of the SEC in passing yards allowed (221.8 ypg) and was particularly adept at coming up with turnovers, tying LSU for the league lead with 33 in sporting a +16 turnover margin.
Two areas in which the Bulldogs did not achieve a respectable level of success was third-down conversions (.421) and sacks (18), both of which ranked them 13th in the 14-team conference.
Cameron Lawrence led the squad with 120 tackles, while Bernardrick McKinney also went over the century mark with 102. Darius Slay logged five of the team's 19 picks, while Preston Smith had 4.5 sacks. McKinney and Smith are back, helping solidify a defense that hopes to show significant improvement in the areas in which it failed to impress a season ago.
Oklahoma State utilized three quarterbacks in 2012, each of whom completed better than 60 percent of his passes, tallied almost 4,300 yards and combined for 34 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. Senior Clint Chelf and sophomore J.W. Walsh are both expected to play this week, and coach Gundy likes what he has seen in both players.
"We're going to play both guys. It hasn't changed since spring. Both quarterbacks have improved. I don't know any other way to say it. It's the same thing I've said for the last five months. Both guys are doing a good job. We're glad we have them. They'll both get a chance to play."
The Cowboys are fortunate to have leading receiver Josh Stewart back after he tallied 101 grabs for 1,210 yards and seven TDs a year ago. Charlie Moore (35 rec., 542 yards, six TDs) and Blake Jackson (30 rec., 598 yards, three TDs) also return for another go, giving Chelf and Walsh even more weapons down the field.
Joseph Randle was one of the Big 12's best running backs during his time in Stillwater, rushing for 1,417 yards and 14 TDs last season, but his departure means the duo of Jeremy Smith and Desmond Roland will see their workload increase after combining for 672 yards and 12 TDs in 2012.
The Cowboys' Achilles' heel last season was their inability to limit passing yards, as foes averaged 280 ypg through the air to saddle the unit with the 110th-ranked passing defense in the nation. Glenn Spencer was promoted to defensive coordinator during the offseason, and he will have as many as seven players back with starting experience to implement what will surely be a more aggressive approach.
Defensive tackles Calvin Barnett and James Castleman combined for 15 TFL last season, and they have the talent to be one of the best interior tandems in the Big 12. Senior linebackers Shaun Lewis and Caleb Lavey each had in excess of 50 tackles last year, while free safety Daytawion Lowe was the unit's co- leader in stops with 75, adding a pair of picks, one fumble recovery and a sack to his stat line. Senior Justin Gilbert has the ability to be one of the league's best corners, and he is a standout kick returner as well.