I'm picking Oklahoma State to win, and there are good reasons why the Cowboys are favored. But watch the line this week in Vegas. My guess is it will slide down just a little, maybe a significant number.
Oklahoma State will need to play well and minimize mistakes in order to win the game. Repeat, this is not an easy opener. It is an opportunity if handled correctly. It's a damaging blemish if handled poorly.
Before I present the results of our little checkmark game, which by the way does not replace the successful "Key Match-Ups and Prediction" feature that comes on Thursdays during game weeks, I want to introduce my concerns going into the Mississippi State game.
Rushing Offense: This is a shared concern with the running backs and the offensive line, as both need to play well in order for the run offense to click. My concern may have more to do with just Joseph Randle's departure and having not seen as much of Jeremy Smith last season. I have always thought Smith was a good running back. I need a reminder and I need to see Desmond Roland be the forceful back that he showed in spring and in fall camp in a real game. The offensive line needs to do its thing. This concern may be my whimpy part of my personality being revealed.
Special Teams (Kicking Game): I'm fine with the return game and I even suspect that may end up being responsible for a big play on Saturday. But it's a freshman PAT/field goal kicker (Ben Grogan) and a new punter that hasn't punted since high school that have me most concerned. See that sentence above about season openers often coming down to turnovers and special teams.
Catching Passes: Not only is Mississippi State breaking in a bunch of new receivers with no returning starters, the leading returning pass catcher is running back LaDarius Perkins with 19 receptions and the leading returning receiver is Robert Johnson with 17 catches. The word is Mississippi State's situation at the position has been compounded by injuries including injuries at tight end where they are more experienced.
Facing Tempo: New defensive coordinator Geoff Collins has put an emphasis on "juice" in fall camp which equates to effort and energy. They will need it but it is hard to imitate the Oklahoma State pace and may be even harder in the future. The only way to find out is to see what the juice level is for the Bulldogs on Saturday. The other concern is getting calls and subs in.
Defending the Pass: Just like at receiver, the players are new to the field with only free safety Nickoe Whitley a returning starter. The new starters are all juniors, so it's not like they are throwing freshmen out there. They also had good examples to learn from last season with Banks the Jim Thorpe Award winner and Slay and Broomfield all going to the NFL.
Now for the checkmarks:
Offensive Skill: Checkmark to OSU
Offensive Line: Checkmark to Mississippi State
Defensive Front: Even, both get checkmarks
Defensive Backs: Checkmark to OSU
Special Teams: Checkmark to Mississippi State
Coaching: Checkmark to OSU
Intangibles: Checkmark to OSU
Cowboys have the edge in skill players with a talented corps of receivers. Mississippi State returns four starters on the offensive line, and the fifth player started half of last season. They are big and good.
The defensive fronts are very close with Mississippi State having the edge at the ends, Oklahoma State at the tackles, and both teams return their starting linebackers. Cowboys may have one of their best secondaries in some time.
I gave the Bulldogs the edge in special teams with the veteran kickers but Oklahoma State may have a winning edge in the return game. Mike Gundy has coached longer and won more games than Dan Mullen, although both are good coaches that have greatly improved programs up against tough competition.
Houston should feel like a friendly road game for the Cowboys with an edge in crowd, and the noise of the cowbells shouldn't bother them.