The Oklahoma State football program was resurrected in the early 2000’s with Les Miles, and current head coach Mike Gundy has kept the train rolling since getting the job in 2005. The Cowboys finished 10-3 in 2016 and ranked 11th at the end of the season, so it is a little hard to actually call them a “sleeper.” However, I do not think many people realize how good of a chance Oklahoma State could have at playing in this season’s College Football Playoff.

The peak of Gundy’s run so far in Stillwater came in 2011 when the Cowboys were ranked number 2 in the nation late in the season before suffering a monumental upset at Iowa State. That 2011 season resulted in a Big 12 Championship, but Oklahoma State would have been facing their former coach and LSU in the National Championship game without a doubt if they could have pulled off the game in Ames, Iowa.

The Cowboys have run off some quality seasons since, but this year looks to be the most promising opportunity for the Cowboys to knock on the door of a title since 2011.

Oklahoma State returns seven offensive starters and five defensive starters for the 2017 season. Those numbers might not stand out, but it is more about who is returning for the Cowboys. Quarterback Mason Rudolph and wide receiver James Washington were both highly rated NFL prospects last winter, but each chose to return for their senior seasons.

Rudolph put up eye-popping numbers in 2016 with 4091 yards 28 touchdowns and only four interceptions. Rudolph’s passing yards came second only to Patrick Mahomes of Texas Tech who was drafted tenth overall in the NFL Draft by the Chiefs.

It is extremely rare in today’s college football landscape that you see a quarterback with those kinds of numbers stay for their senior season.

James Washington has been Rudolph’s top weapon the last two seasons, and returns after going for 1380 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns in 2016. The only player with more receiving yards in the Big 12 last season was Oklahoma’s Dede Westbrook, who won the Biletnikoff Award for best wide receiver in the nation.

The Cowboys ranked 14th in the nation in total offense last season, so with their two best players returning, look for them to score even more points this season.

Defensively Oklahoma State ranked 92nd in the country in 2016. However, they did have some strong performances holding West Virginia to 20 points, TCU to 6, and Colorado to 8 in the Alamo Bowl.

It is rare to find any team in the Big 12 that is all that great defensively with it being a heavily offense driven league, but the Cowboys will need to improve in 2017. If they can improve just marginally knowing what they have on offense, they will be in a good spot. Coach Gundy seems to think an improvement is looming saying “I just think we have more depth” comparing his defense to recent seasons, including 2011.

While Oklahoma State is going to be loaded with talent this year, their schedule will also play a big part in giving them a chance at a championship.

Their only out of conference test will come at Pittsburgh, who lose their star quarterback Nate Peterman and running back James Connor. Oklahoma State beat the Panthers last season with those players.

In the Big 12, two of the projected top teams, Kansas State and Oklahoma, will both have to play the Cowboys in Stillwater.

The Cowboys’ archrival Oklahoma has been the team to beat in the Big 12 for quite some time now. They lose two of the best running backs in the nation from a year ago, Joe Mixon and Semaje Perine, along with the already mentioned Heisman finalist Dede Westbrook. The Sooners also lose their head coach of the last 18 seasons, Bob Stoops.

The Oklahoma game will certainly go a long way in determining the potential of the Cowboys’ season. The game does have an interesting twist this year. It will be played on the first weekend of November rather than the final week of the regular season like it has been played since 2000.

Oklahoma is the game that will certainly be circled on the calendar but avoiding a monumental upset like 2011 will also be important for the Cowboys.

In all, an experienced coach like Gundy, returning stars like Rudolph and Washington, and a team that is hungry to overthrow their arch rival all sets up for Oklahoma State to absolutely get after a manageable 2017 schedule.