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 finished the season No. 11 in the country, 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 thus far in Stillwater came in 2011 when the Cowboys were ranked No. 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 its former coach at LSU in the National Championship game if it 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 Gundy’s program 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 4,091 yards, 28 touchdowns and only four interceptions. Rudolph’s passing yards finished second only to Patrick Mahomes of Texas Tech, who was drafted 10th overall in the NFL Draft by the Kansas City Chiefs.
It is extremely rare in today’s college football landscape to see a quarterback with those kinds of numbers stay for their senior season.
Washington has been Rudolph’s top weapon the last two seasons, and he returns after going for 1,380 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 as the top wide receiver in the nation.
The Cowboys ranked 14th nationally in total offense last season, and with each of 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, it did muster strong performances by holding West Virginia to 20 points, TCU to six points and Colorado to eight points in the Alamo Bowl.
It is unusual to often find any team in the Big 12 that is spectacular defensively as it is an offensively-driven league, but the Cowboys will need to improve on that side in 2017. Knowing what their offense presents, just marginal steps forward on defense should have them in a good spot. “I just think we have more depth,” Gunday said when comparing his defense to recent seasons, including 2011.
While Oklahoma State is going to be loaded with talent this year, its schedule will also play a big part in its chance at a championship.
The Cowboys’ only out of conference test will come at Pittsburgh, who loses their star quarterback Nate Peterman and running back James Connor. Oklahoma State beat the Panthers last season even while they had those standouts.
Two of the other top projected Big 12 teams this season, Kansas State and Oklahoma, will both have to play the Cowboys in Stillwater.
The Cowboys’ archrival has been the team to beat in the Big 12 for quite some time now. Oklahoma loses 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 lost their head coach of the last 18 seasons, Bob Stoops, earlier this summer.
The Oklahoma game will certainly go a long way in determining the potential of the Cowboys’ season. The game also an interesting twist this year. It will be played on the first weekend of November rather than being the final game of the regular season for each team like it has been 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 archrival all equates for Oklahoma State to get after a manageable 2017 schedule.