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Oklahoma State might be the most fun football team on the planet. That’s ... good and bad.

Defense will determine whether this is a Playoff contender or an explosive team with a suddenly interesting head coach.

NCAA Football: Oklahoma State at Texas Christian
Mason Rudolph & James Washington
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

This preview originally published May 23 and has since been updated.

For coaches, media season begins each July. That’s when the Media Days gatherings are initiated, the words “Bristol Car Wash” become an ESPN term everybody accepts, and coaches show up on your television again.

For the most part, these coaches look the same as they did. Creating a personal style is down the list of head coach priorities, behind things like “calling 17-year-olds at midnight, the moment a dead period ends,” “giving the proper fake smile to that one booster who knows what you need to do to fix your offense,” and “judging the latest edit on the season ticket hype video.”

“Typically” doesn’t mean “always,” however.

Long story short, Mike Gundy reappeared in the public eye last July sporting the beginnings of a mullet. By the end of the season, it had taken glorious form. And so far this offseason, he has donned a singlet for the OSU wrestling team and gone rattlesnake hunting during the OSU basketball team’s NCAA Tournament game.

After years of keeping it pent up and out of the public eye, Gundy is letting his Okie freak flag fly. And it’s rubbing off on his team.

Last fall, six FBS offenses racked up fewer than four passes of 40-plus yards: Army, BYU, Minnesota, San Diego State, Wisconsin, and Tulane. Five of these teams went to bowl games, one won its conference (SDSU), and another won its division (Wisconsin). Long bombs aren’t a requisite for success, but they were are fun.

Oklahoma State, meanwhile, had four passes of 80-plus yards.

Since 2010, only one other FBS team had done that (2014 Washington State). Two of OSU’s came in maybe the most underrated-ly crazy game of the season, a 45-38 win over Pitt; the Cowboys scored on a 91-yard bomb 16 seconds in, then set up the game-winner with an 86-yard bomb in the last two minutes.

Quarterback Mason Rudolph throws a lovely deep ball, and Gundy and coordinator Mike Yurcich have elected to use it. In 2015, Rudolph averaged 14.3 yards per completion with a 62 percent completion rate and a 2.1 percent interception rate. In 2016, Rudolph averaged 14.4 per completion, completed 63 percent, and threw just four picks all year, an INT rate of 0.9 percent.

“Screw it, we’re going deep” is the most enjoyable philosophy possible, especially if you have no rooting interest in the outcome. It’s going to be a massive success or a massive failure, and either way, explosions are fun. But for OSU in 2016, it was mostly successful. The Pokes ranked in the Off. S&P+ top 10 for the first time since 2012 and won at least 10 games for the fifth time in seven years.

After a slow start — sandwiching the win over Pitt were a 35-24 loss at Baylor and a 30-27 “loss” to Central Michigan that left OSU 2-2 — the Pokes ignited. They ripped off a seven-game streak, scoring at least 37 in six of those games and allowing 20 or fewer in three. And following a 38-20 loss at Oklahoma in the Big 12’s de facto championship, they responded by destroying Pac-12 runner-up Colorado, 38-8, in the Alamo Bowl.

The defense was up and down, but the offense just kept getting better. The Cowboys averaged 5.8 yards per play in their first four games, 6.4 in their next four, and 7.8 in their last five.

Those early bombs forced safeties to play really deep, and the emergence of freshman running back Justice Hill and senior Chris Carson (combined average: 212.5 rushing yards per game and 7.1 yards per carry over the final four games) created the ultimate pick-your-poison situation.

After years of seeing his name linked to other jobs, Gundy spent 2016 acting like a professor with tenure, like a man comfortable with who he is and what he wants his team to be. And while he has a couple of weapons to replace — Carson, Seales, and all-conference tackle Victor Salako — he has as many proven weapons returning as anyone. Rudolph, Washington, and Hill are back. So are junior possession receiver Jalen McCleskey and Marcell Ateman, who averaged 17 yards per catch in 2015. This is a terrifying offense.

Unfortunately, the Pokes have to play defense, too. That’s been an issue. After surging to ninth in Def. S&P+ in 2013, Glenn Spencer’s unit has ranked 76th, 70th, and 67th the last three years. And now the Cowboys have to replace four of their top six defensive backs and two of their top three running backs.

With this offense, it won’t take an incredible defense to make OSU a Big 12 contender, but it will probably take a top-50 performance. That’s far from a given.

NCAA Football: Alamo Bowl-Oklahoma State vs Colorado
Mike Gundy
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

2016 in review

2016 OSU statistical profile.

OSU’s 2016 took on a similar shape to its 2013; that year, the Pokes lost to four-win West Virginia early on and looked only alright in wins over Kansas State and TCU. But they scored at least 38 points in five straight games, obliterated undefeated Baylor on national television, and reached the Cotton Bowl on the power of a seven-game streak.

Granted, that 2013 team had a good defense. But the flow of the season was nearly identical.

  • First 4 games (2-2): Avg. percentile performance: 56% (~top 55) | Avg. score: OSU 39, Opp 28 (plus-11) | Avg. yards per play: Opp 6.0, OSU 5.8 (minus-0.2)
  • Next 4 games (4-0): Avg. percentile performance: 68% (~top 40) | Avg. score: OSU 42, Opp 26 (plus-16) | Avg. yards per play: OSU 6.4, Opp 5.9 (plus-0.5)
  • Last 5 games (4-1): Avg. percentile performance: 78% (~top 30) | Avg. score: OSU 35, Opp 27 (plus-8) | Avg. yards per play: OSU 7.8 Opp 5.9 (plus-1.9)

The offense trended upward, and the defense stayed almost exactly the same. When the Pokes scored 30 points, they won. When they didn’t, they lost.


Offense

Oklahoma State offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

The OSU offense occasionally falls apart and has to get put back together. In 2009, after two seasons in the Off. S&P+ top five, the Pokes fell to 48th. And after ranking fifth, first, eighth, and 20th from 2010-13, they plummeted to 78th in 2014.

In 2015, Rudolph took over, and the passing game flourished. OSU ranked 18th in Passing S&P+ but was held back by a miserable run game (114th in Rushing S&P+). Midway through 2016, the run game found its place again.

It took a little while. Rennie Childs struggled all year, and Carson missed a few games early in the season. But Carson and Hill formed quite the thunder-and-lightning pair late, and after a couple of shaky seasons, the OSU line began to look like the line of the early 2010s.

This isn’t an “Every contributor returns!” situation, but enough do. Up front, left tackle Victor Salako is gone, but he’ll likely be replaced by 6’8 Cal transfer Aaron Cochran, who started 16 games for the Golden Bears. Three other seniors should grace the lineup, along with guard Marcus Keyes, who was honorable mention all-conference as a freshman.

That will make Hill’s job pretty easy. The mid-three-star sophomore combined decent efficiency with some big-play pop, and with him next to Rudolph in the backfield, the OSU run game should take advantage of defenses distracted by the threat of the deep ball. There’s concern if Hill goes down — Carson, Childs, and Barry J. Sanders are gone, and the backup will likely be a true freshman (Chuba Hubbard) — but at worst, the Pokes will be able to lean on one of the nation’s best passing attacks.

NCAA Football: Alamo Bowl-Oklahoma State vs Colorado
Justice Hill
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Mason Rudolph's TD to INT ratio in 2016: 28 to 4! That's insane for any number of reasons.

  • The 28 touchdowns were in the nation's top 20.
  • Rudolph was the only QB to throw more than 400 passes and fewer than five picks. Hell, only one other did that in 300 passes (WMU's Zach Terrell).
  • He was also one of only 10 qualifying quarterback to average at least 9 yards per pass.
  • Two of the interceptions happened in one game! Kansas State picked him off twice in a game in which he otherwise completed 29 passes for 457 yards, five touchdowns, and a 210.2 passer rating.

You're just not supposed to be able to throw this aggressively while remaining this mistake-free. You’re not supposed to be able to do it after losing one of your best receivers to injury before the season. Marcell Ateman sat out the year with a foot issue; he averaged 17 yards per catch with a 64 percent catch rate in 2015, and he’s back. So, too, is maybe the most fun receiver in the country.

Over his last 22 games, James Washington has posted at least 100 receiving yards in 11. Against Texas Tech in back-to-back weeks in 2015, he caught nine passes for 384 yards. He caught nine for 296 against Pitt last September. He had nine for 171 in the bowl romp over Colorado and its awesome secondary.

OSU’s passing game slowed down over the last two weeks of the regular season — Rudolph completed just 28 of 59 passes with one touchdown against TCU and Oklahoma — but the Pokes still scored 51 points in those contests because the run game had also perked up. Ateman’s return and the addition of LSU transfer and former blue-chipper Tyron Johnson make this pass attack even more explosive, but the efficiency aspect could still use some work at times. That’s where possession options like McCleskey and Chris Lacy come into play.

Being able to throw the deep ball like this opens up so many other options. By the end of the season, Yurcich was exploring all of them. He should have a lot of fun pulling the strings this fall. As long as Hill doesn’t get hurt, anyway.

NCAA Football: Oklahoma State at Iowa State
Marcell Ateman
Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

Oklahoma State defensive radar

Gundy has no problem taking risks. In 2013, he had to replace offensive coordinator Todd Monken, who had taken the Southern Miss head coaching job; he ended up choosing Shippensburg OC Mike Yurcich because of stats he found online. That same offseason, he replaced seasoned defensive coordinator Bill Young after four straight seasons of good, but not good enough, defense.

OSU had ranked between 20th and 43rd in Def. S&P+ from 2009-12, but Gundy was aiming higher. He promoted Glenn Spencer from LBs coach, and a more aggressive defense surged to ninth. Great move!

The next year, OSU fell out of the top 60. The Pokes have yet to return.

The individual talent has still been there to some degree, but the product has been lacking. And while the Pokes were aggressive against the run last year — 22nd in stuff rate, 12th in power success rate — they were also flexible against the pass. Opponents’ passing success rate was 46.2 percent (115th in FBS), their completion rate 61 percent (92nd).

OSU was just about as good as ever on passing downs (23rd in PD S&P+) but awful at forcing them (86th in Standard Downs S&P+). And now the Pokes have to replace a lot of last year’s most productive players, including a pair of defensive tackles (Vincent Taylor and Motekiai Maile) who combined for a lot of that disruption. [Update: Latu Maile, Motekiai’s 300-pound brother, is coming over from the JUCO ranks.]

NCAA Football: Oklahoma State at Texas Christian
Tralund Webber
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

If junior tackle Darrion Daniels begins to prove his four-star recruiting ranking, that will solve one problem. OSU has a nice set of ends in Cole Walterscheid, Jarrell Owens, and Tralund Webber (combined: 20 TFLs, 10.5 sacks), and senior tackle DeQuinton Osborne is an all-or-nothing force in the middle — 5.5 of his 11 tackles were behind the line. But Daniels will be counted on for down-to-down consistency.

If the tackles hold up, then middle linebacker Chad Whitener should be capable of cleaning up in the tackles department, and I’m not too worried about the Cowboys having to lean on career backups like Justin Phillips and Kenneth Edison-McGruder or youngsters like Kevin Henry or Calvin Bundage at linebacker.

I do have a few concerns about the secondary, though. Granted, replacing pieces of an iffy unit isn’t as scary as replacing All-Americans, but this was a shaky secondary with safety Jordan Sterns and corners Lenzy Pipkins and Ashton Lampkin.

The safety position, guided by seniors Ramon Richards and Tre Flowers, is probably fine. But OSU will desperately need Clemson transfer Adrian Baker to dominate from the get-go. And even if that comes to pass, the Pokes will still be ultra green at the other corner spot(s), likely relying on unproven options like sophomores Madre Harper and A.J. Green or a career reserve like Darius Curry. Maybe new blood brings new energy. Or maybe this is the biggest question mark on the OSU defense for a second year in a row.

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship-Alabama vs Clemson
Adrian Baker
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

Even with a dreadfully inefficient pass defense (in a pass-heavy conference), the combination offensive firepower and a couple of huge legs nearly made Oklahoma State the best field position team in the country last year. The Cowboys’ average starting field position was 8.8 yards better than their opponents’; only Michigan (plus-9.1) could top that.

The legs are back. Zach Sinor averaged 42.8 yards per punt, and only 16 of his 56 punts were returnable. Better yet, those 16 returns netted a total of 15 yards. Meanwhile, nearly half of Matt Ammendola’s kickoffs resulted in touchbacks, and opponents averaged only 17.9 yards per return (13th in FBS) on the others. Sinor’s a junior, and Ammendola’s a sophomore, so this isn’t going to change for a while.

(It would help if Ammendola is as effective in the place-kicking department. He likely takes over for Ben Grogan this year.)


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep Tulsa 77 17.8 85%
9-Sep at South Alabama 108 21.6 89%
16-Sep at Pittsburgh 33 2.4 56%
23-Sep TCU 21 2.3 55%
30-Sep at Texas Tech 66 8.0 68%
14-Oct Baylor 28 6.2 64%
21-Oct at Texas 16 -4.5 40%
28-Oct at West Virginia 69 9.6 71%
4-Nov Oklahoma 5 -7.6 33%
11-Nov at Iowa State 57 6.8 65%
18-Nov Kansas State 35 7.8 67%
25-Nov Kansas 107 26.4 94%
Projected S&P+ Rk 22
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 3 / 69
Projected wins 7.9
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 9.9 (25)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 40 / 36
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 11 / 8.5
2016 TO Luck/Game +1.0
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 67% (78%, 56%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 9.3 (0.7)

Engage in a shootout with the Cowboys at your own risk. As constituted (i.e. without taking potential injuries into account), this is a top-five offense. I have concerns about running back depth, but you never know how, when, or where a team’s depth will be tested.

Combining an elite offense with powerful field position weapons in special teams gives you the makings of a Big 12 contender. But the defense has to figure out a way to improve despite turnover at defensive tackle, outside linebacker, and cornerback.

OSU was ninth in Off. S&P+ and 67th in Def. S&P+ a year ago; the Cowboys are projected third and 69th, respectively, this fall. Make that more like third and 50th, and that potentially makes them a favorite in 11 of 12 games this fall. There are plenty of challenges — trips to Pitt, Texas, West Virginia, Iowa State, and Texas Tech, plus visits from Tulsa, Oklahoma, TCU, etc. — but OSU can go blow for blow with anybody on the schedule. A small handful of stops could be the difference between 8-4 and 11-1.

Team preview stats

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