You only get so many chances to compete for a title at a place like Oklahoma State. The Big 12’s pecking order has always put the Cowboys in a precarious position, with Oklahoma as an in-state rival, Texas just to the south, and recently emergent private schools in TCU and Baylor. A glance at Mike Gundy’s 13-year tenure reveals just how rare it is for the Cowboys to have a shot to win more than just the league.
The Pokes typically recruit in the upper middle of the Big 12, yet they regularly produce impressive S&P+ figures and have won at least 10 games five times this decade. That’s all good, but Oklahoma State’s still only managed one Big 12 title under Gundy — in 2011. It’s hard to make a dent.
Gundy’s calling card has been offense, featuring an Air Coryell-type spread/pro-style system that features lead runs and vertical strikes to star receivers. Former coordinator Dana Holgorsen helped the Cowboys make the adjustment with some air raid tweaks in 2010, and since then, OSU’s had a 4,000-yard passer three times (Brandon Weeden twice, and Mason Rudolph last year.)
Last year, Oklahoma State rode those strengths to stay in the Big 12 race until a Bedlam loss to Oklahoma. (Gundy’s now 2-9 against OU.) It looked like the Pokes were destined for a rebuild. Then Gundy pushed in his chips, and now 2017 looks a lot more interesting.
It started when a few stars decided to return for their senior seasons
Star QB Rudolph and top receiver James Washington aren’t in the NFL right now. Rudolph targeted Washington 131 times in 2016, connecting 71 times for 1,356 yards and 10 touchdowns, at 10.4 yards per target. Oklahoma State had a few ways to get Washington isolated on corners outside. One was to pair him with a slot receiver who could threaten the seam and prevent help from moving wider:
Last season, OSU got its run game cooking, too, and was able to use that and slot target Jalen McCleskey to get Washington one-on-one coverage:
Rudolph throws a good deep ball with great placement and timing, and Washington has excellent speed and body control. At 6’0 and 205 pounds, he doesn’t stand out as an obvious dominator, but he’s been doing damage in the Big 12 for two years.
Add them to OSU’s other offensive weapons
Running back Justice Hill returns after an 1,142-yard freshman season, and slot man McCleskey is back as well. They’ll have help from a line that returns three starters after hitting its stride. The Cowboys get back big veteran receivers Marcell Ateman and Chris Lacey.
The Cowboys also have a secret weapon in LSU transfer Tyron Johnson, a former five-star recruit, who headed to Stillwater for a chance to play in an explosive spread offense rather than Les Miles’ plodding system. He’s gotten great reviews and could be among the most athletic WRs Oklahoma State has.
Once Rudolph and Washington were back, it guaranteed the Cowboys offense could keep them in every game in 2017. Rudolph might have a shot at Oklahoma State’s second Heisman, after Barry Sanders won in 1988.
And Gundy has been aggressive about patching up holes in his roster
The Cowboys had one glaring vulnerability: their lack of a lockdown cornerback. It didn’t seem likely that any of the young corners on the roster could immediately fill that hole. Oklahoma State even moved top corner Ramon Richards to free safety in the spring, suggesting that the Cowboys had a plot to resolve this issue. They landed Clemson graduate transfer corner Adrian Baker, who might solve their lack of a corner who can play on an island.
The Cowboys had only just gotten their act together on the OL in 2016 and then lost their starting LT (UAB transfer Victor Salako) as well as their dynamic TE tandem of Blake Jarwin (309 receiving yards) and Zac Veatch (a punishing blocker). Another grad transfer, 6’8, 350-pound Cal left tackle Aaron Cochran, should help fill that spot.
The Cowboys have a big cast of projects at tight end and brought in JUCO FB Sione Finefeuiaki to help replace Veatch in their run game. But they’ll probably also play more four-wide sets to get all of these talented receivers on the field.
There’s a chance this defense is really good ...
Oklahoma State’s S&P+ rankings on defense belie what’s been one of the more consistent and well-coached units in the Big 12.
The main difference between the 2013 unit that ranked ninth nationally and the units that finished 76th, 70th, and 67th was that in 2013, the Cowboys had first-round cornerback Justin Gilbert, who picked off seven passes. The Pokes always have safeties and linebackers who play tight between the hash marks, and they have at least one DL who can cause problems up front. But they haven’t had a CB who could be trusted to deny a quadrant of the field in that period.
If Baker can fill that need, this defense could surprise people with what it’s capable of when freed to outnumber teams elsewhere on the field. Moving the sticky-fingered Richards (six INTs in two seasons at CB) to a position where he can keep his eyes on the QB in deep zone could be advantageous.
The Cowboys will need to play solid defense, because the Big 12 is going to be the best version of the league we’ve seen this decade, with returning starters at QB also at Oklahoma (Baker Mayfield), Kansas State (Jesse Ertz), and Texas (Shane Buechele, probably). Several programs have a lot of good players and a lot to play for, with K-State potentially sending Bill Snyder off into the sunset and Texas hoping to put it all together with Tom Herman.
... but Oklahoma State’s main hope will be to destroy teams with offense
That should be feasible, provided the Pokes don’t swing too far to the passing game and lose their balance.
Oklahoma State’s offense may be one of the more misunderstood because of its heavy spread elements. In reality, the Cowboys’ approach is similar to the Boise State 2000s offenses, with their focus on run game and play-action. They do mix in drop back passing, but the run game is a crucial component to their approach.
The best Gundy offenses of this decade were the 2010-11 Weeden-to-Justin Blackmon units, the 2012 unit that put three young QBs over 1,000 yards each, and last year’s Rudolph-to-Washington squad. Each finished in the top 10 in Offensive S&P+, and each got 4,000 yards passing. But each also had a 1,000-yard rusher.
More than any other team in the conference, the OSU offense loves to attack defenses with a slot man in the seams and a deep threat outside, all supported by a rushing attack that generates opportunities and time for the passing game with play-action.
Both of the examples featured above include play-action, and run/pass options also make appearances on standard downs. All of this requires the run game, and Oklahoma State can’t lose sight of that.
Gundy’s done all he could do to give the Pokes has a chance to break through
With their track record this decade, we probably shouldn’t count them out.