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How a reloading Oklahoma State can join the Big 12 title race again in 2018

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Mike Gundy’s Cowboys were perhaps disappointed with 10 wins last year. Winning 10 in 2018 would be damn impressive.

NCAA Football: Oklahoma State at West Virginia Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

Oklahoma State began 2017 ranked 10th in the AP poll — just its third preseason top-10 start ever — and then peaked at sixth and finished 14th. Mike Gundy’s Cowboys beat a pre-collapse West Virginia in Morgantown, held a top-25 Virginia Tech at arm’s reach, and survived upset bids at Pitt, Texas Tech, Texas, and a ranked Iowa State.

They also suffered a couple of offensive line injuries right before the TCU game, then got their offensive line blown up by the Horned Frogs in a 13-point loss. They faltered with chances to take the lead late against both Oklahoma and Kansas State.

Their turnover margin was minus-5 in three losses and plus-8 in 10 wins. They suffered glitches against good and/or well-coached teams and had to settle for a top-15 finish.

There is minimal horror in this. Still, it was a missed opportunity. Quarterback Mason Rudolph and receiver James Washington had returned for their senior seasons to do something greater than win the Camping World Bowl. But those brief glitches, and a defense that couldn’t create enough glitches of its own, did them in. They were two finished drives from a Big 12 title game appearance and potential CFP berth.

Without Rudolph, Washington, receiver Marcell Ateman, two all-conference offensive linemen (Zach Crabtree and Brad Lundblade), and since-fired defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer, an era ends in Stillwater.

Gundy’s Pokes absorb losses and get better. Before 2010, Gundy’s sixth season, OSU had finished in the AP top 15 just five times ever. In this decade alone, the Pokes have done it four times.

It sometimes takes a couple of years to get situated between eras, though. OSU went 23-3 in Brandon Weeden’s last two years at QB, then went 25-14 before catching fire with Rudolph. There’s no doubt that the Pokes will get going again; the only question is whether there’s a delay.

That depends primarily on the QB. If senior Taylor Cornelius, Hawaii grad transfer Dru Brown, four-star junior John Kolar, sophomore Keondre Wudtee, or four-star freshman Spencer Sanders is ready for a harsh spotlight, there is still plenty of talent in the supporting cast.

Meanwhile, the defense is starting over. Spencer could never match his first-year success; after ranking ninth in Def. S&P+ in 2013, the Pokes ranked a disturbingly consistent 76th, 70th, 67th, and 70th. That forced the offense to be perfect.

Former Duke DC Jim Knowles taking over is a sign Gundy might want to get aggressive and force the issue to create a positive situation for his offense. It sounds good on paper and has worked before elsewhere.

Offense

2017 Oklahoma State offensive radar

The only way you could beat OSU in 2017 was by getting pressure on Rudolph.

In three losses, Rudolph threw six interceptions and took 10 sacks (3.3 per game). In 10 wins, he threw just three picks and took 13 sacks (1.3 per game). Either you got to him, or he torched you.

And I mean, he torched you.

2017 Oklahoma State offensive efficiency & explosiveness

In an efficiency-heavy conference, OSU was second in explosiveness (behind OU and vastly ahead of everyone else) and third in efficiency (behind OU and TCU).

This was a dynamite offense, but it was far from flawless. The Cowboys ranked just 84th in stuff rate (avoiding run stops at or behind the line) and 90th in power success rate, and while their pass numbers were amazing (eighth in passing success rate, eighth in Passing IsoPPP), their sack numbers were merely good (36th in Adj. Sack Rate).

NCAA Football: Oklahoma State at Iowa State
Dillon Stoner
Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

There are basically two methods for containing an offense heavy on run-pass options (RPOs):

  1. Play as much man coverage as possible. That prevents the QB from identifying players who have responsibilities for both run and pass defense, and those are the guys RPOs are designed to exploit.
  2. Position your defenders to dictate that the QB does what you prefer him to do. Think of Alabama’s Jalen Hurts late in 2017. If it seemed like he was running the ball on nearly every play, well, that had to do with what the defenses were making sure he read.

It will be interesting to see what defenses choose to do against coordinator Mike Yurcich’s system in 2018. Playing man defense wasn’t much of an option for most teams when OSU had two of the best receivers in the country in Biletnikoff Award winner Washington and Ateman, another 2018 NFL draftee. The two combined for 133 catches, 2,700 receiving yards, and 21 touchdowns.

OSU rarely lacks for athletes in the receiving corps, but I’m curious how much defenders try to challenge the new first-stringers. Senior Jalen McCleskey and sophomore Dillon Stoner had their big-play moments but were much more of the possession mode, averaging 13 yards per catch to Washington’s and Ateman’s combined 20.3.

If junior Tyron Johnson (a one-time LSU signee) and sophomore Tylan Wallace can build off of randomly promising seasons, man defense might remain a non-option. The two combined for only 25 catches but averaged 16.4 yards per catch and 10.5 yards per target. They are dynamic athletes, and if defenses can’t control them — or four-star freshmen in LC Greenwood and C.J. Moore — in man coverage, the RPO’s heavily on the table.

NCAA Football: Camping World Bowl-Oklahoma State vs Virginia Tech
Justice Hill
Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The next question, then, is what will defenses try to dictate from the new QB’s reads? Will they try to force Cornelius/Brown/Kolar/Wudtee/Sanders to the air? Will they be content with OSU trying to run Justice Hill 25 times a game?

Hill’s efficiency numbers weren’t that great last year. Among the 16 FBS running backs with at least 250 carries, he was fifth-worst in marginal efficiency but fourth-best in marginal explosiveness. Without efficiency, the QB is forced into third-and-long throws, but if you aren’t containing Hill, he’ll make you pay. Just ask Tulsa (132 yards at 8.8 per carry), Baylor (117 at 8.4), or Oklahoma (228 at 7.6).

Still, he averaged just 3.8 yards per carry against TCU, Texas, Kansas State, and Kansas. If a defense dictated that the new QB hand the ball to Hill, that might not be a costly choice.

Also, sophomores J.D. King (469 yards, 4.7 per carry) and LD Brown (223 yards, 6.6 per carry) are both back, and speedy redshirt freshman Chuba Hubbard could quickly commandeer a role.

The offensive line did get some good news this spring. Larry Williams, who started the first three games at right guard but got hurt right before TCU, received an extra year of eligibility. With him, it’s like OSU is both losing and returning three starters up front. With guard Marcus Keyes and any run-of-the-mill center, the Pokes will have a pretty destructive interior line.

Brown’s transfer makes the QB race pretty interesting. Cornelius, a 6‘6 former walk-on, was the steadiest signal caller in the pack this spring, and he’s taken advantage of the opportunities he’s gotten, completing 15 of 24 passes for 220 yards and rushing 17 times for 108. But while Brown stands a full half-foot shorter, he proved both efficient (62 percent completion rate) and mobile (6.9 yards per non-sack carry).

No matter who ends up starting, I think the floor is high. But without Rudolph and Washington, there’s no question that the ceiling is lower.

Defense

2017 Oklahoma State defensive radar

A few years into his tenure as Duke’s defensive coordinator, Knowles evidently said, “You know what? Screw it. Attack.”

In 2014, Duke’s defense ranked 105th in success rate and third in IsoPPP explosiveness allowed, the prototypical bend-don’t-break profile. In 2017: 17th in success rate, 95th in IsoPPP.

Considering efficiency is the most important, repeatable thing in football, this was a net gain for the Blue Devils, even if it resulted in some gashes.

When you’ve got a prolific offense and can absorb the occasional gash, this aggressive approach can be devastating. If you can force an extra couple of three-and-outs or turnovers per game, that’s a service break the other team just can’t cope with. You just have to make sure you’ve got the athletes to turn aggression into production.

NCAA Football: Oklahoma State at Pittsburgh
Justin Phillips
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

So uh, does OSU have the athletes? Hard to say. The Pokes do have good experience, though.

In a front seven, they could start as many as six seniors. Ends Jordan Brailford and Cole Walterscheid combined for 17.5 tackles for loss and six sacks, and tackles Darrion Daniels, Trey Carter, and Enoch Smith Jr. combined for 15 and 5.5, respectively. At linebacker, seniors Justin Phillips was second on the team in havoc plays (TFLs, passes defensed, and forced fumbles), behind only departed safety Ramon Richards.

OSU was actually able to make some plays up front, ranking 25th in stuff rate and 33rd in Adj. Sack Rate. The return of Phillips and Brailford in particular will give Knowles some toys. And if either of two JUCO ends — Amadou Fofana or Mike Scott — is able to make plays early, that’s all the better.

The secondary didn’t hold up its end of the bargain, though. The Pokes had senior safeties Tre Flowers and Richards but were incredibly young at cornerback, where A.J. Green and Rodarius Williams combined for quite a few plays (5.5 TFLs, 19 passes defensed) ... and quite a few plays allowed.

You’re going to need good safety play to do what Knowles wants to do. Sophomores Thabo Mwaniki and Malcolm Rodriguez and junior Za’Carrius Green all saw some rotation time last year, but they’ll dictate just how aggressive Knowles can be.

NCAA Football: Oklahoma at Oklahoma State
A.J. Green
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

Just a few yards can go a long way. In 2016, OSU ranked second in the nation in punt efficiency because of Zach Sinor’s 42.8-yard average and opponents’ minuscule 0.9 yards per return. In 2017, Sinor increased his average to 43.1 yards, but OSU allowed a more mortal 6.9 yards per return, and he booted more touchbacks as well. The Pokes fell all the way to 95th, and thanks to regression in the return game, OSU fell from 28th to 72nd in Special Teams S&P+.

Everyone’s back, including Sinor, big-legged (and slightly scattershot) place-kicker Matt Ammendola, and the primary return men.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep Missouri State NR 36.1 98%
8-Sep South Alabama 109 24.0 92%
15-Sep Boise State 26 4.5 60%
22-Sep Texas Tech 47 10.3 72%
29-Sep at Kansas 103 17.6 84%
6-Oct Iowa State 46 9.8 71%
13-Oct at Kansas State 61 7.5 67%
27-Oct Texas 27 4.8 61%
3-Nov at Baylor 50 5.5 63%
10-Nov at Oklahoma 9 -10.0 28%
17-Nov West Virginia 43 9.4 71%
24-Nov at TCU 22 -2.0 46%
Projected S&P+ Rk 19
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 6 / 71
Projected wins 8.1
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 9.6 (25)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 35 / 36
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 3 / 1.3
2017 TO Luck/Game +0.7
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 53% (52%, 54%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 10.1 (-0.1)

Because I point out when the S&P+ projections or my own opinions are wrong, I reserve the right to point out when they’re bang-on. 2017’s preseason S&P+ projections had the Pokes at third in Off. S&P+ and 69th in Def. S&P+; they finished third and 70th, respectively. Nailed it.

If S&P+ is going to be right again in 2018, however, a new QB must catch fire. OSU is projected sixth on offense and 71st on defense. That’s good for 19th overall with a win projection a little better than 8-4.

I would be surprised if S&P+ is right this time on both sides of the ball. I think the offense will fall more than that, and some new blood on the coaching staff could lead to some upgrades on defense.

OSU’s got a great and terrible schedule. On one hand, the Cowboys are, per S&P+, double-digit favorites in four of their first five games and favorites in 10 of 12 overall. Build confidence early, and you could be in conference contention well into November.

On the other hand, the Cowboys have to play at both TCU and Oklahoma. That’s probably going to keep them from the conference title game.

Still, I think people have written OSU off a bit too much this offseason. In terms of playing at a top-25 level, Gundy’s team is one of the most proven in the country.

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