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2011 Season Preview: The Oklahoma State Cowboys And The Oregon Trail

Oklahoma State fans have had plenty of reasons to wave the wheat after touchdowns in recent years, and that probably won't change even with Dana Holgorsen's departure. But if the 'Pokes are going to take another step toward becoming the Oregon of the Midwest, they will need to overcome some turnover on defense and a potential turnaround in fumbles luck.

NOTE: Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom. And as always, if you don't like numbers, just skip to the words.

Home team scores touchdown, crowd goes nuts, band plays fight song, kicker boots PAT, more cheers, more fight song, more clapping. This is how it typically works. This is how it's supposed to work. It's like smoking brisket; there's a process, and it's somewhat disorienting, almost off-putting, if you don't follow it.

Games at Lewis Field in Stillwater, then, are a bit disorienting. When the host 'Pokes score a touchdown, there's an initial burst ... and then all but silence. The band plays the fight song, and the fans wave the wheat.

There's been quite a bit of wheat-waving in recent seasons. Oklahoma State has scored at least 450 points in four of the past five seasons, at least 530 in two of the last three. With a new line, a new quarterback, a new go-to receiver, and a new offensive coordinator, the 'Pokes raised the bar on themselves this past season, scoring 575 points on the way to an 11-win season. Brick by brick, Mike Gundy has built a program that can both withstand losses in personnel (a ton of offensive personnel departed after the 2009 season, and offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen left after 2010) and potentially compete in the big-money Big 12, where the antelope play, the money talks, and the only things larger than the offensive line splits are the homefield advantages.

Oklahoma State has finished 16th or better in Off. F/+ in four of five seasons. They ranked seventh in 2010, posting a rare balance -- 16th in Rushing S&P+, eighth in Passing S&P+ -- and nearly unmatched efficiency. And in 2011, almost everybody returns on the offensive side of the ball. The main departure actually happened in the booth, where Holgorsen departed to become head-coach-in-waiting, then head coach, at West Virginia. If new offensive coordinator Todd Monken maintains an approximate level of dialed-in play-calling, and if Oklahoma State isn't struck by the injury bug the same way Holgorsen's last abandoned team was, then the Cowboys could continue building toward becoming the Oregon of the Midwest, the historically decent program looking to take a step up to the elite level on the coattails and coffers of an aggressive, ambitious donor (for Oregon, Phil Knight; for Oklahoma State, T. Boone Pickens). They would, however, probably prefer to do so without drawing the negative attention Oregon has recently drawn; been there, done that.

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 11-2 | Adj. Record: 13-0 | Final F/+ Rk**: 14
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
4-Sep Washington State 65-17 W 32.5 - 19.7 W
11-Sep Troy 41-38 W 33.7 - 27.0 W
18-Sep Tulsa 65-28 W 50.2 - 20.6 W
30-Sep Texas A&M 38-35 W 43.6 - 28.7 W
8-Oct UL-Lafayette 54-28 W 33.1 - 32.8 W
16-Oct Texas Tech 34-17 W 35.4 - 23.7 W
23-Oct Nebraska 41-51 L 50.6 - 31.4 W
30-Oct Kansas State 24-14 W 24.7 - 10.2 W
6-Nov Baylor 55-28 W 50.2 - 28.4 W
13-Nov Texas 33-16 W 43.1 - 26.2 W
20-Nov Kansas 48-14 W 34.5 - 29.8 W
27-Nov Oklahoma 41-47 L 35.6 - 25.9 W
29-Dec Arizona 36-10 W 31.2 - 10.6 W
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 44.2 3 26.4 61
Adj. Points Per Game 38.3 8 24.2 37

Oklahoma State was one of six teams in the country to have played well enough to beat a "perfectly average" team in every game they played. (That's the purpose of Adj. Score and Adj. Record.) Though they clearly had some semblance of ups and downs, this was one of the more consistently strong teams in the country, particularly because of an offense that played at a below average level just once all year (against Kansas State).

The defense, on the other hand, only occasionally played too far above average. But that seems to be a side effect of Holgorsen calling the plays for quarterback Brandon Weeden (4,277 yards, 8.4 per pass, 66.9% completion rate, 34 TD, 13 INT), running back Kendall Hunter (1,548 rushing yards, 5.7 per carry, +6.5 Adj. POE, 16 TD) and receiver Justin Blackmon (1,782 yards, 16.1 per catch, an astounding 75% catch rate, 20 TD). The offense almost scored too quickly at times, and the defense seemed to wear out in the fourth quarter.

Weeden and Blackmon return, as do a couple of exciting potential Hunter replacements. There are worse situations for Monken to have inherited. In 2011, the onus will be on defensive coordinator Bill Young to put together some progress on defense after a stagnant 2010 performance. If this happens, this team could be scary. But that's certainly a sizable 'if.'


Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
OVERALL 7 3 17
RUSHING 16 4 34 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 8 4 12 10
Standard Downs 6 3 11 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 16 10 21 2
Redzone 8 16 7
Q1 Rk 24 1st Down Rk 4
Q2 Rk 3 2nd Down Rk 15
Q3 Rk 7 3rd Down Rk 18
Q4 Rk 38

Really, the only place where there isn't a wealth of experience returning for the Oklahoma State offense in 2011 is the running back position. Kendall Hunter departs, leaving behind a pair of interesting sophomores-to-be and an incoming blue-chipper.

The trio of sophomores Joseph Randle (879 rushing & receiving yards, 3 TD) and Jeremy Smith (262 rushing yards, 7 TD) will vie with freshman Herschel Sims in the Pokes' backfield. Smith and Randle each brought some interesting and appealing traits to the table in 2010:

Player Rushes Yards/
PPP S&P % of Carries
Over 10 Yds
Kendall Hunter 271 5.7 53.1% 0.46 0.917 15.5% 2.09
Joseph Randle 81 5.6 44.4% 0.31 0.753 16.0% 1.87
Jeremy Smith 57 4.6 52.6% 0.39 0.983 10.5% 1.20
TOTAL 409 5.5 51.3% 0.38 0.893 14.9% 1.92

Between the two of them, Randle and Smith brought every possible trait to the table that you would want in a big-time running back. Randle was a home run threat, logging a 10+ yard carry in 16 percent of his touches and posting nearly the same per-carry yardage average as Hunter. Meanwhile, Smith adapted beautifully to the role of short-yardage specialist. A solid 24.6% of his rushes took place inside the opponent's 10-yard line (Randle: 1.2%), suggesting solid platoon potential between the two (and a nightmare for those college fantasy football players out there -- Randle could get twice the carries and yards, but barely score any touchdowns).

For freshmen, these two backs had few weaknesses, but those they had were evident. Randle was inconsistent, logging a much lower success rate than either Hunter or Smith; he was the prototypical all-or-nothing back. He was, of course, also a true freshman. Smith, meanwhile, showed some home run potential in 2009 before an injury redshirt, but he showed little of that in 2010. His PPP total was strong because he scored quite a few touchdowns (the most valuable yard on the field is the last one before the end zone; short yardage specialists tend to have strong PPP totals because of this), and his efficiency was great considering how close to the line of scrimmage most defenders were when he was in the game. But to become an every-down back, he'll need to break a few longer carries than he did in 2010.

Of course, looming above this Smith-Randle battle is the soon-to-be presence of Sims, the four-star back from Abilene with speed and elite strength. You never want to assume good things after replacing a star like Hunter, but OSU has options aplenty.

Other tidbits:

  • For fans looking for reasons to be optimistic despite a lack of experience on the offensive line, OSU's 2010 performance in the trenches will stand as a stellar anecdote. Despite losing most major contributors from the 2009 line, the Cowboys' 2010 line not only matched the output of its predecessors, but far exceeded it. OSU ranked in the top 10 in both run blocking and pass protection, a feat matched only by Michigan and Nevada. And what is even better news than a surprisingly effective line? Almost every member of that line returning the next season. Only backup guard Anthony Morgan departs; guard Lane Taylor and tackle Levy Adcock, both all-conference performers, lead a unit with 76 career starts.
  • Brandon Weeden was a bit too gunslingy for my tastes at times, but he was strong, and his receiving corps in 2011 could be ridiculous. Not only did Blackmon surprise many by returning, and not only does possession receiver Josh Cooper (736 yards, 10.8 per catch, 76% catch, 5 TD) return, but so does 2009's leading receiver Hubert Anyiam (515 yards, 12.3 per catch, 54% catch rate, 3 TD in 2009), who spent most of 2010 fighting injuries. In all, nine of last year's 10 targets return. Monken would have to struggle considerably not to wring a ton of points and yards out of this offense; some may be more convinced of his bona fides than others, but he's got a lot to work with, to say the least.


Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
OVERALL 30 38 26
RUSHING 16 22 12 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 44 48 40 52
Standard Downs 18 28 16 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 70 75 68 80
Redzone 63 84 57
Q1 Rk 13 1st Down Rk 15
Q2 Rk 50 2nd Down Rk 36
Q3 Rk 7 3rd Down Rk 52
Q4 Rk 82

The Oklahoma State defense confused me greatly in 2010. Defensive backs like cornerbacks Andrew McGee and Brodrick Brown and safeties Johnny Thomas and Markelle Martin could look so fast, athletic and hard-hitting one moment ... and then get outrun by Oklahoma tight end James Hanna for a 76-yard touchdown late in last year's Bedlam Battle. If they had a decent athletic advantage, they exploited the hell out of it. But then the next week, they would get run off the field.

For the season, the numbers suggest that Oklahoma State is a pretty good test case for the use of opponent adjustments. The Cowboys ranked 88th in Total Defense last year, but they placed 30th in Def. S&P+ because when they did get lit up, it was probably by a pretty good offense (i.e. one that would light up most teams). Most of the problems came against the pass (looking at run-pass ratios, opponents clearly thought there was something in the pass defense to exploit) and on passing downs. The pass rush was not as good as it should have been considering they've recruited well at the defensive end position (Ugo Chinasa and Richetti Jones were both quite highly-touted), and when someone in the secondary made a mistake, it was a pretty big one.

There will be a decent shift in personnel this coming season. Gone are linebackers Orie Lemon and Justin Gent (combined: 184.0 tackles, 12.0 TFL/sacks), defensive tackles Shane Jarka and Chris Donaldson (combined: 35.5 tackles, 6.0 TFL/sacks), and aforementioned corner McGee (46.0 tackles, 3.0 TFL/sacks, 5 INT, 7 PBU). All of these players were solid, most were multi-year contributors ... and they were probably rather replaceable. Thomas and Martin, meanwhile, will make for an interesting pair at safety. They combined for 108.0 tackles (almost too many for one's comfort level at the safety position), six interceptions, and 15 passes broken up last year.

Other tidbits:

  • For better or worse, there is experience in the areas where Oklahoma State were most often lacking in quality in 2010. Injury-prone end Richetti Jones returns for one more go-round in Stillwater; he was mostly healthy last year and ended up with a decent 7.0 TFL/sacks. He will likely team up with Jamie Blatnick (5.5 TFL/sacks) in the starting lineup.
  • In their first season (2009) under defensive coordinator and OSU alum Bill Young, the Cowboys made some serious progress. But for one reason or another, he couldn't quite figure out the right buttons to press last year. Sometimes that happens, even to good DC's. And at this point, there's really no reason to doubt that Young is, indeed, a good DC.

Oklahoma State's 2010 Season Set to Music

How about AC/DC's "What Do You Do For Money Honey?" Not to make too much of T. Boone's contributions to the Cowboy cause, but ...

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit


Summary and Projection Factors

Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in this summer's Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 24
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 26
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** +12 / +5.5
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 14 (9, 5)
Yds/Pt Margin***** -3.8

If the decade of the 2010s doesn't play out like the 2000s when it comes to the Big 12 hierarchy (Oklahoma and Texas have won all but one conference title since 2002), it is because of a second tier (Oklahoma State, Texas A&M, Missouri, among others) that seems to be improving rapidly. Piece by piece, Oklahoma State has built for the long haul, and if they can overcome the loss of Holgorsen, everything is in place for them to begin moving closer and closer to an elusive conference title.

In the short-term, a step backwards could be possible -- new offensive coordinator, potential regression in terms of both turnover margin and YPP Margin, etc. -- but Weeden's and Blackmon's returns likely assure the prevention of serious regression, the bones of this program are strong, and the upside is tremendous if the defense comes around. Advanced stats show that the defense wasn't as bad as the raw numbers would suggest, but they still held the 'Pokes back.

Oklahoma State has reached Top 25 status in terms of both recruiting and recent performance, and there is an abundance of riches on offense and athleticism on defense. It might be about time for the 'Pokes to start experimenting with uniforms and color schemes -- it appears that's where they might stand on the moneyed Oregon Transformation.




* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

** F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter. For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

**** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

***** Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.