rebounded from a 7-6 record in 2014 to a 10-3 mark last year. The Cowboys have won at least 10 games in two out of the last three seasons under coach Mike Gundy and enter 2016 with a chance to match last year’s victory total. The offense is led by quarterback Mason Rudolph and a deep group of options at receiver headlined by big-play threat James Washington. Improving the ground attack and offensive line is an offseason priority for Gundy. The defense loses standout end Emmanuel Ogbah, but there’s a solid foundation in place with seven returning starters. The schedule presents its share of challenges, as Oklahoma State catches Baylor, TCU and Oklahoma in road matchups.
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Previewing Oklahoma State's Offense
Oklahoma State’s talking points provide plenty of optimism: Nine returning starters contributed heavily to an offense that ranked 22nd nationally in total offense and 14th in scoring. The continued development of quarterback Mason Rudolph, who passed for 3,770 yards and 21 touchdowns. A stable of receivers, led by gamebreaker James Washington, the Big 12’s leading returning receiver after totaling 1,087 yards and 10 touchdowns on 53 receptions a year ago.
What’s not to like?
The running game’s not to like, at least as it performed a year ago, with no guarantees of dramatic improvement going forward. The Cowboys finished No. 114 in rushing in 2015, leaving Rudolph and the receivers to carry the offense, which they did rather well, considering a 10–3 final record and an appearance in the Sugar Bowl. But the lack of a run game was exposed late, just as Oklahoma State rose into College Football Playoff contention, with three straight losses at the finish.
There was blame to go around, with the offensive line unable to open running lanes and the backs lacking the burst to create their own space or make defenders miss. With all five starters back up front, plus the addition of junior college All-American Larry Williams, there’s hope that the unit will be improved. There’s hope, too, that Chris Carson will be better in his second season at running back, while Stanford graduate transfer Barry J. Sanders — the son of Cowboys legend Barry Sanders — also arrives amid promise of amping up the ground attack.
Previewing Oklahoma State's Defense
, which includes an in-depth look at all 10 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.
The Cowboys defense cratered during that late stretch of losses, surrendering far too many yards and points. Injuries and ultimately fatigue conspired against the defense, which was also left to cover for a suddenly scuffling offense. Now the unit must deal with the loss of All-American end Emmanuel Ogbah and three other valuable starters. And yet, the defense should be improved, pending better health.
Safety Jordan Sterns and linebacker Jordan Burton, first-team All-Big 12 picks, headline a group that features explosive athletes across the board. Young ends Jarrell Owens, Jordan Brailford and Cole Walterscheid played well in auditions as redshirt freshmen a year ago and look to thrive in greater roles. Vincent Taylor, a disruptive force inside, heads a deep tackle rotation.
There’s a physical aggressiveness that marks the back seven, inspired by Burton and Sterns, who combined for 206 stops a year ago as the team’s top tacklers.
Previewing Oklahoma State's Specialists
Placekicker Ben Grogan has been streaky yet has made 49 field goals in three seasons. Zach Sinor thrived as a freshman punter, averaging 40.1 yards per kick with 31 kicks downed inside the 20. McCleskey improved as a punt returner as the season progressed, taking one for a touchdown, and could be dynamic in the role. Carr’s speed is a plus on kick returns. Sanders could get a look there as well.
Last season ended in disappointment. Yet 2016 was always pegged as the year the Cowboys would return to prominence both in the Big 12 and nationally. And it still could happen, with a premium quarterback in Rudolph, 16 returning starters and 38 players returning from the bowl two-deep to form a more mature group, both physically and mentally. The running game must make strides. And a testier schedule that involves road trips to face all the league’s other top contenders — Baylor, TCU and Oklahoma — must be navigated. But the Cowboys have the pieces. And it’s a group that captured quality road wins a year ago at Texas, West Virginia and Texas Tech. If they can avoid the major injuries that sideswiped them a year ago, the Cowboys could make a run through the Big 12 and beyond.