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Oklahoma State Cowboys 2016 Spring Football Preview

Mike Gundy

Mike Gundy

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When we last saw Oklahoma State, Ole Miss was pummeling Mike Gundy's team in the Sugar Bowl. The Rebels' offense went up and down the field at will on the Cowboys. Meanwhile, OSU could do no right when it did get the ball.

It marked a fitting end to a season in which the Cowboys won the games that they were supposed to win and got slaughtered when they were supposed to lose. OSU closed the year on a three-game losing streak, losing by an average of 24 points. We can read that as a commentary on the sizable gap between the Cowboys and the nation's upper echelon of teams.

The way the 2015 season ended had to sting for Gundy and his players. With 16 starters back, the vibe around spring camp will offer clues as to whether the Cowboys will enter the fall motivated to get back on track.

5 Storylines to Watch in Oklahoma State’s Spring Practice

1. What happened to the running game?

OSU’s ground attack has fallen off a cliff over the last two years. The Pokes averaged a meager 3.58 yards per rushing attempt in ‘15, ranking 114th nationally and next to last in the Big 12. That actually represented marginal improvement from the previous season (3.51).

At a press conference to kick off spring practice, Gundy didn’t sound particularly confident about the prospects for reigniting the running game with the talent on campus. The returnees in the backfield need to start showing some signs of life in the spring.

2. An offensive offensive line

The onus for getting the ground game back in gear doesn’t just fall on Chris Carson and the rest of OSU’s runners. The five returning starters on the offensive line struggled all season to open holes for ball carriers. They didn’t protect OSU’s quarterbacks all that well, either, giving up 2.46 sacks per game.

Those familiar with the program might point to the loss of respected offensive line coach Joe Wickline two years ago as the reason for the unit’s erosion. A more concerning prospect: The Cowboys might not have the bodies up front.

3. Stopping the run

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OSU wasn’t great against the run a year ago. The Cowboy D surrendered 4.26 yards per carry, ranking 62nd nationally.

There’s reason to believe coordinator Glenn Spencer’s group will show some improvement against the run in 2016. The Pokes were pretty young on defense last season and now have eight of their top 10 leading tacklers back on campus.

4. Time for Mason Rudolph to make the leap

Twelve months ago, Rudolph was a promising signal-caller with a Bedlam upset and bowl game win to his credit. He put together a solid 2015 campaign while playing through injuries, and he now enters the upcoming season as a proven commodity.

If OSU wants to compete at the top of the Big 12 this season, it needs its QB to stay on that upward trajectory.

5. Replacing Emmanuel Ogbah

Ogbah may hear his name called on the first day of this year’s NFL Draft. OSU doesn’t have much of a tradition of turning out first-round defenders, which speaks to the significance of the defensive end’s departure. Also, it’s worth noting that Ogbah’s partner on the other side of the line, Jimmy Bean, has graduated.

Sophomores Jordan Brailford and Jarrell Owens saw limited action last year, but they will get the first cracks at stepping in on the edge of OSU’s four-man front.

Pre-Spring Outlook for Oklahoma State in the Big 12

Collapsing down the stretch in 2015 suggests all those returning starters in Stillwater might not be such a great thing. Truth be told, it’s just as easy to see OSU taking a step back in ‘16 as moving forward.

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The Pokes built last year’s fluffy 10-3 record on a putrid non-conference schedule, a healthy plus-13 turnover margin for the season and a 4-0 record in games decided by a touchdown or less. In ‘16, they pick up road contests at Oklahoma, Baylor and TCU. A non-conference tilt with Pittsburgh at T. Boone Pickens Stadium also will test Mike Gundy’s team.

OSU will likely garner dark horse talk before the season, but this sounds more like a team that will finish in the middle of the Big 12’s pack.

— Written by Allen Kenney, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Kenney is founder and editor of BlatantHomerism.com and host of the Blatant Homerism Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @BlatantHomerism.