While Oklahoma State’s rise to regular national relevance is now two decades strong, the Cowboys have only occasionally propped themselves up on the big stage as a legit contender.
This could be such a season.
When running back Chuba Hubbard and wide receiver Tylan Wallace both announced they’d return for another season and not opt for the NFL Draft, arguably the two best players in the nation at their positions saddled up for a team already rich in veteran talent.
The Cowboys return 19 starters from last year’s eight-win squad, add key graduate transfers and head into the season carrying their most optimism since 2011, when they finished mere percentage points from a berth in the national title game.
“Everybody is ready to go,” linebacker Amen Ogbongbemiga said during a January pep rally. “We’re gonna work hard, and we’re gonna try to bring you all a Big 12 and national championship.”
Previewing Oklahoma State's Offense for 2020
Posting the 16th-best rushing season in FBS history with 2,094 yards a year ago, Hubbard earned Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year and unanimous All-American honors.
Wallace was a 2018 Biletnikoff Award finalist and led Power 5 receivers in yards per game and yards per catch before blowing out his knee during a Week 9 practice. He has to prove himself fully healthy but was ahead of schedule before spring practice began.
The Cowboys have other receiving threats, too, including reliable wideout Dillon Stoner and 2019 breakout performer Braydon Johnson, among others. LSU transfer Dee Anderson, a former four-star recruit, is expected to bolster the position as well.
Backups LD Brown, Dezmon Jackson and Deondrick Glass offer capable complements to Hubbard.
The offensive line is another asset, led by tackle Teven Jenkins, who according to advanced stats didn’t allow a sack or even allow a defender to touch the quarterback a year ago. The Cowboys lost two starters up front but added West Virginia transfer Josh Sills — a two-year starter at guard — to plug one of the holes.
Ultimately, the full dynamic of the offense — and perhaps the team — likely comes down to the play of quarterback Spencer Sanders.
After experiencing some early growing pains as a redshirt freshman last fall, Sanders was showing progress when his season ended with two games remaining due to a thumb injury.
Sanders, a run-pass threat and former top recruit, was still named Big 12 Offensive Freshman of the Year after setting a freshman school passing record with 2,065 yards. If he takes the anticipated next step as a sophomore, the offense should be elite.
Sanders seeks that and more. “Everybody talks about how you take steps at a time,” Sanders said. “I don’t really like taking steps. Either I’m going big or I’m going home. I’m not going to set myself up short.”
Previewing Oklahoma State's Defense for 2020
Big 12 defenses rarely command respect, and that’s been particularly true at Oklahoma State. Yet in 2019, the second season under coordinator Jim Knowles, the Cowboys made clear strides and grew into one of the better units in the league by season’s end. They ranked No. 37 nationally in defensive efficiency — up from No. 80 the year before.
The Cowboys return 21 of 22 defenders from the season-ending two-deep, led by active linebackers and leading tacklers Malcolm Rodriguez and Ogbongbemiga.
There is a significant hole where cornerback A.J. Green worked as a three-year starter. Jarrick Bernard is sliding over from a starting spot as a safety, and Rodarius Williams is back at the other corner, entering his fourth year as a regular. Missouri grad transfer Christian Holmes provides another option.
Safety Kolby Harvell-Peel emerged as a playmaker and first team All-Big 12 performer a year ago, leading the conference with 1.5 passes defended per game and ranking seventh nationally with five interceptions.
The defensive line, in rebuilding mode to start last season, developed into a team strength and now counts as many as 10 players who can contribute up front, led by sophomore defensive end Trace Ford, whom many consider a rising star.
Previewing Oklahoma State's Specialists for 2020
If the Cowboys have a glaring area of need, it’s in the kicking game.
Alex Hale and Jake McClure are battling for the placement duties, with no clear leader. Punter Tom Hutton struggled throughout his rookie season in 2018 and appears to be the only option.
The return game has been pedestrian in recent seasons, although incoming freshman Brennan Presley could provide a jolt of life, along with Braydon Johnson.
The Cowboys see this as a high-stakes season. They’ve got the talent and the kind of schedule that aligns with their lofty goals. They can’t withstand the crippling injuries that limited the team a year ago. And along with staying healthy, Sanders must elevate his game.
If things go right? “We’ll be bringing a national championship back to Stillwater,” Hubbard said at that pep rally in January.
National Ranking: 14
(Top photo by Bruce Waterfield/OSU Athletics)