The Cowboys sought a special season in 2020, with premium players in place to back up high hopes.
Anybody for a redo?
The biggest names — Tylan Wallace and Chuba Hubbard — are gone, yet Oklahoma State returns a deep and talented roster equipped to challenge in the Big 12.
"Stay healthy, get good quarterback play and limit big plays on defense, and you've got a chance," head coach Mike Gundy says.
The Cowboys were rarely healthy a year ago, dealt with inconsistent quarterback play and in their losses committed too many defensive breakdowns. Still, they finished 8–3, third in the Big 12 and closed with a solid win over Miami in the Cheez-It Bowl, offering promise for 2021.
Previewing Oklahoma State's Offense for 2021
Much of Oklahoma State's optimism hinges on continued growth from quarterback Spencer Sanders. His time with the Cowboys has been marked by sometimes-polarizing play, featuring both exhilarating and exasperating moments. His dual-threat talent is unquestioned, yet decision-making has gotten Sanders in trouble at critical times. He is expected to fend off a challenge from talented sophomore Shane Illingworth.
"As he learns to understand what to do with the football and take what the defense gives him, it's just going to give him a chance to become a better player," Gundy says.
Sanders played well in a blowout win at Baylor and followed that up by earning MVP honors in the bowl game, where he passed for 305 yards and four touchdowns.
The Cowboys need new playmakers to emerge around Sanders. Like Sanders, receivers Tay Martin and Brennan Presley dazzled in the bowl game to present themselves as possible go-to guys. Martin, a Washington State transfer, owns the size and ball skills to thrive on the outside. Presley, a top recruit a year ago, is a fast and elusive fit for the slot.
Opportunities exist for others to carve out a significant role, with veteran Braydon Johnson leading a cast of unproven contenders.
The running game should be strong with Dezmon Jackson and LD Brown coming off solid seasons and Dominic Richardson and Utah State transfer Jaylen Warren bidding to join the mix.
Injuries and defections left the offensive line in disarray from the outset last fall. On the bright side, a cast of young players gained unexpected experience. The unit's best player, Teven Jenkins, headed to the NFL, yet Josh Sills returned for a "super senior" season, and Miami (Ohio) transfer Danny Godlevske, a three-time All-MAC pick, arrived to provide stability at center.
Previewing Oklahoma State's Defense for 2021
Following years of jabs from critics, the Cowboys defense has grown into a strength under coordinator Jim Knowles. Eight starters and 28 lettermen return from a unit that led the nation in both third-down defense and defensive touchdowns, while giving up its fewest yards allowed per game (379.0) since 2009.
"You don't hear it very often here, you just always hear about an offensive school here … it just goes to show that it's kind of turned around for our defense," says linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez, the team's leading tackler.
Rodriguez and playmaking safety Kolby Harvell-Peel return after earning All-Big 12 honors the past two seasons. And they're surrounded by players who have been at the forefront of overhauling the defense's image.
Plenty of experience returns up front, although star end Trace Ford must prove he's back to his attacking ways off the edge after tearing an ACL. The backups bring experience, too.
In the secondary, safeties Harvell-Peel, Tre Sterling and Tanner McCalister have combined for 59 starts, 396 tackles, 10 interceptions, 39 pass breakups and 35.5 tackles for a loss over the past three seasons. One major focus of the spring was identifying a cornerback to pair with returning starter Jarrick Bernard-Converse. Christian Holmes played extensively as a backup, but he'll be pushed by Korie Black and Thomas Harper.
Previewing Oklahoma State's Specialists for 2021
Punter Tom Hutton emerged as a weapon last season as the Cowboys led the Big 12 at just 1.5 yards per return allowed. Kicker Alex Hale was enjoying an outstanding season before tearing his left ACL prior to the Oklahoma game. If the Lou Groza Award semifinalist returns healthy, the kicking game should be strong. The return game is intriguing as well, with Presley an explosive entry into the competition.
The Cowboys surely would have posted a 10-win season in 2020 without the subtraction of FCS Western Illinois and Oregon State from the home schedule. So talk of disappointment may be overblown.
This season's schedule presents some testy road trips to Texas, Iowa State and West Virginia, as well as a Bedlam battle in Stillwater. Contention in the Big 12 and beyond likely hinges on those games. And the Cowboys have fared well in those locales, winning their last four in Ames, five of six in Austin and three of four in Morgantown.
If the Cowboys can get elite play from Sanders, limit big plays on defense and avoid the kinds of injuries that decimated the offensive line a year ago, they have a shot at a special season.
National Ranking: 28
Podcast: Top 25 Breakdown and Predictions
(Spencer Sanders photo courtesy of @CowboyFB)