Oklahoma State rebranded itself on the path to a 12-win season last fall, winning 12 games to match the school record and falling just short — inches short — of a Big 12 championship.
The Cowboys conquered opponents regularly with — get this — defense. Dominant defense.
Now Oklahoma State seeks to affirm that that style of defense is real and repeatable, mixing it with trademark offense to stake a claim as Big 12 favorite, and maybe more, for 2022.
And why not? The Cowboys posted the most impressive wins in the league, toppling Oklahoma, Texas and Baylor (although the Bears scored revenge in the conference championship game) and beating the Irish in the Fiesta Bowl.
Previewing Oklahoma State's Offense for 2022
Oklahoma State's greatest reason for optimism revolves around quarterback Spencer Sanders, a senior who shined in most of the major moments a year ago, including the bowl game, earning Fiesta Bowl MVP honors. Sanders passed for 2,839 yards and added 668 rushing yards in leading the Cowboys attack. He's already one of just three Oklahoma State quarterbacks to total more than 4,000 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards in a career.
Perhaps finally shaking a label as erratic, Sanders continues to strive to become better, both on the field and as a leader. And on the scoreboard. "Whatever I have to do to win," Sanders says. "Whatever it takes."
He'll need an infusion of help on the offensive line and at running back, where the Cowboys' offense took hits.
Preston Wilson, shifting from tackle to center, returns along with Cole Birmingham and Hunter Woodard as starters up front. Yet two holes remain, and depth was depleted by the transfer portal — until the portal reciprocated with three experienced additions, including USC transfer Casey Collier, a front-runner to seize a starting tackle spot.
At running back, Dominic Richardson looks to rise from key backup into the feature role, but he seems more of a complementary back than a game-changer. That opens the door for one of three freshmen to muscle his way to the top of the depth chart. One to watch: Ollie Gordon, a powerful four-star prospect from Fort Worth's Euless Trinity and an early enrollee who showed up bigger than expected in the spring, pushing 6'3" and 230 pounds.
"I'm just excited," Sanders says. "I want to watch and see him grow and see how he plays and how he develops."
Brennan Presley leads an otherwise young but exciting group of receivers. A big-play performer, Presley posted 1,113 all-purpose yards to rank second on the team.
A cast of sophomores, led by Blaine Green, offers playmaking potential, along with touted true freshman Talyn Shettron and veteran Braydon Johnson.
Previewing Oklahoma State's Defense for 2022
The Cowboys lost massive production on the defensive side, including six of the top eight tacklers, most notably linebackers Malcolm Rodriguez and Devin Harper. And coordinator Jim Knowles left for the same job at Ohio State after crafting the nation's No. 5 defense last fall. Oklahoma State, however, pivoted well, scoring a splashy hire in respected Auburn coordinator Derek Mason, who bolted from the Tigers after rumors of unrest on the coaching staff.
Mason hasn't changed much of what Knowles implemented, creating a smooth transition. And the aggressive system was credited for Oklahoma State's defensive turnaround as much as the players. "It was pretty easy for him to adjust," head coach Mike Gundy says.
Still, Mason has work to do in filling voids. He can lean on an experienced and talented front capable of controlling the line of scrimmage. Collin Oliver tied for the Big 12 lead with 11.5 sacks in earning Freshman All-America honors as a dynamic end. At least seven other players have made major contributions, including Trace Ford, who has been dominant at end but is returning from a second major knee injury.
The linebackers, led by junior Mason Cobb, have much to prove but are excited to finally get a chance.
"I feel like I've come into a time where the game's slowing down for me," says Cobb, known for being athletic and active.
The secondary also faces an overhaul, with safety Jason Taylor II the only returning regular among the five spots.
Previewing Oklahoma State's Specialists for 2022
The Cowboys rank among the best in the country in the kicking game. Behind punter Tom Hutton, Oklahoma State allowed 0.8 yards per return, ranking second nationally. Kicker Alex Hale was slow returning from a knee injury, but he has converted 16-of-20 field-goal tries in his career.
Presley is a long-distance threat in the return game, with his 100-yard kickoff return for a score against Oklahoma as proof.
Oklahoma State seemingly faces a significant reload, but Gundy's teams have done just that before, posting seven seasons of 10 wins or more since 2010.
The offense should be just fine, if not better than a year ago. The defense needs new playmakers, but the coaches believe they have just that.
And the Pokes enjoy playing the underdog, which they've been plenty over the past decade, when they rank 10th overall nationally in winning percentage.
"Let's go for a national championship," Sanders says. "I don't care we have a young team. … I feel like if we can go do it, let's go do it."
National Ranking: 17
Podcast: Top 25 Megacast! Complete Top 25 Breakdown, Rankings and Predictions Explained