On one side of the ball, the Oklahoma State Cowboys have plenty of pieces to contend for a Big 12 crown and spot in the College Football Playoff: a polished veteran at quarterback, possibly the best wide receiver in the country, an experienced offensive line and an up-and-coming running back.
The other side leaves plenty to be desired: a leaky secondary, a major loss in the middle of the defensive line and an overhauled linebacking corps.
Oh, and head coach Mike Gundy trimmed his mullet. Whether that helps or hurts the Pokes’ changes of getting to college football’s final four is a mystery.
Three Reasons Oklahoma State Will Reach the College Football Playoff in 2017
1. A great head coach
Gundy does things his way, and it has worked well for the Cowboys. For a program that generally plays second fiddle in a state that doesn’t produce much homegrown talent, OSU consistently punches above its weight thanks to Gundy’s resourcefulness.
You can count on OSU’s head coach and his staff to come out this season with a plan that plays to the team’s strengths. Gundy will ensure the Cowboys remain a tough out.
2. Mason Rudolph to James Washington
The Rudolph-Washington combination is the best QB-WR tandem in the nation. The two hooked up 71 times last season, gaining nearly 20 yards per catch and scoring 10 touchdowns. So long as they’re on the field, OSU can torment defenses with even just the threat of Rudolph and Washington torching them deep.
3. Graduate transfers
OSU landed two key graduate transfers who will step in right away at positions of need.
Offensive lineman Aaron Cochran left California to finish his college football career in Stillwater. Following the departure of offensive tackle Victor Salako, Cochran likely hops into the vacated spot on Rudolph’s blind side.
At cornerback, defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer is counting on Adrian Baker to play immediately. The Clemson transfer can shore up a secondary that struggled mightily at times a year ago.
Three Reasons Oklahoma State Won’t Reach the College Football Playoff in 2017
1. Defending the pass
The Cowboys got burned routinely in 2016 by just about every team that could throw the ball competently. In their three losses, they allowed 11 touchdown passes and nearly 12 yards per pass attempt.
The defensive backs need work, but OSU also could stand to put more pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The Pokes notched 32 sacks last year, down from 40 in 2015, and their top disruptor, defensive lineman Vincent Taylor, left early for the NFL.
2. Cowboy back MIA
Sophomore running back Justice Hill racked up more than 1,100 yards on the ground last year. He was aided greatly by OSU’s tight end/H-back position, known as the Cowboy back. The two Cowboy backs from last season, Zac Veatch and Blake Jarwin, were outstanding lead blockers in the running game and credible receiving threats.
The Pokes have a proven offensive line and a talented runner, but the ground game could sputter if Gundy and his staff can’t find a replacement — or two — for Jarwin and Veatch.
3. Trap games
On its face, OSU’s schedule is very manageable. Oklahoma, Kansas State and TCU all come to Stillwater. The Cowboys’ toughest non-conference game is against Pittsburgh, which sent five players to the NFL in the offseason.
Unfortunately for the Pokes, OSU’s slate is dotted with land mines. For instance, they play three of their first five games on the road, the last of which is a visit to Texas Tech. The Cowboys also follow up a road trip to Texas with a game at West Virginia a week later.
The buzz building around Oklahoma State this offseason isn’t surprising. The Cowboys left a good final impression last season by lambasting a solid Colorado squad in the Alamo Bowl. They also have a highly touted signal-caller with plenty of weapons around him. Factor in the coaching changes in Austin and Norman and OSU looks like the picture of stability in the Big 12.
Defensive deficiencies will most likely hold this team back when all is said and done, though. The D was shaky enough last season, and the evidence suggesting it will improve is hard to find.
OSU squeaked by in plenty of track meets a year ago. Look for the Cowboys’ luck to turn this year as they struggle even more to get stops.
The Cowboys may find themselves playing for the Big 12 crown in December. Hopes of a spot in the College Football Playoff, on the other hand, seem pretty far-fetched.
Athlon’s Projected Final Ranking: 14
Athlon’s Projected Final Record: 9-3 (6-3 Big 12)
Bovada Projected Over/Under Odds: 9
— 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.