Looking at a team’s previous season typically entails looking at how things could have gone better and assessing what could have been had one drive gone differently. On one side of the coin, a team could be cast as a title contender if things went better down the home stretch. The other side cuts a little deeper, and that’s where Oklahoma State currently resides.
Last season went spectacularly well for Oklahoma State — the Cowboys boasted a 10-3 record and were just a win away from claiming the Big 12. In that sense, one could see the Cowboys as being a bit unfortunate. However, the regular season losses to No. 10 Baylor and No. 5 Oklahoma were both lopsided. With that in mind, don’t even get started on the four-touchdown loss in the Sugar Bowl to Ole Miss.
Whereas blowouts cut against OSU, the Cowboys owned pulse-pounding late-game scenarios. All of the Pokes’ close games went in their favor, putting them on the right side of history. Four of their wins were by one possession, the margin for error incredibly tight. Thanks to great leadership and attention to detail from coach Mike Gundy, errors were minimized.
The 2015 season was impressive for those reasons, but that could all change in a second. Just ask Texas sophomore punter Michael Dickson.
With 36 seconds remaining in the 27-27 stalemate with Oklahoma State, Dickson fumbled a spot-on snap and the Cowboys took over at the Texas 17-yard line, effectively winning the game on a subsequent chip-shot field goal. Granted, the defense held the Longhorns to a quick three-and-out, but the game was won and lost on the special teams gaffe.
The following game against Kansas State was similarly resolved, with OSU edging out the Wildcats with a last-minute Ben Grogan field goal. That comeback snapped a streak of 49 straight games in which Kansas State won when leading at the half.
The Cowboys’ ability to come from behind and win a game in its latest stages repeated against West Virginia and Iowa State. Props should be given to the Pokes for their character, but it should all be taken with a grain of salt. The regular season could have been 6-6, not 10-2.
Looking at the team’s key departures, OSU will be put through the wringer to keep up this success rate in 2016.
On defense, the conference’s top duo of defensive ends, Jimmy Bean and Emmanuel Ogbah (2015’s Co-Defensive Player of the Year), are gone. Resident lockdown corner Kevin Peterson is also missing. In all, the conference’s leading pass rushing defense is down to seven returning starters. Drives like the pivotal three-and-out against Texas will be harder to come by when leaning on untested talent.
At first blush, the offense appears to be better off this year. A total of 10 starters return; experience in the trenches should greatly help this unit progress. There’s also a lot of excitement around the addition of Barry J. Sanders, but expectations should be tempered after seeing him listed in an “or” situation with Rennie Childs and Chris Carson.
The most substantial loss could be backup quarterback J.W. Walsh, the “1-B starter” behind Mason Rudolph. It was Walsh who came up big in most of the Pokes’ close calls.
In the overtime win over West Virginia, it was Walsh who punched it in for a two-yard score after Rudolph was kept out of the end zone on third down. Against Texas, Rudolph was responsible for two crucial turnovers which Walsh erased with two goal line touchdowns. He ran the same script against Iowa State as well, throwing the game-winning touchdown pass with three minutes to go.
Rudolph has shown great efficiency over his first two seasons in Stillwater, but he hasn’t had the chance to show the same clutch traits Walsh possessed. He also hasn’t had to run the goal line formations Walsh perfected.
Last year, Oklahoma State was on the right side of what could have been. This year, it’s unclear if history can be repeated.
Memo to the Cowboys: Don’t wait to the last minute to get something done this season. Why chance it?