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Big 12 preview: Oklahoma State outlook has Gundy in happy place

Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire

Mike Gundy needs six victories to become the first Oklahoma State coach to win 100 games in Stillwater. He has his own app. He’s growing a mullet and accepts the kidding and attention that come with it. In June, his contract was extended through 2021 paying him an average of $4.1 million per season.

The Cowboys are coming off a 10-win season and could approach that win total again this season. The worst season Oklahoma State has had in the last five was 2014, when a five-game skid in Big 12 play resulted in a 7-6 season.

For the 49-year-old Gundy, life is good.

“I think I’m better able to weather a storm now, if we get one like we had two years ago,” he said. “If we ever have another season like that, I’ll handle it better than I did that year … I quit worrying about the things that don’t matter.”

The 2014 season was salvaged by a late-game miracle punt return that forced overtime at Oklahoma in a game the Cowboys won to end the losing streak. The momentum carried over into last season as the Cowboys started 10-0.

That record, though, turned out to be a mirage built on four Big 12 triumphs by a touchdown or less. Injuries on defense and an ineffective running game eventually caught up with the team. Oklahoma State was overwhelmed and lost its last three games.

Last season, the offense propped up a defense that finished 96th in the nation (out of 128 FBS schools), and the passing game made up for an ineffective running game. Matching the 2015 win-loss number will be contingent on improving the defense and the run game.

“In the front seven, we have guys that by midseason could give us quality playing time in conference play,” Gundy said. “We have key positions that we need players to stay healthy, like always, but if we’re fortunate, we could be deeper on defense by mid-season.”

GundyMullet3Quarterback Mason Rudolph and receiver James Washington, both juniors, form one of the top pass-catch duos in the country. The Cowboys have plenty of playmakers at wide receiver, but finding a productive running back and balancing the offense are priorities. The offensive line returns all five starters.

“The offensive line was good at pass protecting last year,” Gundy said. “It was one of the most unusual times for me as an offensive coach or head coach to be around a group that were really good pass protectors and we weren’t very good at run blocking. Hopefully we will improve in both areas.”

Gundy showed up at Big 12 Media Days last month with the “business up front, party in the back” hairstyle that was more popular in the 1980s when he was the Cowboys’ quarterback.

“There’s more pressure on me now with the hair than with the O-line,” he joked. “There’s pressure on my stylist.”

Oklahoma State at a glance

2015: 10-3 overall, 5-2 in Big 12, tied for 2nd place

Coach: Mike Gundy

Returning starters: 10 on offense, 7 on defense

Impact players: Jr. QB Mason Rudolph, Sr. RB Chris Carson, Jr. WR James Washington, Sr. WR Marcell Ateman, Sr. TE Blake Jarwin, Jr. OT Zachary Crabtree, Sr. OT Victor Salako, Jr. DT Vincent Taylor, Sr. DT Motekiai Maile,  Sr. LB Jordan Burton, Jr. LB Chad Whitener, Sr. S Jordan Sterns, Jr. S Tre Flowers

3 reasons to hope

  • There are 38 players returning from the two-deep in last season’s Sugar Bowl. Even with some big holes to fill on the defensive front, the core of this team has been around for three seasons.
  • The offensive line has 100 career starts, and all five starters return from last season. The line excelled at pass protection but needs to improve clearing running lanes. Also, O-line coach Greg Adkins starts his second season in Stillwater, so the level of cohesion should improve.
  • Oklahoma State has had some lethal pass-catch combos over the last decade, and juniors Mason Rudolph and James Washington should be on the list. Washington is the top returning receiver in the Big 12 and will be seeking consecutive 1,000-yard seasons.

3 reasons to worry

  • Is there a productive running back on the roster? Senior Chris Carson had a difficult debut season after transferring from junior college. Graduate transfer Barry Sanders Jr. (yes, he’s Barry’s son) is in the mix with three other candidates. The Cowboys have gone three seasons without a 1,000-yard rusher.
  • When at full strength last season, the defense was above average, but when defensive end Jimmy Bean was lost to an ACL, the pass rush slowed and the defense tired. Oklahoma State gave up 151 points in the season-ending three-game losing streak.
  • After two cupcake non-conference games (Southeastern Louisiana, Central Michigan), Oklahoma State closes September by hosting Pitt and then traveling to Baylor. The Bears have had the Cowboys’ number the last few seasons. OSU faces a back-loaded schedule; if the team splits its first four games, the season could become very disappointing.
January 1, 2016: Oklahoma State Cowboys quarterback Mason Rudolph (2) calls the play at the line of scrimmage during the Allstate Sugar Bowl between the Ole Miss Rebels and the Oklahoma State Cowboys at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, La. (Photo by Scott Donaldson/Icon Sportswire)

January 1, 2016: Oklahoma State Cowboys quarterback Mason Rudolph (2) calls the play at the line of scrimmage during the Allstate Sugar Bowl between the Ole Miss Rebels and the Oklahoma State Cowboys at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, La. (Photo by Scott Donaldson/Icon Sportswire)

Difference maker on offense: Mason Rudolph. The junior quarterback is a confident leader. Assuming the running game is improved, Rudolph could put up big numbers because the receiver corps is flush with speedy playmakers.

Difference maker on defense: Jordan Sterns. The senior safety is a big hitter who led the team with 108 tackles last season. His toughness and leadership will be important, because the defense will be without its bookend defensive ends, Emmanuel Ogbah and Jimmy Bean.

It’s a fact: Starting with the 2010 season, Oklahoma State leads the FBS with 37 non-offensive touchdowns over the last six seasons.

Projected final record: 9-3. The nonconference game with Pitt on Sept. 17 in Stillwater is a toss-up, but a game the Cowboys should win. As was the case last season, Oklahoma State’s challenge will be in November. In 2016, OSU makes road trips to Kansas State, TCU and Oklahoma.

2016 Schedule

Date Opponent
Sept. 3 Southeastern Louisiana
Sept. 10 Central Michigan
Sept. 17 Pittsburgh
Sept. 24 at Baylor*
Oct. 1 Texas*
Oct. 8 Iowa State*
Oct. 22 at Kansas*
Oct . 29 West Virginia*
Nov. 5 at Kansas State*
Nov. 12 Texas Tech*
Nov. 19 at TCU*
Dec. 3 at Oklahoma*
* – Conference game
Big 12 preview: Oklahoma State outlook has Gundy in happy place

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