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Once Poised For Big 12 Greatness, Oklahoma State Fights To Hold Ground

Coming off of a 2011 season that saw Oklahoma State win the Fiesta Bowl and finish 12-1 with an uncharacteristic letdown against Iowa State serving as their lone blemish, you could have very easily made a case that the Cowboys belonged in the BCS National Championship Game that instead featured a rematch of Alabama and LSU.

Regardless, the football program in Stillwater had reached unfettered new heights under Mike Gundy, and they looked poised to be consistent placard-placers on the Big 12 title trophy and possibly even crystal ball contenders. It was the second time in two years the program had finished ranked inside the Top 10 in the Coaches Poll and the thrilling Fiesta Bowl win over Stanford made it their 23rd victory in just two seasons.

With everything they had to replace the following season, you knew Oklahoma State wouldn’t field as dominant of a program in 2012, but with a coach like Mike Gundy, a new stadium and program flush with Boone T. Pickens’ cash, the Cowboys still appeared to be in a good position.

An 8-5 record in 2012 was a bit of a disappointment, but when the Pokes managed another 10-win campaign in 2013 it further reaffirmed that Oklahoma State was establishing themselves as a nationally relevant brand. The following fall, when OSU gave Florida State, the defending national champions, everything they could handle in an opening loss before rattling off five straight wins, all was well in North Central Oklahoma.

However, when the Cowboys got to the meat of a difficult Big 12 schedule, the contentedness faded. With trips to TCU, Kansas State and Baylor staggered with home games against West Virginia and Texas, OSU dropped five straight. They needed a 92-yard punt return for a touchdown by Tyreek Hill with less than a minute left in regulation to send it to overtime in the Bedlam Series against Oklahoma, where they’d pull off the miraculous upset just to gain bowl eligibility.

But even with the momentum garnered from that win over OU and a victory against Washington in the Cactus Bowl to finish at 7-6, Oklahoma State doesn’t look quite like the program we thought they were primed to become following their impressive 2011 campaign. The Cowboys have finished unranked in two of their last three seasons after finding their names in the coach’s ledgers to end each of the previous four seasons.

During this three-year stretch, they’ve gone a respectable 16-11 in conference, but that’s not quite good enough to place them in the upper echelon of the Big 12 with Baylor, Oklahoma and Kansas State, who’ve each gone 20-7 during the same span. Even Texas, despite the tumult of Mack Brown’s final two seasons and Charlie Strong’s first, managed a 17-10 record in conference play.

Three solid but not great seasons certainly hasn’t led to the loss of any respectability for a coach like Gundy, who is now 84-44 in his 10-year career, but these past three seasons have to be a moderate letdown for Oklahoma State fans who thought themselves to be on the precipice of greatness. The hope is 2015 stands as an opportunity to correct course.

With everybody’s eyes on loaded returning rosters at TCU and Baylor and on the rebuilding processes at Texas and Oklahoma–one of the blatant variety (UT) and one steeped in subtlety (OU)–the Cowboys quietly return 16 starters this fall. And, while momentum rarely carries over from one season to the next, talent certainly does.

After struggling to find the answer in the wake of Brandon Weeden’s departure after that esteemed 2011 season, Mason Rudolph is the latest entry in a list of folks that the Oklahoma State faithful have been excited about. The true freshman was a four-star recruit out of a highly-respected program in South Carolina who took over as the starter against Baylor and played well in the wins over Oklahoma and Washington.

NCAA FOOTBALL: JAN 02 Cactus Bowl - Washington v Oklahoma State

Mason Rudolph’s play last season has Oklahoma State fans excited about the future.

His development in Mike Gundy’s system will be critical to the program’s success in 2015, but the three-game glimpse we got in 2014 certainly gave the fans in Stillwater plenty of reason for optimism. And it will help that Oklahoma State almost has to be better on defense than they were this past fall.

The Cowboys gave up 31.2 points per game in 2014, but they have eight starters returning and many consider their back seven to be one of the more talented in the conference. Even if they’re only marginally better in 2015, Oklahoma State should be a lot more competitive against a more forgiving schedule.

Oklahoma State gets Baylor, TCU and Kansas State at home next fall and their non-conference schedule is soft by design with a nine-game Big 12 slate to navigate. There’s no FSU to speak of and that’s a blessing.

Overall, 2015 could be a hinge year for Mike Gundy and the program. He has plenty of job security, but if OSU continues to hover at seven or eight wins given everything that’s coming back, you can be certain that things won’t be as comfortable the following fall.

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