USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.
Other teams are in the ballpark, at least, even if Oklahoma State stands alone: OSU returns just under 55% of last year's lettermen, the fewest of any team in the Football Bowl Subdivision – or, for the pessimistic, the Cowboys must replace just over 45% of last year's lettermen.
Oklahoma State stands alone in that regard, as it does in this: Florida State's looming. Jameis Winston's looming for a secondary down its top five, including one of the nation's best on the outside. Likewise with Davis Webb of Texas Tech, another rising star under center. Bryce Petty waits for his turn in November.
I'm not sure if it's ironic, but it's funny – not laugh-out-loud funny, not in Stillwater, but of a certain absurdity.
For years, Oklahoma State has sidled into Big 12 play as an underdog, behind the league's breadwinners, only to end the year among the top four, in or around the Bowl Championship Series. The Cowboys have done so with a blend of offensive explosiveness – regardless of the coordinator along the sideline – and defensive opportunism; last year's team, for instance, finished second in the Big 12 in scoring offense and second in scoring defense.
We've done this dance so many times we can count the steps in our sleep: win, win, lose, win, win and win, ending with at least nine wins and between one and four losses. Oklahoma State flies in under the radar; the radar picks the Cowboys up in October and November; by December, the Cowboys rank among the league's best.
But this year provides Mike Gundy's sternest test since OSU's current run began – way back in 2008, so long ago Texas was one year away from playing for the national championship. The defense has been gutted by graduation and attrition. Likewise at quarterback, receiver and offensive line; the latter has a new positional coach, Bob Connelly, who replaced Texas-bound Joe Wickline.
This is all new. Even the 2012 team, which struggled in an eight-win finish, returned 16 starters, 29th-most in the FBS. Last year's squad brought back 14 starters, third-most in the Big 12. This year's group? Nine. That's tied for second-fewest in the FBS, tied for last in the Big 12, and it's only natural to expect the worst.
Well, here's the funny part in Stillwater: Oklahoma State might be at its best when others expect the worst.
LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:
If the breaks go the Cowboys' way: 11-1, 8-1 in the Big 12, back in the BCS. If the defense gets no pass rush at end and doesn't improve at cornerback: 8-4 or 7-5, much like last season. I think the defense will be better, so let's say nine wins during the regular season, six during Big 12 play, and a shot at a major bowl heading into the three-game finale of Texas, Baylor and Oklahoma.
In a nutshell: In a four-week span in November, the Cowboys topped ranked Texas Tech, Texas and Baylor, the latter in jaw-dropping, warm-up-the-bus, thanks-for-playing, see-you-next-year fashion. Exceed expectations? Well, obviously. Blow teams out of the water? Well, sometimes. The offense wasn't quite as dynamic as the Cowboys' previous two versions, though this is all relative: OSU scored 508 points with first-year coordinator Mike Yurcich, 14th-most in the FBS, after scoring 594 and 633 points in 2012 and 2011, respectively. It was the defense that made noise in the offense-first Big 12, leading the league in scoring, interceptions and rushing scores allowed – each by a fairly substantial margin. A BCS berth came down to the finale against Oklahoma, a loss, and there are better ways to end the regular season.
High point: Trouncing Baylor. Winning the battle yet losing the war, they'll say, but still: OSU ripped through the Bears.
Low point: Losing to Oklahoma.
Tidbit: Five of Gundy's nine assistants are in their first or second seasons with the program. The one newcomer is Connelly, whose last coaching stint came at Arizona State in 2012. Another four bring a little more familiarity to the table: Yurcich, defensive line coach Joe Bob Clements, safeties coach Tim Duffie and co-receivers coach Jason Ray made their debuts a season ago.
Tidbit (drives edition): Oklahoma State was one of three teams in the FBS with multiple 99-yard touchdown drives during the regular season. The Cowboys had two: one against Baylor, a second against Oklahoma in the Bedlam loss. The other two teams were Louisiana-Lafayette – yeah, I can see that – and Temple – well, that's a little surprising.
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:
Western movie actors
1. John Wayne
2. Clint Eastwood
3. Jimmy Stewart
4. James Arness
5. Ben Johnson
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Offense: Try as he might, deflect as he might and deny as he might, Gundy can only avoid an honest response for so long: J.W. Walsh is OSU's starting quarterback, and I can't – can't for the life of me – understand why Gundy continues to deny Walsh the clear-cut nod heading into fall camp. Why wait? Yes, the Cowboys have junior Daxx Garman, the former Arizona transfer; yes, the Cowboys have freshman Mason Rudolph, a four-star recruit who stands as the program's future at the position. But here's the truth: Walsh is the starter. And he should've been anointed the starter coming out of the spring, giving the junior the opportunity to assert himself as one of the Cowboys' leaders. His time is coming, likely by the second week of August … but why wait? Rest assured that Walsh will be under center for the opener and for every game from point forward, should he deliver, and his sample-size experience suggests he'll perform ably as the Cowboys' full-time starter.
He'll need to, given the transition underway at the Cowboys' skill positions. The receiver corps has holes to fill: OSU loses three of its top targets, and will trade that always-in-town all-league receiver – the list goes on and on – for strength in numbers. It's a very deep group; for this season, until someone steps forward, the Cowboys can simply utilize depth to offset a lack of a clear go-to option. The group is led by sophomores Jhajuan Seales (39 receptions for 571 yards) and Marcell Ateman (22 for 276), the two most experienced hands, followed by fellow sophomores Austin Hays and Blake Webb. The Cowboys also bring back junior Brandon Shepherd, who's going to play a bunch, along with redshirt freshman Ra'Shaad Samples – a speedster – sophomore C.J. Curry, junior David Gildden and incoming freshman Keenen Brown. Get the picture: OSU is very young.
One newcomer deserves his own paragraph, I believe, and it'd be fitting to either have this paragraph exist in run-on sentence after run-on sentence or, perhaps, one long sentence without spaces or punctuation – because Tyreek Hill is fast, you see, so fast that he's might be the fastest player Gundy has ever had, or the fastest player in the Big 12, or perhaps even the fastest player in college football, if Gundy himself is to be believe; Hill is faster than a speeding bullet, quick enough to make heads spin and athletically gifted enough to roll out of the backfield, where he'll form a dynamite pairing with senior Desmond Roland (811 yards and 13 touchdowns), the returning starter, and dangerous enough in space to play a major role as a receiver coming out of the slot, where I imagine Hill will find early success in becoming the Cowboys' next-generation, do-it-all, break-ankles-in-a-college-town-near-you offensive weapon, the sort who can take a football and, like an alchemist, make something out of nothing.
Defense: Oklahoma State does return Glenn Spencer, and carry-the-water defenses have been born from less. Yet Spencer is going to have his hands full with the Cowboys' attack, which is strong up front – another really good sign – but dangerously inexperienced along the back seven. The front must deliver: OSU loses Calvin Barnett in the middle but returns enough depth to own the line of scrimmage, the sort of trickle-down advantage that could help the defense tread water on the second level and in the secondary – in the latter in particular. But that does demand more push from the edges on third down, a late-season development last fall, and at least four dependable bodies along the interior. It can be done; OSU must get it done.
There's little reason to think senior James Castleman (33 tackles) can't produce at an all-conference level even without Barnett drawing attention at his shoulder. But because OSU was so heavily reliant on this pair last fall, OSU does need senior Ofa Hautau, sophomore Eric Davis and redshirt freshmen Vincent Taylor, Vili Leveni and Ben Hughes to deliver with consistency in vastly increased roles – those redshirt freshmen are unknowns, obviously, and it's hard to project what each will bring to the table; it should be said that Hughes and Taylor are brimming with potential, however. The situation at end is interesting: Jimmy Bean (34 tackles, 9.5 for loss), Sam Wren and Emmanuel Ogbah (20 tackles, 4.0 sacks) are experienced, at least, and Bean and Ogbah found a pass-rush rhythm during the second half of last season. I can quibble with the youth inside, but the line as a whole is the clear and unquestioned strength of the entire defense.
It gets worse. The lone sure thing at linebacker is junior Ryan Simmons (67 tackles, 9.0 for loss), who will make the move from the weak side to the middle to replace Caleb Lavey – and Simmons will need to be ready as much mentally, where Lavey excelled, as physically. It's also safe to assume a major role for JUCO transfer Devante Averette, who enrolled early; he'll get a long look on the weak side. When OSU does roll out a three-linebacker set – and it'll be five defensive backs more often than not, especially during league play – look for Simmons to be flanked by Averette and junior Kris Catlin. The latter showed enough during the spring to deserve increased snaps.
Well, the secondary sets up red lights and alarms. First, two words of positivity: one, it's not like OSU is necessarily devoid of talent, with speed and aggressive bursting at the seams on the outside and along the back end; and two, it's been a while since OSU has done anything but forth a solid, opportunistic and dangerous secondary. It's just … it's just that this year's group has issues. Like Simmons at linebacker, there is a sure thing: Kevin Peterson (24 tackles) is a keeper today at cornerback, and if he develops as expected should challenge for all-league honors. The rest? Help is needed.
Pencil Ashton Lampkin into the starting job opposite Peterson, with Miketavius Jones in line to be the Cowboys' third cornerback. At nickel back, OSU could hand the job to junior D'Nerius Antoine, the starter coming out of the spring, or turn to Michigan transfer Josh Furman. The back end will benefit from senior Larry Stephens' return from injury; he's an experienced tool in a grouping short on reliability. Stephens will play, though the Cowboys won't settle on a starting pair until fall camp – as of summer workouts, the starters were sophomores Deric Robertson and Jordan Sterns. There's some help in the way from a number of second-year players, many coming off a redshirt year, but it's going to be tough sledding for this group until experience catches up with athletic ability.
Special teams: The Cowboys' decline in the transition away from Quinn Sharp was as swift as it was expected – we know this was coming, since Sharp was superb, but the Cowboys did suffer a pretty precipitous slide in the kicking game. Those numbers may improve with Kip Smith and Ben Grogan back in the fold – though incoming freshman Zach Sinor could make some depth-chart noise – but OSU could temper that growth with a slide in the return game.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH:
Offensive line: There are issues on two fronts: one, OSU is dealing with personnel woes nearly across the board, not to mention in reserve; and two, the program moves forward with Connelly replacing Wickline – and with all due respect to Connelly, he has not accumulated his predecessor's goodwill or benefit of the doubt. He's also not working with a full deck: Connelly will have senior Daniel Koenig at right tackle and the combination of sophomore Devin Davis and senior Brandon Garrett on the blind side, but the interior is so reworked as to make it one of the biggest question marks on the entire roster – and let's not forget that both Davis and Garrett are working back from injuries, so very little is secure across the board. Let's look at the bright side: Davis could rediscover his potential, Koenig could play at an all-conference level and Garrett could be the top exterior reserve; senior Chris Grisbhy could be a mauler at left guard, not to mention a leader; sophomore Zac Veatch could be steady at right guard; and sophomore Paul Lewis could be ready for the job in the middle. This all could happen. Yet if it does – and who knows, really – it won't happen in time for Florida State. The Seminoles' front is going to eat OSU's line for dinner.
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
Oklahoma: This one's circled in ink, as it always is, but let's not ignore another two games that will decide OSU's season. The first is Texas Tech, which comes at the start of Big 12 play and precedes dates with Iowa State and Kansas; OSU will lose to FSU in the opener but, with a win against the Red Raiders, potentially enter a date against TCU on Oct. 18 on a five-game winning streak. The second is West Virginia, which comes in advance of a killer end-of-year stretch – at Kansas State, Texas, at Baylor, at Oklahoma – and comes at home. That's a must-win.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: You can doubt this specific team while respecting the program. This program has earned the benefit of the doubt, and that in spades; this team has to earn its respect. There are certain flaws here that simply cannot be ignored: Oklahoma State is really insecure along the offensive line, at linebacker and in the secondary, and the Cowboys can't feel overly comfortable with the current situation at wide receiver and on special teams. On paper, in my opinion, this is the least cohesive group Gundy has brought into a season since the beginning of this program's current run. What does this mean?
It means this team could win nine or more games, since that's what Oklahoma State does. It could also mean this team stands as Gundy's worst since 2007, the program's last squad to win less than eight games in a season. Yes, this team – again, this is on paper – could win just six or seven games during the regular season. There's the schedule: FSU to start, a 24-point loss, and TCU, Kansas State, Baylor and Oklahoma on the road. It's not easy; it'll take everything Gundy has and more to keep this train rolling.
He'll need superb play at quarterback, expectations-matching play from Hill, next-step production from the young core of receivers, above-average play from left tackle to right guard, reliable production along the interior of the defensive line, leadership from Simmons, explosiveness at outside linebacker, all-conference play from Peterson, opportunism at cornerback, consistency along the back end and growth from the kicking game. That's all, right? The good news: OSU has been here before, done this dance before and come out clean on the other side, atop the Big 12 or within a game of the league title. The bad news: OSU has a heck of a road ahead to challenge in this conference.
Dream season: Oklahoma State loses to FSU but rolls off 10 wins in 11 games to end the year, capping it all with a 48-10 win against the Sooners.
Nightmare season: The Cowboys finish 5-7.
Who's No. 49? This university played its first football game 924 days after the school itself was chartered into existence.