It is true that the Oklahoma State Cowboys lost a great deal of talent and experience to graduation and the NFL after last season. However, head coach Mike Gundy has this program at the best point it has ever reached, and it does not look like it will be falling off the map any time soon.
Do not misunderstand what I am telling you. This Cowboy team will not win the Big 12 or win a national title or anything like that. It will not be a Top-10 team or have a Heisman contender.
However, this team will win at least eight games, go to a respectable bowl and continue to position itself as one of the best football teams in the Big 12 conference. It will probably go drastically unnoticed, but this program will prove that it is here to stay.
The returning starpower at running back, the returning players on defense and the consistency of the game plan are all big reasons this team will over-achieve this upcoming season.
The Backs Are Very Good
Losing a running back as talented as Herschel Sims would be very detrimental to most college football teams. It was not for the Cowboys for two big reasons: Joseph Randle and Jeremy Smith.
Randle and Smith combined for over 1,800 yards and 33 rushing touchdowns last season. Each is just a junior this season, and together they will be a major focal point for the Cowboy offense.
The offense itself is a pass-heavy attack, but that might have to be adjusted at least a little bit with true freshman Wes Lunt as the starter. The system that Lunt played in during his high school days is very similar to the one he will run in college, but that obviously is not enough to expect great things. The speed of Division I college football is something that every freshman has to acclimate himself to, and Wes Lunt will be no different.
These two backs will make that much easier by giving the Cowboy offense a potent way of attacking, that also gives Lunt a chance to take a break. Defenses will be trying to get to Lunt. These two running backs will help protect him with their production and blocking.
The Defense is Back
The Oklahoma State defense was a bit maligned last season, especially by those who just looked at the yards given up by the team on average. However, it was actually a much better defensive unit than it was given credit for.
The Cowboy defense led the nation in turnovers, and returns almost intact for a new season. The only losses are defensive ends Jamie Blatnick and Richetti Jones and safety Markelle Martin. Those are significant losses, but the other nine starters on that defense are more than able to continue on.
The linebacker core might be the best in the Big 12, with Alex Elkins, Shaun Lewis and Caleb Lavey. Those three are the foundation of this turnover-producing unit, as each has a nose for the ball and is extremely disciplined.
The secondary that backs them up is also very good. Senior cornerback Brodrick Brown is a fierce defender who has made a reputation for finding the ball. Senior safety Daytawion Lowe is the hardest hitter on the team and the leading tackler from a year ago. Junior Justin Gilbert is perhaps the most talented of them all, both in coverage and in special teams as a return man.
Those six players, along with the committee at defensive line, should be just as good as last season. In fact, the defense should even be better than last year, as each of these young players has matured even more over the course of a year.
The Game Plan
The last reason this Cowboy team will be better than you expect is a simple one. The game plan on both sides of the ball will stay the same. Consistency is key, and these players should know what they are doing better than any Gundy has had before.
The offensive attack is still one that favors the pass, but mixes in the run an appropriate amount as well. The defensive plan is still to limit big plays and contain the opponent while looking to turn the ball over.
That consistency should enable these players to know what is going on very well. There are very few players left on the team that have been there long enough to remember when the current systems were not in place.
That is good. Gundy and his staff are molding players to be what they need. That’s what they must do to become a continually-contending team. That’s why they’ll be better than you expect next season.