The Oklahoma State Cowboys are flying high after their 31-10 defensive victory over the Iowa State Cyclones last week.
The toughest part of their schedule is upon them, so now is a great time to ask: are these Cowboys pretenders or contenders in the Big 12 conference?
It’s a valid question to ask, especially considering the inconsistency we have seen from this team so far this season. When you look at their performance last week against the Cyclones and then compare it to their second game of the season at Arizona, you realize that this team has played at each end of the spectrum.
At their best, the Cowboys are among the most talented overall teams in the Big 12. At their worst, they have been defensively anemic and stalled on important plays offensively.
So let’s take a look at their qualities as far as being contenders or pretenders. That will give us a much clearer picture on just what the identity of this team really is.
When discussing the positive qualities of the Cowboys, it has to start with the offense.
One of the most impressive things Mike Gundy’s team has accomplished this season is continuing to be a high-powered offense despite the tumult that has been the quarterback position.
First off, the Cowboys start with a true freshman quarterback. Then, after he plays well, he gets injured and is replaced by a redshirt freshman who plays very well in the former’s absence. Now, the redshirt freshman backup is out for the season, and the true freshman looks to be back.
Many teams would have collapsed in such a situation, especially in the Big 12 where quarterback play is so important. The fact that the Cowboys didn’t proves just how good their offense is and how balanced their receiving corps is. The Cowboys lead the Big 12 in total offense, averaging 605.3 yards per game.
Running the ball is important for any team, and that is another area in which the Cowboys have been very good. Part of the reason is because they have needed to help out their young quarterbacks.
Another part is Joseph Randle.
The All-America candidate has rushed for 765 yards, which leads the Big 12 by over 100 yards. He is also averaging six yards per rush and has rushed for eight touchdowns.
He is the workhorse that makes this Oklahoma State offense go, and its continued success is largely due to his efforts.
Another big positive has been the Cowboy defense’s efforts against the run.
They have allowed just 3.4 yards per rush this season, which is good for about fourth in the conference. That is the team’s biggest improvement from last season, when they were gashed on the ground by a number of opponents. That improvement in run defense has this team at fifth in the conference in total defense, which is much better than they have been yardage-wise in recent years.
Unfortunately for Cowboy fans, it is not all good.
The defense has been very good at times, but it has been unbelievably bad in certain spots as well. That inconsistency is the biggest reason why Oklahoma State is 4-2 and not 6-0.
The games against Arizona and Texas were characterized by huge defensive mishaps. Arizona quarterback Matt Scott torched a Cowboys secondary that was supposed to be a team strength for 320 yards and two scores.
The entire Arizona offense put up 501 total yards and was not forced into a single turnover.
The Texas game was not as bad, but it was not good either.
Texas accounted for 440 total yards with quarterback David Ash completing 30 of 38 passes for 304 yards. The secondary was over-matched from the start by the Longhorns receivers and gave up huge fourth down plays that ultimately ended up costing Oklahoma State the game.
Those defensive performances cannot become the norm.
Another example of the bad of this season was the Kansas game on October 13th.
A win is a win, but you can bet the Cowboys and their coaches were not pleased with their effort. Defeating Kansas is what everyone in the Big 12 does, and it should not have been the struggle that it was.
The Cowboys offense looked bad that day, as Kansas loaded up the box to stop Joseph Randle. The passing game was not good enough to keep the chains moving, which is something that may be remedied when Wes Lunt returns.
The turnover margin is also not a good sign.
Last season, the Cowboys led the nation in turnovers forced, forcing over 40 of them throughout the season. This season, they have forced just six turnovers in six games, making their margin for the season a plus-5.
That is not good enough for them to keep winning, especially given the big yardage they have been prone to give up at times.
Are the Cowboys a contender or pretender in the Big 12?
This team is far from perfect. It has its problems, like pass defense, turnover margin and offensive injuries. It is also full of young talent who can score the ball with the best of them.
Having to give such a simplistic view of a team like this one is tough to do. The truth always lies somewhere in the middle. I do have to pick one side or the other, however.
This team is truthfully closer to being a contender than a pretender in the Big 12.
This season has been a rocky one, but a large part of that are forces out of the control of the team and coaches. Defensive coordinator Bill Young had to miss a few games at the start of the season. Injuries at the quarterback, running back and receiver positions also have not helped.
This team has the talent necessary to beat anyone in the Big 12. What the rest of this season will depend on is whether or not it can make the necessary plays on both sides of the ball to win games.
The talent to be a contender is there. These players now just have to decide how they are going to play. Winning the Big 12 will be a tall order, but it is not impossible.
Even if they fall short of that goal, they will be considered a solid contender at season’s end.