No. 5 Oklahoma State
Mike Gundy signed a new contract this offseason that pays him an average of $4.45 million over the next five years. He gets an additional $900,000 if Oklahoma State wins the Big 12 and national championship. That's the expectation for the Cowboys this season.
Their offense is one of the best — if not the best — in the country and though the defense has many question marks, they have enough pieces at all three levels to be good enough.
2016 Record: 10-3 (7-2, Big 12)
Oklahoma State really went 11-2 but we'll actually play by the rules and pretend they went 10-3.
One year later, the last-second loss to Central Michigan still stings. The Cowboys still lost to Baylor two weeks later and were beaten soundly by Oklahoma in the regular-season finale, but who knows what that stolen game did to their mindset.
Still, they used a dominant passing attack and efficient running game to record a second-straight 10-win season for just the third time in program history.
Head Coach: Mike Gundy (13th year, 104-50 overall)
Mike Gundy's four-win 2005 season — his first as head coach — seems like decades ago. He's developed his alma mater into a well-oiled machine that routinely contends for conference titles and has flirted with national championships.
Key Returning Offensive Players
QB Mason Rudolph, RB Justice Hill, WR James Washington, WR Jalen McCleskey, WR Marcell Ateman, G Marcus Keyes
Oklahoma State's offense ranked in the nation's top 20 in scoring, passing, total yards, fewest turnovers and most other areas. And they return almost everyone. That's not enough, as the coaches and players have repeatedly said this offseason. They need to improve in a few areas (e.g. third-down conversions) and have better overall balance.
"We have a bunch of guys who are talented, but also who are unselfish,” offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich said during fall camp. “We understand going into a game that this is our plan, these are our plays. We’re trying to make sure that we are a balanced team.”
It all starts with senior quarterback Mason Rudolph, who spurned the NFL for one more season. His career year included a 7:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio and just 12 turnover-worthy throws, according to Pro Football Focus. He also had the most completions (42) and yards (1,425) of any Power Five quarterback on deep passes (20 or more yards downfield).
Rudolph has an embarrassment of riches at receiver, led by the best one in college football, James Washington. The subject of a bizarre injury hoax during fall camp, Washington is averaging 19.2 yards per catch, ninth among all FBS receivers who've played the last five years. He had 10 catches of 40 or more yards last year and half of his 1,380 yards came on passes that traveled more than 20 yards downfield.
"Most guys want to come down straight into [the defender]," Washington said of his ability to catch the deep ball in traffic. "Most [defensive backs] in this league are pretty good with their hands, shoving their hands up through the catch. [Receivers coach Kasey Dunn] always teaches us to kind of twist away. Kind of like an acrobatic deal."
Because of Washington's video-game-like numbers, Jalen McCleskey and Marcell Ateman are routinely overlooked. Ateman missed all of last season after posting 345 yards on just 21 catches (16.4 yards per catch) in six games in 2015.
“The game has really slowed down,” said McCleskey, a slot target who had 73 catches in 2016. “I can really focus on more technique, rather than going over the plays and stuff like that. I'm able to move my game forward and not have to worry about what plays or what signals that I need to learn.”
Marcus Keyes, a sophomore guard who earned all-conference honorable mention as a freshman, leads an offensive line that will pave the way for preseason all-conference running back Justice Hill.
Key Returning Defensive Players
DE Jarrell Owens, DE Jordan Brailford, DE Tralun Webber, LB Chad Whitener, S Ramon Richards
Oklahoma State returns about half of the key players from a unit that allowed 446 yards (92nd nationally) and 26.5 points (53rd) nationally but generated 25 turnovers (24th) and stopped opponents on 25 percent of their red zone possessions (13th).
“We have a lot of guys who have played a lot of minutes against some high-potent offenses, and we have a high-potent offense as well,” senior linebacker Whitener said of their returnees. “Going against these guys and doing what we do all the time just gets us ready to take on everything. We’re ready to go.”
They have some experience in the secondary, where seniors Tre Flowers (200 career tackles) and Ramon Richards (23 career starts) return. Flowers (below) is moving from strong safety to free safety to replace All-Big 12 performer Jordan Sterns, while Richards is transitioning from corner, where he had eight interceptions over the last three years.
Chad Whitener is a two-year starter with 169 career tackles for a linebacker group that lost Jordan Burton and Devante Averette. He has been praised by the coaching staff for taking on more leadership roles since January.
After averaging 35 sacks from 2014-16, the Cowboys took a small step back last year with 32. And the defensive line remains very unsettled, with Tralund Webber the only returning player who had more than 3.5 sacks in 2016. Webber, Jarrell Owens and Jordan Brailford — all upperclassmen — could be used in a committee approach.
“We all have different aspects we bring to the game and we’re all real unique,” Owens said.
Notable Player Losses
RB Chris Carson, WR Jhajuan Seales, DT Vincent Taylor, LB Jordan Burton, LB Devante Averette, CB Ashton Lampkin, S Jordan Sterns
The emergence of Justice Hill put Chris Carson on the back-burner for much of the season, though they'll definitely miss his 6.8 yards-per-carry average. The same goes for receiver Jhajuan Seales, who left with a 15.9 yards-per-reception average. He racked up 1,785 career yards on just 112 catches.
Defensively, Vincent Taylor and Jordan Sterns are the big ones. Taylor was a menace inside, racking up 13 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks last year, while Sterns had three-straight 100-tackle seasons.
Notable Player Additions
WR Tyron Johnson, OT Aaron Cochran, CB Adrian Baker
The Tyron Johnson hype train is about to explode. The former five-star recruit from New Orleans appeared in four games for LSU in 2015 before transferring. He's managed to stand out in a crowded group of receivers.
“Man the first thing is his athleticism,” said former safety Jordan Sterns. “Just how athletic he is. I haven’t seen too many things like it since I’ve been on the team. Obviously James Washington is a freak. Jalen McCleskey is a freak, but Tyron is his own player."
Oklahoma State's non-conference schedule doesn't feature playoff contenders, but it's still very tricky. They host Tulsa and their high-powered offense in the opener before visiting South Alabama — who knocked off San Diego State last year — and Pittsburgh.
|Thursday, Aug. 31||vs. Tulsa|
|Friday, Sept. 8||at South Alabama|
|Saturday, Sept. 16||at Pittsburgh|
|Saturday, Sept. 23||vs. TCU|
|Saturday, Sept. 30||at Texas Tech|
|Saturday, Oct. 14||vs. Baylor|
|Saturday, Oct. 21||at Texas|
|Saturday, Oct. 28||at West Virginia|
|Saturday, Nov. 4||vs. Oklahoma|
|Saturday, Nov. 11||at Iowa State|
|Saturday, Nov. 18||vs. Kansas State|
|Saturday, Nov. 25||vs. Kansas|