In a four-year span, the Oklahoma State Cowboys were one of the most successful programs in the nation, compiling a 41-11 record, three bowl wins, a Big 12 Conference Championship, and a Fiesta Bowl victory in 2011. With the departure of 28 seniors, head coach Mike Gundy has to hope that the returning players took copious notes and learned a thing or two from the seniors if he wants to continue that high level of success in Stillwater this season.
Only four starters return to an offense that finished No. 2 in scoring (39.1 PPG), No. 3 in passing yards per game (277.2) and No. 3 in total offense per game (448.8) last season in the Big 12, but that does not mean the team is without talent at every key position offensively.
The new quarterback will be an old one in junior J.W. Walsh, who was the Big 12 Offensive Freshman of the Year in 2012, but struggled along the way and lost his starting job. Walsh is the front-runner to win the job and not have to split time, but he will be challenged by junior Daxx Garman and freshman Mason Rudolph.
Even though the passing game will be losing its two top receivers, the Cowboys could be stronger just by the number of returning players alone. Sophomore Jhajuan Seales (39 catches, 571 yards) is the lone returning starter, and will be joined by junior Brandon Sheperd (14 catches, 223 yards), along with fellow sophomore Blake Webb and JUCO transfer Tyreek Hill as starters. If this unit is able to quickly come together, they could provide plenty of help for Walsh.
One known offensive commodity is returning RB, senior Desmond Roland, who rushed for 811 yards and 13 touchdowns after taking over starting duties mid-season. With a full offseason to prepare for the starting role, Roland should expect to see those numbers increase greatly this season. Backing him up will be sophomore Rennie Childs, who rushed for 200 yards in limited action last season.
As with the offense, there will only be four returning starters: senior defensive tackle James Castleman, junior defensive end Jimmy Bean, middle linebacker Ryan Simmons, and cornerback Kevin Peterson. They’ll hope to steady a defense that was No. 1 in the conference in scoring defense (21.6 ppg) and turnover margin (+15).
The defensive line could be the strength of the unit with the addition of two seniors, Ofa Hautau and Sam Wren, joining Bean and Castleman up front. Bean was second on the team in sacks (4.5), and with the defensive backfield being inexperienced, being able to generate pressure up front could make it easier on the back end.
Simmons finished fourth on the team in tackles with 67, and was in the top tier with nine tackles for loss. This season, he will be looked to as the veteran of the unit. Sophomore Seth Jacobs and junior Kris Catlin saw limited action in the previous year, and will have to step up if they want to take advantage of the strong defensive line corps.
The biggest worry for the defense will be the secondary, as they are short on experience and will have four freshmen or sophomores in the two-deep. Two of those sophomores, Jordan Sterns and Deric Robertson, will be counted on to man both safety positions, and if they can translate the hunger that defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer spoke of during spring practice into big plays, they could be the surprise of the team.
Gundy will find out how ready his team is as they open 2014 in Arlington, TX against defending National Champion Florida State. If they can avoid being embarrassed in front of what could be a pro-Oklahoma State crowd, it could be a sign that this season will be a lot more successful than what many are expecting. They also host Missouri State and UTSA before heading into Big 12 conference play.
The success or failure within the schedule will be based upon how quickly the new starters get acclimated to their new roles. Having a conference home schedule that includes games against Texas Tech, Iowa State, West Virginia and Texas will put the Cowboys in position to be undefeated at home, especially considering the Texas game later in the season.
Playing on the road against Kansas, TCU and Kansas State should all end in victories. They end the season with back-to-back road games against conference favorites Baylor and Oklahoma, and if they could somehow earn a split this season, they could end up being one of Gundy’s best coaching jobs of his career.