By Wendell Barnhouse
STILLWATER, Oklahoma – Mike Gundy is well aware what the Big Question is about Oklahoma State this season.
Will the Cowboys rebuild or reload?
Great teams can come and go, popping up every few years. Great programs live in the Double Digit Victory Neighborhood. Average to good programs can have a successful run of a few years but revert back to Break Even Neighborhood because there's a drop off in talent after a surge.
Over the last five seasons, Oklahoma State has won a Big 12 title, a BCS bowl game and totaled 50 victories. Last season, the Cowboys came within a minute and two plays of winning another Big 12 championship and another trip to the Fiesta Bowl.
"These players expect to win and expect to play on a high level," Gundy said. "Confidence builds success, and success brings more success. Our players have been around and have been in the locker room and bowl games and what not. Some of the guys haven't played at this level, but they were around teams that expected to win. I don't think there's any question that that helps."
This season the Cowboys face the challenge of replacing 28 seniors who contributed to the recent prosperity. Two of the team's 12 returning starters this season are kickers and there are only six players on the roster with 10 or more starts. College football preview analyst Phil Steele's research indicates the Cowboys have the lowest percentage of returning lettermen in the nation: 54 percent.
"I think there's some really talented players on this team that just don't have experience," Gundy said. "Until you get out there and do it, you don't really know what to expect."
The defense needs to replace seven starters, including four-year play makers like cornerback Justin Gilbert and linebacker Shaun Lewis. The coaching staff will be without offensive line coach Joe Wickline, who left to accept a job at Texas. His ability to mold effective units despite injuries or exhausted eligibility was a key factor in the Cowboys' offensive success.
Gundy expects eight freshmen to see action in the season opener.
"It may be a little overwhelming for some guys, but if they are going to be playing as true freshmen, they are physically and mentally ready to take on the challenge," said Zac Veatch, a sophomore offensive lineman. "I have the utmost confidence in them, and so does coach Gundy and their position coaches, or they wouldn't be in the rotation."
And oh by the way … the season opening opponent is the defending national champion. The Cowboys will take on Florida State and Heisman Trophy quarterback Jameis Winston in the Cowboys Classic at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on Aug. 30.
"I counted the other night, right before I went to sleep, and it kept me up for two hours," Gundy said of figuring out the number of rookies who will face the Seminoles. "I told them, 'Just think. This is awesome. Last year, you were playing high schoool ball. Now, you're playing against Florida State.' It's pretty cool.'
"They looked at me like I was joking. I have a lot of confidence in their ability to go out and play hard."
Coach: Mike Gundy, 10th season at Oklahoma State
2013: 10-3 overall, 7-2 in Big 12.
Bowl: Lost to Missouri, 41-31, in Cotton Bowl.
Returning starters: 6 on offense, 4 on defense.
Key players: Junior QB J.W. Walsh, senior RB Desmond Roland, soph. WR Jhajuan Seales, soph. WR Austin Hays, senior OL Daniel Koenig, senior DT James Castleman, junior DE Jimmy Bean, junior LB Ryan Simmons, junior CB Kevin Peterson, soph. K Ben Grogan, senior P Kip Smith
Three Points To Ponder
1. Gundy has spent the off season being coy about the quarterback situation. Clint Chelf's play was a big reason for the Cowboys winning 10 games last season. Junior J.W. Walsh has experience as a starter but he has proven to be a better runner than a passer. His issues with accuracy is the reason why Chelf took over as the starter last season. Junior Daxx Garman and freshman Mason Rudolph could see playing time if Walsh struggles.
2. Oklahoma State finished second in scoring and third in total offense in the Big 12 last season but this season the Cowboys want to return to their fast break offensive style. The quarterback position will be a key factor in that goal. Also, offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich made a big leap last season in moving from running an offense in Division II to taking over a position that has produced two FBS head coaches.
3. Speaking of coordinators, Glenn Spencer is in his second season running the Cowboys' defense. Last year's unit led the Big 12 in scoring defense and forcing turnovers but seven starters and a number of the playmakers must be replaced. Defensive tackle James Castleman, defensive end Jimmy Bean and linebacker Ryan Simmons are the top returning players but developing reliable backups on defense will determine how good this season's defense will be.
Linebacker Ryan Simmons, one of four returning starters on defense:
"There's always going to be questions from people on the outside looking in, but we know what we have here. We know what we're supposed to do. (We're) a hungry, tough, physical, fast, football team. Football players. Not just guys who play football. These guys want to know what they have to do out there on the field, they want to work and they want to be great."
Numbers To Note
The offensive line needs to replace players who made 63 career starts. … Oklahoma State led the Big 12 in red zone efficiency (75 percent). … Last season quarterback J.W. Walsh passed for 1,333 yards and nine touchdowns and gained 294 yards rushing. … The Cowboys have had outstanding kickers, starting with Dan Bailey in 2007. Last season freshman Ben Grogan was 11-for-18 with misses from 49 (blocked), 44, 23, 43 (blocked), 31, 32 and 34 yards. … Over the last five seasons, Oklahoma State has won 50 games with a winning percentage of .770. According to the Pistols Firing blog, that's the best five-year stretch in school history.
|Aug. 30||Florida State (AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas)|
|Sept. 6||Missouri State|
|Sept. 13||UT-San Antonio|
|Sept. 25||Texas Tech*|
|Oct. 4||Iowa State*|
|Oct. 11||at Kansas*|
|Oct. 18||at TCU*|
|Oct. 25||West Virginia*|
|Nov. 1||at Kansas State*|
|Nov. 22||at Baylor*|
|Dec. 6||at Oklahoma*|
* - Big 12 Conference game.