Every few years, Oklahoma State has to go through a massive rebuild. Unfortunately, that could be the 2018 season.
The Cowboys will lose seniors Mason Rudolph and James Washington, who rank as arguably the best quarterback/wide receiver pairing in program history, to the NFL. While the program is still in a good spot with coach Mike Gundy, some work is needed.
Luckily for the Cowboys, the rest of the Big 12 is losing talent next season too. That should help ease the fall somewhat. Playing several key opponents at home will make things easier too.
Here’s a way-too-early look at the 2018 Oklahoma State Cowboys:
Oklahoma State Cowboys
Head coach: Mike Gundy, 114-53 heading into his 14th season
2017 record: 10-3, 6-3 Big 12
Key returners: RB Justice Hill, LB Calvin Bundage, WR Dillon Stoner
Key departures: QB Mason Rudolph, WR James Washington, WR Marcell Ateman, S Tre Flowers
Recruiting ranking: No. 27 (22 signed), according to the 247Sports composite
Sept. 1: vs. Missouri State
Sept. 8: vs. South Alabama
Sept. 15: vs. Boise State
Sept. 22: vs. Texas Tech
Sept. 29: at Kansas
Oct. 6: vs. Iowa State
Oct. 13: at Kansas State
Oct. 20: Bye
Oct. 27: vs. Texas
Nov. 3: at Baylor
Nov. 10: at Oklahoma
Nov. 17: vs. West Virginia
Nov. 23: at TCU
Biggest strength: Offensive skill
Oklahoma State is losing two of the best offensive players in the history of the university: quarterback Mason Rudolph and wide receiver James Washington. Somehow, the Cowboys might still have one of the best skill position corps in the nation.
Quarterback is a question mark, but the rest of the offense is loaded. Running back Justice Hill is the best in the conference. Backup J.D. King provides a nice change of pace. Wide receivers Jalen McCluskey, Dillon Stoner, Tyron Johnson and Chris Lacy are dominant. Even after several departures, the offense is elite.
Biggest weakness: Defense
Oklahoma State fired defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer. While it’s hard to lose an assistant who was such a mainstay with the program, Spencer’s defense last season ultimately was unacceptable.
The Cowboys ranked No. 79 in total defense, giving up 409.3 yards per game. Over the final five regular-season games, Oklahoma State gave up an average of 41 points per game. That included games against Iowa State, Kansas State and Kansas. That mark would rank No. 125 nationally.
Even worse, the Cowboys are losing arguably their top four defensive players: safeties Tre Flowers and Ramon Richards, linebacker Chad Whitener and defensive tackle DeQuinton Osborne. Things could get worse.
Starting QB: Freshman Spencer Sanders
There will be an open competition for the position, but we expect the incoming freshman Spencer Sanders to come away with the starting job. Returning quarterbacks Taylor Cornelius and Keondre Wudtee have combined for 27 pass attempts. The experience gap isn’t that large.
The 2018 season will be a rebuilding job. It seems like a perfect time to slot in a freshman quarterback, similar to how Rudolph started the final few games of a 7-6 season in 2014. Cornelius might get the nod early because of familiarity with the system, but expect Sanders to be the full-time starter by season’s end.
Biggest question: Does the defense improve?
Oklahoma State has had one of the best offenses in the nation over the past decade. The Cowboys finished No. 2 nationally in total offense in 2017 and Rudolph was the most productive passer in the nation.
Now, the defense has to catch up. The Cowboys reportedly are considering TCU defensive assistant Chad Glasgow – an Oklahoma State alum and former grad assistant – for the defensive coordinator position. Bringing a Gary Patterson assistant on board could be a significant move. However, don’t expect the process to take just one year.
Potential breakout player: WR Dillon Stoner
Dillon Stoner got a second chance at his freshman season after sustaining a season-ending injury in 2016. The Jenks (Okla.) product proved he’s capable of more over several games this season.
Stoner reached 100 yards against Kansas and Pittsburgh, and 50 yards against both Oklahoma and Kansas State. With Washington and Ateman now off to the NFL, Stoner has the potential to become one the Cowboys’ most trusted receivers.
Way-too-early prediction: 7-6, 4-5 Big 12
Oklahoma State has a favorable schedule, but the conference will be tough once again. Games on the road against Oklahoma and TCU seem like scheduled losses. West Virginia, Texas and Iowa State also should have a little more consistency than the Cowboys.
Ultimately, that means it could be a rough season in the record books. However, there’s plenty of reason to be optimistic. This will be a major developmental season for Sanders, which should pay off mightily in the future. Just look at how a 7-6 season helped Rudolph turn into one of the best quarterbacks in the Big 12.
Gundy has produced three straight 10-win seasons. That streak almost certainly will end this season. However, it won’t be long until Oklahoma State is back to that kind of success. Hill also will ensure the Cowboys still make a bowl game easily.