Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) -
2013 SEASON IN REVIEW: The Oklahoma State Cowboys took care of their three non-conference foes with relative ease in 2013, but then came the Big 12 opener against West Virginia. The Pokes dropped a 30-21 decision on that Saturday in Morgantown, but coach Mike Gundy refused to let his team feel sorry for itself.
The Cowboys then went on a tear, winning seven straight games, including blowouts of Texas (38-13) and eventual league champ Baylor (49-17) in succession. With a shot at winning the conference crown, OSU faced bitter rival Oklahoma in the regular-season finale, but fell to the Sooners in a 33-24 final.
Gundy's troops were rewarded for their 10-2 record by being invited to take on former Big 12 rival Missouri in the Cotton Bowl. The Tigers prevailed in that clash, 41-31, but despite the disappointment of ending the season on a two- game losing streak, Gundy is pleased with how far his team has come since taking over as head coach a decade ago.
"I'm very thankful to be at Oklahoma State and for the support that we've had from all the fans and administration, and we've had great players," Gundy said.
"I couldn't be any more proud of who we are and the direction that we're going."
OFFENSE: The OSU offense had little trouble scoring last season (39.1 ppg), using the pass to maximum effectiveness (277.2 ypg). Junior J.W. Walsh is the odds-on favorite to be the starter when the Cowboys take on defending national champion Florida State in Arlington, Texas in the season opener on Aug. 30. In an up-and-down 2013 campaign, Walsh completed nearly 60 percent of his passes for 1,333 yards with 9 touchdowns and 5 interceptions.
As has been the case in recent years, Oklahoma State's receiving corps is an area of strength, led by the return of sophomore Jhajuan Seales (39 receptions, 571 yards, 3 touchdowns). Others expected to make a significant impact include junior Brandon Sheperd, sophomores Marcell Ateman and Blake Webb and juco transfer Tyreek Hill. The latter being a real wild card as he has blazing speed, and may actually be used in a number of different roles.
The run game will feature senior Desmond Roland, who really came into his own about midway through last season. Roland finished with 881 yards and 13 touchdowns, and Hill will likely be the change-of-pace back Gundy uses as he tries to figure out ways to get him as many touches as possible.
The key to any success the Cowboys achieve on offense this season hinges on the continued development of Walsh, along with the play of the guys up front. Seniors Daniel Koenig and Chris Grisbhy are the elder statesmen along the offensive line, and the only ones with any real starting experience.
DEFENSE: The Cowboys employed a bend-don't-break approach on defense last season, yielding an unsightly 242.5 passing yards per game (ninth in the Big 12, 79th in the nation), but they allowed only 21.6 ppg (tops in the conference, 19th nationally).
There are only four returning starters, and they represent each level of the defense, beginning in the trenches where end Jimmy Bean and tackle James Castleman will set up shop. Bean recorded 4.5 sacks as a sophomore in 2013. Junior linebacker Ryan Simmons posted 67 tackles last year, while junior defensive back Kevin Peterson came up with a pair of interceptions.
Revamping the defense is the job of second-year coordinator Glenn Spencer, and while Gundy has full confidence in his staff and the players they've assembled, he also realizes that they may need to do some things a little differently to be as productive as possible.
"We've looked into some changes on defense from a personnel standpoint. And I wouldn't say that that's out of the question based on the depth that we have," he continues, "We have to look at finding a way to put the best 11 players on the field on each play based on the team we're playing and trying to take away what we think the strength of their offense is each week."
SPECIAL TEAMS: Both kickers from last season are back, but they were inconsistent at times. Ben Grogan (11-of-18 on field goal attempts) and Kip Smith (39.6 yards per punt) both need to show they belong on the field. Keep an eye on Hill in the return game, as he has the ability to go the distance every time he touches the ball.
OUTLOOK: The opener against Florida State will obviously be a major test for Gundy's group, but from there the schedule lightens up a bit (vs. Missouri State and Texas-San Antonio) before opening the Big 12 slate at home against Texas Tech on Sept. 25.
A daunting second half will see the Pokes tangle with TCU, West Virginia, Kansas State, Texas, Baylor and Oklahoma -- all games that could wind up being stumbling blocks.
Oklahoma State lost nearly 30 seniors from last year's club, so it will be interesting to see if the coaches can whip this year's crop of talented youngsters into shape. They may be able to do so, but will the season be a lost cause by then?