Oklahoma State's climb to near the top of the college football rankings last season surprised many experts.

The Cowboys won't sneak up on anyone this year. Quarterback Mason Rudolph returns to lead a program that went to the Sugar Bowl last season and was ranked as high as No. 4 nationally.

Coach Mike Gundy is proud of what he has accomplished at his alma mater, and he doesn't think its success should shock anyone at this point. The Cowboys have 10 straight winning seasons and 10 consecutive bowl appearances. The media picked them to finish third in the Big 12 this season.

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''We all know that there's a lot of things that we do that are good, but if we don't win, I'm not standing up here for 12 years, so it doesn't make a difference,'' he said. ''We've been able to perform on the field more quickly than ever in the history of this program consistently.''

If the Cowboys take another step forward this season, Rudolph's arm likely will be the main reason. He passed for 3,770 yards and 21 touchdowns last season to post one of the best campaigns in school history.

Rudolph won't have J.W. Walsh to step in for him in red zone situations this season. Walsh had 13 rushing and 13 passing touchdowns last season. Gundy wouldn't mind having another dual-threat quarterback to play Walsh's role, but he feels Rudolph is capable of producing.

''He's a good throwing quarterback inside the five yard line,'' Gundy said. ''He's been pretty accurate. We'll lean more toward those plays than trying to draw up something new.''

Here are some things to watch for from the Cowboys this season:

BARRY J. SANDERS: The son of Oklahoma State's 1988 Heisman winner is a graduate transfer from Stanford, and he will have one season of eligibility. He ran for 315 yards and four touchdowns last season as a backup to Heisman finalist Christian McCaffrey.

''He draws a lot of attention, and he's been tremendous in the way he's handled it,'' Gundy said. ''He has to live day in and day out, especially here. I watched the players that are on our team, and they've taken him in and they appreciate him. He's humble and he understands his background and embraces it and does a good job with it.''

Sanders will wear number 26 instead of his dad's 21.

RUNNING GAME STRUGGLES: The Cowboys lit up the scoreboard last season, but at times, the lack of a running game hurt them when they needed to control the clock. The leading rusher last season, Chris Carson, had just 557 yards, and the team averaged just 3.6 yards per carry last season.

JAMES WASHINGTON: The speedy receiver hauled in 53 passes for 1,087 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. He should still have opportunities because the Cowboys boast plenty of other threats who cannot be left open.

DEFENSE: As explosive as Oklahoma State's offense was last season, its defense was one of the nation's worst. The Cowboys allowed 30.5 points and 439 yards per game a year ago, and that was with star defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah on the roster. Now, with Ogbah gone, Oklahoma State will need to find a way to slow opponents so the offense isn't under constant pressure.

KEY GAMES: A home game against Pittsburgh offers the top challenge during the non-conference slate. The Cowboys play at Baylor and host Texas. They close at TCU and at Oklahoma. Without a true marquee opponent on the non-conference schedule, Oklahoma State's margin for error will be slim in conference play.

SEASON OPENER: Sept. 3 vs. Southeastern Louisiana.

PREDICTION: 9-3 regular season, third in Big 12.

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Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter (at)CliffBruntAP .