As long as Mason Rudolph is the quarterback, the sky's the limit. In Rudolph’s first full year, he led Oklahoma State to 10 wins with no threat of a running game to speak of. The Cowboys were completely one dimensional despite countless unsuccessful runs, and Rudolph really did put the team on his back. No, the Cowboys probably aren’t a 10 win team without J.W. Walsh, but Oklahoma State definitely isn’t a 10 win team with Walsh starting. Along with Rudolph, Oklahoma State brings back the deepest group of wide receivers possibly in the nation. James Washington has Biletnikoff potential, while Marcell Ateman is as good as any receiver in the country going up and snagging balls out of the air. Austin Hays should replace David Glidden in the slot, while the speedster Jalen McCleskey should get some more touches this year. Add Jhajuan Seales to the mix, and Rudolph will have no shortage of playmakers he can get the ball to. The biggest weakness the Pokes have on offense is no doubt the running game, more specifically the offensive line. The good news? It’s only going to get better. All five starting linemen from last year return to Stillwater for the 2016 season headlined by left tackle Victor Salako. Even better news, the Cowboys will return three of those five linemen in 2017.
On the defensive side, replacing Trace Clark, Jimmy Bean, Kevin Peterson, Seth Jacobs, and Emmanuel Ogbah won’t be easy. But it can be done. Defensive tackles Motekiai Maile and Vincent Taylor will lead the defensive line into 2016, while Jordan Burton and Chad Whitener look to have breakout years at linebacker. Ashton Lampkin and Ramon Richards, who both played solid minutes in 2015, look to be the early candidates for the starting corner positions. And the safety positions are covered by two returning starters; Tre Flowers and Jordan Sterns. The Cowboys lose a lot of talent, but will be more than capable of fielding a competitive defense. The schedule, believe it or not, actually looks favorable to the Cowboys. The Cowboys play all three non conference games at home, and have a chance to make a statement against a good Pittsburgh team on September 17th. Week four will be the biggest test when the Pokes travel to Waco to take on Baylor in a very winnable matchup. Going to Manhattan hasn’t been kind to OSU in the past, and the Cowboys do have to travel to TCU and Oklahoma to end the year, but the Pokes have the talent and experience to win those tough road matchups.
OSU overachieved this year and it’s hard to say they’re going to be a better team next year. Without Ogbah, Bean, or Clark the Cowboys have no threat of an outside pass rush which should give opposing quarterbacks plenty of time to pick apart the secondary. Without Peterson to lock down an opposing team's best receiver, the responsibility goes to an unproven Lampkin. Lampkin has considerable experience as a starter, but how he does against the elite receivers in the Big 12 has yet to be proven. That secondary will be tested early and often, so we’ll know how this unit stacks up early in the season. Yes, almost everybody returns on offense, but how long can the Cowboys play one dimensional football and win games? Until the offensive line proves they can actually block, you shouldn’t expect them to take the next step.
OSU also doesn't have a premier running back. Chris Carson hasn’t lived up to expectations, and whether or not all the blame should go to the O-line is hard to tell. Without an elite running back that can make something out of nothing, and unfortunately, nothing is all the productivity the Cowboys are getting from the big guys up front, we shouldn't expect to see a dominant run game like we’ve seen in years past. Rudolph has as much running capability as Brandon Weeden, so when a pass rusher gets free, it almost always results in a sack. You can’t compete on the biggest stages without an offensive line. The Cowboys have 99 problems, and a good offensive line would solve at least 75 of them.
Can Oklahoma State win 11 or even 12 games next year? They certainly can. Will they win 11 or 12 games next year? Well, that remains to be seen.