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College Football Preview 2022: 24. Oklahoma State Cowboys

Spencer Sanders, Oklahoma State

 24. Oklahoma State Cowboys

After coming within inches of a Big 12 Title in 2021, 'Pokes will once again be squarely in the mix in the wide-open league

2021 Review
Even as the Cowboys dealt with injuries to starting QB Spencer Sanders and their entire receiver corps, they jumped out to an impressive 6-0 start. The hot start wasn't always pretty, with several close wins, but victories over Baylor and on the road at Texas showed that Mike Gundy's team was a serious threat in the Big 12. A road loss in Ames to Iowa State spoiled the perfect season, but Oklahoma State answered quickly, winning their next five games, including a come-from-behind win in Bedlam against arch-rival Oklahoma. At 11-1 with a solid resume, the Cowboys entered the Big 12 Championship Game rematch against Baylor as a legitimate CFB Playoff contender. The two sides went back-and-forth before a game-clinching Oklahoma State drive fell a yard short, securing a Baylor conference title. The 'Pokes answered by beating Notre Dame 37-35 in the Fiesta Bowl, moving them to 12-2 on the season, with a New Year's Six victory. It's hard to call the season anything but a success considering the final results, but to fall just one single yard short of a league title and potential Playoff berth has to have left a sour taste in Oklahoma State's mouths as they look ahead towards 2022.

2022 Outlook
Offense: Despite facing a rash of injuries all season long, Oklahoma State still averaged over 31 points per game, 46th nationally. The offense has evolved from a pure Air Raid, pass-first offense into a balanced group that doesn't turn the ball over. It has been an interesting evolution, but an understandable one considering the circumstances the Cowboys dealt with last year. 

Quarterback Spencer Sanders enters 2022 just nine wins shy of becoming OSU's all-time winningest QB. He's had an interesting career, putting up consistently solid numbers, but leaving fans wanting a little more. As he enters his redshirt senior season fully healthy with a quality group of receivers, 2022 could be the grand finale Oklahoma State fans have been waiting for. At the very least, Sanders has proven to be a capable starter who can cause defenses issues with his dual-threat ability. In a league that's pretty thin at the quarterback position, at least right now, that should be enough.

If there is concerns at quarterback, they're surrounding the lack of depth behind Sanders. Shane Illingworth started the Missouri State opener when Sanders was out with COVID protocols and operated as his backup when he came back. He transferred to Nevada over the offseason, leaving this QB room quite a bit thinner. Former walk-on Gunnar Gundy, the son of Mike, is likely to begin the year as the team's backup, which is a concern considering Sanders' health history.

Tailback Jaylen Warren was a revelation in 2021 after being called on to replace the electric Chuba Hubbard. Warren wasn't a big-play back, but a reliable workhorse who finished the year with 1,216 yards and 11 touchdowns. His graduation forces the Cowboys to turn to junior Dominic Richardson as the feature option, fresh off a 2021 in which he notched 373 yards. Richardson isn't the proven commodity Warren was, but showed enough last season for the offense to feel good about what he can do this fall. Expect redshirt freshman Jaden Nixon and true freshman Ollie Gordon to feature into the rotation as well. Gordon's a highly touted, well-built tailback from Texas who will find his way on to the field this year.

At receiver, Oklahoma State is hoping for improved health. They were ravaged by injuries at this position a season ago, which limited what they could do down-the-field. The expectation is that the group should be better in 2022, even as they lose their top weapon, Tay Martin. Martin, a former Washington State transfer, was a true breakout star a year ago, grabbing 80 balls for 1,046 yards. His departure certainly stings, but this is a deep and capable group that should be able to replicate his production.

Junior Brennan Pressley is the favorite to take over as the top option in the passing game. He first broke on to the scene with a huge performance in the Cheez-It Bowl in 2020, as he caught three touchdowns to spearhead the Cowboy win. He had 50 receptions for 619 yards in 2021 and also proved to be a real weapon in the return game, as Oklahoma State's primary kick returner. Pressley is undersized compared to some of the other Oklahoma State receivers that have came through Stillwater during the Gundy years, but his versatility is a real asset for this offense. Behind them, there's a collection of receivers who posted similar numbers to each other a year ago, with one or two looking to shine through. Sophomore Blaine Green took advantage of injuries in front of him to post 314 receiving yards, and he's projected to do even more damage this fall. Also set to compete for targets on the outside are John Paul Richardson, Jaden Bray, Rashod Owens, and Braydon Johnson. With plenty of depth and experience, this could be one of the Big 12's top receiver corps and an obvious strength for the 'Pokes as they move forward.

The Cowboy offensive line experienced some major ups-and-downs throughout 2021 and it's difficult to get a read on this unit heading into the fall. There are some familiar faces, including Joe Michalski, Preston Wilson, and Hunter Woodard, but still some unresolved position battles likely to take center stage during fall camp. The tackle spots in particular will be an interesting watch, even though Cole Birmingham and Wilson started most of the games a year ago. Expect Taylor Miterko and Jake Springfield to vie for playing time, as well as former JUCO transfer Caleb Etienne. Etienne was considered a pretty big get for the Cowboys prior to 2021, but played in just three games. Fully healthy and more acclimated to FBS football, he should see an increase in game action.

Losing Warren and Martin means the Cowboys won't have quite as much offensive star power in 2022, but there's still a lot to like. Sanders is a qualified, steady veteran at the game's most important position, the receiver corps is awfully talented, and the O-Line has the potential to be solid. This won't be the best offense Gundy has had in his nearly two decades in charge in Stillwater, but it's not unreasonable to think it could be a Top 25 unit nationally.

Defense: Jim Knowles was a superb hire by Gundy in 2018, orchestrating a complete turnaround of the Oklahoma State defense. Once the unquestioned weakness of Gundy teams, the Cowboys put up historically good numbers in 2021, leading the Big 12 in just about every defensive category and finishing in the Top 10 nationally in both scoring and total defense. Knowles' performance was so impressive that Ohio State came calling, snatching away 57-year old DC.

How did Gundy respond to his coordinator getting poached? By going out and landing one of the hotter names on the coordinator market, Derek Mason. Mason was the former head man at Vanderbilt before spending 2021 as Auburn's DC, where he did a marvelous job. His arrival in Stillwater ensures Oklahoma State's defense will once again be stingy, even with some big-name stars departing.

Mason should have fun with this defensive line, which is loaded. The Cowboys are particularly strong at the end spots, with Brock Martin and Collin Oliver returning after monster 2021 campaigns. Martin notched 14 tackles for loss and nine sacks during his junior season, while Oliver was a pleasant surprise, totaling 10.5 sacks as a true freshman. Both will undoubtedly play a major role on the team in 2022 and are among the most fearsome pass rushing combos anywhere in college football. They're flanked by veterans Trace Ford, Tyler Lacy, and Kody Walterscheid, who may not start, but should see plenty of action. Lacy was a disruptive presence for the rush defense, with 11.5 tackles for loss, while Ford is looking to get back to 100 percent after missing all of last season.

The interior of the D-Line isn't quite as deep or star-studded as the exterior, but there's no shortage of experience. Seniors Sione Asi and Brendon Evers are the favorites to start at the two defensive tackle spots, a pair of proven run stoppers. Evers has also proven he can get after the quarterback, with an incredibly quick first step for his position. 

The linebacker corps is where the questions lie defensively, as Oklahoma State said goodbye to Malcolm Rodriguez and Devin Harper over the offseason. Rodriguez finishes his career as one of the most accomplished defenders in program history. He did it all for the Cowboys in 2021, notching 129 tackles, 16 TFL, and even forcing four fumbles. Simply put, not one Cowboy is going to be able to replicate that type of production, but the team is intent on leaning on a committee approach.

Kamryn Farrar, Mason Cobb, and Lamont Bishop are a few of the Cowboys likely to get their first cracks at a starting job. All three played in a rotational role a year ago, but Farrar in particular has flashed serious upside and could be the starting outside linebacker. Add in Xavier Benson to the mix, a pretty major transfer get for the program over the offseason. Benson began his career at Texas Tech and made ten starts for the Red Raiders in 2019 before opting out of 2020 and spending last year at Tyler Junior College. Even though he hasn't played at the FBS level in two years, he's the most accomplished and proven linebacker on the OSU roster.

The secondary must also do some serious rebuilding, as it was also hit hard by departures over the offseason. Kolby Harvey-Peel and Tre Sterling both took their talents to the NFL, while Tanner McCalister followed Knowles to Ohio State. In fact, Jason Taylor II, who started a big chunk of 2021 due to injury to Sterling, is the lone returning starter in the position group.

Taylor should take on a leading role in this defense in 2022 after finishing fifth on the team in tackles last season. He was one of the most important defenders on the entire team as a first-year starter, with a field goal block to secure the win against Boise State and a big pick-six against Texas to swing the momentum in that game. It's unclear who will start alongside him, although senior Thomas Harper and junior Jabbar Muhammed are good bets to see playing time. Muhammed is now the top corner on the roster after playing in all 14 games in 2021 and starting the Fiesta Bowl.

Seniors Sean Michael Flangan and Kanion Williams are also likely to see plenty of snaps, but keep an eye on redshirt freshman Kendal Daniels. Daniels was the gem of the 2021 recruiting class but appeared in jus three games a year ago, maintaining his redshirt. He hasn't been in this system as long as others, but might be the most talented defender in the secondary.

There's certainly work to be done for Derek Mason and the rest of the defensive staff, but Mason is considered one of the top defensive minds in the game. He'll lean on an elite defensive line to cause some chaos up front and despite the losses on the back-end, the secondary has enough pieces to feel okay about it. It's going to be hard to replicate what this defense did in 2021, but I don't suspect a major drop-off this fall.

Special Teams: Chalk up special teams as a strength for the 'Pokes entering 2022, as they return both their kicker and punter, plus plenty in the return game. Punter Tom Hutton is among the best in the Big 12 and one of the most under-appreciated parts of the team, while Tanner Brown is back at kicker after going 17-21 in 2021. Pressley should lead the return game as the team's primary kick and punt returner, although names like Nixon or Richardson could factor in.

Bottom Line: Entering his 18th year in Stillwater, Mike Gundy deserves all the credit in the world for what he's done with this Oklahoma State program. Not only has he built a consistent winner, but it's been fascinating watching the program transform. This was a team defined by their explosive, air-it-out offense and porous defense, but they've completely flipped. Now, it's a team led by a physical, aggressive defense and ball-control, methodical offense. It's been an interesting watch and one that has certainly paid dividends, with the team coming off their best season since the 2011 squad. It might be tough to repeat some of that magic this fall, but don't expect a complete drop-off. There's plenty on both sides of the ball to feel good about and the Big 12 is wide open. Assuming Mason can figure out the defense and the offense can stay healthier, a return trip to the Big 12 Championship Game is within reach. Heck, without an overwhelming favorite in the league this year, Oklahoma State might be able to even finish the job this time around.

Program Profile
Coaching Staff
Gundy is the second-longest tenured head coach in FBS football, behind only Kirk Ferentz at Iowa. He's gone to 16 consecutive bowl games with the Cowboys and turned the program into a reliable Big 12 Title contender. He's joined by coordinators Mason and Kasey Dunn, who runs the offense. Dunn was the wide receivers coach for years before taking the OC promotion and has watched an abundance of big-name offensive weapons come through the ranks here. 

Recruiting Breakdown
The Cowboys brought in a solid 2022 Class, ranking 29th in the 247Sports composite rankings. Most of the bigger names come on the offensive side of the ball, although there are some defenders who could be immediate contributors. Offensively, wide out Talyn Shettron was the third-highest ranked player in the state of Oklahoma and has the physique to play right away. Quarterback Garrett Rangel could be the quarterback of the future and with the lack of depth in the QB room right now, could see action earlier than expected. On defense, corner Cameron Epps might have the best shot of anyone to see immediate playing time, coming in at a need position. The St. Louis product is already well-built for the position, at 6'3", 180 pounds.

2022 X-Factor: Spencer Sanders, QB
Oklahoma State has proven they can win plenty of games as long as Spencer Sanders is at least serviceable, but the veteran will have to carry a heavier load in 2022 now that Warren and Martin are gone. The two goals for Sanders this fall are one, staying healthy, but more importantly, establishing consistency. His career numbers are solid across the board, but he's been streaky throughout his time running the show. If he can become more consistent, it's not unreasonable to think he could be the top signal-caller in the Big 12 this fall.

Five-Year Trend

2022 Projections
Projected Record: 8-4 (5-4 Big 12)
Offensive MVP: QB Spencer Sanders
Defensive MVP: S Jason Taylor II
Breakout Player of the Year: S Kendal Daniels
Impact Freshman: CB Cameron Epps

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