If there's an easy analogy to Oklahoma State's unlikely rise to national contender, it's Oregon. Like the Ducks, the Cowboys are traditional middleweights enjoying the greatest extended upswing in their history. They've got the billionaire booster whose lavish contributions changed the face of the program. They've got the unorthodox head coach, and the prolific spread attack. The relentless tempo on offense. The dramatic uptick in available talent.
Even Oklahoma State made the connection explicit this summer, when it admitted it's seeking to rebrand itself as the "Oregon of the Midwest," then went out and got the unorthodox new uniforms to prove it. In a little over a month from now, it hopes it will have the unlikely spot the Ducks occupied last year in the BCS Championship Game, too.
As role models go, though, it may not be Oregon the Cowboys should be looking up to as much as it is the team that actually beat the Ducks back in January: Auburn, the most extreme outlier on defense in BCS championship history.
Nine of the previous dozen national champs finished in the top 10 nationally in total defense (yards per game allowed), and none finished outside of the top 25; Auburn's defense was No. 60. No other BCS champ had ever allowed more than 20 points per game for the season; Auburn allowed just over 24 — a full touchdown per game more than any other champ except the 2007 LSU Tigers, who gave up 19.9 per game thanks to a pair of triple-overtime losses that inflated the offensive stats. Four previous champions held opponents to half what Auburn allowed on the scoreboard in 2010.
It helped than their crowning triumph came at the expense of another relatively mediocre D, but for the season, the Tigers basically rewrote the existing guidelines for what a national championship defense looks like. And if Oklahoma State keeps winning, it will rewrite it again on the next line down.
Through seven games, the Cowboys rank 103rd nationally in total defense and have given up at least 24 points in six of seven games. They're 91st against the run. Only Louisiana-Lafayette and Texas have failed to top 400 total yards. By any conventional measure, this is a bad defense, and one that seems bound to cost them a game against one of three top-10 offenses — Baylor, Texas Tech and Oklahoma — revving their engines down the stretch.
Then again, conventional measures weren't exactly devised to account for the difference between a defense that plays opposite a 4Runner and one that plays opposite a Ferrari. Because Oklahoma State's priority is top speed on offense — and because high-scoring attacks breed high-scoring responses as opposing offenses hit the gas themselves to keep pace — the defense is forced to eat the consequences on the stat sheet: Where a more conservative team like Michigan (currently allowing 5.4 yards per play on about 62 plays per game, good for 28th in total defense) enjoys articles declaring that its "vaunted defense is back," a team like Oklahoma State (currently allowing 5.4 yards per play on just shy of 80 plays per game) has to endure articles wondering just how long the offense can carry the defense along.
That's a fair question, to an extent, and it's one the Cowboys chose when they decided to maximize their advantage on offense by maximizing the number of snaps in a game. But it also makes it easier to ignore the things the defense does well. Most notably, it takes the ball away: OSU is tied for the national lead in interceptions and leads outright in overall turnover margin, having forced at least three turnovers in five consecutive games. That's a direct result of the pressure from the front seven, which ranks in the top 20 nationally in sacks and tackles for loss. And the beleaguered secondary, dwindling near the bottom of the Big 12 rankings in yards allowed through the air, ranks second according to the far more important number, pass efficiency.
When the perfect season looked lost at Texas A&M on Sept. 24, it was the defense that turned the game around by forcing the best offense it's seen to date into a fumble, two interceptions and two punts on its first five possessions of the second half. At one point, the Aggies went 14 minutes without a first down or even a completed pass. By the time they found their rhythm again on the back end of the fourth quarter, Oklahoma State had held the ball for nearly 18 of the first 22 minutes of the half and was already in prevent mode in defense of a double-digit lead — a situation it knows well.
That doesn't make the OSU defense good, necessarily — there's no way to spin their consistent struggles against the run, except to point out that opposing offenses usually have to abandon the ground game so quickly — but it's a little better than it looks at first glance. And opposite an offense humming along at nearly 49 points per game, it's good enough to get past defensively challenged Baylor and Texas Tech, as well as unbeaten Kansas State, which cannot begin to compete with the Cowboys' firepower on offense. The one remaining opponent who can: Oklahoma on Dec. 3, in Stillwater. But somebody has to come up with a stop in that game. There's no reason it can't be Oklahoma State.