Part of the Doc's Big 12 Week.
If preseason predictions are akin to taking aim at a dartboard, 2009 was the summer of bull's eyes for Oklahoma State. The Cowboys were loaded offensive and widely expect to turn in something resembling the best season in school history. They had T. Boone's largesse, Mike Gundy's uncanny sense of balance and Georgia, Texas and Texas Tech in Stillwater. Whatever the possibilities are at the center of OSU's board – a Big 12 title, a BCS bid, a top-10 finish – this was the team to hit them.
At least the season landed somewhere on the board, at 9-4, more or less as good a year as Oklahoma State has actually delivered on the field since Barry Sanders was running circles around the Big Eight in the late eighties. On paper, though, it looks like a missed opportunity at best: The Cowboys were upset by Houston, lost star receiver Dez Bryant for the season to NCAA lie detectors and looked lethargic and overmatched against Texas.
The offense ended on such a sour note in the final two games – a 27-0 shutout at Oklahoma and a 21-7 Cotton Bowl debacle against Ole Miss featuring seven OSU turnovers – that Gundy was forced to import an actual offensive coordinator, spread passing guru Dana Holgorsen, from the prolific Houston attack that first knocked Ok. State from its pedestal back in September. (Holgorsen also helped give the Cowboys plenty of trouble as a longtime member of Mike Leach's staff at Texas Tech.) That is the precise sound of a window slamming shut.
To put the dartboard analogy back on the rack, the 2010 edition will be lucky it manages to take hold anywhere on the wall. The senior quarterback is gone. The first-round left tackle is gone. The defense, off possibly its first respectable campaign in decades, is missing six of its top seven tacklers. Phil Steele's exhaustively calculated "Experience Ratings" rank OSU as the least experienced lineup in America, No. 120 out of 120.
Accordingly, Steele is one the preseason mags that project the Cowboys at the bottom of the South Division, behind Baylor, which would bring Gundy full-circle in the worst possible way. Oklahoma State finished 1-7 in Big 12 games in 2000, the year before Gundy arrived as offensive coordinator in the Les Miles revival, and 2-6 their first year. When he took over for Miles in 2005, OSU was 1-7 again, dead last in the division. And now, after four year of steady, uninterrupted progress out of that crater, the Cowboys are on the verge of falling right back in.
With expectations running so high last year, the crucial measure for Gundy was whether he could finally beat Oklahoma or Texas. (After a pair of 27-point losses, his career against the division's "Big Two" stands at 0-10.) This year, the question is more fundamental to the trajectory of the program: Six years into Gundy's tenure, are the Cowboys good enough to remain a competitive, bowl-worthy outfit when almost every card in the deck is stacked against them?
The big wins can mean a lot in potentially big seasons, but a winning record with an unproven quarterback, a rebuilt offensive line and an overhauled back seven on defense can be just as effective an advertisement for how far the program has come since the debacle of Gundy's debut in 2005. If he hasn't quite raised the ceiling yet, at least he can prove the floor isn't as low as it used to be.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.