October 19, 2010
Unless maybe you're the guy who dropped a couple hundred million to fund it, it's impossible not to be at least a little impressed with Oklahoma State's trajectory over Mike Gundy's first five seasons: The Cowboys' 32 wins from 2006-09 rank among the best four-year runs in school history, and last year's edition was openly gunning for the best season in school history; it ended with OSU's second January bowl game in 60 years.
And again, with the possible exception of T. Boone Pickens, you had to recognize the impending doom awaiting this fall. The prolific senior quarterback graduated. The first-round left tackle graduated. The defense, off possibly its first respectable campaign in decades, lost six of its top seven tacklers. By the accounting of Phil Steele's exhaustively calculated "Experience Ratings," OSU opened the season as the greenest lineup in America, No. 120 out of 120. It was barometer for the program: Six years into Gundy's tenure, are the Cowboys good enough to remain a competitive, bowl-worthy outfit in a cutthroat division when almost every card in the deck is stacked against them on paper?
Whatever you think of the strength of schedule over the 6-0 start, it's safe to say that goal is already down. The 2010 Cowboys clearly are not the worst team in the division. In fact, with Texas A&M and Texas Tech already vanquished – the latter by double digits for OSU's first win in Lubbock in 66 years – and Baylor coming to Stillwater, it's shaping up as the best behind perennial frontrunners Oklahoma and Texas, which is about as good as a team that's managed to share one conference championship since the Great Depression is going to be, in a year where six wins once seemed like a reasonable goal for the entire season.
You can chalk that up largely to the Air Raid, or at least offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen's version of it. Smarting from a pair of limp efforts against Oklahoma and Ole Miss to close 2009, Gundy hired the one-time Mike Leach protegé from Houston, where Holgorsen had coordinated the nation's most prolific passing game over the last two years. Gundy also handed over play-calling duties, and the nation's most consistently balanced attack has immediately settled in is as one of its pass-happiest. The Cowboys are throwing more than 40 times per game under Holgorsen, up from an average of about 25 under Gundy, and are throwing more than they run. Only two teams nationally are passing for more yards, and only one individual passer (Hawaii's Bryant Moniz) is hanging more yards on opposing secondaries than OSU quarterback Brandon Weeden. No receiver anywhere has more yards, more touchdowns or more big plays than sophomore Justin Blackmon. Running back Kendall Hunter has five 100-yard games and is on pace to finish with 1,800 for the season. The Cowboys are scoring more points on more yards per game than any team except the current No.1 in every human poll, Oregon, and except for Hunter and offensive lineman Lane Taylor, they're doing it with a totally revamped lineup.
So far, they're also doing it against mostly terrible defenses. The stiffest opposition to date has been against Texas A&M, which picked Weeden twice and held the Cowboys to 351 yards in a Thursday-night nailbiter decided largely by five Aggie turnovers. Saturday's 581-yard outburst in Lubbock came against a Red Raider defense currently ranked 102nd in total defense and 99th in scoring. Which makes this weekend a perfect time to host arguably the stingiest defense in the conference: Nebraska comes to Stillwater Saturday with the nation's best pass defense in both yards and efficiency after holding Texas quarterback Garrett Gilbert to a measly 62 yards on 4-of-16 passing – a slightly better day than Washington's Jake Locker managed against the 'Huskers back in September. No other secondary has allowed fewer big plays.
OSU has already exceeded expectations; with two more wins over, say, Baylor and Kansas down the stretch, it can leave the dire projections lying in pieces beneath the springboard to some serious optimism going into next year. If those heights are more immediately attainable over the next six weeks, Saturday is the time to prove it.