Dr. Saturday's 2017 Top 25 Countdown: No. 7 Oklahoma State

Dr. Saturday
<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/ncaaf/players/239330/" data-ylk="slk:Mason Rudolph">Mason Rudolph</a> threw 28 touchdowns and just four interceptions in 2016. (Getty)
Mason Rudolph threw 28 touchdowns and just four interceptions in 2016. (Getty)

August is here and that means college football season is starting soon. The first games of the 2017 season kick off Aug. 26. And as it quickly approaches, we have 25 days to preview each of the 25 teams in our updated Dr. Saturday 2017 preseason poll. Check here every day to find out who we think the 25 best teams in the country will be. Fair warning, however. We’re probably going to be wrong.

Previous entries: No. 8 Penn StateNo. 9 Washington, No. 10 AuburnNo. 11 LSU, No. 12 Michigan, No. 13 Stanford, No. 14 Louisville, No. 15 Wisconsin, No. 16 GeorgiaNo. 17 FloridaNo. 18 South Florida, No. 19 Kansas State, No. 20 TexasNo. 21 Miami, No. 22 Notre DameNo. 23 NorthwesternNo. 24 Washington StateNo. 25 North Carolina

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2016 record: 10-3
Returning starters: 7 offense, 5 defense

Biggest non-conference game: Sept. 16 vs. Pittsburgh
Biggest conference game: Nov. 4 vs. Oklahoma

Key returning player: QB Mason Rudolph
Key departed player: S Jordan Sterns

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Three things to know about Oklahoma State

• One of the best teams in the Big 12 has one of the best offenses in the country. We will wait for you to get over the shock of that sentence.

OSU has averaged more than 38 points in six of the last seven seasons and it would be quite surprising if that wasn’t seven of eight after this season. All of the tools are there.

QB Mason Rudolph should be one of the more productive quarterbacks in the country and could put up better numbers than his in-state counterpart Baker Mayfield. Rudolph threw for 4,091 yards in 2016 and had 28 interceptions. More important, he threw just four interceptions. Such a low interception rate is probably unsustainable in 2017. But if he throws eight or 10 and his other numbers stay the same or improve, it’s not a year of regression.

Rudolph’s top receiving target is back. James Washington had 71 catches for 1,380 yards and 10 touchdowns a year ago. Washington came back for his senior season and joins the likes of Dez Bryant and Justin Blackmon as dynamic outside threats for the Cowboys.

There is a very small caveat that could derail a huge season for Washington — and Oklahoma State too. A report surfaced earlier in the week that Washington had a hernia injury. He told NewsOK.com that an old abdominal injury flared up, but that he doesn’t even know how long he’s had the injury.

“It’s kinda weird how things can take off when it’s not really that serious,” Washington said.

Assuming Washington will be at full strength — and we have no reason to believe he won’t — is necessary for a Cowboys offense that also returns WR Jalen McCleskey, who had 73 catches. The combination of Washington and McCleskey is the best receiving duo on the conference and perhaps the best in the country.

“James is such a deep threat,” OSU coach Mike Gundy said at Big 12 media days. “We have thrown the ball to McCleskey some down the field, but his elusiveness, he’s a guy that’s really hard to really two-below if you had him in a phone booth, not that there’s phone booths anymore. But he’s very elusive in the middle of the field and has great football savvy, very cerebral, very intelligent. So we can use him in multiple positions. We can move him around a lot, and we can ask him to do things that we haven’t asked other inside receivers to do in our system.”

• Enough about the Cowboys pass game. While OSU’s record in 2016 was identical to its 10-3 mark in 2015, the offense was even better last season because of an extremely effective run game.

Two years ago Oklahoma State averaged just 3.6 yards a carry and quarterback J.W. Walsh was the red zone run threat. Walsh scored 13 touchdowns and averaged 4.7 yards a carry. A mark that was 0.8 yards higher than leading running back Chris Carson’s.

Enter Justice Hill, who was a great complement to Carson. Hill rushed for 1,142 yards in 2015 as a freshman while Carson scored nine touchdowns and nearly doubled his yards per carry to 6.8. Carson is now gone, so this is Hill’s rushing attack. Finding a second back, either in La’Darren Brown, Ja’Ron Wilson or someone else will be pivotal to keeping Oklahoma State’s offense humming.

“We’ve evolved as a running team again in the last year with Justice,” Gundy said. “We need a backup there.

” … We need to be effective and score points and be productive in the red zone from a touchdown standpoint and not turn the ball over. When we’ve had success at Oklahoma State, we’ve been very good in turnover margin. I think that’s really important for our football team.”

• On to the defense, which returns five starters and has to replace some key contributors.

OSU made some strides in 2016, allowing four points fewer a game though it gave up 5.9 yards per play. Yes, the Cowboys play in the Big 12 and video game statistics are reality and not fiction, but you can’t be a serious national title contender giving up six yards a play.

Gone is safety Jordan Sterns, who led the team in tackles with 101 a year ago. Gone is linebacker Devante Averette as well; he had 82 tackles. So is defensive lineman Vincent Taylor, who led the team with seven sacks.

That’s a lot to replace. Oklahoma State will be counting heavily on Clemson transfer CB Adrian Baker, who could step in and start in the secondary. And Ramon Richards has moved to safety.

“Adrian’s come in, our fifth year transfer, and we’re expecting him to contribute,” Gundy said. “In most cases, we’re going to play with five defensive backs in this league, and we have to have some guys that are somewhat versatile, but that is one of the positions that’s lacking experience. As a coach, you’re always concerned about that.

“We have some guys that have been in the program a while, and in moving Ramon to safety, it was a little bit of a risk from an experience standpoint. But we’re expecting some of our younger players, who don’t have a lot of the game experience, to really be productive as the season progresses.”

If Oklahoma State can get enough stops, the College Football Playoff is the limit with this team. It may all come down, just like it did a year ago, to Bedlam. This time it’s in Stillwater, as Oklahoma visits on Nov. 4.

And it could also be in Dallas too. 2017 is the first season of the reinvigorated Big 12 title game. Don’t be shocked if both Oklahoma schools meet each other twice in the span of five weeks. And if they split the series, prepare to pour one out for the Big 12’s playoff hopes.

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Nick Bromberg is the editor of Dr. Saturday and From the Marbles on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at nickbromberg@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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