Without question, Mike Gundy is the best coach Oklahoma State has ever had. The accomplishments speak for themselves. He's so far ahead in overall wins that he's lapped the second-place coach, Pat Jones, while averaging a healthy 8.6 wins per year. The Cowboys have gone to 14 straight bowl games and won a Big 12 title in 2011. Yet, despite all of that, 2020 has a very "if not now, then when?" feel to it.
Consider the context and what's at stake. The Cowboys return one of the best QB-RB-WR trios in the conference in Spencer Sanders, Chuba Hubbard and Tylan Wallace. On top of that, this team returns a lot of starters on both sides of the ball. They're a to win the Big 12 championship from a wagering standpoint. Reliably, this team will likely win about nine, maybe 10 games. The question is whether it can punch through the ceiling set by Oklahoma and capture its first conference title in nearly a decade.
Final ranking: No. 25 | Achievements: 8-5; lost 24-21 to Texas A&M in the Texas Bowl
Injuries were the theme of the 2019 Oklahoma State season. It started with Wallace, who missed the. At the time of the injury, Wallace led the Big 12 with 903 receiving yards and eight touchdown catches. That was followed by Sanders missing the final two regular season games with a . Still, the Pokes won four games in November and only fell short against Oklahoma and Texas A&M in the Texas Bowl. All things considered, the impact was mitigated at least partially by the fact that Hubbard continued to churn out 100-yard games, though he wasn't quite the touchdown machine he was earlier in the year.
All in all, Oklahoma State won plenty of games but didn't have a signature win on which to hang its cowboy hat. The defense was average at best and Sanders had his fair share of freshman mistakes. The success Oklahoma State strives for in 2020 will be determined by how much growth there is in those two areas.
CB A.J. Green: He's the only full-time starter to depart 2019's defense, but he's a big loss. A second-team All-Big 12 selection, Green was a Thorpe Award semifinalist and a physical defensive back who was paired up with some of the best receivers in the country. Though he wasn't drafted, Green was a major staple in the Cowboys' defense over the last few years.
OC Sean Gleeson: He was only in Stillwater for one year after arriving from Princeton before accepting the offensive coordinator job at Rutgers under new coach Greg Schiano. However, the Cowboys scored 32.5 points per game in 2019 -- their lowest total in five years. Longtime assistant Kasey Dunn was promoted to OC after Gleeson's departure.
OL Marcus Keyes: Oklahoma State returns most of its offensive line, but Keyes is the biggest loss. He was a four-year starter (50 games) at guard and a two-time first-team All-Big 12 selection. As a tribute to what he meant inside the locker room, Keyes was also picked by his teammates as a captain in 2018 and was the 2019 recipient of the Barry Sanders Award for the teammate with the most contribution with least recognition. Low-key, he is a massive loss for the Cowboys.
RB Chuba Hubbard: Oh, you know, only the leading rusher in the FBS last year with 2,094 yards. Hubbard's 21 touchdowns also tied for second nationally. Hubbard was a bell cow with 328 carries, the most by any back, but he has incredible big-play ability. Only Ohio State's J.K. Dobbins averaged more yards per carry (6.65) while eclipsing 300 attempts for the season. Hubbard enters 2020 not only as the most productive running back in college football, but one of the most talented.
WR Tylan Wallace: As mentioned above, a knee injury cut Wallace's 2019 season short, but he was still the fourth-leading receiver in the Big 12 at the end of the year despite playing in only eight games. Wallace returns as a true No. 1 wideout who can act as a burner with yards after the catch or down the field as a vertical threat. He's not the biggest guy at 6 feet and 185 pounds, but he's a good route runner who has a bigger catch radius than you'd expect and can high point the ball.
QB Spencer Sanders: There was a quiet "what if" scenario brewing last year regarding Sanders. What if Hubbard and Wallace were playing with a more consistent, seasoned quarterback? Granted, Sanders was a freshman and Gundy is the type of coach who will let his playmakers take their shots, but Sanders definitely had his decision-making and ball security issues with 11 interceptions. There's no doubting his dual-threat talent, but he has to take much better care of the ball moving forward if this offense is to realize its full potential.
OL Josh Sills: A graduate transfer from West Virginia, Sills is a plug-and-play guy at guard who can help overcome the loss of Keyes. Sills missed most of last season recovering from shoulder surgery, but he was a two-year starter at guard for the Mountaineers in 2017 and '18, and a second team All-Big 12 selection as a sophomore.
QB Shane Illingworth: Again, Sanders is the guy until proven otherwise, but there is some buzz about Illingworth. The 2020 four-star prospect is has more prototypical size at the quarterback position (6-foot-6, 235 pounds) with a big arm. Will he push Sanders or otherwise see some playing time next season? That could be one of Oklahoma State's more interesting, underlying storylines.
Week 6 vs. Iowa State -- Oct. 10: The Week 5 road trip to TCU is a classic trap game at the start of conference play, but the home game the following week against Iowa State likely has greater title game race implications. Of Oklahoma State's three biggest games, two are at home. Is it too early in the season for a must-win? Because this feels like one the Pokes would really need down the road.
Week 8 at Oklahoma -- Oct. 24: It's Bedlam, so how could it not be considered a critical game on the schedule? Gundy is 2-13 against the Sooners, however, and last defeated his bitter in-state rival in 2014. However, this is a rare window in which Oklahoma State enters the season with fewer roster questions to answer than Oklahoma (even if the Sooners typically answer those questions with flying colors). If Oklahoma State can't beat Oklahoma in Norman, could it get it done on a second attempt in Arlington?
Week 13 vs. Texas -- Nov. 27: There's a whole season that needs to be played, but on paper this feels like the de facto play-in game for the Big 12 title. The Thanksgiving weekend game in Stillwater might give the Pokes a leg up as it'll be a short week road game for the Longhorns coming off of a potentially tough matchup against Iowa State.
There are reasonable expectations for Oklahoma State, and then there are aspirations. Reasonable expectations is that this group will be fun to watch with one of the most productive and exciting offenses in the nation. That alone should be good enough to win a lot of games. The schedule sets up well, too, with no real hurdles in nonconference play and easier road trips against Kansas and Kansas State. Given that Gundy's career win total average is about 8.5, go ahead and take the over.
But what will separate a good season from a memorable one comes down to a few factors. First, it comes down to whether the defense, which returns almost everybody, is actually capable of taking a step forward. It also depends on Sanders leveling out with the mistakes while continuing to grow. Above all, it means beating Oklahoma at least once. There's an argument to be made that if Oklahoma State makes the Big 12 Championship Game and faces Oklahoma again, the Pokes are better off losing in Norman in October. The chances of beating the Sooners twice, especially given Gundy's track record in that series, are slim on paper.
Still, the absolute best-case scenario for Oklahoma State is a Big 12 title with some College Football Playoff chatter. Given who's returning, this is absolutely realistic. But the worst-case scenario is that 2020 becomes an underachieving nightmare and an example of what could have been. Whether due to injuries or just choking away big games, anything less than a Big 12 title game appearance will probably be seen as at least somewhat of a disappointment.