Photo: Brody Schmidt (AP Photo)

Welcome to the Deadspin 25, a college football poll that strives to be more democratic and less useless than every other preseason poll. Leading up to the college football season kickoff, we will give you previews of the 25 teams that you, the readers, voted to be most worthy of writing about. Now, No. 25 Oklahoma State.

Let’s get the easy part out of the way.

Mike Gundy has a mullet, at the age of 50. It works, I guess—I’m not here to deny the boldness or magnificence of it. (I am here to ask him to keep his shirt on.) But under those sweet, oddly trimmed curls, exists a mind crafted for success in the modern world of college football, one that’s guided his team to three straight 10-3 finishes, the same one that will likely guide them to a 10-3 finish this year, if they’re lucky.

Gundy and the Cowboys lost a helluva lot in the offseason—the golden-armed Mason Rudolph and his 90 career touchdown passes: gone. All-everything receivers James Washington and Marcell Ateman, their 2,705 yards and 21 touchdown receptions: gone. And not only is Oklahoma State’s defensive line in dire need of a star, but the Cowboys are down three safeties and find themselves running a new defensive scheme that calls for five of them.

Oklahoma State has been here under Gundy before. They’ve stared at a daunting top-heavy conference and still run-and-slung their way to a top-3 finish. But this is college football, and not even The Mullet is safe from the irresistible pull of pointless offseason AD-coach drama about staying ahead of the curve. The Oklahoman reports Oklahoma State athletic director Mike Holder was quoted as saying the following about Gundy’s recruitment haul on the Pistols Firing podcast:

“I would approach recruiting a little differently than he does. I’d want to finish higher in those recruiting rankings than we consistently do. I think that ultimately puts a ceiling on what you’re able to achieve … I think sometimes we settle when we don’t have to.”

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He went on:

“I’d want to finish higher in those recruiting rankings than we consistently do. I think that ultimately puts a ceiling on what you’re able to achieve. We do a great job of overcoming that with Rob Glass down in the weight room, and I think our coaches do a great job of disciplining and motivating and channeling what talent we have in the right direction. I just think we would be better served with a few more James Washingtons coming in the front door.”

That is pretty clear AD talk for “What have you done for me lately?”

This isn’t anything new for the folks in Stillwater. Remember, booster T. Boone Pickens loves some coaching shit-talk to stir the pot. The thing is, Oklahoma State wants to get back to those 2010 and 2011 days; the comments from Holder, while true, are also made out of frustration, because the good ol’ days are what the Cowboys thought they were getting in 2017.

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Just like when Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon returned for their final seasons to go 12-1 and capture a three-point win over Stanford in the Fiesta Bowl six years ago, Oklahoma State thought Rudolph and Washington would push the program over the edge in their senior years. Instead, a truly fantastic offense and a shoddy defense were not enough, and what could have been an exclamation mark was instead a third consecutive 10-3 season and some bowl game against Virginia Teach.

We’ve still yet to see them play, but I think that may be the ceiling this year. The Cowboys have been a part of the intensely entertaining Big 12 since Gundy took over 13 years ago. Their offensive sequences are works of art comparable to anything in the Louvre. But this season, there won’t be any star power to lean on—this will be an Oklahoma State team reliant upon running backs, transfers, and senior savvy.

Rudolph is out as quarterback. In his place steps the man that backed him up the past three years, fifth-year senior Taylor Cornelius. It’s not an unusual situation for a program that didn’t manage to perfectly line up a replacement in the wings—with freshman Spencer Sanders yet to play a college down and Hawaii grad transfer Dru Brown still finishing classes back home in California, the Cowboys aren’t exactly heavy on options.

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The fact is this: Cornelius has thrown 24 passes in three years of action. He’s helped by the fact that the guys he’ll be throwing passes to this year, Jalen McCleskey and Dillon Stoner, have a good amount of experience finding the end zone; they combined for 11 scores last year. But those are inside guys—Oklahoma State has succeeded in the past by having someone who can set the turf aflame on the outside. Last year, that was James Washington, aka the best and speediest receiver in the land, who now suits up for the Steelers.

So, uh, that’s gone—in its place, Tyron Johnson, an LSU transfer and former top-flight recruit, will hope to lead what will likely be an ensemble cast attempting to replace Washington’s deep threat capabilities. At 6-foot-1 with impressive open-field speed, Johnson returns not as a star, but as a potential breakout candidate. He tops all Cowboy returning receivers with the longest average reception, at 16.3 yards last year. He’ll be joined by Patrick McKaufman, LC Greenwood, and Tylan Wallace.

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Justice Hill returns as the offense’s main proven threat—the junior running back just posted a 1,467-yard, 15-touchdown sophomore season in which he was the main workhorse for the backfield, a year after he scored Big 12 Freshman of the Year honors. Although the offense operates on a gun-slinger’s mentality in spirit, the running backs were still looked to on 50 percent of the offensive snaps last year. This means Hill, with rising running back J.D. King, will get his and end up on some end-of-year lists as long as he stays healthy. It’ll be all the more important this season, but Oklahoma State is going to need to stretch the middle of the defense with an explosive and efficient passing attack if it wants Hill to take home any hardware.

On the other side of the ball, well, there’s not a whole bunch to talk about. The Cowboys picked up defensive coordinator Jim Knowles from Duke this offseason; with him comes his 4-2-5 scheme, the one that helped highlight the work of recent ACC standouts Ross Cockrell and Jeremy Cash. This has been a move Gundy’s wanted to make for a couple years now—the Cowboys just went out and signed eight potential defensive backs with their most recent recruiting class. Until they’re ready, this year’s bunch will look to replace the three scholarship safeties that departed over the offseason with Za’Carrius Green, Malcolm Rodriguez, and Thabo Mwaniki. Wish them luck against those Big 12 offenses.

A Guy To Know

Tyron Johnson isn’t the Guy To Know by random—he’s the guy by necessity.

Mike Gundy’s offense has long been predicated on a very simple truth: A good quarterback is nice to have, but a receiver that can go up and snag an average quarterback’s prayers is always better. It’s obviously nice to have both, but what does this look like to you, Golden Corral?

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Johnson’s year has arrived, if he’s going to have one. The former LSU Tiger is now the No. 1 deep threat for a team that has done nothing but boost draft profiles of dudes who love to run fast and catch footballs. He was fine last year—it was hard not to get buried on that particular depth chart. But now he has the chance to start scoring on opportunities when the defense knows the ball is coming his way, not just when they’re distracted with someone like Washington. Johnson has the speed and the hands to seriously wreck some already questionable Big 12 defense; if he makes a year of it, expect to hear his name during the first round of a forthcoming draft.

Can They Make The Playoff?

No. Barring a miraculous outburst from the Oklahoma State receiver corps, defensive line and secondary, and a fifth-year senior hoping to break the 30-pass mark for his career, the Cowboys will not be going to the playoff. In all likelihood, this means another year of landing in the 9-4 or 10-3 territory, which is fine! It’s fine! Seriously, Mike Holder, it’s fine. Oklahoma State should be counting on 2019 to be its big year—then, it’ll have the same deep receiving corps, but with a young talented quarterback and a defense that’s had more time to figure out what the hell that fifth safety does.

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The Assistant Coach Tweet Of The Day

Jeff sounds nice, and also like a very weird gym rat rando.

Schedule

Aug 30: Missouri State

Sep 8:South Alabama

Sep 15: Boise State

Sep 22: Texas Tech

Sep 29: @Kansas

Oct 6: Iowa State

Oct 13:@Kansas State

Oct 27:Texas

Nov 3:@Baylor

Nov 10: @Oklahoma

Nov 17: West Virginia

Nov 24: @Texas Christian