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Our 13th annual preseason Top 25: No. 21 Oklahoma State has offensive worries — no, really

Mark Rosner
American-Statesman Correspondent
Oklahoma State quarterback Spencer Sanders had his ups and downs last season. He's entering his third year as the Cowboys' starter but must cut down on turnovers. Last season, he threw 14 touchdown passes but also threw eight interceptions.

For the last 12 years, the American-Statesman's sports staff has spent July breaking down our own preseason Top 25 rankings. Last year's eventual College Football Playoff semifinalists ranked first, second, third and ninth in our 2020 poll.

No. 21 Oklahoma State

Well, this is unusual. The Cowboys begin a season having to answer more questions on offense than defense. They ranked higher nationally in scoring defense than offense last year, have nine players back from that defense and of the six key players lost, four were on offense. Quarterback Spencer Sanders is in his third year as the starter but needs to cut down on turnovers. Experienced RBs LD Brown and Dezmon Jackson will try to replace the departed Chuba Hubbard. There were four all-conference defensive players last season; two are back.

Oklahoma State was ranked 16th in our preseason poll last year and ended up 19th (coaches), 20th (AP) and 21st (CFP) in the three major final polls.

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About the Cowboys

2020: 8-3 overall, 6-3 in the Big 12 — third place behind Oklahoma and Iowa State. They beat Miami 37-34 in the Cheez-It Bowl.

Coach: Mike Gundy (137-67, all in 16 seasons at Oklahoma State). He's the winningest coach in school history.

Returning starters: 14 (5 offense, 9 defense)

Shoes to fill: WR Tylan Wallace (Ravens, 4th round); RB Chuba Hubbard (Panthers, 4th round); OL Teven Jenkins (Bears, 2nd round); CB Rodarius Williams (Giants, 6th round); LB Amen Ogbongbemiga (8th overall pick of the CFL draft); WR Dillon Stoner (Raiders, UFA)

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Dezmon Jackson, center, will get the first shot at replacing Chuba Hubbard as Oklahoma State's primary running back. He rushed for more than 500 yards and four touchdowns last season.

Catching up

Oklahoma State's recruiting class ranked 30th nationally — that was the highest-rated for the Cowboys since 2014 (27th), the class that yielded Tyreek Hill, Mason Rudolph and James Washington (Hill ended up at a junior college). The gem of this year's group could be Kendal Daniels, a four-star safety who originally signed with Texas A&M last December but was released from his national letter of intent in February. And the Cowboys also added center Danny Godlevske, a fifth-year senior from Miami (Ohio).

Returning leaders

Passing: Spencer Sanders 155-247-2,007, 14/8 (led team); Shane Illingworth 41-70-554, 4/1 (2nd)

Rushing: Dezmon Jackson 100-547-4 (2nd), LD Brown 82-437-2 (3rd)

Receiving: Braydon Johnson 20-248-1 (3rd)

Tackles: LB Malcolm Rodriguez 82 (led team), S Tre Sterling 74 (3rd)

Sacks: DE Trace Ford 4.5 (2nd), DE Tyler Lacy 4 (3rd), LB Malcolm Rodriguez 3 (T-4th)

Interceptions: S Kolby Harvell-Peel and S Tre Sterling, 2 (tied for team lead)

Returning all-conference

Offense: FB Logan Carter (hon. mention), RB Dezmon Jackson (hon. mention), QB Spencer Sanders (hon. mention), OL Josh Sills (hon. mention)

Defense: LB Malcolm Rodriguez (2nd team), S Kolby Harvell-Peel (2nd), DE Trace Ford (hon. mention), DE Tyler Lacy (hon. mention), S Tre Sterling (hon. mention)

Special teams: K Alex Hale (hon. mention)

Oklahoma State linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez tackles Texas running back Keaontay Ingram during their game last season at Boone Pickens Stadium. Rodriguez, who led the Cowboys in tackles, elected to return this season as a fifth-year senior.

FYI

How the pandemic affected the Cowboys: Two games were canceled — nonconference matchups against Oregon State and Western Illinois — before the start of the season, and it took some work to make the Baylor game happen (the game moved on the schedule from October to November and finally to December). The season opener against Tulsa was delayed by one week. Two Cowboys opted out of the season, but neither was listed on the depth chart.

Welcome back: The Cowboys caught a break when Rodriguez, a second-team all-conference pick who led the team in tackles last year, chose to return for a fifth season. 

Bring on Bama — someday: The good news is that Oklahoma State has scheduled a home-and-home series with Alabama. The bad news is that it doesn't start until 2028. That game will be in Stillwater.

2020 national stat rankings

Where Oklahoma State ranked nationally in various statistical categories last season — and how the Cowboys ranked in 2019.

Scoring: 52nd (2019 — 35th, -17 spots)

Scoring defense: 34th (61st, +27)

Total offense: 39th (21st, -18)

Total defense: 44th (82nd, +38)

Passing: 53rd (71st, +18)

Pass defense: 47th (102nd, +55)

Rushing: 45th (17th, -28)

Rush defense: 58th (67th, +9)

Sacks: 16th (64th, +48)

Interceptions: 68th (31st, -37)

Red zone offense: 70th (T-16th, -54)

Red zone defense: T-84th (95th, +11)

Turnover margin: T-60th (T-70th, +10)

Time of possession: 35th (95th, +60)

Our Top 25 — so far

No. 25 Ole Miss: Rebels have plenty of firepower to work with

No. 24 Washington: Huskies back for more after 3-2 season

No. 23 Louisiana: Ragin' Cajuns out to prove that they belong

No. 22 Penn State: Nittany Lions want to keep the momentum going

No. 21 Oklahoma State: And, wearing No. 21 (just like dad did), QB Gunnar Gundy

Coming tomorrow

Our No. 20 team. Want a hint?

It's the second Big Ten school in our poll so far.