The Cowboys aren’t just experienced, they are stable. College football programs can be one or the other during the transfer portal boom. It’s rare for them to be both.
Even if BYU settles into the Big 12 after a rough debut, TCU and Baylor recapture some of their recent glory and it snows in Boulder on Nov. 29, Oklahoma State appears to have a friendly second-half-of-2024 schedule.
Combined 2023 record of the Cougars, Horned Frogs, Bears, Buffs, Texas Tech Red Raiders and Arizona State Sun Devils: 27-46.
Now let’s consider OSU’s five first-half opponents outside still-under-construction Tulsa…
South Dakota State is two-time defending FCS champion on a 29-game winning streak.
Arkansas won at LSU and dang near won at Alabama in back-to-back weeks of 2021, beat Auburn and Ole Miss in ‘22, and lost to Alabama, LSU, Ole Miss and Mississippi State by a total of 17 points in ‘23.
Utah won Pac-12 championships in 2021 and ‘22.
Kansas State won the 2022 Big 12 championship, then went 9-4 while hanging in the title race last year.
West Virginia also went 9-4 last year, capping a stunningly successful season by hammering North Carolina in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl.
This is where Cowboy fans thank Ollie Gordon, Collin Oliver, Alan Bowman, Brennan Presley, Trey Rucker and a bunch of offensive linemen for coming back.
Players with a combined hundreds of games of FBS experience shouldn’t be fazed by a season opener against an FCS program, even one as accomplished as South Dakota State.
Players with that much Power Five experience shouldn’t be fazed by an SEC opponent coming to Stillwater in Week 2, even if the Razorbacks are fizzing over their first shot at the Cowboys since Lou Holtz beat Jimmy Johnson in 1980.
Conference opponents won’t faze players with that much Big 12 experience, whether it’s a legacy like K-State, a Gen Alpha like West Virginia, or someone as brand new as Utah.
Assuming Mike Gundy is still sure what he has in Gordon and Bowman, Kasey Dunn still has a grip on how best to use Presley, Bryan Nardo still has a handle on how best to deploy Oliver and Rucker, and Charlie Dickey still has his offensive line rotation down, the Cowboys know their strengths seven months ahead of the season.
Not that first-half opponents are clueless of theirs. K-State, West Virginia and South Dakota State return playmaking starting quarterbacks. Utah returns Cam Rising, back from injury after quarterbacking the Utes to their twin Pac-12 titles.
Here, though, is an important difference: the Cowboys aren’t just experienced, they are stable. College football programs can be one or the other during the transfer portal boom. It’s rare for them to be both.
K-State has lost 16 players to the portal since last season, a defensive captain among them, according to the Topeka Capital-Journal. That number doesn’t include departing seniors like Outland Trophy finalist Cooper Beebe. Nor does it reflect the loss of offensive coordinator Collin Klein to Texas A&M.
West Virginia has lost 14 players to the portal, an edge defender of Oliver’s caliber among them, according to Rivals’ WVSports. That number doesn’t include NFL Draft-bound All-Big players Zach Frazier and Beanie Bishop. Nor does it reflect the loss of Sean Reagan, the quarterbacks coach who helped Garrett Greene to his best season last year, to Troy.
Utah has lost 16 players to the portal, Rising’s two 2023 fill-ins among them, according to the Deseret News. That number doesn’t include five ‘23 starters who are NFL Draft-bound.
Arkansas faces a quarterback transition from KJ Jefferson, now at UCF, to Talen Green, who was at Boise State. Green and the rest of the Razorbacks transition to new offensive coordinator Bobby Petrino, whose mere presence in Fayetteville might be enough to incite chaos. Not exactly silver-platter material for a head coach on a hot seat coming off a 4-8 season.
South Dakota State returns quarterback Mark Gronowski, the Walter Payton Award winner as FCS’ best player. But the Jackrabbits do have holes, the biggest left by two offensive linemen who just impressed NFL scouts at the East-West Shrine Bowl, and a running back who totaled 4,548 yards and 51 touchdowns over four years.
OSU returns its future pro running back in Gordon. He’s set to run behind returning linemen Joe Michalski, Dalton Cooper, Jake Springfield, Jason Brooks and Cole Birmingham.
The Cowboys have avoided their 2022 quarterback upheaval thanks to Bowman’s seventh season. They have avoided their ‘22 upheaval in general, with a ‘23 portal number less than half the ‘22 total.
The Pokes aren’t immune – they’ll play against Jaden Bray when West Virginia visits on Oct. 5 and against D.J. McKinney at Colorado Nov. 29 – but relative stability has returned to Stillwater. With it comes proven experience.
That should make the most impact over the first half of next season, when opponents will be dangerous but also trying to steady themselves.