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|Joe Nicholson/US Presswire|
|Mike Gundy has the Cowboys ranked for the first time since he took over in 2005.|
What a difference a year makes.
Oklahoma State is riding high with a 4-0 record and is one of six Big 12 teams to be ranked this week. An explosive offense that has hung 50 points on each of its last three opponents is bringing back memories of previous Cowboy teams when Barry Sanders was here 20 years ago after a 55-24 rout of Troy last week.
"I would say winning gives everybody a good feeling," Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said. "When the guys are walking on campus, I would guess that people are telling them they are playing well. I imagine they are feeling pretty good about themselves."
Only a year ago, the prospects for the program weren't nearly as bright. The Cowboys limped home after a loss to Troy in quarterback Zac Robinson's first career start. The residue of discontent sparked Gundy's infamous rant after beating Texas Tech in their conference opener.
Fast forward a year later and it's much quieter around Stillwater. Their national ranking -- their first since Gundy took over in 2005 -- is a milestone of sorts for the program as it heads into its Big 12 opener Saturday night against Texas A&M.
"I don't really get excited about many things this time of year because our coaching staff members are firm believers on working and preparing and doing the best we can to give our players the best opportunity to win on Saturday," Gundy said. "But I do think being ranked is good and I'm excited for the team.
"And I'm also excited for everyone involved in building this football program to a championship level, which is where we ultimately want to be. I think we took a good step last week."
Many observers thought the Cowboys would take a step back this season after losing top producers like leading receiver Adarius Bowman and top rusher Dantrell Savage from last season. Their 4-0 start has made them one of the surprise teams in the nation.
But new players have come along who might give them more firepower than last season. Running back Kendall Hunter ranks third nationally with an average of 154.5 rushing yards per game and has a capable backup in Keith Toston, who has run for 100 yards in each of his last two games. The Cowboys lead the nation in rushing, rank third in scoring and are fourth in total offense.
Dez Bryant has developed into a key receiving threat who has already snagged six touchdown receptions, including three last week against Troy.
The collection of is taking some pressure from Robinson, who finds he doesn't have to be as big a part of the offense as when he rushed for 847 yards last season. He's averaging only eight carries and 23 rushing yards this season.
"That's one thing I do notice is my body feels pretty fresh," said Robinson, who ranks fifth nationally in pass efficiency. "My shoulder and legs aren't as sore and I'm not having to do as much as before. I'm comfortable in what we're doing."
It's again given Oklahoma State the opportunity to either run or pass the ball successfully. The Cowboys have continued virtually the same balanced strategy this season with Gundy calling the plays as they employed when Larry Fedora was the coordinator last season. When Fedora left for the head coaching job at Southern Mississippi, Gundy has maintained the same balanced strategy.
"It's fun because you never know what our game plan will be," Oklahoma State center David Washington said. "Whatever the defense gives us, we feel like we can take advantage of it. It's just an incredible feeling to be able to play like we have so far. In the last few years, we've just been so versatile."
Washington said he considers this group to be the most explosive offensive group he's been a part of at Oklahoma State.
"Guys are clicking and there's just great team chemistry this year," Washington said. "We have a lot of guys who can make plays. And I think it's helped us become a part of the best offense I've ever been a part of."
It's still unclear how good this Oklahoma State team really is, however. Their four opponents so far have a combined record of 6-11. And the Cowboys will have to play all four of the Big 12 teams ranked in the top seven nationally.
Their defense has been spotty after allowing 483 yards against Houston and 416 yards against Troy. And the offenses they will face in the Big 12 will be a huge step up in terms of talent from what they've previously faced.
Troy coach Larry Blakeney came away a believer after Oklahoma State's convincing victory over the Trojans last week. He compared them favorably to Ohio State, which his team had played in its previous game.
"That's one of the best offenses we've faced, period ... They are a very good, very prolific offensive football team," Blakeney told reporters after the game. "They've got a good enough team to beat Ohio State. They've got a good enough team to beat lots of people."
The Cowboys rolled up 612 yards against Troy after producing 699 against Houston earlier this season. Those games represent two of the top eight games in total offense in the school's history.
"We're feeling very confident in what we do," Robinson said. "Offensively and defensively, we feel like we're in a groove and we can keep it up. We've played some good teams this season and had some success against them. Hopefully we can keep it up."
The Cowboys will be looking for revenge against Texas A&M, which has posted a pair of one-point victories against them in the last two seasons. The Aggies escaped with a tight overtime victory in Stillwater in 2006 when an Oklahoma State extra point was blocked on the game's final play. And Oklahoma State lost in College Station last season after squandering a 17-0 halftime lead.
For the first time in Gundy's coaching tenure, the Cowboys will have a settled quarterback situation this week against the Aggies with Robinson in charge.
"My redshirt freshman year they got us on a blocked extra point. That was tough to take. And last year we had them and we let it get away," Robinson said. "One thing we're concentrating on is finishing those kind of games. That's our biggest point of emphasis, and it has been since the end of last season."