With a few days to breathe and review, does a look-back on the season reflect better feelings?
The future? Somewhat better, with a chance for seriously better if a certain pair of players decide to saddle up in Stillwater one more year.
Here’s a look at what went right, what went wrong and what’s in the forecast for the Cowboys in 2020:
WHAT WENT RIGHT
Chuba Hubbard gave us a great glimpse into how good he could be late last season, filling in for the injured Justice Hill as the primary back.
Still, who saw this coming?
Hubbard produced the second-best rushing season in Tailback U. history – and No. 1 is college football’s greatest of all time – dazzling with speed, but also showing great vision and toughness.
The Cowboys have had a lot of great running backs, but it’s now Barry Sanders and Chuba Hubbard at the top.
How’s that for filling big shoes?
As a redshirt sophomore, Hubbard is eligible to jump to the NFL. The decision is pending. Some think it’s an automatic yes; start cashing in now. Mike Gundy tells us he expects Hubbard back for 2020.
If Hubbard returns, the Cowboys become a legitimate Big 12 contender. And he becomes a serious Heisman Trophy contender, despite heavy voter leanings toward quarterbacks.
There were bumps along the way for redshirt freshman Spencer Sanders at quarterback, but overall he learned on the fly and became a dynamic playmaker at the position.
Sanders tried to do too much at times, forcing throws when an incompletion or even a sack would have been the better alternative. But to his credit, he made the necessary adjustments, a great sign that he’ll grow in the role. With a full season behind him, and with a rich history of leading and winning in his past, it’ll be interesting to watch him take the next steps.
The Cowboys got strong play across the front on both sides of the ball.
While the offensive line play was expected, the defensive line produced a major surprise.
New starters were needed at every spot, hardly ideal. But young players emerged and some established themselves as future stars, led by true freshman end Trace Ford. Tackle Israel Antwine came on strong down the stretch and there's now a full complement of d-linemen ready and able to contribute.
Every defensive lineman on the two-deep returns, and seven of the eight have started.
In Year 2 of the Jim Knowles era on defense, the Cowboys played much better. Malcolm Rodriguez and Amen Ogbongbemiga answered voids at linebacker, safety became a strength with Tre Sterling, Kolby Harvell-Peel and Jarrick Bernard, and cornerback A.J. Green put himself on the NFL map with a strong senior season.
WHAT WENT WRONG
For a team somewhat in transition, the Cowboys couldn’t afford key injuries if they were going to make a move from seven wins in 2018 back to where they’d lived previously, posting nine or 10.
But crippling injuries couldn’t be avoided.
Tylan Wallace, the nation’s premier wide receiver, blew out an ACL during a mid-week practice and the offense lost a dimension without him. Sanders suffered a broken thumb that required surgery in a late-season win, and two of the team’s five losses came after. Harvell-Peel, the team’s MVP, missed the bowl game after suffering a knee injury on the final play of the Bedlam game.
Linebacker Calvin Bundage missed the season to a back injury.
The Cowboys weren’t overrun with injuries, but the ones that hit were devastating.
It’s time, probably past time, to reassess special teams at OSU.
Once a strength in every aspect of the kicking game, special teams now exist as some hold-your-breath element of any game day.
Punting was a disaster, with Aussie import Tom Hutton never looking comfortable in the American game.
The coverage units have been good, and that’s an area that can get overlooked. But the big-legged kickers that once defined the punting and placement and kickoff side of OSU special teams are missing.
And that’s perplexing, as there’s never been a better time for prospect kickers, due to training and camps and expert tutelage.
Gundy has gone mostly with grad assistants taking charge of his special teams. That plan needs a review.
Besides the injuries, players at several positions failed to seize opportunities to make a mark.
Hutton was the biggest bust.
When Wallace went down, and Dillon Stoner was forced into the No. 1 role, reliable producers never materialized at wide receiver. Some guys had some moments, but none did enough to make defenses fully respect them, allowing opponents to shift more focus to the running game and pulling teeth from the spread passing game. Braydon Johnson’s play in the Texas Bowl offers some excitement, but can he be a game-changer consistently? If not him, who else?
If Hubbard leaves, who’s next at tailback? TBD. After a rough start in which he looked tentative, LD Brown improved around midseason. But is he a No. 1? Deondrick Glass, the coveted running back in last year’s recruiting class, carried three times against McNeese State, then went into redshirt hiding. Dezmon Jackson, a touted junior college transfer, never surfaced as a threat.
Man, wouldn’t Charlie Kolar look good in OSU’s offense, as an added option for the middle of the field?
Sure looks good at Iowa State.
Gundy has treated the Cowboy Back position much like special teams, shoving walk-on hybrids or position-change candidates into the spot and hoping for something good to happen. And granted, it worked with Blake Jarwin.
But why not go get a playmaker? In these days of 7-on-7 high school football, such guys are plentiful. And you’d think the Cowboys would be able to sell the spot in their offense, with so much passing game success to point to.
The Four-Game Redshirt
Does Gundy appreciate the value of the free four game concept of redshirting?
Couldn’t Glass have benefitted from more exposure? Or Jackson? Or Langston Anderson?
WHAT’S TO COME?
Strength In Numbers
The Cowboys are clearly waiting on the decisions of Hubbard and Wallace, which will significantly tilt expectations for next season.
Still, OSU will return a lot for 2020.
Of the Texas Bowl depth chart, 21 of 22 defensive players were underclassmen. On offense, the number is 18 of 22. And that doesn’t include Bundage or Wallace.
Of course, Hubbard and Wallace are all-timers, so not getting them back is significant. But the Cowboys have a lot returning, and new playmakers should develop.
Kasey Dunn is joining former OSU assistant Marcus Arroyo at UNLV, finally getting the opportunity to run his own offense. Dunn will be missed, as both an elite developer of wide receivers and as a recruiter. So there’s at least one coaching spot to fill, with others always possible.
The Cowboys recruiting class currently ranks middle of the pack in the Big 12 and around the No. 40 mark nationally. While I’m not big on recruiting rankings, and OSU has routinely outperformed its ranking, there’s not a lot of sizzle in the class.
Today, you can still dream on the hope of a special 2020, as Hubbard and Wallace remain Cowboys. If those two return -- we're talking about players who are arguably the best at their position nationally -- OSU immediately takes on the look of a contender, in the Big 12 and beyond.
That's the optimistic view, and surely one Gundy is selling to both as they consider their futures.
Without Hubbard and Wallace, expectations slip, although a strong season remains in play. With Sanders and a stout defense, the Cowboys have premium starting points. Maybe Glass leaps into the spotlight. Maybe Johnson proves the Texas Bowl was his true breakout. Maybe Anderson and C.J. Moore take the next step, joining Stoner and Johnson to form another multi-pronged receiving corps. Maybe a grad transfer arrives just in time to provide a boost.
The schedule sets up nicely, with only five road games. And the Cowboys would be favored in three of those today: at TCU, at Kansas, at Kansas State. I think it's better when you have Iowa State, Texas Tech and Texas at Boone Pickens Stadium, along with West Virginia and the nonconference squads.
2020 looks like fun, maybe immense fun. Happy New Year.