Note: Longhorns Country's "Around the Big 12" series will feature stories on all 10 programs in preparation for the 2021 season.
In Stillwater, the 2021 season is the Spencer Sanders show. And outside of perhaps Kansas State's Skylar Thompson, he's the veteran quarterback of the Big 12.
Sanders enters his redshirt junior season with the most starting experience of anyone in the conference. He doesn't see himself as the "old veteran", but he's going to need to play like it if Oklahoma State hopes to compete for a Big 12 title.
This time around, there's no excuses them to be competitive this fall.
“We’ve been very impressed and excited about Spencer’s development,” Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said Thursday at Big 12 media days. “My personal opinion is last year, the spring ball that he missed, and summer conditioning, because of COVID, set him back.
“I feel like the two months that we watched him over spring ball, he’s developed more than he has in two years.”
The Cowboys are coming off a season in which fans believed it could be their year. Sanders was entering his second season as a starter. The team had a pair of complementary receivers in Tylan Wallace and Dillon Stoner.
Of course, who can forget about the 2,000-yard rusher in Chuba Hubbard? Overall, this All-American offense was destined for great things.
No one can control what happens off the field. That, plus a pandemic cost them a chance of making a College Football Playoff push. They settled for an 8-3 record and enter the year with a plenty of new faces offensively.
Hubbard is now fighting for reps with the Carolina Panthers. Wallace could compete for a starting role with the Baltimore Ravens. Stoner is looking to make the final 53 with the Raiders in Las Vegas.
This is Sanders' team, and his development will decide how far the Cowboys can go inside the Big 12 schedule.
“I wouldn’t say it’s just me,” Sanders said. “I would say we work as a team, we move as a team. I understand that there’s a role that I have to play, which is accountability. But there’s accountability all over.
“As long as we own up to our mistakes, I own up to my mistakes — I had plenty of mistakes last season and the season before. Do I feel like I corrected all of them? No, but do I feel like I got better? Yes.”
Sanders' inconsistencies under center have been a concern. Last season, he threw for 2,007 yards, completing 62.8% while throwing 14 touchdown passes against eight interceptions.
It's the overshot passes to wide open receivers and timing on routes that hurt the Cowboys overall. That was with a roster that had been working together for two seasons. Sanders is all that remains from the core.
Although Hubbard is gone, he leaves the Pokes' backfield in good hands with senior LD Brown. At the wide receiver position, that could be challenging. Tay Martin and Brennan Presley were primarily backups for most of the year.
Martin made 15 catches for 149 yards. Presley, a true freshman, recorded six receptions for 118 yards and three touchdowns. Compare that to Stoner and Wallace, who recorded nearly 60% of all Cowboys' passing record, it's a hard sell.
"I ain't gone lie, that's a nice little hat trick to keep in your pocket," Sanders said of his connection with the Ravens' new wideout. "That's one you don't want to let go, but you know everything always comes to an end.
"But I love this team and I feel like this off-season we really kind of grew together, especially coming off the pandemic."
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Another key will be the health of the offensive line. In 10 games, four players missed time due to injuries and COVID-19. It was a carousel of concerns and a turnstyle of talent trying to block up front.
Gundy said that it was a learning experience. Getting down and dirty has better prepared them on how to expect the unexpected.
"All of the butt whippings they took should help them this year. We've had a couple of adjustments," Gundy said. "We're already better just by depth chart. We're already better. We haven't played a game yet.
Defensively, the Cowboys return eight starters and should be in good hand. Led by Malcolm Rodriguez up the middle, Oklahoma State is looking for balance. Last season, the team struggled against the run, ranking sixth in the conference and allowing an average of 159.8 per game.
Rodriguez said part of his decision in coming back was based on the players who wanted another season. Leading the team in tackle last fall, what's stopping the second-team All-Big 12 selection from leading the team all the way?
"I wanted to come back and get that chemistry together," Rodriguez said. "And I love Oklahoma State. It’s been fun since I’ve been here, making a lot of memories here.”
He won't be alone on the back end as Kolby Harvell-Peel returns to the secondary. It's the secondary that looks to be the strongest with all five starters returning.
Peel, who recorded two interceptions, nearly elected to forgo his final year of eligibility. Gundy and the junior discussed the season outlook and ultimately, he wanted to run it back one more time.
He's had a great spring and I'm hearing great things about him as a leader this summer," Gundy said of Peel.
"Having experience in the secondary, particularly at the safety positions and outside backers, are very important, in my opinion, because of the fantastic quarterback play and skill that we have in this league."
Gundy enters his 17th season with the Pokes. Most coaches either are fired or leave due to the success. He's had offers, but Stillwater is home. Even without his signature mullet, he embodies Oklahoma State.
He's already grabbed a 75-game lead in the all-time wins with the program. Why not stay for the full 100?
The Cowboys are projected to finish fifth in the Big 12. That's a fair assessment until camp is underway. The team isn't young, but it's far from just seniors wanting another go-around.
The defense should be set to deal with whatever is ahead. A now experienced offensive line needs to remain healthy. Give it time and the wide receivers should come around like others.
The rest is on Sanders' shoulders. The inconsistencies must be limited and the veteran must reach new heights. He has the coaches support and the staff to succeed.
If so, perhaps Sanders is fighting another Spencer for the hardware this season. And maybe, it's well past the Bedlam and back in Arlington.
"I feel like this is the best group that I've had in my 17 years as the head coach," Gundy said. "Makes my job much easier."