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Can Inexperienced Oklahoma State Compete In 2014?

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After losing 30 seniors, Oklahoma State must win with inexperienced players next fall. Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images.
After losing 30 seniors, Oklahoma State must win with inexperienced players next fall. Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images.

The Oklahoma State Cowboys have been on the rise over the past six years. But after losing 30 players to graduation, the question is: Can coach Mike Gundy's team compete in the Big 12 this year?

The Cowboys only have five defenders returning with starting experience. The linebacker situation is a big issue with the departures of Shaun Lewis and Caleb Levy. The third starting linebacker, Ryan Simmons, will be relied upon to hold down that position and lead junior college transfers and new recruits.

The secondary also faces losses at safety, along with Justin Gilbert, arguably one of the best corners in recent Oklahoma State history. They do have Kevin Peterson back at cornerback.

This doesn't necessarily mean youth can't compete and it certainly doesn't mean the Cowboys' defense is going to be weak. ESPN released a comprehensive list of automated preseason rankings that included all 128 FBS schools. It has Oklahoma State at No. 21 overall and third in the Big 12. In short, the FPI rankings considers past performance, recruiting, and returning players to assign a value to a team’s offense, defense and special teams. On defense, the Cowboys ranked 15th overall. That's promising for a young squad, especially compared to its offensive ranking of 35th.

The offense is returning quarterback J.W. Walsh, who led the Big 12 in adjusted QBR this spring. Walsh needs to lead the offense and reward his young defense for making stops — assuming it can. Behind Walsh is freshman Mason Rudolph. Rudolph should be a solid backup and could even become a starter if Walsh struggles.

The Cowboys have other weapons on offense, mainly at wide receiver, with six receivers who had at least 14 catches last season. The 6-foot-2 Jhajuan Seales will be the most prominent target. He totaled 39 receptions for 571 yards and three touchdowns last fall. Marcell Ateman, Brandon Sheperd, and David Glidden are also expected to contribute. Ateman was a true freshman last season with 22 receptions, while Sheperd and Glidden found their way into the rotation as redshirt freshmen.

The Cowboys have one of the highest winning percentages in the FBS over the past five years at 50-15, ranking second in the Big 12 behind Oklahoma's 51-15 mark. Gundy, entering his 10th year as head coach, has an outstanding track record at Oklahoma State and is looking to become the longest tenured football coach in school history. Fielding a young squad doesn't mean he will endure a rebuilding year. The Cowboys should compete this season, even with their 20th-ranked strength of schedule, according to CBS Sports.

Oklahma State should be exciting to watch, especially in its season opener against defending national champion Florida State. Even with their inexperience, the Cowboys' chances of posting eight wins is not out of the question.