Chasing Oklahoma: What's keeping Oklahoma State from being the best?

Mason Rudolph will need help from the running game and defense if Oklahoma State is going to win the Big 12 in 2016. AP Photo/Jonathan Bachman

This week, we're running a series on the Big 12 teams capable of dethroning defending conference champ Oklahoma next season.

We continue the series with the Oklahoma State Cowboys.

How the Cowboys can beat OU: Find enough balance on offense to match the Sooners' explosive attack.

The Cowboys defense is unlikely to be as good as 2015 with Emmanuel Ogbah heading to the NFL along with the loss of other senior starters. That unit allowed 4.33 points per drive and 7.82 yards per play to Oklahoma as the Sooners won the Big 12 title on Oklahoma State’s home turf.

Thus, Oklahoma State’s best bet is to find a way to control the game offensively while scoring efficiently, which will require a much-improved running game. The Cowboys have been trying hard to address their shoddy running game, signing seven offensive linemen and two running backs on signing day, with plans to add Stanford transfer Barry Sanders Jr. (the son of NFL Hall of Famer and Oklahoma State 1988 Heisman Trophy winner Barry Sanders) into the mix as well. If those ingredients can combine to create a solid running game and provide balance alongside Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma State would have the firepower to knock off the defending champions.

What's holding them back: The running game is a glaring issue, but rebuilding the defense will be just as important. Even if Oklahoma State is able to knock off Oklahoma, its chances of winning the Big 12 title will be minimal without the defense holding up against the high-powered attacks in the conference. The secondary should be solid, but finding a pass rush will probably be priority No. 1 with Ogbah and Jimmy Bean -- arguably the conference’s top pass rushing duo in 2015 -- moving on. The Cowboys do have some young defensive ends ready for an increased role, though they are unproven.

X factor: Sanders could be a season-changing addition if his plan to join the Cowboys as a graduate transfer becomes reality. He rushed for 315 yards on 51 carries (6.2 yards per carry) in 2015 but was hidden behind Christian McCaffrey on Stanford’s depth chart. If he can step in as an experienced playmaker alongside Rudolph, Oklahoma State would have a strong quarterback-running back-receiver trio with Rudolph, Sanders and James Washington. Sanders has never had more than 59 carries during a single season, so it remains to be seen if he can handle the demands of being a primary back in the Big 12.