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Mason Rudolph, James Washington return with big ambitions for 2017

SAN ANTONIO -- As Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy walked out of the Alamodome and toward his team bus late Thursday night, he couldn’t start looking ahead to 2017 without looking around at the rest of his competition.

“The Big 12 is going to be loaded next year,” Gundy said. “I watched Kansas State last night, and they’ve got everybody back. I’m guessing Texas is gonna be pretty good, OU’s got everybody back, there’s TCU…I’m telling you, this league next year could very well be the best league in the country.”

Where do his Cowboys fit into that big battle? Gundy knows he’s got a good team coming back, and he’s certainly not afraid to say so.

“We’ll have a chance,” Gundy said.

He’s not going to start making promises about how far they can go next season, but he knows they have enough talent to contend. Because he’s got one more year of Mason Rudolph to James Washington.

His star quarterback and wide receiver say coming back for their senior season wasn’t a tough call, hence their understated announcement coming in a quick post-practice video together last week. Rudolph and Washington feel confident they can compete at the NFL level, but the league will have to wait.

“If we made the jump this year I think we would have both been ready,” Rudolph said, “but we also know just what college means to us and what we’ve been enjoying, we’ve been enjoying these first three years. And we know the tremendous talent and opportunity we have next year coming back.”

They’ve won 22 of their 27 games together since Rudolph took over as Oklahoma State’s starter. They’ve connected on 122 completions for 2,263 yards, 18.5 yards per completion and 18 touchdowns. They’ve made each other so much better over the past two years. And they’re not done yet.

The decision Rudolph and Washington made, along with their 38-8 blowout win over No. 10 Colorado in the Valero Alamo Bowl, propels Oklahoma State into an offseason of excitement. That was palpable in the aftermath of the bowl win, a feeling that this next year has a chance to be special.

“I think it just sets us up to do greater things,” Washington said. “I’m looking forward to coming out next year and doing the same thing, hopefully ending with a great outcome.”

The parallels to 2011 seem obvious at this point. The Cowboys rolled into that season with substantial momentum after knocking off a Pac-12 foe in the Alamo Bowl to finish off 2010. The Pokes had a fairly decent quarterback-receiver duo coming back that year, too, in Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon.

So, sure, the question is inevitably going to be asked during this offseason: Is Oklahoma State poised to contend for a national championship again?

“I’m going to enjoy this victory,” offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich said after this latest Alamo Bowl win, “and I’m not gonna answer that doggone question. I wouldn’t touch that with a 10-foot pole.”

OK, fine, let’s start with where the Cowboys fit into the Big 12 hierarchy next year. Like Gundy said, it’s hard to know where to begin. The conversation ought to start with Oklahoma again. Baker Mayfield and several other key draft-eligible starters have declared they’re coming back. Running backs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon have yet to decide.

The Big 12’s back-to-back champs ought to be the perceived frontrunner again this offseason, no matter what happens Monday night in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. The Sooners have earned that respect. Oklahoma State, the Big 12’s back-to-back runner-up, will still command some serious attention.

Replacing All-Big 12 defensive tackle Vincent Taylor and a dozen key seniors won’t be easy. But the incredible offense the Pokes can construct, led by Rudolph, Washington, running back Justice Hill and a ridiculously talented group of wideouts, will give them a chance to play with anybody. The schedule looks a bit more favorable in 2017, too, considering OU, K-State and TCU all have to visit Stillwater.

“I’m wishing I had another year of eligibility,” senior running back Chris Carson said. “The sky’s the limit for this team and this offense next year. They’re going to be very dangerous, one of the tops in the country.”

Yurcich says his players can’t get too full of themselves. Gundy says they need the right attitude and want-to. They don’t want to get ahead of themselves. There’s too much work to be done. Their leaders and quarterback and receiver intend to earn all that hype.

Their shared goal, as Rudolph describes it: “Putting an exclamation point on both of our careers.”