Cowboys' sustainability to be tested

STILLWATER, Okla. -- In 2007, Oklahoma State opened Mike Gundy’s third season as coach on the road against Georgia.

The Cowboys lost by three touchdowns, but the defeat marked the launch of one of college football’s most successfully sustainable programs since.

Over the past seven seasons, Oklahoma State has more wins than the Bulldogs. More wins than Michigan, Notre Dame, Texas and Florida, too.

And only four wins fewer than the defending national champion Florida State Seminoles, who the Cowboys open with this weekend.

But Oklahoma State’s program sustainability will be put to the test this season.

No power five conference school has fewer returning starters this season than the Cowboys’ nine. Oklahoma State will be starting a trio of new receivers. The secondary is mostly green. Same with the offensive line. The linebacking corps, too. And though junior quarterback J.W. Walsh has been around, he has never fully been the guy before, either.

With all that to overcome, can the Cowboys avoid a rebuilding season and cement their elite sustainability by simply reloading yet again?

"We’re going to find out," Gundy said. "I think there are some really talented players on this team. They just don’t have any experience. And until you get out there and do it, you don’t know what to expect."

It won’t take long for the Pokes to find out just what kind of team they have.

Florida State returns the bulk of a squad that mowed through the competition on the way to capturing the national championship. Reigning Heisman winner Jameis Winston is back at quarterback for the Seminoles, who could wind up being double-digit favorites against every one of their regular-season opponents.

"We’ve embraced this game," Gundy said. "We’re playing the best team in the country. We’re playing the best player in the country. This will give us a good idea where we’re at -- what a great opportunity."

Seven years ago in Athens, Georgia, the Cowboys discovered they weren’t quite ready to clash with the premier clubs in college football. Oklahoma State hung tough in the first half, but was outclassed in the second, as Georgia's combination of quarterback Matthew Stafford and running back Knowshon Moreno propelled the Bulldogs to a 35-14 win against the Cowboys. Georgia went on to win the Sugar Bowl and finish 11-2.

Gundy cautioned that these Seminoles are at a different level than the 2007 Bulldogs. But after 66 wins, pristine facilities and better recruiting classes, these Cowboys are at a different level than the 2007 Cowboys, too.

"We were a more experienced team back then -- we weren’t in the situation we are now from an inexperienced standpoint," Gundy said. "This is the most difficult year we’ve had when it comes to returning players.

"But the players competing now, two years from now could very well be more talented as a group than what was there (in 2007)."

The Cowboys, however, don’t have two years. They only have a few days. And armed with just a couple dozen players who have actually stepped on a field in a big-time college atmosphere, this is the most monumental retooling effort Gundy’s staff has ever faced in Stillwater.

"This is, by far, the most inexperienced defensive unit I’ve ever taken into a game," said coordinator Glenn Spencer, Gundy’s now longest-tenured assistant. "It’s a different year for us. We have a lot of players that are inexperienced, and they’re learning on the run."

But Oklahoma State has precedent for defying preseason expectations despite inexperience.

Going into 2010, only Bowling Green, East Carolina and Colorado State had fewer returning starters than the Cowboys. Some prognosticators even picked Oklahoma State to finish dead last in the Big 12 South. Nobody had heard of receiver Justin Blackmon. Few knew who quarterback Brandon Weeden was, either.

But behind the most prolific pass-catching duo in school history, the Cowboys reeled off 11 wins to finish in a tie atop the South standings.

"We’re a winning team -- that’s the attitude around here," said linebacker Ryan Simmons. "The new guys that haven’t had a chance, it’s their time now. We’re definitely a young team, but it’s a reloading year. We have the guys to get the job done."

In the past few years, only a handful of programs have proven they have the sustainability to produce winning teams every year, no matter what. Bedlam rival Oklahoma is one of those programs. Oregon, Ohio State, Alabama, LSU and Florida State are a few of the others.

The odds are stacked against the Cowboys becoming a winning team again this season. The odds are even longer that Oklahoma State will be competitive against the vaunted Seminoles.

But since that Georgia opener seven years ago, the Cowboys have proven their program is on solid ground. This season, they have the chance to prove their sustainability is among the elite, too.