The perception of Oklahoma State being Oklahoma's quirky little brother is difficult to shed. Most state school rivalries feature a historic imbalance, and Bedlam is one of the best examples.
The Sooners claim seven national championships and own the record for the longest winning streak in college football history. They lead the head-to-head Bedlam rivalry series 86-18-7 all time. The Cowboys' only claimed national title has been routinely mocked, as they were awarded a 1945 championship by the AFCA … 71 years later. The one time recently that Oklahoma State truly had a chance to play for a national championship, it lost on a Friday night in November at Iowa State and got left out in favor of an LSU-Alabama rematch.
The accomplishments of coach Mike Gundy have been earned some respect -- the past decade has featured the most consistently good results in school history -- but the Cowboys rarely seem to be taken entirely seriously, forever in the shadow of the hated Sooners. Gundy is 104-50 in 12 seasons at his alma mater, but he has defeated Oklahoma only twice and won the Big 12 once, Bob Stoops still owning the state and owning the conference. Even after back-to-back 10-win seasons, much of the attention devoted to Oklahoma State has been about the coach's mullet and rattlesnake hunting and the Alamo Bowl championship rings that claim the Cowboys really won 11 games because of the controversial loss to Central Michigan.
Based solely on final AP poll rankings, Oklahoma State has had only three football seasons better than 2016. The 10-3 Cowboys finished 11th, capping their season with an Alamo Bowl romp over Colorado to tie for their fourth-best AP finish ever behind 2011 (third), 1945 (fifth) and 1984 (seventh).
While something always seems to go wrong to prevent Oklahoma State from breaking through the ceiling attached to the program, like that Central Michigan debacle, there is hope for something more in 2017. Thanks to a crucial announcement on Dec. 27, Oklahoma State is going to be a force to be reckoned with, owning an offense with the potential to rival the Brandon Weeden/Justin Blackmon-led unit in 2011 that scored 48.7 points per game.
As a junior, quarterback Mason Rudolph passed for 4,091 yards, 28 touchdowns and only four interceptions, averaging 9.1 yards per attempt. Also as a junior, wide receiver James Washington caught 71 passes for 1,380 yards and 10 touchdowns, averaging 19.4 yards per reception. Days before the Alamo Bowl, they jointly announced their decision to return for their senior season, giving Oklahoma State the best returning passing combination in the country, with Washington standing atop Sports on Earth's preseason wide receiver rankings. They are the foundation of a big-play offense that has every reason to succeed, one that has found a groove entering offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich's fifth season.
Washington is the leader of the nation's best receiving corps, as Rudolph is spoiled with talented targets. Jalen McCleskey (73 catches, 812 yards) and Chris Lacy (31 catches, 489 yards) return, and they're joined by Marcell Ateman, who missed last season with an injury after finishing with 766 yards in 2015, and Tyron Johnson, an LSU transfer who was a five-star recruit in the class of 2015. Tailback Chris Carson is gone, but he was supplanted by freshman Justice Hill, who rushed for 1,142 yards to become the program's first thousand-yard back since 2012. The offensive line loses two starters, but the Cowboys brought in California graduate transfer Aaron Cochran, a massive tackle who should instantly claim the starting left tackle job protecting Rudolph's blind side. There are massive questions on defense, but just about everyone in the Big 12 has significant questions on defense, and the addition of Clemson transfer Adrian Baker at cornerback helps.
The Cowboys worked to fix obvious holes with graduate transfers, and it's reasonable to believe that they'll have one of the best offenses in the country. Only one returning Power Five quarterback passed for more yards than Rudolph last year, and no returning Power Five player had more receiving yards than Washington. Because this is Oklahoma State, though, attention can be hard to come by. The controversial loss to Central Michigan put the Cowboys in an early hole last year, while the Rudolph-Washington combination went on to be overshadowed nationally and within the state by the Sooners' Baker Mayfield and Dede Westbrook, who were both invited to New York as Heisman Trophy finalists. Even one of the most prolific Oklahoma State duos ever couldn't top what Oklahoma put on the field.
The Cowboys have won 10 games each of the past two years, but Bedlam decided the Big 12 championship with lopsided results in favor of the Sooners, who won by 35 and 18, and the rival Mayfield has been the much bigger star than Rudolph. This year, however, they get another chance, and it's possible that Oklahoma State will have to beat Oklahoma not only once but twice to be able to sniff the College Football Playoff, which is a legitimate hope for a team with so many weapons on offense. Bedlam has been moved up from the end of the season to Nov. 4 in Stillwater, as the Big 12 has reinstituted a conference championship game. Thanks to the division splits, the rivalry couldn't be staged in the league title game in the past. Now, there are no divisions; the Big 12 will merely take the top two teams in the 10-team standings and stage a rematch, creating the possibility of a double dose of Bedlam, with the Sooners and Cowboys presumably viewed as the top contenders entering the season.
While Mayfield is back at Oklahoma, he loses Westbrook and running backs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon. Nevertheless, this is Oklahoma, and picking a Bob Stoops team to reign supreme in the Big 12 is one of the safest picks in college football, especially with an accomplished quarterback like Mayfield at the helm.
Still, even though its recruiting has been mediocre, Oklahoma State has assembled a team more than capable of challenging the Sooners for Big 12 supremacy. Both Rudolph and Washington have first-round NFL Draft potential, and the offense will be among the most well-rounded in the country. The Cowboys have to survive a tricky nonconference schedule -- Tulsa, at South Alabama at Pittsburgh -- and they also have to survive a tough lead-up to Bedlam that includes back-to-back road trips to Texas and West Virginia, but they are capable of keeping pace with anyone, at least if turnover luck doesn't flip against them.
The Cowboys don't have the defensive depth and probably don't have the offensive line to actually win two games against top-four teams and claim a national championship, but they do have the firepower to rise to the top of the Big 12 and escape from that Bedlam shadow to get a chance to earn the national respect that has often been so elusive. If nothing else, their offense will make the attempt to do so entertaining to watch.