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2016 season preview: Oklahoma State Cowboys

Oklahoma State returns arguably the best quarterback-to-receiver combination in the Big 12, has the league's most experienced offensive line and welcomes its most intriguing transfer. The Cowboys feature plenty of style, as usual, in Mike Gundy's 12th season. Does the mullet-sporting coach, though, possess the substance on his roster to push this group into the top tier of the Big 12 after a 10-0 start turned sour late last year?

Our preseason look at Oklahoma State:

Key losses: QB JW Walsh, WR David Glidden, OG Paul Lewis, DE Emmanuel Ogbah, DE Jimmy Bean, LB Seth Jacobs, CB Kevin Peterson, CB Michael Hunter, CB Miketavius Jones

Key returners: QB Mason Rudolph, RB Chris Carson, WR James Washington, WR Marcell Ateman, TE Blake Jarwin, OT Zachary Crabtree, OT Victor Salako, DT Vincent Taylor, DT Motekiai Maile, LB Jordan Burton, LB Chad Whitener, S Jordan Sterns, S Tre Flowers

Preseason storyline: The Cowboys lose a lot defensively, in particular at the pass-rushing spots and cornerback. Can they plug the holes well enough to field an improved group and support an offense that should again rate among the league's most explosive groups?

If so, credit coordinator Glenn Spencer, who has trained the Oklahoma State defenders to create havoc. The Cowboys led the league a year ago in turnover margin and sacks. They'll need similar production from a less-experienced group, with defensive end Jarrell Owens in position to fill a key spot.

And, of course, the Cowboys do feature experience on the defensive side, returning their top four tacklers. Notably, Sterns, Whitener and Taylor are set to provide leadership at each level of the defense.

Oklahoma State allowed 30.5 points and 439 yards per game last season to rank in the middle of the Big 12 pack. It can't afford a dip; in fact, slight improvement is likely needed to avoid another late-season exposure of the Cowboys as a pretender in the league race.

Most interesting position: Running back. Carson led the Cowboys with 517 yards on the ground a year ago. He's back for a second season. And Carson, despite his strong frame and versatile set of skills, served as something of an afterthought in preseason assessments of the Oklahoma State backs.

Why? Some guy named Barry J. Sanders. The son of former OSU Heisman winner Barry Sanders, he played behind Christian McCaffrey at Stanford last season and arrives in Stillwater with unusual expectations as a graduate transfer.

The younger Sanders is not his father. He rushed for a career high of 97 yards last season against Oregon State. But he adds intrigue to a crowded Cowboys backfield that also features Rennie Childs, Jeff Carr and freshman Justice Hill. Oklahoma State ranked ninth in the league and 107th nationally in 2015, managing just 126.8 rushing yards per game. Walsh chipped in 13 rushing touchdowns as a QB.

So yes, Oklahoma State could use something of substance from the new guy.

Game that matters most: The Cowboys have lost three of their past four meetings with Baylor, including a 45-35 defeat last year in Stillwater that stung after a 10-0 start to the season. Gundy's team opens league play in Week 4 at Baylor this year. It's a big game.

If Baylor is the sinking ship that many observers believe, Oklahoma State ought to motor right past. No better time to do it than in the conference opener. But don't think this will be easy. Baylor remains potent offensively and figures to enter Big 12 play with confidence after a soft out-of-league schedule.

The Cowboys, meanwhile, move from the trip to Waco to a home date against Texas. Again, their schedule is backloaded. The Baylor game might hold the key to a start like last year's, when Oklahoma State did not lose until the third weekend of November.

Prediction: The Cowboys will get some time in September to work out the defensive kinks and find secondary weapons as Ateman deals with a foot injury. Rudolph and Washington will post big early numbers, but Oklahoma State will stumble once before its Week 7 bye. The closing stretch against Kansas State, Texas Tech, TCU and Oklahoma -- three of which are on the road -- will define the year. We see a 9-3 regular season and 11th consecutive bowl appearance.