Oklahoma State is 5-0 for the first time since 2015 after dispatching of Baylor on Saturday, marking the fifth time of the Mike Gundy era that the program has opened its season with five consecutive wins. So let me be so bold as to lay out this not-so-hot take for the world to see: I think what we’ve seen thus far in 2021 might be Gundy’s best coaching of his career.
This team is not like the 2015 team that went 10-3 behind a stellar sophomore QB and a killer offense; QB play has been hit or miss and the offense has been, by default, the same. Nor is it like the 2011 team that won the Big 12 title behind a middle-aged QB and a defense that created more turnovers than McDonald’s during happy hour; Spencer Sanders is a veteran by college standards but lacks the wisdom of Weeden, and OSU ranks 75th this season in turnover margin. Nor, I’d argue, is the 2021 iteration of OSU like the other two teams of the last 16 years that opened 5-0 — including the 2008 and 2010 teams. Between spotty offensive production and injuries, it is easily the least impressive of the five based on what we’ve seen in five games.
We’ve got no choice but to tip our cap to the man, the myth and the mullet himself: Mike Gundy. What he has done this season as head coach is nothing short of remarkable. OSU has dealt with myriad injuries on offense, particularly at receiver, yet it has found ways to win by scoring just enough points to get the job done. And in various ways, too, like: running 53 times for 250+ against Boise, passing for 344 against Kansas State the following week, hanging 24 on Baylor despite three interceptions. There has thus far been nothing on paper about this team that really says it should be 5-0 but … it is 5-0. Cap, tipped.
The defense is incredible and bordering on dominant, and we’ll get to that in a second. But the offense? It’s pedestrian. Jaylen Warren and Tay Martin have been bright spots, however, production-wise this team is a far cry from the run-and-gun rage-fests that the likes of Dana Holgorsen and Todd Monken produced. In fact, the team ranks among the worst in the league in several key categories entering the bye week. Kansas, for instance, is the only team scoring fewer points on a per-game basis this season than OSU.
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Per-possession data is hard to come by in-season but per-play data is readily available, and that doesn’t look pretty for OSU, either. So it’s not skewed downward based upon games in which OSU plays slow or doesn’t possess the ball much. OSU’s offense just isn’t the OSU offense we’ve come to expect over the years.
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And yet … OSU is winning. And in ways we’ve really not seen often under Mike Gundy: With good defense and special teams, and playing the field position game. Yes, I’m happy to report, OSU’s transformation into Iowa of the South is truly complete. It ain’t purdy, but the Pokes are sound in every phase of the game.
On defense, ESPN’s SP+ analytics model ranks the OSU defense No. 12 in the country. No. 12! Here is the full list of Big 12 teams that rank ahead of OSU this season on defense:
OSU ranks second in the Big 12 behind only Iowa State in yards allowed per game and fourth — behind Iowa State, Baylor and West Virginia — in points allowed per game.
Special teams play has been reliable, too, which, if you’re an OSU fan having watched the last decade, is enough to celebrate about! Only two Big 12 teams are more successful this season in kickoff return average yardage and four better in punt return average yardage. Special teams is more than the return game, obviously, but there’s at least a threat there. Oh, and Tom Hutton has been sensational as a target punter who routinely pins teams deep in their own territory.
Could OSU lose the next seven games and finish 5-7? Statistically, it’s pretty unlikely. (Kansas is still on the schedule, after all.) But could OSU finish the season ranked, say, 24th with an 8-4 record? Absolutely! That seems just as likely that OSU finishes off this hot start and winds up in the Big 12 title game.
That’s what makes what OSU and Gundy have done this season all the more impressive. It won on the road against Boise State despite completing a grand total of six forward passes. Six! It beat Baylor on Saturday despite three interceptions, the first time ever under Gundy that OSU has won a game in which it forced zero turnovers and committed at least three turnovers. It’s not magic: It’s really, really good coaching.
Jim Knowles will get his flowers — and they should be roses by the dozens — for what he’s done with OSU’s defense, no doubt. But credit where it is due: Gundy has been malleable as a head coach enough to know what style his team can win fights in. He has seized upon opportunities to close out games by letting it hang in big moments — going for it on fourth down late against Baylor, throwing to potentially end the game against Missouri State. He’s coaching like someone who knows he’s the most successful figure in the program’s history and has nothing to lose. Maybe that costs him down the stretch run of the season, maybe not, but he’s got as good a pulse on his team as ever and right now has a team that could easily be 3-2 or 2-3 heading to bye week with a 5-0 record. Say what you will about how it’s looked — and it hasn’t looked all that good — but to be undefeated near the halfway point with this team given its special circumstances is coaching conjuration.