Looking beyond the mullet, Mike Gundy may have a title contender at Oklahoma State

STILLWATER, Okla. – A few minutes before 11 p.m. CT on Thursday night, Tulsa coach Philip Montgomery exited the locker room at Boone Pickens Stadium and headed out into the humid Oklahoma night. He averted his head as he snaked through the crowds of families outside, his brisk pace indicative of a desire to move on from what he’d just witnessed. Montgomery kept eye contact with the ground, wearing the look of a coach attempting to digest a 59-24 loss to No. 10 Oklahoma State.

Over the hum of the idling team buses, Montgomery stopped for a minute to appraise and praise the prospects of this particular Cowboys team. And he didn’t hold back: “I’ve played them a bunch and they’ve had some talented groups,” Montgomery told Yahoo Sports. “This group overall talent wise is the best I’ve seen [at Oklahoma State]. They’ve got a lot of balance in their receivers and an NFL quarterback.”

With that comment, the Summer of Mike Gundy officially – and mercifully – shifted to the Autumn of the Underrated Cowboys. The relentless mullet worship, 10-year commemorations of his peak meathead moment and the fawning 50th birthday profiles can thankfully be archived. Brush aside the mane, scatter the rattlesnakes and pause your throwback YouTube rant. Then take a breath and begin to ponder the possibility that this night percolated with. Oklahoma State delivered a command performance against a solid team expected to contend for a title in the competitive American Athletic Conference. (Remember what happened to Oklahoma last season when it opened up at Houston as a double-digit favorite? Exactly.)

Mike Gundy’s Cowboys look like title contenders this season, as evidenced by their 59-24 thrashing of Tulsa on Thursday. (AP)

The Cowboys looked every bit like a team that should have been picked to win the Big 12 and should be considered a contender for the College Football Playoff. Montgomery served as a Baylor assistant from 2008 to 2014, meaning he’s witnessed some high-end Oklahoma State teams. (Including the 2011 crew that was a bad Friday in Ames from playing for the national title). Montgomery isn’t prone to hyperbole, and his assessment should be a warning that the Cowboys need to be taken seriously in the highest echelons of the sport.

Opening weeks are filled with cautionary tales of reading too much into one victory. But there’s plenty to be gleaned from Oklahoma State’s victory without veering into overstatement. The Cowboys have the best quarterback (Mason Rudolph), most talented receiver (James Washington) and most dynamic tailback (Justice Hill) in the Big 12. The diversity of the Cowboys offense and the depth of talent may best be summed up by one of Gundy’s postgame laments when asked about LSU transfer Tyron Johnson’s only offensive touch, a 44-yard touchdown catch. “Golly,” he said, stretching the word to three syllables before unintentionally summing up OSU’s embarrassment of riches: “We’re going to have a lot of good players who don’t get to touch the ball a lot.”

Here’s one bold prediction from the night: It would be a surprise if Rudolph doesn’t end up in New York at the Heisman Trophy ceremony as a finalist. He finished the night 20-of-24 in passing for 303 yards and three touchdowns, a maestro performance that portends a high-end season. There’s enough diverse talent around him, in an offense with a strong pedigree of production, that it’s hard to imagine him not putting up comic book numbers. (Last season, he threw for more than 4,000 yards, 28 touchdowns and just four interceptions). Washington raised the eyebrows of the NFL scouts in attendance with the body control he flashed hauling in touchdown lobs of 40 and 77 yards. And Hill popped with his speed and cutting ability, riding giant holes from a veteran offensive line to finish with 132 yards on 15 carries. Overall on the night, Oklahoma State averaged 10.2 yard per play against an experienced Tulsa defense. “By no means,” said Cowboys offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich, “did we play a perfect game.”

Back in Newport, Rhode Island, at AAC media days, Montgomery was puzzled by the lack of preseason buzz about the team he’d spent much of his offseason studying. “I don’t understand how they weren’t picked to win the Big 12,” he said. “If I’m in their shoes, I’d be pissed off. I understand Oklahoma and all that, but with Bob [Stoops] leaving and Lincoln [Riley] having to take over and you have all [these players back]. How you’re not being picked to be No. 1 [in the league]? I don’t know.”

Montgomery’s point looks salient in the rearview mirror. But there’s a simple reason why Oklahoma State is picked behind an Oklahoma team led by a 33-year-old rookie head coach. The college football establishment – coaches, voters, athletic directors – have a hard time taking Gundy seriously. By record and performance, Gundy should be the face of the Big 12 and atop every blueblood athletic director’s list as one of the hottest coaches in college football. He has a 105-50 career record, and his coaching peers are the best in the game who haven’t won a title, played for one or reached the College Football Playoff. Think names like Stanford’s David Shaw, Utah’s Kyle Whittingham and Louisville’s Bobby Petrino, a deli slice below the Meyer-Saban elite-tier.

I polled a handful of athletic directors this week at Power Five schools to see if they’d consider Gundy for a job. None dismissed him outright because of his antics. He’s won, after all, and athletic directors need to win. (Gundy is an intriguing name at Texas A&M if Kevin Sumlin gets fired, but how his act would play on a bigger stage is a question that would keep a college president up at night.)

Oklahoma State quarterback Mason Rudolph had only four incompletions on 24 attempts in Thursday’s victory. (AP)

Gundy has chased jobs a handful of times over the years. But the reason why he’s still in Stillwater is that Gundy the caricature has still managed to outshine Gundy the coach. People can argue that the media shouldn’t be focused on silly things like Gundy’s hair, but no one has aided and abetted Gundy’s reputation for being temperamental, volatile and bizarre more than Gundy himself. The Gundy sideshow has managed to distract everyone from Gundy’s impressive body of work – five double-digit win seasons, a Fiesta Bowl victory and a Big 12 title. The most telling comment came from one AD who wasn’t aware the Cowboys could emerge as a playoff-caliber team this season. “I can tell you all about this hair and the rattlesnakes,” he said with a laugh.

On Thursday night, the focus at Oklahoma State thankfully shifted back to the field. The Cowboys’ offense looked oppressive, its defense salty – OSU held Tulsa nearly 100 yards below its average offensive output from last year – and its skill players perhaps unmatched anywhere in college football.

And the best part of the night came from Gundy’s news conference. No one asked about his hair.