STILLWATER — It's easy to find similarities when looking at Fiesta Bowl foes Oklahoma State and Stanford.
Two non-traditional powers meeting in arguably the best matchup of the bowl season, other than the BCS championship game. Two future NFL quarterbacks leading high-powered offenses. Two programs with identical 31-7 records over the last three seasons. Two schools that used major facility upgrades to aid their rise to national prominence.
But will the clash in the desert on Jan. 2 signal the end of an era for both the No. 3 Cowboys and the No. 4 Cardinal?
Both programs will lose their offensive star power next season in Stanford's Andrew Luck and OSU's Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon. The Fiesta Bowl will also be the final game for other key components of both squads, like OSU's Levy Adcock, Grant Garner and Markelle Martin and Stanford's David DeCastro, Jonathan Martin and Delano Howell.
Or, perhaps, will the Fiesta Bowl serve as a showcase for two programs that have been steadily building over the last three or four seasons and are here to stay amongst the nation's elite?
Blackmon likes to think so.
“We've got a lot of great players, young players and old,” he said. “They'll be able to keep it going. And then our coaching staff here, they've really been pushing, ‘Be better than the group before you' and things of that sort.
“I think they'll be able to build on this and come out, hopefully, better than what we did this year.”
Recent history indicates that Blackmon may be right — and that the statement could also apply to Stanford.
Anyone remember Zac Robinson and Toby Gerhart?
Both programs lost a huge star after the 2009 season. Gerhart, Stanford's bruising tailback, was the Heisman runner-up that year after rushing for more than 1,800 yards and 28 touchdowns. Robinson left OSU as the school's all-time leading passer (8,317 yards) and was also a huge threat to make plays with his legs.
The Cowboys also lost dominant receiver Dez Bryant, though he did not play for most of 2009 after being ruled ineligible by the NCAA.
“They said that (we'd struggle) when Zac left,” OSU coach Mike Gundy said. “They said we were going to win six or seven games two years ago.”
Instead, OSU and Stanford both took a step forward the following season.
Luck blossomed into what many regard as the best pro quarterback prospect of this generation as the Cardinal made its first BCS bowl appearance. Weeden and Blackmon were two of the nation's biggest breakout players as the Cowboys captured a school-best 11 wins.
Those same players helped that success carry over to this season, where Stanford matched its 11-1 regular season from 2010 and OSU clinched its first outright conference title and a trip to a BCS bowl after finishing 11-1.
Luck, Weeden and Blackmon are rare talents, of course. But so were Robinson and Gerhart, by college standards.
But no Cowboy or Cardinal player that will return next season has ever won less than eight games in their college career. That expectation to win, and win a lot, has officially been instilled. And both coaching staffs have shown they can evaluate, and more importantly, develop talent.
Gundy acknowledges that the Cowboys will look different next season without Weeden leading the offense. He suspects Stanford to go through a similar transition without Luck. In that sense, the Fiesta Bowl does mean the end of an era.
Yet Martin looks at the game as a chance for both OSU and Stanford to prove they “belong at the top”—for years to come.
“We set the bar pretty high,” Martin said. “The guys understand anything less than a national championship would be a disappointment. We've had stepping stones each year, so just got to keep getting better and believing in what we're doing.”
Oklahoma State and Stanford share an identical 31-7 record over the last three seasons. But that's not the only similarity between these two programs that have risen to national prominence in recent years. Here is a look at some of the key ingredients they share:
Elite quarterbacks become elite coaches
Mike Gundy and former Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh were known as big-time quarterbacks, but not big-time coaches when they were hired.
Gundy was the offensive coordinator under Les Miles but had never been a head coach when he took over in 2005. Harbaugh was the head coach at the University of San Diego, an FCS school, when he went to Stanford in 2007.
Both hires could have been considered risks but paid off in a huge way.
Harbaugh moved on to coach the San Francisco 49ers this season. But Gundy also shares a connection with new Stanford coach David Shaw, who was the Cardinal's offensive coordinator under Harbaugh.
The roads Andrew Luck and Brandon Weeden took to Stanford and OSU, respectively, were quite different, as Luck was a highly rated recruit out of Houston, while Weeden walked on to OSU after an unsuccessful minor league baseball career.
But both players have had a gigantic impact on their respective schools.
Luck finished second in back-to-back Heisman races and is projected to be the No. 1 overall pick in this April's NFL Draft. Weeden will leave OSU as the school's all-time leading passer and also has an NFL future.
Their pure skill and leadership qualities helped transform Stanford and OSU into elite offensive programs, and made those schools a destination for future quarterbacks.
Fancy facilities lure recruits and energize fan bases, and OSU and Stanford both finished overhauling their football home in the past five years.
Boone Pickens made his record donation of $165 million in 2005, which allowed OSU to upgrade the stadium as well as the locker room, weight room, sports medicine center, football offices and meeting rooms as part of the west end zone project. The new Boone Pickens Stadium was completed in 2009.
Stanford Stadium underwent a $100 million renovation that was completed in 2006, which upgraded facilities like bathrooms and concession stands and reduced capacity from more than 90,000 to 50,000 to bring fans closer to the action. The design was modeled after Oregon's Autzen Stadium, which is regarded as one of the rowdiest stadiums in the nation.
Both schools captured a stunning victory that provided hope for the program's future.
For OSU, it's 16-13. Though the Cowboys' win at Oklahoma in 2001 came under Miles, not Gundy, it piqued Pickens' interest and revitalized the fan base.
For Stanford, it's 24-23. The Cardinal's 2007 victory at No. 1 USC is statistically the biggest upset in college football history. It took three more seasons before Stanford reached a BCS bowl, but Harbaugh's squad shocked the nation in his first year.