STILLWATER — The Cowboys' season-opening game against Washington State comes with a real familiarity.
And a cause for comfort?
Just two years ago in its opener, Oklahoma State clobbered the Cougars 39-13 in Seattle, jumpstarting a nine-win season. And things haven't gone well since for Wazzu, winning but three games after that August 2008 clash in finishing 2-11 in '08 and 1-11 a year ago.
Over that same stretch, the Cougars are 1-15 in Pac-10 games.
"They're going to be better," said OSU quarterback Brandon Weeden, almost out of obligation.
Except most analysts would beg to differ. Washington State is the overwhelming pick for last place — again — in the Pac-10, and many projections suggest another 1-11 is in the Cougars' 2011 future, with FCS squad Montana State the lone breakthrough.
So this time, with Wazzu due at Boone Pickens Stadium on Saturday night, it's not unrealistic to think the Cougars could provide a similar launching pad for the Pokes.
Yes, things are different for OSU from 2008.
That team set up as coach Mike Gundy's best to date, although there were depth concerns on the offensive line and the defense was trying to shake its shabby status, making the Cowboys just a touchdown favorite.
This team is replacing tons of talent, including two first-round draft picks and the school's all-time total offense leader, leading many of those same analysts to predict a slip in status in Stillwater. And yet, inside the program there's a vibe of confidence built around improved recent recruiting.
Interestingly, oddsmakers install the Cowboys as 14-point favorites this time.
"We're kind of flying under the radar right now," said OSU defensive end Ugo Chinasa. "I like it this way. Last year, we had all this hype. This year, we're going to surprise a lot of people."
And, Chinasa said, it all starts with Saturday's game.
"The first game is always an important game," Chinasa said. "It sets a tone for the season; sets the tempo and shows everybody who we are."
That's a major question facing these Cowboys. Are they the fifth- or sixth-place team in the Big 12 South, as plenty of prognosticators suggest? Or are they like that 2008 squad, a team at a crossroads ready to make a leap through traffic, behind Weeden and Chinasa and OSU's next wave?
As glossy as that '08 team looks in hindsight, the terms attached to it heading into that day in Seattle: "Toss-up. Swing game. Must-win."
This matchup is must-win, too, for sure.
A potential swing game, too, considering the launching pad premise.
But toss-up? No way, right?
Consider this: the Cougars finished last in the Pac-10 in every telling offensive and defensive category a year ago.
Scoring. Rushing. Passing. Total yards.
Points allowed. Rushing defense. Passing defense. Total yards allowed.
And get this, they ranked last nationally in total yards — gained and surrendered.
Each loss was a double-digit dropkick.
"People don't believe in us," defensive end Kevin Kooyman told reporters during Pac-10 Media Days, "but we believe in ourselves. That's all we care about."
OSU defensive coordinator Bill Young found one telling sign to suggest improvement at Wazzu.
"If you look at their starting lineup this year, it'll tell you a lot," Young said. "They have several guys who have started a lot of games who are backups now. They've recruited over them."
But have they recruited over OSU?
"It's a new year, they might surprise some people this year," Chinasa allowed, only to insist it wouldn't be the Cowboys.
"I don't think you can sneak up on anybody in an opening game. It's been a long time since we played. We should be good."
The Cowboys have faced Pac-10 teams four times in season openers. And they've won them all, each time setting off a strong season.
2008 – Washington State. The Cowboys, coming off consecutive 7-6 seasons, carried some questions about their ability to turn the corner as a program into Seattle. Special teams played huge, and Dez Bryant dominated and the Cowboys rolled 39-13, leading to Mike Gundy's first nine-win season. OSU started 7-0 and finished 9-4, earning a Holiday Bowl berth.
2004 – UCLA. In Les Miles' final season in Stillwater, the Cowboys talked about taking a smash-mouth running approach out West. And they delivered, with Vernand Morency romping for 261 yards and two touchdowns on 29 carries in a 31-20 win in the Rose Bowl. OSU attempted but eight passes. The Cowboys finished 7-5 with an Alamo Bowl berth.
1985 – Washington. In a battle of ranked teams, the No. 16 Cowboys won 31-17 at No. 13 Washington – the Huskies were ranked No. 1 by Sports Illustrated – behind Thurman Thomas' 237 yards and his tailback pass for a TD to Bobby Riley. OSU finished 8-4 and played in the Gator Bowl against Florida State.
1984 – Arizona State. The Sun Devils were another magazine's choice for No. 1, with now defunct Sport pegging ASU as the nation's team to beat. The Cowboys beat them all right, battered them in a 45-3 route in Tempe. It was Pat Jones' first win as head coach at OSU, on the way to a 10-2 finish that saw the Cowboys climb as high as No. 3 in the rankings and feature a Gator Bowl win over South Carolina.