STILLWATER — Once upon a time, Oklahoma State looked to Baylor for its one guaranteed Big 12 win.
That 16-13 Bedlam season of 2001? The Cowboys' only other conference victory came against the Bears, who went winless in Big 12 play.
Even more recently, a loss to Baylor marked the most embarrassing low point of Mike Gundy's first season in Stillwater.
In that 44-34 defeat in 2005, the Cowboys turned the ball over eight times — and subsequently knocked themselves out of bowl contention — against a Bear squad that entered the contest with just one Big 12 win.
Yet here we are, in a college football world that time travelers from a decade ago would call an alternate universe.
OSU and Baylor are both ranked in the top 10 in the BCS standings in mid-November and regarded as two of the nation's newest blueblood programs. College football's most electrifying offense resides in Waco. The Cowboys were decimal points away from playing for the national title two years ago, while the Bears are very much in the championship hunt as we head down this season's final stretch.
And OSU and Baylor will play in a de facto Big 12 title game Saturday night at Boone Pickens Stadium in a contest that has lured ESPN's “College GameDay” to Stillwater and will be broadcast to a prime-time national television audience.
“Art Briles, what he's done with that program is like what Coach (Mike) Gundy has done here,” said OSU safety Zack Craig, who grew up following Baylor because of one sister who played softball and another who ran track at the school. “He's changed the whole atmosphere, the whole perception of Baylor.
“Whatever he's done, it's worked, and he's got the guys playing hard for him.”
Craig is right. The how-the-heck-did-we-get-here journeys for OSU and Baylor share many similarities.
Both schools brought in native sons to lead their programs, coaches with the right personality fit and a familiarity with the area culture. Both committed to upgrading facilities and became poster programs for the Nike uniform craze. Both have tapped into a rich talent pool in Texas.
And though Baylor especially had a long way to climb — the Bears won just 14 Big 12 games during their first 14 years in the conference — some current OSU veterans saw the early stages of the Bears' surge.
Fifth-year receiver Charlie Moore was recruited by Briles and attended Baylor camps and a spring game while at Bullard High School in East Texas. Craig, a senior from Spring Branch near San Antonio, was frequently hanging around campus while visiting his sisters and also went to camps.
“When I was getting recruited, that program wasn't quite there yet,” Moore said. “But (Briles) was preaching everything you're seeing now.”
Added Craig: “They've had a bad rap in Texas. When my sisters were there, they were not good … You can see them building up each and each year. This is kind of their huge breakout year.”
Gundy, who spent one season as an assistant at Baylor in 1996, estimates between 100 and 150 Division I prospects are within a four-hour drive of campus each year. That's allowed the Bears to snag a few big-time players — including 2011 Heisman winner Robert Griffin III — and build from there.
“(The administration) backed (Briles) from the start,” Gundy said. “A little more progress. A little more progress. Hit on a couple players. Their talent level now on offense, obviously, is excellent, and defensively they continue to get more and more players each year.”
Do Baylor and OSU have staying power? Or are they merely short-term blips in this revamped college football universe?
Parity, Gundy believes, will continue as a yearly trend in the sport. But OSU certainly offers more proof than Baylor that it has established itself as a consistent program, with 58 wins compiled since 2008.
Arguably the biggest key to sustaining success is coaching stability. OSU and Baylor appear to have that, despite Gundy and Briles often being brought up as candidates for other jobs. Briles signed a new 10-year contract last week, while Gundy is in the middle of a lucrative long-term deal signed following the 2011 season.
So here we are. It may have sounded like crazy talk 10 years ago. Maybe even five years ago. But OSU and Baylor are about to square off in college football's biggest game of the week — one with Big 12 and national-title stakes.
“They're the best team we've faced all year,” Moore said. “That's all we're focused on.”