STILLWATER — OSU opened the 2007 season between the historic hedges. Georgia’s Sanford Stadium. The Cowboys weren’t steamrolled, trailing just 21-14 at halftime, but Georgia pulled away to win 35-14.
And Mike Gundy was blunt. “We weren’t ready for the big time,” the Cowboy coach said that night in the Deep South.
Next week, OSU plays top-ranked and defending national champion Florida State in Arlington. The Cowboys will be big underdogs. They will be inexperienced and perhaps overmatched. They might get steamrolled.
But they won’t not be ready for the big-time. Too much success, too much program-building, has gone on in the last seven years.
“We don’t play just to be average,” said cornerback Kevin Peterson. “We play to be the best. We play to win Big 12 championships and hopefully national championships. That’s what we push for in practice. We preach to be champions.”
That’s big talk. But it’s talk the Cowboys have backed up. The program has changed in recent years. Expectations have soared. Results have matched. OSU has become a nationally relevant program, playing in a bevy of big games and winning their share. The Cowboys have won one Big 12 title and would have more if not for their Bedlam stigma; OU still dominates OSU, which is no small thing but is a regional phenomenon. Nationally, the Cowboys stand tall.
One of the best ways to measure success is conference record. It’s tougher to win in the SEC than, say, the ACC, but conference record shows a program’s consistency and contention level. And in the last six years, OSU ranks ninth among schools in the major conferences in league record, slight percentage points behind Virginia Tech, Michigan State and Florida State, and otherwise trailing only Alabama, Oregon, Ohio State, OU and Stanford.
Ahead of Nebraska. Ahead of Michigan. Ahead of Penn State. Ahead of Southern Cal. Ahead of Wisconsin, which seems to live in the Rose Bowl.
So while this seems like a rebuilding year, with only 25 or so returning players with any experience at all, the Cowboys have shown that this is not a boom-and-bust program.
“There’s always going to be questions from people on the outside looking in, but we know what we have here,” said linebacker Ryan Simmons. “We know what we’re supposed to do.”
And what exactly does OSU have? “A hungry, tough, physical, fast, football team,” Simmons said. “Football players. Not just guys who play football. These guys want to know what they have to do out there on the field, they want to work and they want to be great.”
Gundy and staff recruited quality players in the mid-’00s to marginal success and the promise of better facilities. Now they’re recruiting much better players to proven success and the reality of pristine facilities. So talent resides in Payne County. It’s just bad luck that a showdown against the Seminoles and Heisman winner Jameis Winston coincides with a year in which the Cowboys have to remake their defense and their offensive line.
Which explains why Gundy on Thursday wouldn’t pull the trigger on a reversal from 2007 and say, yep, this team is ready for the big time.
“This is a different group than when we were playing Georgia,” Gundy said.
Maybe. That Georgia team went 11-2 and won the Sugar Bowl. Matthew Stafford was the Georgia quarterback. Knowshon Moreno was the tailback. Let’s not pretend that the Cowboys haven’t seen big-boy talent before, no matter how good Florida State was in 2013 and could be in 2014.
Gundy says the ’07 Cowboys were more experienced than his ’14 squad. Heck, few college football teams ever have been as inexperienced as OSU will be. The Cowboys lost 28 seniors and a few others who didn’t return, for a variety of reasons. Gundy’s theory is that an experienced player can be more productive than a more talented, but more inexperienced, player.
Maybe so. But six years of quality football, high-level football, has shown that OSU’s program is here to stay. The Cowboys might not be ready for Florida State, but the Cowboys most certainly are ready for the big time.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at email@example.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.