STILLWATER — Mike Holder watched Monday night's national championship game between Florida State and Auburn with interest.
Rooting for the Seminoles.
Florida State will begin its title defense against Oklahoma State on Aug. 30 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, in the Cowboys Classic. It's a contest that was pegged as a marquee matchup when both schools signed on to play in December of 2012.
Now? It's even greater for the Cowboys.
At least, that's how the OSU athletic director views it.
“It doesn't get better than that,” Holder said. “What an opportunity to play the defending national champions and Heisman Trophy winner (quarterback Jameis Winston). It would be hard not to rank them No. 1 next year (in the preseason).
“Looks like an opportunity to play the best team in America right out of the gate.”
How did this neutral-site matchup come about, anyway?
ESPN executive and scheduling master Dave Brown first contacted Holder in 2010 about the possibility of a 2014 game against Florida State at “Jerry World.” Holder ran the idea up the food chain of coaches, who weren't exactly thrilled by it.
So Holder declined.
But Brown was persistent. He'd periodically check in with Holder and bring up Florida State. Holder reminded Brown that OSU had already turned that game down. In the interim, Brown scheduled OSU's 2013 contest against Mississippi State at Reliant Stadium in Houston.
Yet Holder still kept following Florida State, from its recruiting rankings to its progress as a program under coach Jimbo Fisher. Over time, Holder “started to warm up to the idea,” and OSU and Florida State finalized the deal last December.
When Holder signed on, he predicted the Seminoles would be a top-5 team in 2014. Perhaps even the preseason No. 1.
But all of this?
“Now, I didn't really get extravagant and think they'd be the defending national champions,” Holder said. “But I fully understood how good they were, and probably how good they were going to be.”
On the field, this game looks like a gigantic challenge for OSU.
The Cowboys lose seven starters on defense, starting quarterback Clint Chelf, three of their top four receivers and two starting offensive linemen. Florida State, meanwhile, could return as many as 14 of its 22 starters — headlined by Winston — depending on which underclassmen declare early for the NFL Draft.
But Holder sees the big-picture benefits of playing such a premier game on college football's opening weekend.
The Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, of course, is prime recruiting ground for OSU athletes and general students and home to a big alumni base. The trip is an easy drive for fans who live in Oklahoma. The game will garner tons of national attention and television eyeballs, which will be exposed to the OSU logo for the better part of four hours, even if they originally tuned in to watch the Seminoles.
And the contest is, simply, a compliment to the Cowboy football program.
“(These games are) only by invitation, and 10 years ago, we wouldn't have been getting these invitations,” Holder said. “So it's flattering to be asked. I think it's important to accept some of the invitations, or you may find that you're no longer asked.”
Holder admits playing these types of neutral-site games two years in a row is a bit more than he had anticipated. Cowboy coach Mike Gundy has also consistently and publicly voiced his opinion that he wants to play the easiest nonconference schedule possible.
But with the College Football Playoff on the way next season — and a committee deciding which schools get into the four-team tournament — Holder said OSU has decided to be “a little more aggressive” with its nonconference scheduling.
OSU recently scheduled home-and-home series with Pittsburgh (Stillwater in 2016, Pittsburgh in 2017) and Boise State (Stillwater in 2018, Boise in 2021). That's the way Holder prefers it — getting some of those bigger opponents to Stillwater.
But Holder is on board with the occasional neutral-site game against a big-time opponent.
He's confident OSU players woke up Tuesday excited about their season opener, and that the motivation will carry through offseason training and fall camp. He expects Cowboy fans to show up in droves at AT&T Stadium. He views the game as an immediate gauge for an OSU program that wants to consistently compete with the best teams in the country.
So no regrets for Holder as he watched Florida State hoist the crystal football Saturday.
He was rooting for the Seminoles, after all.
“I liked the idea (of opening the season with them) in 2012,” Holder said. “I like it even more now.”