STILLWATER — Among all the optimism and soaring expectations attached to this Oklahoma State football season, a tempering caveat looms.
More specifically, the road schedule: at Tulsa, at Texas A&M, at Texas, at Missouri, at Texas Tech and at Iowa State.
In the era of the Big 12, OSU is a combined 9-23 in those locales and without a winning road record against any of those squads.
Time for a reality check? Maybe.
“It's an extremely difficult schedule,” said Cowboys coach Mike Gundy.
Or maybe not.
Maybe, just maybe, it's time to check the perception of reality.
OSU went undefeated on the road a year ago, winning at Texas and Texas Tech in the process, by 17 points at each place. In fact, the last time the Cowboys visited each of the six stops on this season's schedule, they won.
“We've won road games,” said OSU wide receiver Justin Blackmon.
And it's just that matter-of-fact response, which is common among these Cowboys, that reveals another reality-check factor for the equation: attitudes have swung. These Cowboys have won on the road.
While the most difficult trips out of Stillwater used to end badly for OSU, these Cowboys leaders don't recall them.
“We're going to have to do the same thing we did last year,” said Josh Cooper. “We got a lot of big road wins last year and we've got a lot of big games on the road again this year.
“So we're going to have to come out and do the same thing.”
OK, so it won't be easy.
A&M has emerged as one of the buzz teams of 2011, ranked one spot higher than OSU in The Associated Press' poll at No. 8, returning 18 starters from a team that won six of its last seven games.
Texas stumbled stunningly a year ago, yet can't be counted on to remain in free fall, not with the talent recruited to Austin on an annual basis.
Missouri may face a question mark at quarterback, but the Tigers also boast some 12 players being eyed for the NFL Draft — more than any other program in the Big 12.
Texas Tech is a bit of an enigma, not quite carrying the same bounce-back cred that Mike Leach inspired. Still, the Red Raiders remain dangerous, especially in Lubbock.
And don't dismiss Tulsa or Iowa State. TU, in the week preceding the much-anticipated trip to College Station, stands as a classic trap game. Recent Cyclones squads seem to hold an upset card for at least one team on their schedule.
OSU's season could very well be defined by this five-game stretch stretching from Sept. 17 to Oct. 22: at Tulsa, at A&M, home to face Kansas, at Texas, at Missouri.
“We're going to go through a stretch where there's some good teams we're playing on the road,” Gundy said. “We're going to need to stay healthy and win some games to keep things going.
“That's part of it. When you get to this situation we're in, people expect you to win.”
Cowboys coaches and players included.
An early-October trip to No. 3 Missouri in 2008 may have sent OSU over the hump in road games. After upsets earlier in the day, the Tigers were bound for No. 1 with a win over the Cowboys, but fell 28-23 in a benchmark win for the Pokes.
Since then, OSU is 10-3 in true road games.
The fear is gone.
“Oh, we're confident,” Blackmon said. “We were confident last year. Nothing has changed.”
In the big scheme, much has changed, from the Cowboys' approach to rugged road games to their elevated status as a Big 12 and national contender. As it stands now, OSU figures to have as much talent — if not more — than each of the six road foes it'll face this season.
“We really and truly feel like we have the talent to get it done,” said Cowboys quarterback Brandon Weeden. “There's a lot of tough obstacles in our way as far as our schedule goes, but the pieces of the puzzle are there. We've just got to go out and execute and make plays.
“We've got a lot of players who have been there, so there's not going to be a culture shock.”