Big 12 football is losing many of its second-tier bulwarks. Nebraska gone, Texas A&M going, Missouri thinking long and hard.
That's bad news for Conference Chaos. But is it bad news for the Oklahoma State Cowboys?
The sixth-ranked Cowboys play at Texas on Saturday, and after OSU beats Bevo's brains out, the Cowboys will have a better Big 12 record than the Longhorns. Over the last five seasons.
Read that again. Starting with the 2007 season, a period in which the 'Horns played for a national title and thought they should have played for another, OSU and Texas have the same conference record, 23-11. State has a better Big 12 record than Missouri, Nebraska, Texas Tech or Texas A&M.
The Cowboys have climbed the Big 12 food chain, and while no one could argue that OSU has caught Texas in status or reputation or championship pedigree, no one could argue that the Cowboys haven't become the league's third-best football program.
And with OSU's chief competitors fleeing like someone opened a sardine can, the Cowboys stand as the league's only legit threat to the Oklahoma/Texas axis. Not just in 2011, but in the coming years of what will be a new-look league.
“We're getting better,” State coach Mike Gundy admitted. “We're getting good players. Started getting a little national publicity. People see us differently than they used to.”
Many things have masked OSU's rise. Lack of a BCS bowl bid. Gundy's rant. The new uniform combinations. The Sooners' mighty shadow. Even Boone Pickens' palatial stadium. Lots of stuff has veered OSU football talk away from OSU football success.
But amid all that background noise, the Cowboys have been recruiting ballplayers and winning games.
“The talent level now is better across the board, in terms of depth,” admitted offensive coordinator Todd Monken, who left OSU after the formative Les Miles seasons (2001-04) and returned only this year.
The Cowboys have star power in 2011. Brandon Weeden. Justin Blackmon. Joe Randle. Markelle Martin. Brodrick Brown.
But the Cowboys of 2002-03, who most assuredly did not rank third on the Big 12 food chain, had star power. Rashaun Woods. Kevin Williams. Tatum Bell. Antonio Smith. Darrent Williams.
Difference is, the Miles Cowboys didn't go 30, 40 deep in terms of quality. The Gundy Cowboys do. Good ballplayers at every position.
And OSU has been winning. A tie with OU and A&M atop the Big 12 South last season. Second place in the South in 2009. Better conference records than Missouri and Nebraska even though the Tigers and Huskers played in the much-softer North.
“It's a nice run,” Monken said. “At this moment. Until you do it over a long, extended period of time…”
But that's the point. OSU has done it over an extended period. Not catch Texas. Not beat Oklahoma. But catch and surpass Nebraska and A&M and Tech and Missouri? Check, check, check, check.
The Cowboys now carry the mantle of bringing parity to the conference. Among the South schools, only OU and Texas have reached the Big 12 title game since A&M did so in 1998. No other school has won the league since Kansas State's 2003 upset of the Sooners.
Even a Big 12 title this season, which would have to include a Bedlam victory, wouldn't elevate the Cowboys from their position on the food chain.
“Can you battle against those people and get players they're recruiting?” Monken asked.
“You've got to do it year after year.”
But year after year success is what got OSU to No. 3. And most of their peers have abandoned ship. The new Big 12 looks awfully promising for the Cowboys.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including AM-640 and FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.
BIG 12 STANDINGS
Cumulative Big 12 standings over the last five seasons:
Oklahoma State 23-11
Texas Tech 20-14
Texas A&M 16-18
Kansas State 14-20
Iowa State 8-26