When Oklahoma players ran grueling, sweaty, stadium steps this summer, waiting atop Owen Field was a Florida State football helmet.
OU coaches and players say they're treating every game the same. The season opener against Tulsa is their primary focus.
But touching the stadium wall above the gold helmet with the red-and-white arrow was a constant reminder a top 10 showdown with the Seminoles has added significance.
In fact, the Sooners' trip to Tallahassee Sept. 17 is the biggest nonconference game in the Bob Stoops era.
Ranked No. 1 in the coaches' preseason poll, Oklahoma's visit to Florida State will be a barometer whether the Sooners can make a run at their first national title since 2000.
Oklahoma's season opener against Tulsa is three weeks away. But it's the second game a month from now at Doak Campbell Stadium that has fans and the national media buzzing.
“When we played at Miami, that game was crazy,” said punter Tress Way. “But this hands down will be one of my favorite games. We're ranked No. 1. They're in the top 10. That game will be nuts. And let's face it, they'll be a little mad about last year.”
Neither side has said anything too inflammatory. A couple of FSU players have been quoted saying last year's 47-17 loss in Norman serves as motivation.
“You never want to get blown out by somebody at their house,” FSU quarterback EJ Manuel was quoted. “It was a terrible feeling on the plane ride coming home. But we've watched a lot of film on it and we feel pretty good about it.
“We're a year older, which is going to be great for us. We had a good team last year, but we're really good now. Them coming to our house, it's going to be a little different.”
FSU defensive end Brandon Jenkins said: “It's a statement game. We can't come out empty-handed. We're excited.”
It's also a statement game for the Sooners. Only twice has OU played a nationally ranked nonconference team on the road under Stoops.
Both were agonizing losses, a 21-20 loss at No. 9 Miami two years ago and the controversial 34-33 loss at No. 18 Oregon five years ago.
And don't place too much weight on last year's blowout.
Yes, the Sooners shredded FSU's defense for 487 yards and 28 first downs. But it was early in the season in a new 4-3 scheme installed by defensive coordinator Mark Stoops, Bob's brother. This year, FSU is projected to have one of the nation's top defenses.
After the Norman Nightmare, FSU regrouped to finish 10-4, highlighted by wins over Miami, Clemson and Florida. The Seminoles capped the season with a Peach Bowl win over South Carolina, a game Manuel played the second half after Christian Ponder left with a concussion.
And OU's recent track record in road rematches is spotty.
Nine times since 2003, the Sooners have routed an opponent at home but lost a road rematch.
Last year Texas A&M upset the Sooners after being dominated 65-10 two years ago in Norman. There have been similar scenarios against Miami, Nebraska, UCLA, Oregon, Colorado and Texas Tech.
“(Florida State) played a lot better later in the year,” said OU quarterback Landry Jones. “They had new coaches, a new defensive scheme. Just playing in it for an entire year, they're going to be an entirely different team than they were last year.”
OU coach Bob Stoops preaches one-game-at-a-time but has a knack for big games, going 40-16 against nationally ranked teams.
“We've looked at some FSU things, some things that have been said,” Stoops said. “We're very aware of what's in front of us.”
The Sooners have played several big-name nonconference opponents: Notre Dame. Alabama. UCLA.
But most times, OU has faced those programs when they're down.
Florida State, which signed the nation's No. 1 recruiting class in February, is on its way back up.
The Seminoles are ranked in the top 10 in nearly every preseason poll, the top five in some.
“The Oklahoma game is going to be huge,” Manuel said. “I talked to Landry Jones at the Manning camp. We're both excited. He's excited to come to Tallahassee. ... It's going to be a great one.”
A few quotes from FSU players hit OU's bulletin board last summer.
“One player said he's working out, getting ready for Oklahoma,” Way said. “All I have to say is we're getting ready, too. We know they'll be coming out guns hot.
“Oh my gosh, I can't wait for that game. It will be nuts. I'm the punter and I'll be exhausted just going crazy on the sidelines.”
Oklahoma hasn't won a road game against a top 25 nationally ranked nonconference opponent during the Bob Stoops era. Alabama was ranked No. 26 heading into the 2003 game. Oddly enough, the Crimson Tide rose to No. 21 after losing to OU.
The top five nonconference road wins in the Stoops era:
1. Alabama (2003);20-13
2. Cincinnati (2010);31-29
3. Louisville (1999);42-21
4. Air Force (2001);44-3
5. Tulsa (2007);62-21