The turnaround tale of the Oklahoma State football program has been a seven-year journey under coach Mike Gundy. All that is missing is the storybook ending to the final chapter.
The Cowboys can write that tonight, when No. 3 OSU (10-1, 7-1 in Big 12) meets No. 10 Oklahoma (9-2, 7-2) in a winner-take-all battle to determine which team heads to the Fiesta Bowl in the role of conference champion.
For the Cowboys, a victory would mark the school's first outright conference championship since joining the Big Eight, a predecessor of the Big 12, for the 1960 season. Gundy, a former OSU quarterback who has led the Cowboys to 39 victories the past four seasons, understands how significant a triumph tonight in Stillwater, Okla., would be for title-starved Cowboys' fans.
"It would be nice for our team to go out and play well and ... accomplish something that's never been done here in football," Gundy said. "The players are aware of that. The coaches are aware of that."
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They're also aware OSU stumbled in this same spot last season, falling to the Sooners 47-41 and creating a three-way tie for the Big 12 South Division title. Oklahoma won the tie-breaker and went on to win the conference championship.
Technically, the Cowboys already have wrapped up a piece of the school's first conference title since 1976, when OSU shared the Big Eight crown with Oklahoma and Colorado. But a loss would send OU, rather than OSU, to the Fiesta Bowl as the Big 12 champ if the Sooners prevail for the ninth consecutive season in a series OU has dominated by an 81-17-7 margin.
To become the stand-alone Big 12 champion, and to keep alive its longshot hopes in the national title race, Oklahoma State must rebound from a 37-31 loss to Iowa State in its last outing and beat the Sooners.
At this point, the Big 12 title trumps any BCS dreams for OSU.
"That's everyone's goal," said quarterback Brandon Weeden, a senior who has a 21-3 record as the Cowboys' starter. "Last year, we accomplished some things we had never done here at Oklahoma State. We can take it a step farther this year and win a conference championship. All we can control is winning."
Winning, in all likelihood, would not be enough to propel OSU past No. 2 Alabama (11-1) in the BCS national title chase. Especially after Gundy acknowledged earlier this week that, if he had a ballot, he would have voted Alabama at No. 2 in this week's coaches poll -- with his own team at No. 3 -- because the Crimson Tide's lone loss came in overtime against No. 1 LSU (12-0).
Gundy reserved the right to rethink his position if OSU winds up winning the Big 12 title because Alabama cannot win the SEC.
"I like our football team," Gundy said. "On any given day on any site in the country, we can play with anyone in the country. I don't doubt that for one second. I just think we need to prepare and do the best we can to win this game and then move forward from that point on."
What would an outright conference title mean to these Cowboys? Everything, said running back Jeremy Smith.
"That's what we really want," Smith said. "We want the ring that says, 'Oklahoma State, Big 12 champions.' And not share it."
With a win tonight, they'll get those rings. And they would become the first team in school history to earn them.
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Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760