Bloodied and unbowed, Oklahoma State has been the Big 12’s best since 2020

Bloodied and unbowed, Oklahoma State has been the Big 12’s best since 2020

OSU football is on the verge of becoming the only Big 12 school to make two conference title games in the last four years.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Nov 24, 2023, 12:00pm CST

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Nov 24, 2023, 12:00pm CST

STILLWATER — Iowa State-OU. OSU-Baylor. Kansas State-Texas Christian. Those are the last three Big 12 Championship Game matchups, and it seems most likely that OSU-Texas will be the latest pairing, barring upsets.

If the Cowboys beat Brigham Young on Saturday at Boone Pickens Stadium, they will make their second Big 12 title game of the Roaring ’20s. And OSU will be the only Big 12 school with more than one appearance in this decade.

Remarkable.

Even though Mike Gundy’s program at times in recent years has seemed like Seinfeld’s Two-Face girlfriend — gorgeous one moment, hideous the next — the Cowboys have been unsinkable.

OSU has withstood the player revolt of 2020 when Gundy was fingered for a lack of connection with his players; the culture breakdown in 2022 that led to four-year quarterback Spencer Sanders and other mainstays bolting the program; and onesided defeats more befitting a perennial Big 12 doormat (Kansas State 48-0 and Kansas 37-16 a year ago, South Alabama 33-7 and Central Florida 45-3 this autumn).

Yet here come the Cowboys, bloodied but unbowed, not necessarily reciting “Invictus,” but certainly portraying it.

It matters not how strait the gate,

“How charged with punishments the scroll,

“I am the master of my fate

“I am the captain of my soul.”

Corny to quote amputee William Ernest Henley a century and a half after he penned his poem from a Scottish infirmary? Sure. 

But it seems we need to get everyone’s attention — perhaps the Cowboys themselves — on how resolute OSU football has become.

A culture crisis. Upside down on the transfer portal. Name/Image/Likeness shortcomings. All in the last 42 months. Yet here come the Cowboys, with heads bandaged and limps noticeable, leading the Big 12 parade.

Lots of talk about which school, if any, eventually will rule the new, 16-team Big 12. Utah certainly is a prime candidate. Arizona has had a breakout team in the final season of the Pac-12. Colorado has Deion. In the legacy Big 12, TCU made the national championship game just 11 months ago, and Kansas State seems to have found divine consistency — the same yesterday, today and forever.

But shouldn’t we go all Sergeant Joe Friday? Just the facts, ma’am. 

Here are the cumulative Big 12 standings of the 2020s: OSU 24-11, OU 22-12, Texas 21-13, Kansas State 21-14, TCU 20-15, Iowa State 19-16, West Virginia 16-18, Texas Tech 16-19, Baylor 15-20, Kansas 8-26.

As an aside, thank you, Big 12, for giving us rip-roaring, never-know-what-you’re-going-to-get, parity-beyond-measure football. Alabama-Georgia and Ohio State-Michigan are battles of titans that are worthy of our time. But you’ve got to sit through a lot of know-what’s-coming football to get there. The Big 12 scripts are Soylent Green or The Usual Suspects. Unpredictability reigns.

The other day, Gundy talked about sitting on the jet, being carried home from Houston or Orlando, watching games, and the scores catching his eye.

By the way, interesting dichotomy, because Brent Venables talked about his flight home from Provo, only he was watching a replay of his own (Sooner) game. Whatever boats your float.

Anyway, Gundy said the scores gave him an epiphany: “If you took the teams that are at the top of our league and gave them one more loss, and took the teams that are in that middle bunch and gave them one more win, you would almost flip spots. That’s how close this league is. 

There’s not much room for error, now. And really, it’s across the country, you’re seeing it.”

And in the Big 12, OSU has navigated that suspense the best. Not by a lot. But by an indefatigable measure.

I know everyone gets tired of hearing about Cowboy culture. But just because it’s over-used in OSU analysis doesn’t mean it’s not a force.

Cowboy tight end Josiah Johnson talked about culture the other day. Johnson is in his first year in Stillwater since transferring from Massachusetts; the Cowboys lost players to the likes of Southern Cal, OU and Wisconsin, they got players from the likes of UMass, Tulsa and George Fox University.

“Coach Gundy is such a great coach,” Johnson said. “Every pregame speech to our meetings during the week, it’s hard not to buy in. All the stuff we have on the walls, all the pictures of past players, you can feel it. Those guys did it right and they did it the Cowboy way. It’s hard not to buy in.

“All my teammates represent that Cowboy culture so well and what it really means to be a Cowboy. It was really easy to see from those role models and buy in. I’ve loved my time here and I love my teammates, so it’s really easy to jump right into it.”

I know, I know. Corny again.

But something is going right in Stillwater. Against all odds.

And now the Cowboys play their home finale against BYU, with a grand opportunity in front of them. OSU can join a rather exclusive club.

Here are the Power Five Conference programs that have made more than one league championship game in the last four seasons: Alabama, Georgia, Clemson, Michigan, Oregon, Utah, USC, Iowa. Ohio State can join the list with a victory over Michigan on Saturday.

That’s the kind of company OSU could be keeping as it transitions to the new-era Big 12, consisting of 16 fairly equitable programs, be it resources or tradition or history.

Before the new Big 12 comes the last vestige of the old Big 12. A conference championship game, which most figured would be OU-Texas but instead could be crashed by Gundy’s two-face football team, bloodied but unbowed, representing what’s best about the Big 12.

 

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Berry Tramel is a 45-year veteran of Oklahoma journalism, having spent 13 years at the Norman Transcript and 32 years at The Oklahoman. He has been named Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. Born and raised in Norman, Tramel grew up reading four newspapers a day and began his career at age 17. His first assignment was the Lexington-Elmore City high school football game, and he’s enjoyed the journey ever since, having covered NBA Finals and Rose Bowls and everything in between. Tramel and his wife, Tricia, were married in 1980 and live in Norman near their daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters. Tramel can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at [email protected].

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