ARLINGTON, Texas — Oklahoma State is about to play in the Big 12 Championship Game for the second time in three years.
It’s been three years since OU made the title game.
It’s been five years since Texas did.
What’s more, no program in the league besides OSU has made the football title game more than once this decade. In a conference that has become all about parity, the Cowboys have broken through to the top of the heap twice.
That bodes well for the future — and I don’t necessarily mean Saturday morning at JerryWorld.
No matter what happens in the title game against Texas, OSU is well positioned to be the leader of the new Big 12 pack. OU and Texas are headed to the SEC, as you’ve no doubt heard, and their departure leaves a void in the top spot of the conference’s pecking order. Even when the Sooners and Longhorns haven’t had the best teams, they’ve still cast an outsized shadow on the league. Blueblood brands are just that powerful.
Now other programs have a chance to step into that top spot in the Big 12, and even with BYU, Cincinnati, Houston and UCF joining this year and Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah joining next, OSU is the clear heir apparent.
Of the other programs in the new Big 12 — or should it be new-new? — Kansas State and Utah look to be the most serious challengers.
The Wildcats won the conference crown a year ago, besting eventual national-title-game participant TCU in the Big 12 Championship Game. And in the 2020s, K-State has a 21-14 record in Big 12 play, just behind OU (22-12) and Texas (21-13).
But you know who’s ahead of all of them?
OSU at 24-11.
Like OSU, Utah has made two conference title games in the past three years, winning the Pac-12 crown in 2021 and 2022. The Utes are 23-9 in conference play in the 2020s, second only in the Pac-12 to Oregon (26-7).
There are other schools that might make a run at Big 12 supremacy in the next few years. TCU. Iowa State. Arizona. Colorado. But no program is in a better position than OSU, and that’s the case regardless of what happens Saturday at JerryWorld.
Now, if the Cowboys pull the upset, knock off the Longhorns and secure themselves a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl, that’s another feather in OSU’s cap. But the Cowboys’ cap already looks like one of those feather-filled fascinators you see at the Kentucky Derby.
Earlier this week, Cowboy coach Mike Gundy downplayed the off-field importance of the Big 12 title game for the program. He said it might better solidify this year’s recruiting class and would probably make donors and fans and university leaders happy.
“I’m gonna guess there’s a marketing value financially that we’re gonna gain as a university through making the championship game,” he said.
I’m gonna guess Gundy is right about that, but I’m also gonna guess the Cowboys are going to benefit more than he thinks. They will enter the new Big 12 as the de facto leader, the head honcho, the grand poobah. That won’t come with any free wins or comp passes to future Big 12 title games. The Cowboys will have to earn those the same way they’ve earned them in the past.
But everyone would rather start at the front, and heading into next season, that’s where OSU is.
Here are some other nuggets to chew on before OSU-Texas gets under way at 11 a.m. Saturday in the Big 12 Championship Game:
Cowboy(s) to watch: The entire OSU offensive line is on notice because the Cowboys need to run the ball and the Longhorns have been wildly successful at stopping the run. No ’Horn does it better than T’Vondre Sweat, the 6-foot-4, 362-pound defensive tackle. Earlier this week, I had longtime Austin American-Statesman columnists Kirk Bohls and Cedric Golden on my podcast show, and they believe Sweat is the best player on this Texas team, the first defender to hold that top spot since Derrick Johnson (2005). Sweat puts Joe Michalski, Preston Wilson and Co. on notice.
Cowboy newcomer to watch: OSU is going to have to throw the ball a bit to keep the Texas defense honest and the Cowboy offense balanced. Leon Johnson could be a big factor. At 6-foot-5, he will have several inches on defensive backs Jahdae Barron (5-11), Terrance Brooks (6-0) and Ryan Watts (6-3). Exploiting any advantage that Cowboys have will be critical.
Longhorn to watch: Texas quarterback Quinn Ewers struggled mightily against OSU a year ago. He threw 30 incompletions. Yes, 30. He was 19 of 49. Worse for the ’Horns, he threw three picks, the most in a game in his college career. Ewers is much improved this season — he only has five interceptions total — but he has battled injury and is playing without top tailback Jonathon Brooks, who tore his ACL a few weeks ago. Will Ewers be better this time around against the Cowboys?
A familiar face in JerryWorld: There may not be many OSU types who remember Torre Becton, but Texas director of football performance broke into the strength-and-conditioning world in Stillwater. He spent about a year on the Cowboys’ strength staff, joining around the same time Rob Glass moved back to OSU from Florida. Now, Becton is the man charged with getting the Longhorns bigger, faster, stronger.
Cool stat going into the Big 12 title game: Steve Sarkisian has coached teams to wins against some of the biggest names in college football. Alabama. OU. Notre Dame. But the Texas head coach has never beaten OSU. He is 0-2 against the Cowboys.
Something to watch in Arlington: Texas has over 300 yards more on punt returns than its opponents have this season — 380-79. That’s a significant advantage that signifies not only how well the Longhorns return punts but also how well they cover them. Texas allows only 6.1 yards on punt returns while averaging 16.5 yards per return itself. Xavier Worthy leads the way with 358 punt return yards.
Did you know?: Texas’ third-down defense is the best in the nation. Opponents convert only .263 on third down. The Longhorns’ red-zone defense is equally stingy at .688, also first in the nation.
If you go to Arlington … : Leave the rain gear at home. The National Weather Service says it’s going to be mostly sunny and 69, a far cry from what it was a week ago in Stillwater. But even if Arlington would’ve been cold and rainy, the roof on JerryWorld would’ve been closed. I assume it will be, even though there might not be a better day to have it open.
If you don’t go …: Football bonanza! Big 12 title game at 11 a.m.; SEC Championship Game at 3 p.m.; Big Ten and ACC title games at 7 p.m. What a great day to sit in front of the TV and watch good ball.
If I could be in two places: Take me to Atlanta for the SEC title game, Georgia vs. Alabama. Both programs have come back to earth a bit this season, but this still should be a fantastic matchup.
Playing favorites: Even though Texas is the home team for the game, the ’Horns have opted to wear their all-white uniforms. That opens the door to a fun uniform combination for the Cowboys. How about all orange? Helmet, jersey, pants. America’s Brightest Orange on full display.