Before sweating BCS fate, Cowboys must finally clear Bedlam hurdle
Mike Gundy won't politick for Oklahoma State until it beats Oklahoma
Even sniffing BCS title game depends on ending eight-year losing streak
Cowboys know how big this game is for rivalry, season, program future
Mike Gundy made waves earlier this week by saying he didn't feel comfortable politicking for his Oklahoma State team in the beauty contest we call the BCS. "Alabama lost to the No. 1 team in the country and Oklahoma State lost to Iowa State," Gundy told reporters at his weekly news conference. "In our situation, if I was doing it fair, I don't think I could put us in front of (Alabama) right now."
That sound you heard was Mack Brown smacking his forehead, and the good folks in the deep South chuckling. (If Gundy doesn't think his team deserves a shot, how can anyone disagree with the LSU-'Bama rematch?) Meanwhile, the concerned Oklahoma State faithful had to be thankful, at least, that Gundy does not have a vote in the USA Today Coaches' Poll.
But if we've learned nothing else over the years, with politicians and football coaches alike, it is to parse phrases. The key part of Gundy's comment came at the very end: "right now." Saturday night, if the Cowboys have beaten Oklahoma, Gundy would make a different statement. "I don't feel comfortable in saying we should have been No. 2 or we should be No. 2 in the next poll," he said, an hour or so after the news conference. "If Oklahoma State takes care of business and wins its next game, then if we need to stand up and say, 'Here's what we think should happen,' that's fine."
If the Cowboys take care of business and beat Oklahoma, Gundy will need to stand up and shout. And he will. And while it's possible he'll look back Sunday evening after the final BCS rankings come out and wonder if a few more voters might have been persuaded if he'd revved up the campaign earlier -- by not politicking for Oklahoma State, he was in effect politicking for Alabama -- let's parse his words again: "If Oklahoma State takes care of business and wins its next game..."
That's the rub. Bedlam.
This isn't about comparing Oklahoma State's résumé to Alabama's. Stewart Mandel has already done it. Others have, too. Alabama fans will shout about the lesser loss. Oklahoma State fans will tout better wins. "If it were me," Oklahoma State quarterback Brandon Weeden said, "I'd go with strength of schedule." And Gundy can say, even now, "that on any given day on any given field ... we're in position to compete with anybody in the country."
Voters in the Harris Poll (like me) and Coaches' Poll (like Les Miles and Nick Saban) will have to vote their consciences. I haven't made up my mind -- why not wait until after the results are in? -- but Oklahoma State would have a decent case for No. 2 if it beats Oklahoma.
That's the reason Gundy isn't on the phone twisting the arms of voters, and using every possible forum to tout his team. "I see that as a distraction right now," he said, and he's probably right.
The Cowboys might have a shot at the BCS Championship Game. They might even deserve it. But unless they beat Oklahoma, the entire argument is wasted air. And in the spirit of a measurement that has recently fallen out of favor in another more storied rivalry, I'd like to inform you that on Saturday, it will have been 3,290 days since the Cowboys won Bedlam.
Oklahoma has won eight straight, including all six since Gundy took over as head coach. Although several games have been hotly contested, and last year's in particular was a classic shootout in Stillwater, Oklahoma State has not beaten its in-state rival since Nov. 30, 2002 under Miles.
Gundy has gradually built Oklahoma State's program, continuing the job Miles began. His goal, "to get Oklahoma State people to where people respected us," has been accomplished. "Not only in Oklahoma, but everyone in the country sees Oklahoma State football is better than ever before," Gundy said. The Cowboys have freaky-fast offense, lavish facilities, wacky uniforms -- all the postmodern requisites to make a leap to college football's elite tier.
"We're on the uphill trend of having a good thing going," Weeden said. "We're doing something special. But there are still steps to go."
They haven't won a conference championship outright in, well, forever. As in, never in modern football. Gundy isn't shy about saying the road goes "through Austin and Norman." The Cowboys have finally conquered Texas. They haven't beaten Oklahoma (which leads the series 82-16-7) since Miles left for Baton Rouge.
"We've been knocking on the door for three or four years now," Gundy said. "At some point we've got to knock that door down."
There's never been a better time. Considering the injuries that have reduced Oklahoma's offense to mortal and an erratic defense that recently was seen chasing Baylor receivers into the end zone, it's not surprising Oklahoma State has been established as a slight favorite at home. Or that the Cowboys know exactly what Bedlam means.
"We know how big this game is for us," junior receiver Justin Blackmon said. "It's the game that's keeping us from reaching our goal."
Of course, the last time we saw the Cowboys, their bid for a perfect season ended in double-overtime at Iowa State. The vibe, according to Blackmon, "was like we kind of ruined the season with one loss." Although it was the kind of November upset college football routinely produces -- or, you could argue, the kind of near-miss that championship teams somehow avoid -- there was more.
Early that morning of Nov. 18, the Cowboys learned of the plane crash that had claimed the lives of women's basketball coach Kurt Budke and assistant coach Miranda Serna. "It wasn't a normal day for us," Blackmon said. "You could tell things were different." As college atmospheres go, Oklahoma State's is particularly closeknit; many of the players knew Budke and Serna and had friends among the women's basketball players. "We'll never know what kind of effect the tragedy had on our game," Gundy said, "and that doesn't matter. There's not two better human beings ... and we lost them. That goes way beyond any football game in my mind."
It should. And no one around the Oklahoma State program is attempting to use the tragedy as an excuse. It's just there, an intangible but very real part of a complicated picture.
Meanwhile, here we are, one Bedlam win away from a big debate. It's interesting to consider how the discussion might be different if, instead of Oklahoma State, Oklahoma or Texas or another established brand name were sitting in the same position, jostling with Alabama. Or if Oklahoma State had already won Bedlam and the Big 12 a time or two in the last few years. This beauty contest is as much about perception -- probably more -- than résumé. Which is the Cowboys need a Bedlam breakthrough, never mind what happens with the voters and what the infernal computers spit out.
When Gundy says the Cowboys could compete with any team, he's right. He already has a good argument to make. But he won't say more until Saturday night, if his team owns Bedlam. Then he'll have plenty of reason -- if not much time -- to politick.