92F Boone Pickens Stadium, Stillwater, OK
STILLWATER, Okla. (AP) -- On paper, it's one of the biggest mismatches of the college football season.
Playing its first game since winning the Fiesta Bowl and finishing last season with the No. 3 ranking, defending Big 12 champion Oklahoma State will host struggling Savannah State on Saturday night.
It's one of the biggest of the big boys picking a fight with one of the meekest kids in school, with only a $385,000 payday making up for the black eye that's expected to be delivered.
For the 19th-ranked Cowboys, it may be the perfect way to open up the season after losing record-setting quarterback Brandon Weeden and two-time All-American receiver Justin Blackmon in the first round of the NFL draft. Freshman quarterback Wes Lunt will have a seemingly low pressure environment to take his first collegiate snaps and throw passes to a largely unproven receiving corps.
And Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy makes no apologies for the game that serves a purpose for both schools.
The youthful Cowboys get an early tuneup before next week's road trip to Arizona. Savannah State, which has gone just 4-72 against FCS competition over the past 10 years, gets a chance to play one of college football's powers in its first game ever against a Bowl Subdivision opponent and a hefty sum to deposit in its bank account.
"They're going to balance a lot of their budget at that athletic department based on our games. That would be my guess," Gundy said. "But then for us, when they ask me (who to schedule), I say: `I want to play the three easiest teams we can play and then play conference.' That's what I tell them every time."
Gundy says he doesn't exert much control over Oklahoma State's schedule, leaving that to others who have to handle the athletic department budget and deal with the backlash from fans. But he sees no point in going with a more difficult nonconference schedule, particularly since the Big 12 went to playing nine league games last season.
"If you add another heavy hitter, supposedly, that makes it difficult on you because it is what it is: The more of those games you play, the better chance you have of something (bad) happening," Gundy said.
And so, Oklahoma State will start out with what could be nothing more than a glorified scrimmage. With a number of changes most noticeable at quarterback, receiver and on the offensive line, there is something to be gained from getting those first-game jitters out of the way and facing unfriendly competition for the first time.
If all goes as planned, Gundy will face the decision of when enough is enough.
"We've always called off the dogs around here," Gundy said. "We've never kept guys in when we thought the game was under control. ... We'll have to make a decision on if there's guys in the game that need experience and need reps and need to play. As soon as we think that we've accomplished that, we will get them off the field."
Until then, it'll be a showcase for some of the Cowboys' newcomers.
Lunt, who won a three-way competition with J.W. Walsh and Clint Chelf in the spring, is off-limits to reporters, so it has been up to his teammates to discuss how ready he is to take over for Weeden.
"Besides the physical attributes he has, I've seen maturity in three months that people really don't get to see," receiver Charlie Moore said. "I've seen this guy grow up really quick, and I really think he's ready to be a leader. I think he's ready to lead this team."
Gundy said he hasn't held back any of Oklahoma State's offense, although it remains to be seen how many plays get called in the opener. Offensive coordinator Todd Monken said his play-calling will be based on what kind of defense the Tigers deploy, not the inexperience of his quarterback.
"There's a lot of hungry guys on this team. There's a lot of young talent that are ready to prove themselves," said new starting center Evan Epstein. "It's really exciting. It's kind of hard to put into words."
Epstein will be replacing one of four departed starters on the offensive line, and there are newcomers on the defensive front as well after starting ends Jamie Blatnick and Richetti Jones finished their careers. In all, the Cowboys lost players who combined to make 264 receptions for 3,158 yards last season in the nation's No. 2 scoring offense.
So, this isn't a matter of picking up where the team left off - winning the school's first conference title since 1976.
"It's not easy at all because we've got a lot of new players," safety Daytawion Lowe said. "It's really about teaching all the players that didn't play last year what it takes to do that. It's a lot different."
And yet, the Cowboys still see oodles of potential and are pursuing the same goals as a season ago.
"We're always going to want to win the Big 12, we're always going to want to go to a BCS game and win a national championship. That's just the goal," Epstein said. "We play Division I football and that's the top, and we're always going to want to do the best."