Mike Gundy was long viewed with a healthy amount of skepticism, to say the least. But now, under Gundy’s guidance, Oklahoma State has risen from afterthought in the Big 12 to national power.
Mike Gundy was long viewed with a healthy amount of skepticism, to say the least.
To some, he was a laughingstock just a few short years ago. The Oklahoma State coach was famous, but not because of his acumen on the sidelines. He was known a whole lot more for his rant aimed at a newspaper columnist who had criticized his quarterback than for anything the Cowboys had done on the field during his tenure.
“Come after me,” he virtually screamed at a press conference on Sept. 22, 2007, after Oklahoma State had beaten Texas Tech. “I’m a man! I’m 40!”
That rant is now an aside.
Gundy gained notoriety for the rant but shortly thereafter started garnering praise for being an offensive wizard. He was still seen as a bit insane, but at least for things he was doing to prepare his team for play rather than a bizarre postgame address -- there was one nationally televised game when the cameras caught Gundy essentially ignoring the game as his defense got torched as he drew up plays for the offense’s next possession.
No one thinks he’s insane anymore. There should be no skeptics left.
Under Gundy’s guidance, Oklahoma State has risen from afterthought in the Big 12 to national power.
With a 41-38 win in overtime on Monday night in the Fiesta Bowl, the Cowboys wrapped up a 12-1 season. They won’t win the national championship, and weren’t given a chance to win the national title because the BCS formula favored Alabama as LSU’s opponent rather than Oklahoma State, but they were every bit as deserving of a shot at the top-ranked Tigers as the Crimson Tide.
While Alabama’s lone loss came against LSU -- in Tuscaloosa -- Oklahoma State’s lone loss came one day after the university’s athletic community suffered the second tragic plane crash in just over a decade with women’s basketball coach Kurt Budke, assistant coach Miranda Serna, the pilot and his wife all killed on Nov. 17. The Cowboys played their lone lackluster game the night of Nov. 18, losing in double-overtime at Iowa State under extenuating circumstances.
Ironically, the man who first gained fame for something borderline insane was a calming influence for his team after the tragedy.
“The plane crash, for the families and people involved, is just tragic, and, honestly, I would have said this no matter the outcome of the game,” Gundy said in his postgame remarks after the loss. “It’s so much more important than this game. These guys wanted to go out and play the best they could for themselves, for us, the fans, and for OSU, and it just didn’t come out in their favor tonight.”
Gundy settled his team after the loss, and the Cowboys got better.
The next time they took the field, they crushed archrival Oklahoma, the team that was No. 1 in all the preseason polls and was supposed to be the one that would break the SEC’s stranglehold on the national title.
Oklahoma State won 44-10 that day, and the 34-point margin of victory was the second-most for the Cowboys in the long history of their annual Bedlam game against the Sooners.
It wasn’t enough to earn them a berth in Tuesday night’s title game, but it was enough to get them a matchup with a Stanford team that was right there alongside Oklahoma State and Alabama with one loss, the Cardinal’s only defeat coming at the hands of eventual Rose Bowl-champion Oregon.
Stanford and Oklahoma State battled deep into the desert night in Arizona, with the Cowboys prevailing.
“I want to dedicate this win to the four victims of the plane crash,” Gundy said after the game. “It meant so much to the Oklahoma State people and to our team and for their families. The players wanted to do it.”
Meanwhile, two-time Biletnikoff Trophy-winning wide receiver Justin Blackmon said, “I do think we have the best team in the nation.”
It’s a far cry from where Oklahoma State was when Gundy took over as head coach. After going 7-5 in 2004 under Les Miles, who moved on to LSU after the season, the Cowboys were just 4-7 under Gundy in 2005.
But all they’ve done since then is get better, culminating in the kind of season that neither Miles nor one-time coach Jimmy Johnson nor any other coach in Oklahoma State history orchestrated.
After 4-7 came back-to-back 7-6 seasons, including 2007 and the rant. That was followed by consecutive 9-4 years, with the Cowboys jumping out to an 8-0 start in 2008 before fading late. Then there was 11-2 last year, with a win over Oklahoma.
And now this year. A 12-1 mark. A win over Stanford in the Fiesta Bowl. No shot at the national title, but an argument for one.
Some may still see the rant in there mind’s eye when they conjure up Mike Gundy. But there’s a whole lot more to the coach that guided his team through the kind of tragedy no leader ever anticipates, and to the best season in the history of his school’s football program.
What We Learned
The Big Ten had a chance to stamp itself as the nation’s best conference on Jan. 2, and blew it.
Teams of course play for themselves in bowls. But while they may not be thinking about anything larger than the game at hand, they’re also playing for conference pride. And though the bowls represent a very small sample size, they’re all there is to ultimately measure one conference against another.
The SEC has deservedly been thought of as the best since the middle of the last decade, and though it has this year’s two best teams -- LSU and Alabama -- it also has an unusually large number of mediocre teams.
The Big Ten, on the other hand, had no great teams this year, but had top-to-bottom depth, and with five games on Jan. 2 -- including three against SEC opponents -- had a chance to take that mythical mantle of best conference.
But instead of winning game after game, the conference lost one after another, ultimately going 1-4.
The Big Ten often struggles in bowl games. Unlike some conferences, it schedules tough opponents in the postseason -- its champion always plays the Pac-12 champion, and the vast majority of its remaining bowl eligible teams are contractually obligated to play either teams from the SEC or Big 12.
There are no patsies from the Big East on the Big Ten’s bowl slate, and only the Big Ten’s eighth team gets an opponent from a non-AQ conference.
It means that Big Ten teams are often heavy underdogs, and the conference’s bowl record often reflects it.
This year, however, the Jan. 2 matchups seemed mostly fair. Only Nebraska, 20th in the BCS Standings, was a vastly outranked by its opponent (ninth-ranked South Carolina). Yet No. 22 Penn State was blown out by No. 19 Houston, 6-6 Ohio State was whipped by 6-6 Florida, the Cornhuskers failed to pull off an upset against the Gamecocks, and 10th-ranked Wisconsin lost a thrilling Rose Bowl to No. 5 Oregon.
Michigan State, ranked 17th, did manage to beat No. 16 Georgia in overtime -- after trailing 16-0 at halftime -- but it was far too little to make any statement about the Big Ten relative to the SEC other than that its still a distant second.
The Big Ten did salvage some pride on Jan. 3 in the Sugar Bowl when Michigan controversially beat Virginia Tech in overtime, but the conference that had a chance to stamp itself the nation’s best with an unusually fair bowl slate failed miserably.
Game of the Week
The season has built to this moment.
Whether you believe LSU should be playing Alabama for the second time or Oklahoma State for the first, whether you believe the BCS is a farce and favor a playoff or like the current way college football crowns its champion, there’s no denying the electricity of a championship game.
And that’s what will take place in The Superdome in New Orleans on Jan. 9, when the Tigers and Crimson Tide will lock up in a rematch of LSU’s 9-6 overtime win at Alabama on Nov. 5.
That game two months ago was all about defense.
The Tide, who have the nation’s best defense by any measure, ranked first in both scoring and yardage, held the Tigers to a mere 239 total yards. The Tigers, meanwhile, who boast the second-ranked defense in both scoring and yardage, held the Tide to just 295 total yards.
The game came down to the feet of kickers Jeremy Shelley and Cade Foster for Alabama, and Drew Alleman for LSU. Shelley and Foster missed a combined four field goals, while Alleman was a perfect 3-for-3.
“I’d be honored to face that team again,” LSU coach Les Miles said after Alleman’s third kick sealed victory.
And that’s exactly what Miles and the Tigers must now do.
It represents just the second time teams that played in the regular season will play in a 1 verses 2 matchup for the national title. The first time was the 1996 season, when Florida State beat Florida in late November but the Gators turned things around and blew out the Seminoles in the Sugar Bowl to become champions.
With more than a month to prepare for the rematch, Florida coach Steve Spurrier overhauled his offense, moving quarterback Danny Wuerfful into the shotgun to negate Florida State’s ferocious pass rush and shocked the Noles, who naturally prepared for the same team they beat once before.
Neither the Tigers nor the Tide have the explosive offensive talent those Gators had in 1996, so there’s not a whole lot the offenses can change schematically to try and be more effective than they were two months ago, but with a month to prepare both will be healthier than they were on Nov. 5, and both will be better versed in the opposition’s ways.
As a result, there should be more scoring than there was two months ago. Not a lot more, but some.
It should again be close, and it should again be ugly.
And unless Alabama blows LSU out, given that the Tigers already beat the Tide on the road, and given that LSU played a vastly tougher schedule than Alabama to get to New Orleans, the Tigers should be ranked No. 1 at the end of the night no matter what happens -- win or lose.
The coaches who vote in the USA Today poll are contractually obligated to select the winner of Tuesday night’s game as national champion, but no one else is, and should LSU lose a close game the voters in the AP Poll could make a strong statement about the stupidity of the BCS by voting the Tigers No. 1 and crowning them co-champions.
Because there’s no playoff and No. 1 is ultimately voted upon rather than won -- even under the BCS rules -- the champion should be the team with the best resume, the team that did the most throughout the entire season rather than on just one night.
That, barring a decisive Alabama win, is LSU, the team that beat Rose Bowl-champion Oregon, Orange Bowl-champion West Virginia, and of course the Tide in Tuscaloosa.
That said, since most AP voters likely won’t stray from convention, the national title is on the line Tuesday night.
The game of the year is at hand.
My Top 10
1. LSU (13-0)
2. Oklahoma State (12-1)
3. Alabama (11-1)
4. Oregon (12-2)
5. Stanford (11-2)
6. Arkansas (10-2)
7. Boise State (12-1)
8. South Carolina (11-2)
9. Michigan (11-2)
10. Kansas State (10-2)
Contact Eric Avidon at 508-626-3809 or firstname.lastname@example.org.