Just call this one the Disrespect Bowl.
No. 21 Baylor and No. 17 Oklahoma State have flipped the Big 12's preseason media poll upside down. First-place Baylor (4-1 in conference) was picked sixth in the preseason, and Oklahoma State, tied for second at 3-1, was picked fifth.
"The parity in college football and in our league play is increasing and I think it’s going to level itself out more over the years to come, with us being in a league where we all play each other," said Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy.
He coaches a team that lost the school's all-time leader in total offense, quarterback Zac Robinson, along with a first-round pick in receiver Dez Bryant. Four offensive linemen and seven defenders also didn't return.
Yet here they are.
While Texas' attempt to establish a power running game floundered, the Cowboys' shift to Dana Holgorsen's Air Raid has flourished. No proven receivers and a first-year quarterback? Receiver Justin Blackmon and quarterback Brandon Weeden have emerged as two of the league's newest stars, both near the top of the nation statistically at their respective positions. Running back Kendall Hunter is even better than his All-American 2008 self, ranking third nationally in rushing yards and on track to speed past his 1,555 yards as a sophomore. Hunter has 1,174 yards through eight games as a senior.
"When you can use the length of the field the way teams do now, it allows players that may not be as big or as fast as other players, to have an opportunity to have success, to make plays with the ball in their hand and compared to years ago, when the game was played in between the hash marks. And so, the bigger and stronger opponent had an advantage," Gundy said. "Now, the game is played sideline to sideline, and so there are other teams that may have other players that may not be as athletic as the other schools, traditional schools, but they still have enough of an opportunity to make plays and score points and win games."
Baylor's 7-2 start overall is the product of a rebuilding (or, perhaps more accurately, building) project in its third year under Art Briles, centered around a transcendent talent in Robert Griffin III, who has reassumed his position as one of the league's premier stars after missing most of 2009 with a torn ACL. He's showcased a passing talent far surpassing what he had as a freshman in 2008, racking up 2,592 yards through the air, second-most nationally, though he's played nine games to others' eight.
"It’s just one of those deals, the old cliché: Any given Saturday. You used to have your tongue in your cheek when you said it. But now, it’s very much a reality," Briles said.
Baylor began the year with realistic bowl hopes that have blossomed into a realistic chance to win the division after clinching the program's first winning season in 15 years with a 30-22 victory over Texas in Austin.
Oklahoma State began 2010 as a season stamped "Rebuilding" by those on the outside. It appeared to be an imminent fall from a 9-3 season in 2009, when the Cowboys were a win over Oklahoma away from reaching a BCS bowl, and finished second in the South.
Both have reached the top with offenses that rank in the top 10 nationally, spurred by elite talents like Blackmon and Griffin. Neither defense ranks inside the top 75 nationally.
Oregon and Auburn (35th and 57th in total defense) sit atop the polls as the favorites to appear in the national title game.
Like the Ducks and Tigers, neither Baylor nor Oklahoma State would make the short list of traditional college football powers. For all the talk of defenses winning championships, offenses seem pretty good at taking programs to new levels.
"There’s just a number of players out there with spread offenses and people that can throw and make plays on offense and if you’re not prepared, you take a chance at getting beat on any given Saturday," Gundy said. "So, there’ll be more parity from this point on. I’m convinced that there’ll be teams that can beat schools that traditionally they wouldn’t have thought that they could beat."