Hey, OU! Rest of the Big 12 is catching up

For the past decade, Oklahoma (and, until last year, Texas) had established a stranglehold on the top of the Big 12.

The Sooners won their seventh Big 12 title since 2000 in 2010, but did it after winning a three-team tiebreaker atop the Big 12 South and erasing a 17-point second-quarter deficit in the Big 12 title game.

The two teams that tied Oklahoma for the division title?

Texas A&M, which beat the Sooners by two touchdowns at Kyle Field, and Oklahoma State, which lost a heart-stopper to the Sooners in Stillwater with the South on the line and the Cowboys favored to win.

The result was a three-way tie for first place atop the division, the best finish in Oklahoma State history. Texas A&M was perched atop the division for the first time since 1998, though the Sooners were the league's representative in the title game.

Now, with the Big 12 2011 season set to kick off in two weeks, Oklahoma has company inside the top 10 of the national polls.

"I feel like slowly but surely we are gaining on the tradition-rich schools in this country," Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said of his team.

Gundy isn't emphasizing the comparison to the Sooners, but he's not running from it, either.

"Obviously, there’s always a comparison made to Oklahoma because they’re an hour and 20 minutes down the road and our goal is to win a league championship," Gundy said. "History tells you we have to go through Norman to do that."

The Sooners and Cowboys tangle in the league finale on Dec. 3 in Stillwater, actually. But you get the point.

The Cowboys' rise has been more gradual, never topping the heights of the 11-win season OSU fans celebrated in 2010, and never finishing higher than third in the division in the four seasons under Gundy before the 2009 season, when OSU finished second.

The divisions are gone now, but the growth in the program has remained.

"These guys know how to win," Gundy said. "They’ve won 29 games in three years and so there’s something to be said about players understanding and knowing how to win."

Texas A&M's rise happened over the course of just one half of a season. In two and a half seasons at Texas A&M, coach Mike Sherman carried a 13-18 record, and his Aggies looked headed for another disappointing season in 2010.

Sherman made a switch at quarterback, ripped off a six-game conference winning streak and suddenly had the best season at the program in a decade -- and now the Aggies are knocking on the door of possible membership in the SEC.

"I always feel like competition brings out the best in everybody, and I feel like we have better competition at positions than maybe the first year, when a guy kind of knew he was the starter," Sherman said. "Realistically you say, 'Well, there’s competition,' but maybe there wasn't."

But those six wins instilled in Sherman's players the same sense that Gundy's players have learned over the past three years. And with efforts on the recruiting trail, Sherman has instilled more talent on his depth chart.

"You look around the locker room, you see some guys who can make some plays. I think they have a better belief system, believe that we can win a football game," Sherman said. "And that's real, real important."

Gundy and Sherman have built programs. Sherman's base and resources were greater than Gundy's. But the Cowboys coach drew inspiration from Mike Leach, who spent a decade in Lubbock making sure Texas Tech did things his way and won as a result.

"When I look across the country for someone that took a program from somewhere and built it into a consistent, successful program, he’s a guy that I recognize," Gundy said.

Gundy's "system" encompasses what players do on the field, in the weight room, off the field, in the classroom and in their communities. Older players make sure younger players know what's expected, and the cycle never ends as time passes.

"You have players go out early and go to the NFL and you’re going to have coaches leave to become head coaches and coordinators," Gundy said. "So the basic core unit of what we do here every day has to stay the same. If that stays the same, you’re allowed that flexibility with players and coaches."

Oklahoma State lost lots of star power before the 2010 season and was picked to finish fifth in the division with a new quarterback, no proven receivers and four new offensive linemen.

Gundy credits the unforeseen success to that system taking hold.

"It allows us to perform better than we should when maybe we’re not as talented or we’re not as experienced," he said. "We didn’t have hardly any experience coming back last year, and we stuck with what we believed in, and I am somewhat convinced that that’s the reason we were able to start playing pretty good and have a productive year in somewhat of a rebuilding phase."

The Aggies and Cowboys aren't rebuilding this year. The offseason was all about gearing up for a chase at a league title, a BCS game or more.

Oklahoma opens the season as the nation's No. 1 team, and while the Longhorns are searching for an identity, the Sooners won't have to look far to find a new rival bent on announcing its arrival on the national stage.