I have already spent some time this week researching and writing about how I believe the Big XII is a better overall conference than the SEC. Surprisingly, many of our readers did not agree (please take note of the heavy sarcasm). College football fans do not have to wait long to recharge this conference debate, as high rankings and expectations invade Stillwater, Oklahoma Saturday as #13 Georgia visits #9 Oklahoma State in the best game of the upcoming weekend.
This game is important for many reasons. First, one of the biggest stories for college football this season involves which conference is the best conference, and the only two legitimate participants in that debate to begin the season are the SEC and the Big XII. Last season the SEC was a touch better than the Big XII, especially in bowl games as Ole Miss defeated Texas Tech in the Cotton Bowl and, of course, Florida crushed Oklahoma in the BCS national title game. But, 2009 is a new season and fans and pundits alike are focusing on this game as the first impression and benchmark to judge if the balance of power in college football has begun to shift.
But this game is more than just conference versus conference. Each team is also struggling for recognition within their respective divisions and conferences. Georgia is living in the shadow of their cocktail cohorts, Florida. Oklahoma State is overshadowed not only by their intrastate rival Oklahoma, but by virtually every other team in the Big XII South (sorry, Baylor). A win for either team changes the way their opponents and the media perceives them. For Georgia, it would be a significant road win against a tough opponent to start the season. There may be more pressure on Oklahoma State to win this game since it is a home game, and since the Cowboys return a powerhouse trio of skill players in junior wide receiver Dez Bryant, senior quarterback Zac Robinson, and junior running back Kendall Hunter.
While Oklahoma State returns important skill players, Georgia is looking to replace several. Gone are starting quarterback Matthew Stafford and starting tailback Knowshon Moreno. Enter Joe Cox and the oft-injured running back Caleb King battling with the impressive new name running back, Richard Samuel.
In short, Oklahoma State – and by extension the Big XII – is expected to win the first big contest of the season. The most pressure is on the Cowboys, and it is becoming obvious. Head coach Mike Gundy this week banned his players from speaking to the media. While I believe sometimes the media gets more bent out of shape that they should about a coaching decision that limits their access, the story does give some insight into the mindset of the coach steering the program. Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples called Gundy’s decision a “classic pucker move.” The decision places even more public pressure on Gundy. Fans do not mind odd behavior from their coach – as long as the team is winning.
Each team shares the spotlight on the first afternoon of college football in the 2009 season. A win is important for the immediate future of each program. If Oklahoma State wins, they are considered legitimate contenders in the Big XII, and Oklahoma is a little more concerned about Bedlam. If Georgia wins in an upset the team gains much needed confidence, not only in more experienced offensive in defensive lines, but also in a new starting quarterback. Winning an important road game against a major conference opponent is a big deal, and a very good way to start the season.
Each program has the opportunity this Saturday to set the tone for their teams, their conferences, and their seasons. Not only will this be the best game of the weekend, it will be the most interesting when considering the far-ranging conference versus conference implications.