STILLWATER, Okla. - After a full offseason of buildup, coach Mike Gundy emerged from Oklahoma State's last season-opening clash with Georgia two years ago and made a sobering proclamation that his Cowboys were 'not ready for the big time.'
So much has changed since Oklahoma State was manhandled in a 35-14 loss between the Hedges, marring its bid for the first marquee road win of the Gundy era. This time around, Gundy's team will take a top 10 ranking into the season for the first time ever and be favored at home against the 13th-ranked Bulldogs, who've lost quarterback Matthew Stafford and tailback Knowshon Moreno to the NFL.
Still, Gundy knew the question was coming: Are the No. 9 Cowboys ready for the big time now?
'I hope so. My only answer would be that we've played some pretty good football teams in the last couple of years since then and either beat 'em or stood toe-to-toe and fought 'til the end,' Gundy said Monday.
'Standing toe-to-toe and fighting to the end is not what we're looking for.'
Since that loss to Georgia, Oklahoma State has emerged on the national scene - primarily because of a 28-23 win at No. 3 Missouri last season. There have been other close calls in big games along the way - two against Texas, one against No. 5 Kansas in 2007 and one against rival Oklahoma last year.
Road games against Texas Tech and the Sooners resulted in lopsided losses in that stretch, too. So, there's still the question of whether Gundy's squad - with its loaded offense and an improving defense coached by new coordinator Bill Young - can take down a traditional SEC powerhouse like the Bulldogs.
'Everything that we've done since we played Georgia has just helped us get more prepared for this game coming up,' linebacker Andre Sexton said. 'We've been put in a lot of situations that we weren't used to in the past, before we played Georgia. Now we've learned from them and we've grown a lot as a team.'
Players admit that Gundy's criticism was appropriate back in 2007. Perrish Cox, who returned kicks against Georgia before becoming a starting cornerback later that season, said the Cowboys weren't focused enough and didn't have enough vocal leaders before facing the Bulldogs the last time.
'After we went into that game, I kind of agree with him. But now, I don't think he would say that right about now,' Cox said. 'We're well-prepared. We work hard every day. We're just ready for that time to get here.'
Receiver Dez Bryant, who made his Oklahoma State debut against Georgia, said he headed in thinking he and his teammates were ready to make a splash. Two years later, the Biletnikoff Award finalist realizes how much room the Cowboys had to grow.
'Now I know not only me but the whole team, we're ready. We feel very confident going into this game,' Bryant said. 'We've busted our butts each and every day in the summer. We've been focused and looking forward to this game.'
In an attempt to get his players more focused on the game, Gundy closed off interviews with the media for 12 days prior to Monday. He said he thought questions were getting repetitive and players were getting fatigued by the attention, which included the first Sports Illustrated cover in school history.
Gundy acknowledged noticing how excitement is building in the community before the Cowboys play a Top 25 opponent at home in their season opener for only the second time in school history. The other was a 64-21 loss to No. 2 Nebraska in 1995.
In that kind of atmosphere, Gundy wants to make sure his players are keeping the right mindset.
'At some point, you may put too much pressure on yourself as a player or a coach and you're not going to be any good anyway. You can't do anything because you're so tight, you can't think and have fun,' Gundy said. 'TV and money and BCS games and bowl games and everything has gotten so big in this profession, I think there's probably too much pressure put on the players and then it trickles over to the coaches.'
That doesn't mean Gundy is trying to downplay what's at stake, considering that a win Saturday would rank among the most significant ever for OSU.
'Tradition takes a long time, but it has to start somewhere and I think that this group of seniors has started that,' Gundy said. 'I think over the last few years that most of the teams that we've played realize that if we take care of the football and play hard, we can beat them. Doesn't make any difference who it is, or where.'
SideBar: Georgia at Oklahoma State
· When: 3:30 p.m. Saturday
· Where: Stillwater, Okla.
· TV/Radio: ABC/750-AM