STILLWATER, Okla. – An upside-down season in the Big 12 South has led to one of the most unexpectedly important games in the conference's 15-year history.
When No. 22 Baylor visits No. 19 Oklahoma State on Saturday, the two teams picked to finish at the bottom of the standings will play for first place in the division. It's the first time the teams have ever played with both in the Top 25 and it's a complete reversal in a game that's decided last place in the division four times before.
"Crazy things can happen in college football," Cowboys quarterback Brandon Weeden said. "We knew we were better than fifth in the Big 12 South. That was a no-brainer, and Baylor's doing the same thing. They're having a great year. They've come a long ways."
Oklahoma State's rise has been a steady one. Under Mike Gundy, the Cowboys (7-1, 3-1 Big 12) have increased their conference win total each of the past four seasons. The momentum was expected to stop with the departure of quarterback Zac Robinson, first-round draft picks Russell Okung and Dez Bryant, and nearly all of last year's starters on the offensive line and defense.
Instead, Oklahoma State can do no worse than a share of first place with No. 11 Oklahoma (7-1, 3-1) if it can beat Baylor for a 14th time in 15 meetings as conference rivals.
"The Big 12 South is ever-changing," OSU receiver Isaiah Anderson said. "At any point in time, anybody can be on top. We're just happy that we have the opportunity to take first and be ahead of everybody in our division."
Right now, it's the surprising Bears (7-2, 4-2) in that position after they went on the road to beat Texas last week for their first three-game winning streak in Big 12 play.
Baylor had believed better times were ahead after a strong debut by quarterback Robert Griffin III two seasons ago, but that optimism was cut short last year when he suffered a season-ending knee injury before conference play began. The Bears finished alone in last place for the 11th time in 14 years of Big 12 play.
Either Baylor or Oklahoma State has finished last, or tied for last, in the South every year since the league was formed in 1996.
"Confidence is fragile and needs reassuring and reality. What we're finally getting to deal with is production and reality," Baylor coach Art Briles said. "You can talk about painting a picture, but until you fill the canvas you're not really sure it's ever there. We're signing the picture now."
Griffin ranks third in the nation with 332.6 yards of total offense per game, two spots ahead of Weeden, but he's hardly gotten the Bears to this point by himself. Running back Jay Finley smashed the school's rushing record two weeks ago, and the win over Texas came with safety Byron Landor and punter Derek Epperson being named Big 12 players of the week.
"Right now, we are on top of the Big 12 South and we are planning to stay there," Griffin said. "It is our job to make things happen."
Justin Blackmon, a big part of Oklahoma State's unexpected success while leading the nation in receiving yards and TDs, will be back after serving a one-game suspension for his arrest on an accusation of driving under the influence. The Cowboys, who are tied for third in the nation in scoring average (45.3 ppg), had their lowest point total of the season without him in a 24-14 win at Kansas State last week that helped set up this week's first-of-its-kind showdown.
"I guarantee if you asked them, they would have said that they expected to be here, and we expected to be here as well," Weeden said. "It's going to be a fun game for the fans. I expect the atmosphere here in Stillwater to be pretty electric."