October 20, 2011
• How they got here. By fulfilling their promise to pass forever. The Cowboys and Sooners both operate at a relentless pace offensively — they both get off upwards of 80 plays per game — and most of that energy is expended on getting the ball in the air as often as possible: Both offenses rank among the top five nationally in passing and total yards and among the top six in scoring; Oklahoma State is No. 2 on all counts, and has shown no sign whatsoever of slowing down under new offensive coordinator Todd Monken. So far, the Cowboys' numbers are slightly up from the record-breaking onslaught that made his predecessor, Dana Holgorsen, one of the hottest coaching commodities in the country last year.
With all that firepower, the defenses tend to get treated as window dressing, but both have delivered in big road tests when the offenses ran into resistance: At Florida State, Oklahoma had six sacks, forced three turnovers and held the Seminoles to a single, fluky touchdown in a 23-13 slugfest; a week later, Oklahoma State came up with four turnovers and held Texas A&M scoreless for the first 27 minutes of the second half en route to a come-from-behind, 30-29 escape from College Station. No other opponent has come within ten points of either.
• The Big One. The season-ending rivalry match has had BCS implications of varying degrees each of the last three years, including last year's winner-take-all showdown for first place in the Big 12 South. But outside of Oklahoma State's frequent turns in the spoiler role, "Bedlam" has never had anything like the potential hype or consequences of this year's showdown on Dec. 3, where both teams figure to come in at 11-0 and — with the demise of the Big 12 Championship Game — automatic passage to the BCS Championship Game will be explicitly up for grabs. As long as the polls continue to prefer the Sooners and Cowboys to the unbeaten frontrunners in the ACC (Clemson), Big Ten (Wisconsin) and Pac-12 (Stanford), OU-OSU shapes up as a de facto semifinal to send the winner on to New Orleans to play the winner of the other semifinal, LSU at Alabama on Nov. 5.
• Traps and other caveats. To get there, both teams have to deal with a pair of dangerous road trips that have swallowed up more ambitious contenders before them: Oklahoma State is at Missouri this weekend and gets Texas Tech in Lubbock in November; in the meantime, Oklahoma will serve as a program-defining target for upstarts at Kansas State and Baylor. That's certainly no secret to the Sooners, who have been knocked out of the top five by a double-digit underdog eight times in the last ten years.
• Why they'll make it to Dec. 3 unscathed. Obviously, both offenses can score with anyone. Quarterbacks Brandon Weeden and Landry Jones are well on their way to Manhattan (New York, not Kansas) as Heisman finalists, and receivers Justin Blackmon and Ryan Broyles are bound for the record books as two of the most prolific receivers in NCAA history. The respective offensive lines have more than 200 career starts between them and have kept Weeden and Jones among the most well-protected passers in the country. The supporting cast — Joseph Randle, Dominique Whaley, Kenny Stills, Hubert Anyiam, Jaz Reynolds, Joshua Cooper — could all be stars in most other places.
Of their three common opponents between now and Dec. 3, Kansas State is woefully short of the necessary firepower to compete, and Baylor and Texas Tech are woefully short of the defense. The toughest remaining test on either schedule, Texas A&M, has to play at Oklahoma, where the Sooners haven't lost a Big 12 game since 2001 and haven't lost to anyone since the first game of 2005.
• Why they won't. Oklahoma State's defense has the misfortune of playing opposite an offense that keeps it on the field for more plays than almost any other, but that doesn't excuse its current standing in the national rankings — 80th against the run, 100th in total yards — or the fact that it's given up at least 26 points in every game but one. And Arizona rang up 443 total yards in that one. The Cowboys have covered up a lot of those deficiencies so far with an aggressive takeaway rate. But live by the shootout, die by the shootout, and Missouri, Baylor and Texas Tech are all showing up heavily armed.
Oklahoma's D hasn't been nearly so generous (the Sooners lead the Big 12 in every major defensive category), but it has shown some vulnerability against the run, and the historical inconsistency away from home remains.
• Odds of the Bedlam winner making the BCS title game: 4 in 5. Unless the team is Boise State playing Boise State's schedule, backing any team to win five games in a row to close out an 11-0 run is a gamble; backing two teams to pull it off is a sucker's bet every time. But the Cowboys and Sooners should both be double-digit favorites in every game they play from here on. Their toughest road dates — at Florida State and Texas A&M, respectively — are behind them. Their forthcoming road dates are all against upstarts in not-so-intimidating venues who should be easily overmatched. With these offenses, a bad quarter or even a bad half can be erased in a blink, as we've already seen in both cases.
The way the dominoes are set up after the first edition of the BCS standings, there's virtually no chance of getting jumped by any of the undefeated teams immediately behind them. It's only a matter of whether they can keep them from falling out of line until the final showdown.