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September 3, 2009

Weekend breakdown of the Big 12

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North Dakota State at Iowa State, 8 p.m..
Baylor at Wake Forest, 3:30 p.m.
Georgia at Oklahoma State, 3:30 p.m.
Missouri vs. Illinois at St. Louis, 3:40 p.m.
Northern Colorado at Kansas, 7 p.m.
Florida Atlantic at Nebraska, 7 p.m.
BYU vs. Oklahoma in Arlington, Texas, 7 p.m.
Louisiana-Monroe at Texas, 7 p.m.
New Mexico at Texas A&M, 7 p.m.
North Dakota at Texas Tech, 7 p.m.
Massachusetts at Kansas State, 7 p.m.
Colorado State at Colorado, 7 p.m.
Usually, a song by former Oklahoma State javelin hurler Garth Brooks would suit the musical taste in Stillwater's nightspots. Lately, though, the locals seem to favor "Georgia On My Mind."

From Eskimo Joe's to the Tumbleweed Dance Hall, where Brooks got his start, to Wal-Mart, the hot topic of conversation has been Oklahoma State's season-opening game against Georgia.

"The last four or five weeks, everywhere you go that's all anyone talks about," Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said this week. "My oldest son and I went to Wal-Mart about 9 or 10 at night, and everybody that walked by that's all they were talking about. That's good. There is a lot of excitement in the community.

"It affects you. We've had more coverage and excitement around here than any time I've been around, back to the mid-'80s."

This is the season Stillwater residents have been waiting for since 1988, when Barry Sanders packed up his Heisman Trophy and bolted for the NFL. Boosted by a lethal offense led by quarterback Zac Robinson, tailback Kendall Hunter, wide receiver Dez Bryant and tackle Russell Okung, Oklahoma State is entering a season ranked among the nation's top 10 for the first time in school history.

To sweeten the deal, the Cowboys start against a bona-fide power from the mighty SEC. The 13th-ranked Bulldogs have finished in the nation's top 10 five times in the past seven years. They also blasted the Cowboys 35-14 in the season opener just two years ago. But that season, Oklahoma State opened unranked and with no illusions of winning a Big 12 championship. So much more is at stake now.

With victory comes validation and a nod that the Cowboys can be legitimate threats to Oklahoma and Texas in the Big 12 South race. A loss could signal that the Cowboys are grossly overhyped.

Perhaps that's why Gundy closed practices last week.

"They were open 16 days in a row, but the questions became kind of repetitive," Gundy said. "Over and over, it was the same thing. I felt the players were worn out. I felt if we stopped it until the week of the game, it would give the players a chance to stay focused and not get caught up with answering the same questions over and over."

But he could only shield the players for so long. After all, they go to Eskimo Joe's and Wal-Mart, too.

Best matchup: Oklahoma State RB Kendall Hunter vs. Georgia defensive line. Hunter ranked seventh in the nation last season with 1,555 rushing yards. Hunter exceeded 100 yards rushing in nine games and aims to pick up where he left off. Yardage doesn't figure to come easily against Georgia, which last season ranked 27th against the run in '08. With a tackle rotation of Jeff Owens, Geno Atkins and Kade Weston, the Bulldogs won't give up much inside. Meanwhile, LBs Rennie Curran and Darryl Gamble have the speed to run down Hunter on sweeps. If Oklahoma State's running game is consistently successful, look for the Cowboys to have a big offensive game. But if Georgia can force obvious passing situations, the Cowboys could struggle.

Player on the spot: Baylor QB Robert Griffin. The locals in Waco are talking confidently that this is the season Baylor reaches a bowl for the first time since 1994. The Bears likely will be as good as Griffin can make them. He'll need to lead Baylor to victories in all the games the Bears have a realistic chance. The opener at Wake Forest would apply. Griffin struggled against the Deacons last season, but that was in his first college action. And this season's Wake Forest defense doesn't project to be as strong as last season's unit, which ranked among the top 20 in the country.

Numbers game: Senior Brody Eldridge, a former tight end and fullback who was named Oklahoma's starting center, will wear No. 50 in the Sooners' opener against BYU. But his old No. 83 jersey will be on hand, too, in case OU coach Bob Stoops opts to use him at a different position during the game. ... No Texas A&M player has posted a double-digit sack total since Jarrod Penright had 10 in 2002. The Aggies are hopeful junior Von Miller, who plays A&M's hybrid "Jack" position (end/outside linebacker), can change that. Miller had 3.5 sacks last season, and the Aggies open against New Mexico.

What they're saying:

"He'll be OK. I'm more concerned with the guys around him." - Missouri coach Gary Pinkel on quarterback Blaine Gabbert to PowerMizzou.com

"I mean, it's always better to be on the field, but I have to be ready in case anything happens to Jerrod, so I can't be getting banged up at receiver." - Texas A&M backup QB Ryan Tannehill during the weekly news conference. Tannehill moved fulltime to quarterback after leading the team in receptions last season as a wide receiver.

"We are kind of like caged animals right now. Everyone is ready to be released. We are the most excited team in the country right now. Everyone is just anxious and ready to go, but you know when it comes time, I think we have to kind of control that rage." - Texas Tech offensive tackle Brandon Carter at a weekly news conference.

"If you look around, you wonder why don't you have [Texas coach] Mack Brown saying something like that, or [Oklahoma coach] Bob Stoops. One, probably because they're already winning 10 games. Two, because it's expected. It's unspoken and they expect to win that many games. I think Coach [Dan] Hawkins put it out there to us like, 'Why don't you have the same mentality?' And we do. We feel like we're this close to turning the corner. There's no excuses for not doing so." - Colorado LB Marcus Burton, on coach Dan Hawkins' edict for the Buffs to post 10 wins this season.

Etc.: There could be some drama leading up to the Georgia-Oklahoma State tilt. It appears Bulldogs QB Joe Cox has been suffering from the flu. He is expected to play, but his health could be a concern. ... Kansas State coach Bill Snyder named Carson Coffman as the Wildcats' starting quarterback. Junior Daniel Thomas will start at running back. ... Oklahoma State TE Jamal Mosley, a projected starter, has left the team for what was termed "personal reasons." ... Kansas WR Dezmon Briscoe enters the season with four consecutive 100-yard receiving games. He needs one 100-yard game to tie for first on KU's career list of 100-yard receiving games with eight. ... Colorado sophomore offensive lineman Sione Tau has been suspended for the season for violating team rules. ... FS James Smith, Iowa State's leading tackler in '08, isn't listed as a starter for the Cyclones' season-opener against North Dakota State. He's been hampered by a strained calf and isn't at full speed. ... Oklahoma backup LB Mike Balogun won't travel with the team for the game against BYU in Arlington, Texas. His eligibility is in question and the NCAA hasn't ruled on his status yet. ... Texas has won 10 of 11 season openers during coach Mack Brown's tenure. The average score in those openers was 47-9. Texas, which has scored at least 60 points four times, opens against Louisiana-Monroe. ... Missouri starting OT Dan Hoch sprained his knee two weeks ago but has made significant improvement and is expected to play against Illinois.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.

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