STILLWATER, Okla. (AP) — In more than a century's worth of Bedlam games, the stakes have never been higher for Oklahoma State.
The Cowboys (10-1, 7-1 Big 12) are No. 3, matching their highest ranking ever heading into the annual rivalry game against No. 13 Oklahoma (9-2, 6-2), and they still have an outside chance at getting into the national championship game with an impressive win Saturday night.
At the least, the in-state showdown is a substitute for the Big 12 championship game, which went away when the league shrank to 10 teams this year.
The Sooners will be attempting to win their eighth Big 12 crown, by far the most in the league's 16-year history. Oklahoma State is after its first outright conference title since 1948.
"We know we have a lot at stake and it's going to be a fun challenge down there," Oklahoma cornerback Demontre Hurst said. "Going down there to their place, playing against one of our biggest rivals, going on the road, trying to defend the Big 12 title again, there's a lot going on. It's exciting."
To earn a shot at its first national championship, Oklahoma State will have to put together a strong case against a Sooners team that has won eight straight Bedlam games and is 81-17-7 in the series — with one of the losses coming by forfeit.
The Cowboys are third in the BCS standings, but must make up the most ground on top-ranked LSU and No. 2 Alabama in the human polls. They're ranked fifth in the coaches and Harris polls, and — unlike the idle Crimson Tide — have one last chance to make an impression before ballots are due.
"The way I look at it is that if we go out and play well enough and win the football game, then somebody's going to have to make a decision based on it," OSU coach Mike Gundy said. "And if it's actually going to happen the way it should, that decision's going to be made after we play Oklahoma. So, it really doesn't matter what I say."
It does matter what the Cowboys do.
They bring in the nation's second-rated passing offense, averaging 401.6 yards per game behind quarterback Brandon Weeden and All-American receiver Justin Blackmon. That strength will go up against what has been Oklahoma's weakness, a pass defense that allowed 452 yards through the air in a loss to Texas Tech and 485 yards passing in a loss at Baylor.
The Sooners are determined to prevent that from happening again — particularly with their own chances to win a conference title and play in a BCS bowl hanging in the balance.
"I do feel like you can play with a chip on your shoulder. You just can't be mad at the world about it," safety Aaron Colvin said. "You still have to understand what you came to do and what the coaches have been telling you all week and just trust your instincts."
"We've learned lessons but, at the same time, we knew what we were doing wrong," he added.
It will be the third straight year that Oklahoma State carries the higher ranking into Bedlam, but the Sooners still won the last two years — costing the Cowboys a chance at an at-large BCS bowl two years ago and the Big 12 South title last year. OSU is trying to prove it's even better this season, carrying its highest Bedlam ranking since the No. 3 'Pokes lost to the No. 2 Sooners back in 1984.
"Even though they're ranked higher, I don't think that they've proven that they're that much better of a team and that we're an underdog or anything," Oklahoma center Ben Habern said. "I think we're evenly matched. No matter what, we could both be unranked and I think both teams are going to come to play and it's always a shootout when we go out there."
Oklahoma State players have been wearing a black wristband this season that serves as a reminder of a missed opportunity last season, when they gave up two touchdown passes of over 75 yards in the final 3:03 and lost 47-41. They'll get a second chance, and it's even at home for the second straight year due to a rearranged conference schedule brought on when Nebraska and Colorado left the Big 12.
"It's a great situation to be in," Weeden said. "Not a lot of teams are in this situation and we have to be thankful that we are, and we have to take advantage of it."
There's no guarantee that the Cowboys can leapfrog either of the two teams in front of them in the BCS standings, and Gundy may not have helped their case by saying this week that even he considers LSU and Alabama the best teams in the country, at least for now.
With a win, he may change his tune and offer reminders that the Cowboys would then have five wins against the Top 25 teams in the BCS — compared with two for Alabama — and they would be conference champions, unlike the Tide.
But none of that means anything if Oklahoma State can't prove it's the best team in its own state.
"If we take care of business this weekend, all of that stuff will fall into place. We're not looking ahead or anything," cornerback Brodrick Brown said.
"It's time to break that little tradition, losing to them eight years in a row," he added.