Bring on ’Bama? Oklahoma State football searching for a new opponent to open the season

Jason Elmquist/Stillwater News Press Oklahoma State football coach Mike Gundy is in search of a new opponent for the season opener following Friday’s news from the Pac-12 that the league would switch to a conference-only format for fall sports – effectively canceling the Cowboys’ home game against Oregon State orginally scheduled for Sept. 3.

Oklahoma State football is searching for a new opponent to open the season, and the options are slim.

In a Friday night news dump, the Pac-12 Conference announced its football teams would be playing a conference-only slate of games – with no word of it being the original nine conference games only, or expanding to 12 conference games. And with that news, Oklahoma State now knows less than two months out from the expected start to the season that Oregon State will not be in Stillwater for a Thursday night primetime affair.

“With (Oregon State) having been slated to visit us this season, the (Pac-12) decision to play only conference games has an obvious impact on our home football schedule. We will explore our options and communicate with our season ticket holders in the coming days,” a tweet from Oklahoma State Athletics read Friday night.

As of Friday evening, only the Big Ten and Pac-12 conferences had announced plans to cancel non-conference football games, with the mixed reports from the ACC – that it would follow suit, along with a report that it won’t make a decision until late July.

The only leagues yet to show no cracks as the season swiftly approaches is the Big 12 Conference and the SEC.

If the Big 12 and SEC were to stand their ground with maintaining original plans to play non-conference contests, it would make sense that the teams from either of the two conferences could rely on one another to fill those gaps in the schedule.

None of the lower-level FBS conferences have switched to a league-based schedule – though that may largely be due to so many of the programs in Group of 5 and below relying on the massive payouts guaranteed to go lose to a Power 5 team. However, dipping into those leagues could prove more costly.

If Oklahoma State were wanting to keep with a regional opponent – like a North Texas (which is due to host Houston Baptist) or an Arkansas State (scheduled to travel to Memphis) – the athletic program would likely be out even more money. The department would likely have to cover the cost of a potential buyout for those contracted games, on top of paying the teams to then travel to Stillwater – with no guarantees of recouping that money via ticket or concession sales if there are limited or no fans allowed into Boone Pickens Stadium.

Instead, the smart move for Oklahoma State would be to search for a team that is like them, suddenly lost in the wilderness of the pandemic searching for a new Week 1 opponent.

That’s where pairing up with the SEC could benefit the Big 12 and Oklahoma State.

With the news out of the Pac-12, the league’s flagship program finds itself in the same boat as the Pokes.

Alabama was due to travel to Arlington, Texas, for the season opener to take on Southern Cal at AT&T Stadium.

That’s now a no-go.

The perfect plug into the first leaking hole of the 2020 football season would be to slot Oklahoma State into that game.

If fans were to be allowed in (even at limited capacity), it would be an easy turnout for Cowboy fans. And more importantly, it would likely still be a top 20 matchup that ABC, ESPN or FOX would fight for rights to air in the opening weekend after six months with no college sports.

There would obviously be several hangups – beyond the ebb and flow of the pandemic and shifting scheduling – to reach that point, though.

On Oklahoma State’s end, it would be losing a home game – and thus a loss of local revenue to the economy. Then there is Mike Gundy’s preference for a softer non-conference schedule – since the 2014 season in which OSU played at AT&T Stadium vs. defending national champion Florida State, the combined end of year record of non-conference opponents is 82-99 (with only the 2016 Pittsburgh and 2018 Boise State teams finishing with at least eight wins or more).

From Alabama’s standpoint, the Crimson Tide could elect to stick around in Tuscaloosa – a community that would reportedly lose $2 billion if the college football season is completely canceled – for the season opener, and could afford to pay the buyout and contract costs for a new lower-level opponent. While it may not be as appealing of a matchup for TV, any game featuring Alabama will draw eyes – and if they are able to have fans, would offset any costs as opposed to playing at a neutral site.

We are still far from having a clear picture of how schedules could shape up – or if there will even be college football – but Oklahoma State doesn’t have the luxury to just sit on its hands and ride this out.

Gundy and Mike Holder and/or Chad Wieberg must begin reaching out to potential suiters – if they didn’t already when reports began surfacing Thursday – to fill the hole with the Big 12 standing on its perch, waiting to make a final decision.

And the league should be waiting, longer than any other conference, because if every Power 5 league elects to go with a conference-only approach, and elect to still play 12 games (all in conference), well then the Big 12 is left out in the wilderness even colder as it doesn’t have that luxury, either.

Jason Elmquist is sports editor of The Stillwater News Press. He can be contacted at jelmquist@stwnewspress.com.

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