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Oklahoma State is the type of team Texas will need to beat to contend for Big 12 title

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The Horns have lost five straight against the Pokes in Austin and haven’t won against Mike Gundy since 2014.

NCAA Football: Texas at Oklahoma State Rob Ferguson-USA TODAY Sports

To say the Big 12 opener for the Texas Longhorns against the Oklahoma State Cowboys is a must-win may be a bit of a stretch, but not by much.

Sure, what takes place will directly impact what’s arguably the top Texas goal this season of securing the programs first Big 12 title in an entire decade, but Saturday’s showdown is significant for reasons beyond conference standings.

Whether it’s the wins over Oklahoma in last year’s Red River Showdown or Georgia in the Sugar Bowl, or the tightly-contested losses to the Sooners in the Big 12 title game or LSU just weeks ago in Austin, Texas has already proven that it can not only stand toe-to-toe with, but beat the nation’s elite programs — necessary achievements to be considered elite, in its own right.

After struggling to do so on several occasions last season, the Longhorns have also proven capable of completely overmatching and establishing comfortable cushions against weak opponents, such as Louisiana Tech and Rice.

But, throughout the Big 12 slate, not every game will demand the hype, energy, and excitement that go into preparing for Oklahoma, Georgia, or LSU, and save for maybe Kansas, the Longhorns likely won’t be overwhelming favorites against any Big 12 foe, as the league as a whole appears solid entering conference action, boasting a 22-5 record overall.

For Texas to truly take that next step and become what it wants to become, a Big 12 headliner and perennial national power, it will need to prove capable of consistently beating second-tier, fringe-ranked teams, as well, and Oklahoma State is an ideal example of that.

The Pokes, featuring one of the nation’s most prolific offenses and potentially the nation’s top running back and wide receiver in Chuba Hubbard and Tylan Wallace, respectively, pose their own set of problems for the Horns, for obvious reasons. It would be safe to label the Oklahoma State game as a trap game for Texas, but since the Cowboys don’t come with a number next to their name, this matchup is probably being overlooked a bit and maybe not discussed enough as one that the Horns can quite easily lose.

Recent history certainly suggests that to be true, as Texas has dropped four straight games to Oklahoma State, and seven of the last nine meetings, including last season when the Longhorns were also said to be among the nation’s elite, entering Stillwater at 6-1 and No. 6 nationally before heading home with a 38-35 loss. The Horns haven’t beaten the Pokes in Austin in a whole decade.

Another win over Texas is essentially all the Pokes need to climb into the polls, as they’re already receiving votes.

And, Oklahoma State is just one such example on the Texas schedule.

TCU is already ranked, coming in at No. 25, while Kansas State and Iowa State are each receiving votes, as well. Baylor, which also boasts one of the nation’s top offenses thus far, shouldn’t be too far behind.

That’s five of the remaining nine games that will come against formidable competition in which the Longhorns, quite possibly without too much national exposure surrounding each matchup, will need to simply grab their lunch pails and bring a workmanlike mentality to the field. Talent, alone, won’t win these kinds of games, and Texas won’t be able to thrive in a role as an underdog as it has against some of the nation’s elite, given that the Longhorns will almost certainly be favored in each instance, just as they are this weekend against Oklahoma State.

That said, the Longhorns are ranked No. 12 nationally and favored to win for a reason — Texas is the better team, at least on paper. That’s increasingly become the case dating back to last season, and now when paired with the preparation put forth each week, there’s reason for some confidence from Austin.

“The confidence level is as high as it’s been and should be because of how hard and how well these guys have trained,” Texas head coach Tom Herman said on Monday of Texas going from hoping to win last season to expecting to win this season. “The first couple years, there was ‘I think we’re gonna win’ instead of ‘Hey, we’ve put in the work, we’ve had a great week of preparation. We go out and play our best we’re gonna win.’”

If Texas plays its best on Saturday, the Horns will enter their bye week at 3-1 and 1-0 in Big 12 play. But as Herman has said time and time again, Texas’ B-game won’t be good enough. That will be true Saturday, and for several more Saturdays throughout the Big 12 slate — Saturdays when Texas is pitted against a fringe-ranked team that its favored over.

This is unfamiliar territory for this Texas team, and how the Horns handle this test — as well as the several others like it — will largely determine whether or not Texas is contending for a Big 12 title come December.