STILLWATER, Okla. —Mike Gundy can appreciate all the compliments directed at No. 9 Oklahoma State after it matched the highest preseason ranking in school history.
When he stops by the store, goes out for dinner or walks around campus, he can gauge the level of interest in his program by the increasing number of people he sees wearing the school colors. He sees it, too, in season-ticket sales that could break the school record.
"There's just a lot of excitement and it's a good time to be here," Gundy said. "It can't get any better."
Then, a few moments later, he corrected himself. After setting a school record with 11 wins last season and bringing home Oklahoma State's first share of the Big 12 South Division title, it still can get better for Gundy at the school where he once was the starting quarterback and now is entering his seventh season as coach.
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"I want to win a championship," Gundy said.
More than ever, Gundy can see all of the pieces coming together. Quarterback Brandon Weeden and Biletnikoff Award-winning receiver Justin Blackmon bypassed a shot at the NFL to return for another season, and Gundy considers the group that surrounds them to be the deepest during his time in charge of the Cowboys.
"We've had three straight good years and continue to get better players. The facilities continue to get better," Weeden said. "Everything's on the up. Nothing's going down."
Oklahoma State has yet to see its overall or conference win total decline during Gundy's tenure. He went 4-7 with just one conference win during his debut season in 2005 and has steadily built a program that finished 11-2 overall and 6-2 in the Big 12 last season.
Running back Kendall Hunter and coordinator Dana Holgorsen are the main departures from the offense that finished third in the nation in both scoring and total offense last season, and expectations are running high.
"There's more people than just me and Weeden," Blackmon said. "I know that a lot of people talk about that, but there's way more than just me and Weeden. I think this year a lot of people are going to see, a lot of people are going to be exposed this year and have breakout years."
Gundy said he believes the effect of the hype has been up and down since it started around spring practice in April, and "at some point it kind of fizzles out" before returning again. The main challenge he sees for his players is simply to remain focused on football.
"It's hard to get beyond all the recognition and all the people telling you how good you are in the offseason and those kind of things," new offensive coordinator Todd Monken said. "But ultimately, that's over. Come next Saturday night, we'll make what our season will be this year and last year will be last year."
A year ago, little was expected after heavy turnover included the departure of first-round NFL Draft picks Russell Okung and Dez Bryant plus entrenched starting quarterback Zac Robinson. But their replacements had Oklahoma State in line to play in the Big 12 championship until losing to Oklahoma in the regular-season finale.
This season, they start out ranked ninth for the second time in the program's history, and the second time in three years. The 2009 season started with a victory against Georgia and a move up to No. 5 but an upset loss to Houston followed a week later, and OSU finished 9-4.
Weeden said things have changed, and now "you can do anything freely just because truly anybody can make plays."
"The talent level from '07 to now is off the charts different," he said. "It's unbelievable, and guys that are hungry and want to play football."
Gundy said the Cowboys got through training camp as injury-free as he can remember, perhaps because coaches decided to go without a full contact scrimmage, and he believes his players have shown the maturity needed to handle the preseason buzz.
"Anytime you win 11 games, there's always going to be that added pressure. But as a player if you let that weigh on you at all, chances are you're not going to be able to exceed those expectations," Weeden said. "But I don't worry about that. I want to win more games than that, but I know our schedule's going to be tough.
"I feel like we should win every one of them but I know realistically it's going to be a dog fight every time out."