By JEFF LATZKE
The Big 12 season is halfway done, with every team having played at least four league games, and this Saturday shapes up as a big one for teams across the conference.
There have been plenty of surprises so far, none bigger than Kansas State being picked to finish sixth in the preseason poll and instead standing third in the country and second in the BCS.
Here’s a glimpse at what’s ahead, starting with the meaningful games this weekend:
Can Kansas State close it out?
Bill Snyder’s Wildcats (8-0, 5-0 Big 12) can eliminate nearly all the drama in the conference title race by winning at home against Oklahoma State (5-2, 3-1). With a victory Saturday night, K-State would then have to lose two of its remaining three games against TCU, Baylor and Texas to fall short of the conference championship.
Every game is huge at this point for any team in the national title chase but while this one may not get the same billing as the last two — against West Virginia and Texas Tech — the defending champion Cowboys pose the most direct threat to Kansas State claiming the conference crown. OSU doesn’t need help from anyone else, but would have to win four straight games against ranked teams.
“I think they know that we have the opportunity to control our own destiny but they also feel like we’re certainly not in any position to look beyond the next game,” coach Mike Gundy said.
“We’re getting ready to play the second-ranked team in the country and we’ll have our hands full just traveling up to Manhattan.”
None of the teams left on the Wildcats’ schedule are currently in the Top 25.
“They’ve got a great chance to run the table. They’re definitely one of the better teams in the country,” Texas Tech coach Tommy Tuberville said, having lost 55-24 at K-State on Saturday.
“They’re more like an SEC team than a Big 12 team, ho they play defense, how they play offense, so I think they’ve got a great chance.”
Will West Virginia rebound?
Not long ago, the Mountaineers (5-2) were preseason favorites and quarterback Geno Smith was the Heisman Trophy front-runner. Now, they’re practically afterthoughts.
Dana Holgorsen and Co. had an off week to pick up the pieces and will host fellow Big 12 newcomer TCU on Saturday.
“There was a pretty good sense of urgency last week. The attention to detail tends to pick up when you get beat, if the makeup of your team is what you want it to be,” Holgorsen said.
Holgorsen said he thinks players can forget their fundamentals during the grind of the season and the off week was a good chance to re-focus.
“There’s a whole bunch of good 5-2 football teams out there. Just because we’ve dropped the last two doesn’t mean that we’re a bad football team,” he said.
Who’s playing QB?
While there has been steady play at the top from the likes of Klein, Texas Tech’s Seth Doege and Oklahoma’s Landry Jones, there’s been more shuffling than usual at the quarterback position in the Big 12.
Injuries forced Oklahoma State to replace Wes Lunt with J.W. Walsh and then bring Lunt back last week. TCU went with Trevone Boykin after Casey Pachall was arrested and suspended indefinitely.
And then there were the changes related to effectiveness: Kansas switched from Notre Dame transfer Dayne Crist to Michael Cummings and a run-based attack, and Iowa State started with Steele Jantz, then turned to Jared Barnett and then back to Jantz in time for him to set career-highs with 381 yards passing and five TDs in a win over Baylor.
“He was not doing some things effective enough, and that’s why we made a change at one point this season, but 4-1 as a starter is pretty dang good,” coach Paul Rhoads said. “I think it’s overshadowed by the fact that he had his best game as an Iowa State Cyclone this Saturday night.”
Texas coach Mack Brown announced Monday that he was sticking with David Ash, even after Case McCoy replaced him for the game-winning drive against Kansas.
Which teams are headed to which bowl games?
Kansas State, Texas and Texas Tech are already bowl eligible and another five teams are sitting on five wins, hoping to qualify for the postseason this week — Iowa State, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, TCU and West Virginia.
It’s all but impossible at this point to project who will end up where among the league’s six bowl partners, with the potential for two to make the BCS.
“We’re trying to get one more ballgame so that we can get the extra practices and get to a bowl game,” TCU’s Gary Patterson said. “And if you can get to six, then you’re going to try to get to seven. If you get to seven, then you try to get to eight.”
Who’s lagging behind?
Kansas dropped its 16th straight conference game Saturday, falling just short when Texas scored with 12 seconds left for a 21-17 win. But the Jayhawks (1-7, 0-5) can climb out of the cellar this week at winless Baylor (3-4, 0-4), which has reverted to its pre-Robert Griffin III ways.
“There’s definitely things you can look at and say you’re getting better here, you’re getting better here, you’re getting better here. But still at the end of the day, it’s still about winning,” Weis said. “Regardless of whether you played tough, played close,
“Are there silver linings? Yes, there are. But it still comes down to you’ve lost 100 in a row in the Big 12, at home and on the road, and you need to beat somebody so you can start moving that trend in a different direction.”