By Jimmy Burch
Tribune News Service
The top spot in the Big 12 football standings belongs to No. 9 Kansas State, the only team left without a loss in the league title race.
But the closing stretch will be brutal for the Wildcats (6-1, 4-0 in Big 12), who play three of their final four conference games on the road against Top 25 opponents after Saturday night's matchup in Manhattan against Oklahoma State (5-3, 3-2).
With so many high-profile games remaining, it is understandable why players and coaches from schools other than K-State consider themselves well-positioned to catch or pass the Wildcats during the stretch run. Any of K-State's future Top 25 opponents could guarantee itself a tie for the Big 12 championship by holding serve at home against the Wildcats and winning its remaining games.
The list includes No. 7 TCU (6-1, 3-1), No. 13 Baylor (6-1, 3-1) and No. 20 West Virginia (6-2, 4-1). Based on league tiebreakers, West Virginia joins Kansas State on the short list of teams that controls its destiny to earn the bowl berth reserved for the Big 12 champion. Other teams would need additional factors to unfold.
But TCU could eliminate that opportunity for West Virginia in Saturday's 2:30 p.m. meeting in Morgantown, W.Va. Regardless of what happens, the potential exists for a four- or five-team tie for first place in the final standings. That is why schools other than Kansas State feel confident about their title chances despite the Wildcats' solo lead in the Big 12 race.
"Everything that we set out to do is still ahead of us," said Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty, whose team meets Kansas (2-5, 0-4) at 3 p.m. Saturday in Waco. "So, we're fine in that aspect. The schedule definitely plays out in our favor. We've just got to take care of Kansas, and then the rest will take care of itself."
Petty and the Bears envision taking part in a winner-take-all matchup for the Big 12 title against Kansas State on Dec. 6 in Waco. TCU players hope a similar showdown with K-State unfolds next week in Fort Worth. The same stakes could be on the table Nov. 20 when Kansas State plays at West Virginia.
But the Mountaineers' chances will take a huge hit if they lose to TCU. In each of the last two seasons, the meeting between the Big 12's newest members (both school joined the league in 2012) went into overtime. The visiting team won both games, giving the schools a 1-1 record in matchups as conference rivals.
"It's another big game. It's going to be a giant, exciting weekend," West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said. "It's important to our guys. And if it's important to them, then they will probably put their best foot forward again this week."
Holgorsen playfully offered a bit of advice to TCU coach Gary Patterson about how the Horned Frogs could do likewise, based on videotape reviews of last year's contest in Fort Worth. West Virginia won, 30-27, with current TCU quarterback Trevone Boykin playing wide receiver.
"He was the best receiver on the field," Holgorsen said. "So they probably should move him back to receiver."
That is unlikely, with Boykin leading the Big 12 in total offense (382.9 yards per game) and owning the best TD passes-to-interceptions ratio (21-3) among the league's starting quarterbacks.
What is likely, regardless of today's venue, is extreme attention to detail from coaches of front-running teams in a crowded title race. Kansas State coach Bill Snyder cited the need for improvement from his defense, which is coming off last week's 23-0 shutout of Texas. It marked the first time the Longhorns had been blanked in 10 years.
But in assessing the K-State defense, Snyder said: "We have not been as consistent as I would have liked. We have to improve."
That sentiment is shared at Baylor, where the Bears fell to West Virginia, 41-27, in their last contest. The team regrouped and refocused during last week's open date.
"We can't get down on ourselves," said running back Shock Linwood, who remains optimistic about the Bears' CFP playoff hopes. "If you look at the rankings, a lot of those top teams have to play each other. There's a lot of football left. Luckily, the loss happened earlier in the season. We can look at it, correct it, and make sure we don't get to this point again."
For any of the teams chasing Kansas State, a second loss in league play probably would snuff out their title hopes. That is not a given, but Baylor offensive tackle Spencer Drango understands the reality.
"In order to win the Big 12, that can't happen," Drango said.
Every other title contender in pursuit of Kansas State would be wise to adopt a similar mind-set during the November stretch run.