If you're a true Wildcat fan, you read the headline of this post and did a double take. "What's that? Why would anyone count us out?! We lead the Big 12 North, by a full game -- actually, more like 1.5, because we own the tiebreaker over second-place Iowa State -- at the halfway point of the conference season!" Take a deep breath after that ultra-long run-on sentence you just yelled and read on.
Here's the reason for the caveat. First, I take everything I see this season advisedly. A team with losses to Louisiana and UCLA can't take anything for granted. It's conceivable that we go winless from here on out and fade to afterthought status.
On the other hand, we do lead the division race with only four games to play. What's more, the teams considered our strongest challengers are 1-2, 1-2 and 0-3 respectively. That's not intended to discount ISU, but they're being written off even more strongly than we are. I'm telling you, nearly everyone has weighed in with an opinion on this, and they all have come to the conclusion that either Nebraska, KU or Missouri are still going to take this thing. While not guaranteeing anything, those who write this K-State team off do so at their own risk.
Click the jump to see how K-State can shock the world and take the division.
Given the starts of the other teams in the North, it is entirely possible that 4-4 gets into a tiebreaker for this thing. Here are the remaining schedules for all six North teams:
K-State (3-1): @Oklahoma, KU, Missouri, @Nebraska
Iowa State (2-2): @Texas A&M, Oklahoma State, Colorado, @Missouri
KU (1-2): @Texas Tech, @K-State, Nebraska, Missouri (in KC)
Nebraska (1-2): @Baylor, Oklahoma, @KU, K-State, @Colorado
Colorado (1-2): Missouri, Texas A&M, @Iowa State, @Oklahoma State, Nebraska
Missouri (0-3): @Colorado, Baylor, @K-State, Iowa State, KU (in KC)
We'll start at home with K-State. As a coworker spent 20 minutes discussing with me today, K-State has the inside track right now, because you can't subtract wins, and K-State already has three of them. The other posts linked above note that K-State's last four are much more difficult than their first four, but are they really? The Oklahoma game is comparable to the Texas Tech game, one that we've written off from the get-go. Obviously, OU looks more beatable now than before the season, but it would still be a monumental shock to win in Norman. However, the KU and Mizzou games, at home, look eminently winnable. Every time KU fixes one leak, another one springs up, and their ace in the hole -- Todd Reesing -- hasn't had the same magic during conference games. Mizzou is playing a quarterback who has one good leg. I know Mizzou fans want to believe Blaine Gabbert is just going to heal up, but as long as he has to push off that leg to throw, run around on it, and have defenders fall on it, he simply is not going to get better. Finally, while I highly doubt we can score more than 14 points on Nebraska, that might just be enough. Our defense is playing much better, and with Roy Helu obviously hurting and the receivers dropping (passes) like it's hot, the Husker offense isn't that scary right now. Granted, it's in Lincoln, but I'm not ready to write it off like I was earlier. The salient point: We only need one more win for 4-4, which looks more and more like it may get into a tiebreaker. With home games against suddenly beatable KU and Mizzou squads, that's entirely possible. Two wins almost wraps it up.
Interestingly, every game we play against North teams from here on out is basically an elimination game for the opponent. If we beat KU, any hopes they could have of winning the division will die on the turf at Bill's House (how sweet that would be). Beating Mizzou would hand the Tigers (at least) their fourth conference loss, and without the tiebreaker over us, they would be basically done. Who knows what Nebraska will do from here on out, but with games remaining against Oklahoma and at KU, there's a very good chance they'll have at least three conference losses by the time we play them. A win in Lincoln, while still not probable, would be the nail in the Huskers' coffin.
Iowa State is the real wildcard in all of this. They have games remaining against a bipolar Texas A&M team, a terrible road team in Colorado, and at Missouri. I'll go ahead and write off the Oklahoma State game, meaning they have to win two of the first three to have a chance. That's a possibility.
As for KU, I think we all know what the beaks face. They have suffered two losses and have road games against Texas Tech and Texas remaining. Tech doesn't look like an unstoppable juggernaut anymore, but KU has lost consecutive games to Colorado and to Oklahoma in a blowout. If we assume they lose both games against the South, they must run the table to have a chance, although if they do so, they are likely headed to Dallas, because they would own North tiebreakers over everyone except CU. But if Reesing keeps throwing the ball to the other team at the rate he has been, games against K-State, Nebraska, and Mizzou are tossups. I don't like any teams chances of winning three tossup games.
What about Mizzou? The Tigers have had clearly the most difficult schedule through three games, and it shows. I can't fault them for the OSU and UT games, and for three quarters they had Nebraska on the ropes. We'll learn a lot about Mizzou in the coming weeks. If they can beat Colorado and Baylor, we'll know they're still a contender. If they lose either of those games, their chances will be pretty much dead before they even get to Manhattan.
I'm going to omit an extended discussion of CU's chances, because frankly I think they need to send Dan and Cody Hawkins packing to have a chance. Plus, they can't win on the road, which almost guarantees two more losses.
So, after all that, why does K-State still have a chance? As my colleague, BracketCat, noted today on the Postgame Reaction post, K-State is improving week-to-week, just like every single team Bill Snyder has ever coached. And it's more important than just getting better. Yes, they are getting better, even though the competition continues to get (marginally) more difficult. But even more importantly, they are gaining confidence every single week. They've gone from the team that squeaked by UMass, lost to Louisiana and UCLA, and got destroyed by Texas Tech, to the team that beat Iowa State, blew out A&M and whipped Colorado. It's only a semi-valid point today, near the end of October, that this team lost in early September to Louisiana and UCLA. You remember the line in college basketball that, by the time March Madness rolls around, the freshmen are basically sophomores? It holds with this team that is picking up Snyder's system. Anyone who has watched this team all year long knows it has improved steadily over the first eight weeks of the season.
Perhaps more importantly, while K-State is improving and gaining confidence, every other contender, save Iowa State, is facing serious issues. Murphy's Law is attacking KU. Missouri's quarterback is hurt and isn't getting healthy. Nebraska can't do anything right on offense. Colorado has a coach who thinks Cody Hawkins may be better than Tyler Hansen.
And, most importantly, this team has two home games against division contenders down the stretch, and it is coached by Bill Snyder. Yes, the man lovingly referred to as Old Balls by rival fans has an edge, both intellectually and psychologically, on each coach he faces the rest of the way. OK, so Bob Stoops' tremendous talent differential will likely overcome that this weekend. But Snyder has never lost to Mark Mangino in Manhattan, has never lost to Gary Pinkel anywhere, and made Bo Pelini so mad in 2003 that Pelini chased him down and called him an asshole.
It may not happen. But it's more possible than others think.