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KSU surprisingly sitting atop North Division

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Before the season started, two teams that looked like the biggest potential question marks in the North Division were Colorado and Kansas State.

The Wildcats were picked to struggle, making some wonder why Bill Snyder would ever give up the cushy life of retirement for worries about rebuilding the KSU program again.

And even with Dan Hawkins brazenly proclaiming his team as a likely 10-game winner after last season, few thought the Buffaloes would be good enough to challenge the rest of the North Division.

A quick show of hands from all who thought that after the first three weeks of conference play, the Wildcats would be sitting in first place with a 2-1 record? Or that Colorado would be part of a logjam with Nebraska and Kansas behind them?

Suddenly, it's not looking all that far-fetched to think that the Buffaloes and Wildcats might remain as North contenders longer than some might think.

"Certainly, it looks like it will be a wild race," Kansas coach Mark Mangino said. "We understand that this is a great conference and anyone can win on any day. You can't discount anybody. And a lot of teams in the North can win if they get an opportunity."

The Wildcats and Snyder have been the biggest early story, particularly after their resilience over the last two weeks. Snyder's team responded to a 66-14 loss at Texas Tech last week by rebounding to post a 62-14 victory over Texas A&M. That 100-point two-game swing is the largest in Big 12 history in turning a margin of defeat into a margin of victory.

The Wildcats defense came up with six sacks as it harassed Jerrod Johnson into three interceptions after having none earlier this season.

"I can’t tell you this is anticipated," Snyder said. "I believed we would play better in ballgame than we did against Texas Tech. I thought we would probably respond well after the loss. But I have no particular answer with what you try to do week in and week out. That was in the least 32 or 33 minutes that was best football we’ve played all year."

Colorado similarly bounced back after a disappointing 1-3 start that included humiliating nationally-televised losses to Colorado State and Toledo and a struggling loss at Texas last week. But the Buffaloes rebounded to jump on Kansas early and hang on for a 34-30 victory.

Saturday's games indicate that early North favorites Nebraska and Kansas both have obvious flaws. Mangino is making wholesale changes on defense and his team faces that killer cross-division schedule of Oklahoma, Texas and Texas Tech.

Nebraska's offense looks in disarray after scoring touchdowns in only two of the 12 quarters it has played against FBS teams this season, including a humiliating 31-10 home loss to Texas Tech last week. Quarterback Zac Lee has struggled and Bo Pelini is openly considering inserting freshman Cody Green in the lineup to boost production.

Missouri appears unsettled after losses to Nebraska and Oklahoma State in its last two games. Quarterback Blaine Gabbert has been hobbled with a recurring ankle injury and the Tigers haven't been able to run the ball consistently.

Plucky Iowa State has been another surprise as they were only a late missed extra point against Kansas State from being able to beat the Wildcats at Farmageddon two weeks ago in Kansas City.

Even from the beginning, the North Division figured to be tight without a dominant team. And two new factors that could keep it that way are Colorado's home schedule and Snyder's acumen.

The Buffaloes also have Missouri and Nebraska visiting Folsom Field later in the season.

And Snyder won't be in the College Football Hall of Fame without reason. He'll conjure up a way for the Wildcats to stay in games where some think they don't belong.

It's not beyond the realm of possibility that a team with a 3-5 conference record could win the North. That team would have to beat the right contenders to maintain a tiebreaker over the other teams.

But a more likely record to win will be 4-4 or 5-3. The North has produced only four teams that have gone 6-2 or better in the last six seasons.

Wacky times indeed.

"It's kind of hard to figure," said Missouri coach Gary Pinkel, who is gunning for his third straight championship game appearance. "There are a lot of things left and lots will happen. By the end of October and November it will be interesting to see how it works out. Every week you try to improve. If you can do that and get some wins going, you'll have a chance."