Here are some factors to consider in tomorrow's winner-take-all battle for the North Division title between Kansas State and Nebraska in Lincoln.
Keys for Kansas State:
Better production in the red zone: The Wildcats have got to produce better when they get close to the Nebraska end zone. Their struggles inside the Missouri 20 were the major reason they lost last week, producing only three scores in five trips -- all field goals. The Wildcats can’t afford to settle for field goals against the Cornhuskers in those situations. They will need every point they can muster.
Big plays on special teams: Brandon Banks is the most prolific kick returner in KSU history, holding the school record for kickoff returns for touchdowns in a game (two), season (four) and career (five). And he’s only one behind the NCAA career record of six kickoff returns for TDs set by C.J. Spiller of Clemson, Anthony Davis of USC and Ashlan Davis of Tulsa. A big play or two in the kicking game could really give the Wildcats a surge. But Banks will be facing one of the nation’s best deep kickoff threats in Nebraska’s Adi Kunalic, who averages 68.4 yards on each kickoff and has produced 23 touchbacks on 56 kickoff attempts.
Opportunism on defense: Nebraska was susceptible to turnovers earlier in the season, tying the school-record with eight against Iowa State. The Wildcats need to force those kind of plays, something coach Bill Snyder and his staff have made a priority throughout the season. KSU's turnover margin ranked 61st in the nation last season. This season, the Wildcats have a plus-8 margin, which ranks 19th in the nation. They’ll need some opportunism to have success in a hostile environment where they have won only once since 1969.
Keys for Nebraska:
Getting the defense involved early: The Cornhuskers can get a big lift from the crowd with a couple of big defensive plays early. The play of the defense was so frustrating in the victory over Kansas that defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh graded them with an F, although they won by 14 points. The Cornhuskers allowed 17 points, which was the second-largest total allowed this season. And they were also blistered for 335 yards, which is far above their season average. They still played well enough to win, but have room for significant improvement against a Kansas State defense that will likely try to set the pace with their grinding running game.
Keep Zac Lee performing in the passing game: A bigger improvement was seen last week in the Cornhuskers’ offense than in recent weeks because Lee’s passing was a solid addition. Nebraska passed for 196 yards last week against Kansas. In the Cornhuskers’ previous two games combined they had passed for 167 yards. They should be able to have success against a struggling Kansas State secondary that has allowed 240 yards passing per game to rank 90th nationally. The Wildcats have yielded 108 yards in two true Big 12 road games.
Pelini should be relaxed, but ready: Nebraska is facing the master of North Division coaching in Snyder. But Bo Pelini has done well in his brief career, particularly in late-season games when the Cornhuskers have posted a 7-1 record after Nov. 1. This will be his biggest game as Nebraska’s head coach with all of the divisional title ramifications present. Win this game and the Cornhuskers will be making their first Big 12 title game under him. If they lose, this season would be considered a waste because of the relative weakness in the North Division. Pelini's big-game experience compared to Snyder's makes this a question, but he should be ready for the challenge.