With six teams snagging first-place votes in the preseason poll, this conference race had potential to be the most wide-open in Big 12 history.
Two months into the season, five teams remain in the thick of the race. But this weekend, that will begin to change, as Oklahoma State and Texas Tech will stage the first in several looming de facto Big 12 title elimination games.
“It’s going to be fun,” said Tech linebacker Terrance Bullitt. “Going to be a lot of elimination games coming up. We just have to take care of our part.”
Due to a quirk in scheduling, only two games so far have been staged featuring Baylor (7-0, 4-0 Big 12), Texas (5-2, 4-0), Oklahoma (7-1, 4-1), Tech (7-1, 4-1) and OSU (6-1, 3-1) playing each other. On Oct. 12, the Longhorns beat OU, 36-20. Then last weekend, the Sooners knocked off Tech, 38-30.
As a result, the top five teams will slug it out for the conference title over eight games over the next month, beginning Saturday in Lubbock.
“We’re going to have to win this one have a shot at the Big 12,” said OSU wide receiver Charlie Moore. “This game is huge. A win this weekend would give us a ton of momentum. But it all starts this Saturday.
As the preseason favorites to win the league, the Cowboys have been searching for a momentum-building performance all season. Instead, they’ve been shuffling their backfield trying to find the right combination offensively.
Last weekend at Iowa State, they may have finally uncovered it.
With Clint Chelf getting his first start since the opener at quarterback, and Desmond Roland getting his first career start at running back, OSU racked up 342 yards on the ground while averaging 7.3 yards per carry.
Against the Cyclones, Roland rolled up 219 yards on the ground with four touchdowns. Chelf struggled with his accuracy on a gusty afternoon completing just 10 of 26 passes. But he added 85 yards rushing on just nine carries.
“We’re looking to build off that,” Moore said. “As far as the passing game, we’re going to work on the little things and see if we can put it all together.
“We’re not even close to our full potential.”
The Red Raiders feel the same.
Last weekend, Tech churned out 24 first downs and 388 yards through the air. But three turnovers in OU territory as well as a couple of devastating penalties wiped out several promising scoring opportunities.
Penalties and turnovers have plagued the Red Raiders all year. They lead the Big 12 in both categories, and that finally caught up with them in Norman.
“We have to minimize mistakes and penalties and execute our opportunities,” said Tech receiver Eric Ward, who caught two touchdowns against the Sooners. “It just didn’t go our way last week.”
The Red Raiders had surged into the top 10 before the loss. To remain a contender, they’ll have to respond to adversity better than they did the previous two seasons under Tommy Tuberville, who oversaw a pair of late-season collapses in Lubbock.
“When we had Coach Tuberville, it was kind of like, ‘Oh my gosh, we lost, we're panicking, we're in full frantic mode,’” said Tech defensive end Branden Jackson. “Now, we know what we did wrong and what we have to improve on to move forward.”
Like Tech, OSU has no margin left for error after losing at West Virginia in its conference opener. And for both teams, the defining parts of the schedule lie ahead.
But the winner this weekend will take a strong step forward toward contending for the league crown. The loser will be all but eliminated.
"We're excited about it," Ward said. “Everything is still in front of us.
"Everything is still up for grabs.”