MANHATTAN, Kan. -- We’ve had Nov. 8 circled on our Big 12 calendar from the moment last season ended. But who knew there would be an even bigger game in the Big 12 200 miles to the south of Norman, Oklahoma?
Judgment day is coming this weekend to the Big 12, and preseason co-favorites Baylor-Oklahoma will comprise only half of the equation. The lesser half, in fact.
While Baylor and Oklahoma will be playing to keep their Big 12 title and faint playoff hopes alive, Kansas State and TCU will square off later on Saturday in a de facto playoff elimination game that will also carry major conference title implications.
TCU will attempt to finish a two-week gauntlet following a dramatic come-from-behind victory in hostile West Virginia.
Yet for K-State, the gauntlet is just beginning.
The Big 12’s lone undefeated team in conference has arguably the toughest remaining schedule in the country. The Wildcats still have to travel to Morgantown and Waco. And Saturday, they go to Fort Worth with a chance to make a statement to the playoff selection committee.
“This last month is definitely going to be exciting,” said K-State quarterback Jake Waters. “But we just have to focus on what we do and execute the way we know we can and see what happens.”
Waters & Co. have been quietly flying under the national radar – what else is new? – since missing three field goals in a heartbreaking 20-14 loss to Auburn. But since, to the few outside Sunflower Country who have bothered to notice, K-State has been steamrolling the competition. After knocking off Oklahoma in Norman, the Wildcats have hammered Texas and Oklahoma State the last two weeks by a combined score of 71-14.
Led by a stout collection of run-stuffers and a hard-hitting secondary, the defense has been nails. Offensively, the run game with DeMarcus Robinson and Charles Jones has taken off, while Waters has found a groove through the air with Tyler Lockett and Curry Sexton.
“We’re clicking on all cylinders,” Lockett said. “But we understand we have a crazy road schedule coming up playing some great teams.
“Are we up to the challenge? I think we are.”
Meeting that challenge won't be easy. The Wildcats could be underdogs in all three road tilts, including this weekend at TCU. But K-State already has one stripe on the belt with the win at Oklahoma.
"We’ve done it in one of the hardest places to play already," Waters said. "That give us confidence going forward that no matter the situation we can make the big plays."
K-State will be going up against a TCU squad that proved as much, escaping Morgantown with a subpar offensive performance. The defense, however, kept the Horned Frogs afloat, before quarterback Trevone Boykin came alive to lead TCU on game-winning drive that ended with Jaden Oberkrom’s 37-yard field goal as time expired.
“Against a prolific offense for West Virginia, at their house, and you just came back and beat them? If the [playoff] committee didn’t think that was enough substance, then they didn’t watch the right film,” TCU coach Gary Patterson told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “Because we just did it not playing very well.”
The Horned Frogs have another shot for a substantive win against K-State before the schedule eases up considerably. After this weekend, TCU’s final three opponents – Kansas, Texas and Iowa State – all have losing records. With a victory over K-State, the Horned Frogs can position themselves to finish with at least a share of a conference title. And they can solidify their standing as worthy playoff candidate.
But while the Horned Frogs might be best situated to make the playoff among Big 12 teams, Baylor has the head-to-head edge over TCU in the conference race. And the Bears, who have been maligned for their cupcake nonconference schedule and two-touchdown loss at West Virginia, also have an opportunity to make a statement at Oklahoma.
Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty underscored the importance of the showdown by answering every question in his Kansas postgame news conference with, “Just ready for OU.”
The Bears would still need outside help in their playoff hunt. But Baylor could generate a compelling case to the committee by finishing the season with wins over Big 12 stalwarts TCU, Oklahoma and K-State.
“It’s going to be a great college football game and a great college football atmosphere with two great college teams playing,” Baylor coach Art Briles said of going to Oklahoma, where the Bears have never won in 11 tries.
The Sooners, meanwhile, might need a minor miracle to climb back into playoff contention after losing twice in October. But they can keep their Big 12 title hopes alive by avenging last year’s embarrassing 41-12 loss at Baylor. After a 59-14 thrashing of Iowa State in Ames over the weekend, Oklahoma could be surging in time for the homestretch.
“We needed [a] confidence builder after three tough games there in October,” said Sooners quarterback Trevor Knight. “We are just hitting that stride, and it’s a good time to hit it."
Saturday, playoff pretenders will be weeded out. The conference race will be thinned. And only the teams that keep their stride will survive.
Welcome to judgment day in the Big 12.