When November rolls around later this week, only two teams control their own destiny in the chase for the Big 12 title.
One of those teams is Kansas State. The Wildcats are ranked No. 2 in the country and have marched relatively uncontested through their schedule behind Heisman frontrunner Collin Klein at quarterback.
The other team – No. 24 Oklahoma State.
Should the Cowboys upset K-State in Manhattan on Saturday, OSU would be alone in the driver's seat of the conference. But that will be easier said than done against a stout Wildcat team on the road.
"I don't think it's a mystery to anyone that the team we are playing is very good and very deserving of their national ranking," Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said. "It starts with Collin Klein and his unselfish ability to make plays. They're a very mature team."
And that maturity coupled with Klein's leadership has helped guide KSU (8-0, 5-0 Big 12) to an impressive résumé thus far. The Wildcats steamrolled Miami 52-13, ousted then-No. 6 OU 24-19 in Norman, and have demolished No. 13 West Virginia and No. 14 Texas Tech 55-14 and 55-24, respectively, the past two weeks.
Suffice to say, Kansas State is good. And the Cowboys (5-2, 3-1) know exactly what they're up against. But the defending Big 12 champs aren't going to treat the second-ranked Wildcats differently than any other team on the schedule.
"It's going to be a packed house. It's going to be a big game for us, but at the same time, we're not going to think about that," offensive tackle Parker Graham said.
A lot of the credit for Oklahoma State's improved play the past three weeks goes to the big men in the trenches on both sides of the ball and the offensive and defensive lines for both teams will go a long way in deciding how Saturday's game pans out.
Oklahoma State enters the game ranked No. 1 nationally in total offense (586.1 yards per game) against a Kansas State defense that ranks 30th, stout by Big 12 standards. The key with Kansas State's defense is that it stiffens as the game progresses, making it paramount that the Pokes are able to establish their ground game for a balanced offensive approach. The Cowboys' pass blocking has been reliable but the run blocking has been a little shaky; Joseph Randle and the rest of the Cowboy backfield need to be major factors in the game to keep the ball out of Klein's hands.
From the defensive side, the Pokes' line is equally important to OSU's chances of pulling an upset in Manhattan. Klein is arguably the nation's top dual-threat quarterback and he carved up the OSU defensive line on the ground last season in Stillwater. OSU's run defense is vastly improved from a year ago, ranking 32nd in the NCAA in run defense, allowing just 127.7 yards per game on the ground. If OSU is able to force K-State into a more one-dimensional approach, it will assist Bill Young in his defensive play calling.
Another potential swing stat on Saturday night will be in the turnover department. OSU's defense has experienced more success forcing takeaways the past few weeks and will need to win the turnover battle in Manhattan. OSU beat KSU 4-2 in turnovers in last season's 52-45 thriller in Stillwater. As important as it is for the defense to take the ball away, it is perhaps more important for Wes Lunt and the OSU offense to protect the football and make the most out of its opportunities.
This is undoubtedly OSU's toughest challenge yet and it will be interesting to see how Lunt handles the Wildcats' intense, ball-hawking defense in a raucous road environment. As it was mentioned earlier, if OSU is able to pull off the upset the Big 12 is in the Cowboys' hands with four games remaining.
The Cowboys unquestionably have the firepower to upend K-State and the improved play of the defense gives added ammunition to that hope.
K-State boasts playmakers on both sides of the ball, headlined by Klein and linebacker Arthur Brown, but OSU might be more talented from top to bottom despite the injuries and youth. If the Pokes are able to play a level-headed contest and limit their mistakes, we could be in for a barn burner on the Kansas plains.
That said, Kansas State is firing on all cylinders and appears destined to run the table. The Pokes are the last major test standing in the way of an unbeaten regular season (at TCU, at Baylor and vs. Texas) and OSU would love to play the spoiler.
Kansas State 37, OSU 31