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Chaos leaves Kansas State and TCU as Big 12's best hopes

Five of 10 teams in the Big 12 currently have fewer than two conference losses, and Oklahoma isn't among that five. Let's try to make some sense of what is quickly becoming a wild, unpredictable conference race.

1. Kansas State: so close to both 6-0 and 4-2.

The chances of a college kicker missing field goals of 22, 41, and 42 yards, like Kansas State's Jack Cantele did against Auburn earlier this year, are about 0.7 percent.

The chances of a college kicker missing a 19-yarder, a 32-yarder, and an extra point, like Oklahoma's Michael Hunnicutt did against K-State on Saturday, are about 0.02 percent.

That they happened has defined the Wildcats' season to date. Without Cantele's struggles against Auburn, the Wildcats likely beat the Tigers and sit undefeated in the nation's top five at the moment. Without Hunnicutt's out-of-nowhere problems on Saturday, KSU is 4-2 and barely holding onto a top-25 ranking.

But what happened, happened, and our idea of a two- or three-team Big 12 race was blown to bits on Saturday.

Kansas State did plenty of things well. The Wildcats averaged 7.0 yards per play against an Oklahoma defense that was considered elite just a few weeks ago. Jake Waters completed 65 percent of his passes at 15.0 yards per completion and set up a score with a 53-yard run. Tyler Lockett had a huge first half and finished with six catches for 86 yards. Fullback Glenn Gronkowski helped KSU halfbacks average 5.6 yards per carry and took a pop pass 62 yards for a touchdown. Corner Danzel McDaniel had both a pick-six and a pair of tackles for loss.

Still, this game was defined by all the same things that defined KSU's loss to Auburn, right down to Oklahoma's killer turnovers and missed kicks. McDaniel had the easiest touchdown of his life when Oklahoma combined a confusing play call (wide throw from the far hash from the 1-yard line) with poor route running from Durron Neal; McDaniel simply stepped in the way and walked two steps into the end zone. Neal later threw a misguided interception into the other end zone on a trick play gone wrong. Oklahoma snapped the ball 23 more times than KSU and therefore outgained the Wildcats, 533-385, but nearly unthinkable Sooner mistakes both took points off of their portion of the scoreboard and added to the Wildcats' total.

In terms of computer rankings, Kansas State is still a distant fourth in the Big 12 behind Oklahoma, Baylor, and TCU. But only one team is still undefeated in Big 12 play. Granted, KSU still has to play at TCU on November 8 and at Baylor on December 6; throw in a November 20 trip to Morgantown, and KSU has a schedule that features visits to the top four teams in the conference not named Kansas State. Not even Bill Snyder is likely to pull off the wizardry, and place-kicker jinxitude necessary to remain undefeated the rest of the way.

Last week, in projecting the Big 12 race, I said this:

The job of Week 8 in the Big 12 seems to be determining whether we really do have a three-team race on our hands, whether it's going to end up Baylor vs. Oklahoma as we surmised a couple of months ago, or whether KSU or OSU still has a chance at a darkhorse run. That makes it an elimination week of sorts.

Until or unless KSU loses a couple of times, we've now got ourselves a four-way conference title race. Hell, until WVU loses again, it might be a five-way race. (Since I still think OU finishes 7-2, I'm counting the Sooners as contenders despite the 2-2 start. And despite only one conference loss, OSU is not a contender.) This probably does not bode well for the Big 12's Playoff chances -- if KSU loses again, Baylor loses at Oklahoma, and TCU loses at either WVU or Texas, everybody in the conference will have at least two losses -- but it makes for some serious entertainment.

The conference that features the highest percentage of spread-'em-out offenses and 180-play tempofests might also go right down to the wire in determining its champion. And that champion might again be Kansas State.

Auburn game aside, by the way, KSU is seven-for-eight kicking field goals this season. Take out Saturday, and Hunnicutt is eight-for-nine. College kickers, man.

2. TCU is real.

Just in case you still thought TCU's win over Oklahoma was an upset, and just in case you still weren't a believer after witnessing a near-win in Waco and a top-five appearance in the F/+ ratings, the Horned Frogs went out and gave you one more reason to believe.

They absolutely smoked Oklahoma State, 42-9, in a game that may have been even more lopsided than the score. TCU outgained the 'Pokes by a 676-258 margin, allowing 169 yards (6.3 per play) on three field goal drives and 89 yards (2.4) the rest of the way. OSU's Daxx Garman: 10-for-25 for 132 yards, two interceptions, and two sacks. TCU's Trevone Boykin: 26-for-39, 410 yards, three touchdowns, one pick, two sacks. Receiver Josh Doctson (seven catches, 225 yards) nearly outgained OSU by himself.

It takes us a while to believe our eyes sometimes. Preconceptions are tough to overcome. But after two years of dreadful offense, TCU is either elite or nearly elite on both sides of the ball and special teams. Out of nowhere, Boykin has become one of the nation's most efficient quarterbacks; B.J. Catalon heads a deep running game, and Doctson, a Wyoming transfer, is the leader of an even deeper receiving corps. And of course, the TCU defense is still the TCU defense.

With its remaining slate, TCU probably has the best chance of anybody in the league to win out. The Frogs must head to Morgantown in two weeks after a home date with Texas Tech. Plus, a visit from Kansas State and a trip to a slowly improving Texas squad aren't gimmes. But with Oklahoma's and Baylor's losses and Kansas State's tough schedule, you could make a pretty strong case that TCU is now your Big 12 favorite.

Just like everybody predicted in August.

3. Baylor dares you.

Phil Bennett served as Bill Snyder's defensive coordinator from 1999-2001; the 1999 defense may have been KSU at its aggressive best. The Wildcats were intimidating, allowing 41 points to Nebraska and 123 points to the other 11 teams on the schedule.

Snyder's defenses are a little bit more of the bend-don't-break variety, but Bennett is in Waco, trying to craft an even faster, more aggressive Baylor defense. When it works, it's vicious. SMU and Northwestern State combined to average 2.2 yards per play, and Baylor held six opponents (including Texas) under 4.0 yards per play last year.

The Bears don't give you anything easy; they also toe the line between what is and isn't legal. And if you want to know why they are perceived to have a bit of a problem away from home, it's because that line tends to lean a bit toward the home team. Baylor basically tells officials, "I dare you to call everything we do."

And about once a year, the officials take them up on it. In last season's Fiesta Bowl, Baylor was called for 17 penalties for 135 yards. And on Saturday in Morgantown, the Bears were flagged an incredible 18 times for 215 yards.

Throw in 14 WVU penalties for 138 yards, and you had a game that seemed exciting in the box score but was nearly impossible to watch live. West Virginia generated as many first downs through penalties as Baylor did through passing.

The Bears were flagged six times for pass interference -- five times on three drives that generated 17 points -- and when they stopped getting flagged for it, they also stopped playing pass defense. Probably not a coincidence. West Virginia's Clint Trickett completed 16 of his first 26 passes for 188 yards, a touchdown, an interception, and three sacks (yards per attempt including sacks: 5.5). On the Mountaineers' final three possessions, however, he was 7-for-9 for 134 and two scores (14.9).

Neither team could run the ball very well. Baylor's Shock Linwood and Devin Chafin carried 28 times for just 100 yards (3.6 per carry) while WVU's Wendell Smallwood, Dreamius Smith, and Andrew Buie gained 150 yards in 42 carries (3.6). Meanwhile, each team's pass rush found quite a bit of success. Baylor sacked Trickett three times in 38 attempts (a healthy 7.9 percent sack rate), and WVU sacked Bryce Petty four times in 40 attempts (10.0 percent), briefly knocking him out of the game. The Mountaineers were able to hurry Petty enough that they rendered the Baylor pass inefficient despite personnel issues at cornerback. Antwan Goodley caught just nine of 19 passes for 132 yards, KD Cannon caught one of four for 10, and Levi Norwood caught one of four for four. Only Corey Coleman (5-of-7, 77 yards) had an efficient day.

Both quarterbacks were harried and rushed, but Trickett and WVU were able to take shots downfield, and while few of the shots resulted in completions, refs had no problem flagging Baylor's handsy downfield coverage. It's not hard to say it made the difference.

In 2013, Baylor was penalized 9.2 times per game at 9.0 yards per penalty; thus far in 2014, it's 10.9 per game and 9.6 yards per penalty. Saturday exacerbated that trend, but Baylor's averages were already rising. It probably goes without saying that your view of the officiating in this game, and in Baylor games in general, is probably driven by your rooting interest.

Regardless, refs took Baylor's dare, and Baylor is now 6-1 because of it.

Meanwhile, West Virginia has suffered competitive losses to Alabama and Oklahoma and beaten Baylor. I don't think the Mountaineers will still be in contention for the conference title in a few weeks or anything, but this has been one hell of an unexpected bounceback campaign for the Mountaineers. You could sort of see TCU coming if you squinted; the Mountaineers came out of nowhere to start 5-2.