Heading into the 2009 college football season, the majority of media outlets believed that the Big XII North Division would be won by either Kansas or Nebraska.
Missouri still figured into the mix, but after losing 40 seniors in the previous two seasons, their roster was depleted.
Even Mizzou coach, Gary Pinkel, lamented the change in his team's dynamic after watching QB Chase Daniel graduate and WR Jeremy Maclin make an early declaration for the NFL draft.
Dan Hawkins, despite having compiled a paltry 13-24 record at the helm of Colorado, made the bold and inexplicable claim of "ten wins, no excuses" prior to the start of the Buffaloes' fourth campaign under his guidance. Understandably, few outside of the Centennial State took him seriously.
Iowa State, winless in 2008 conference play, gave little reason for anyone to believe that 2009 would be much different, even with new head coach, Paul Rhoads and Kansas State, after welcoming back former coach, Bill Snyder, was widely assumed to be rebuilding.
Therefore, the unenviable task of being the North Division standard bearer was expected to fall to the Jayhawks or the Cornhuskers. Unenviable because, in the last five Big XII Championships, the South has clobbered the North by the following scores: 62-21, 38-17, 21-7, 70-3 and 42-3.
Kansas and Nebraska were chosen for different reasons. The Kansas offense still had potent weapons in quarterback Todd Reesing and his receivers Dezmon Briscoe and Kerry Meier.
Nebraska's defense, anchored by Ndamukong Suh, was generally perceived as the best unit in the North Division, despite their inexperience at linebacker.
The questions for both teams lay on the opposite sides of the ball. Would the Kansas defense, injury-riddled from the year before, be able to withstand the high-powered offenses of the Big XII?
And would former JUCO transfer Zac Lee be able to replicate Joe Ganz’ production from a season ago and effectively lead the Big Red offense?
Eager fans throughout the Heartland wanted to know.
However, a funny thing has happened on the way to the Big XII North crown.
Kansas, after starting 5-0 thanks to a less than rigorous non-conference schedule, has dropped four straight games, the latest to in-state rival, Kansas State.
Nebraska, after cruising through three Sun Belt opponents and pulling off a dramatic win in Missouri, has stumbled recently, their offense managing only four touchdowns in their last four games.
So for now, the story in the North has been Kansas State who, despite losing to Louisiana-Lafayette (a team that Nebraska beat 55-0) and suffering a 52-point defeat to Texas Tech, holds a half-game lead on the Huskers in the conference standings (4-2 versus 3-2).
So will the real Big XII North contender please stand up?
OK, then, let’s start at the bottom of the pile and work our way up.
Kansas and Missouri are both 1-4 in the Big XII and one team is guaranteed to end the season with a losing conference record by virtue of the fact that they face one another in their regular season finale.
Kansas is already out of the race and still has a date in Austin with the Longhorns. Ouch.
Missouri, meanwhile, is still trying to figure out what happened after hosting Baylor and letting them leave Columbia with a 40-32 win.
Perhaps even more troubling to the Tigers is the stark reality that the Bears’ freshman QB, Nick Florence, a player that was listed third on the Baylor depth chart when the season began, threw for over 400 yards and accounted for four total touchdowns on his way to Big XII offensive player of the week honors.
Colorado and Iowa State are in the middle of the pack with conference records of 2-3 and 2-4, respectively. Colorado’s season has taken a slight upturn, with wins against Kansas and Texas A&M, after being repeatedly embarrassed, most notably on a Thursday night in September when Toledo hung a half-a-hundred on their defense.
The Buffaloes have remaining road games against the Cowboys and Cyclones in addition to their annual rivalry match with the Huskers.
Only two games remain for the Cyclones. After the aforementioned Colorado game, they travel to Missouri. At one point, the ‘Clones had a legitimate shot at the North title after benefiting from eight Nebraska turnovers en route to a 9-7 upset.
They failed to capitalize however, being blown out in their next two games against Texas A&M and Oklahoma State.
This brings us to the two teams with the most realistic chances of representing the North in the Big XII Championship, Kansas State and Nebraska.
As mentioned above, Bill Snyder’s return to the Wildcats has not been perfect, but while everyone else in the division has been slipping on banana peels, KSU has quietly been winning games against the Cyclones, Aggies, Buffaloes, and Jayhawks while playing somewhat respectably against the Sooners after falling behind 21-0.
Quite simply (and as cliché as it sounds), both teams control their own destinies.
This week, the Wildcats host Mizzou and the Huskers travel to Lawrence to battle the Jayhawks. If the Wildcats beat Mizzou they’ll have the inside track to the division title. Travel to Lincoln the following week, beat the Huskers and they will have punched their ticket to Arlington, Texas, where, barring a late-season meltdown, they’ll face the No. 2 ranked Texas Longhorns.
The Huskers, meanwhile, hope to keep their emotions running high and come away with another win after defeating the favored Sooners last week.
But even if the Huskers fall in Lawrence (which is a real possibility considering the epic struggles of their offense), they could still finish 5-3 in conference play by beating the Wildcats and then finishing off the season with a win in Boulder. The head-to-head win against KSU would give Nebraska the nod.
Granted, the win in Boulder wouldn’t come easy in that scenario. After all the frustrations that Colorado has endured, they’d love nothing more than to watch Nebraska’s title hopes die beneath a stampede of Buffalo hooves.
An interesting aside to all of this comes from Lee Barfknecht of the Omaha World Herald . It is his assertion that the Big XII execs want to see a Texas/Nebraska title game.
While the Wildcats, in the first year of Snyder’s return, have been a classic, underdog story, Barfknecht believes that they don’t have the horses or the star power to match up with the Longhorns.
Given the Huskers’ offensive woes, that might sound elitist on the part of the Nebraska media, but consider the following facts and numbers:
Texas is second in all-time wins, Nebraska is fourth. Both schools have over 800 wins, a feat only five other schools can claim. The historical significance of a NU/UT match-up would be hard to ignore.
On the flip side, Kansas State has over 600 losses. Only two other teams can claim that, though it’s doubtful they would.
The Big XII Championship will be played in the cavernous confines of Cowboys Stadium, or the “Death Star” as some here in the Metroplex have coined it. Nebraska and Texas fans travel well. Kansas State, not so much.
Not to slam the Wildcats, but it’s easy to imagine that the Big XII wants to see a sea of burnt orange and red, two colors belonging to teams that have a realistic chance of filling the stadium’s 80,000 seats.
Besides, as far as the game is concerned, Nebraska’s defense might actually match up well against the ‘Horns. The Blackshirts are 11th in the nation in total defense, second in scoring defense, 10th against the run and 21st against the pass.
Kansas State? 43rd, 45th, 20th and 83rd, respectively.
I’m sure that Kansas State fans would be quick to point out the fact that the Wildcats beat the Longhorns two years in a row (in 2006 & 2007) under Ron Prince but, since the inception of the Big XII, the Huskers and Longhorns have a history of hard-fought games dating back to the inaugural championship game.
What does all of this mean? Nothing, really. Regardless of what the Big XII executives want, all of this will be sorted out on the field in the next couple of weeks.
Which is exactly the way it should be.