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The BCS Bowl Race: The Big 12 Fights To The Finish

Kansas State has had two weeks to lick its wounds since their national championship hopes came crashing down in a 52-24 loss at Baylor on November 17. Now the Wildcats can refocus on the task of earning their first BCS bowl bid since they last won the Big 12 in 2003. Kansas State plays host to Texas (8 PM ET, ABC) in the second of a two-part act in a big day for this conference.

The Big 12 might be out of the national championship race and it might not have anyone playing for bowl eligibility, but in between there’s still plenty up for grabs. The Fiesta Bowl bid K-State is angling for is the biggest. The conference is also in position to snag a second BCS slot—likely to the Sugar, and they also have to settle who gets the league’s bid to the Cotton Bowl—the top non-BCS prize, where the opportunity to play a prestigious opponent—probably LSU or Texas A&M, possibly Alabama—awaits.

Oklahoma is the one team still in position to oust Kansas State from the Fiesta spot, and as our BCS bowl race projections on Monday noted, the Sooners likely control their own destiny to an at-large spot. But the task ahead of them on Saturday is not easy. They pay a visit to TCU (Noon ET, ESPN) in a game with everything at stake.


If it’s possible for a team that’s lost three of five to be on a roll, TCU is that team. Over the past three games, they’ve beaten West Virginia, played well at Kansas State in a loss and then knocked off Texas on Thanksgiving night, a game that ended any hopes that the Longhorn visit to K-State would be a true championship bout.

TCU’s defense has started to show signs of growing back into the type of unit Gary Patterson had the past two years. And the suspension of quarterback Casey Pachall and replacing him with freshman Trevone Boykin has been a blessing in disguise. Boykin’s playing well, and while Pachall was productive, you can’t help but note that the team overall is playing better since the freshman took over.

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Oklahoma has had a year that by anyone’s standards but their own would be a phenomenal success. The only losses are to Kansas State and Notre Dame, and they’ve rang up big numbers offensively, including the last two weeks against West Virginia and Oklahoma State, both narrow escapes by counts of 50-49 and 51-48. But they are not going to win in Fort Worth if Landry Jones has to throw 61 times, the number he’s averaged in these two games. They are not going to win in Fort Worth if the defense is a sieve. And they certainly are not going to win in Fort Worth if Damien Williams rushes anywhere the 11 total yards he had against Oklahoma State—something that’s more the fault of the coaches, who let Jones put up 71 passes and only gave Williams seven carries.

If indeed, OU doesn’t win in Fort Worth, then Kansas State will know its Fiesta Bowl spot is locked up, since the two teams lead the field by two games. But an Oklahoma loss heightens the drama for Texas, because it opens up the BCS at-large spot. The Longhorns are ranked 18th, and while they need to rise four spots to become eligible, a win in Manhattan would surely do that. Then it would just be a question of hoping a MAC team doesn’t become an automatic qualifier (more on that below) and hoping the Sugar Bowl bid preferred 9-3 Texas over a 9-3 Oklahoma or a 10-2 Clemson. All of that is reasonable to hope for, and if nothing else Texas would need to hold off a victorious TCU and potentially a victorious Oklahoma State to ensure the Cotton Bowl bid.

So can Texas do it? Yes, they can. They have the talent to win on the road against a very good team like Kansas State. But you never know what you’ll get out of this Longhorn team. Just when they seemed to be coming on, with wins over Texas Tech and Iowa State, and good play by the defense, they go in the tank against TCU. Now starting quarterback David Ash is questionable with injured ribs—at the very least, Ash isn’t going to start and his emergence over Case McCoy at this spot was the biggest bright spot in the UT season.

But Kansas State has problems of its own. Running back John Hubert has all but disappeared from the offense. He hasn’t rushed for 100 yards since early October against Kansas, and he’s been under 50 each of his last three games. How healthy is Collin Klein? I know the reports say all is well, but ever since he was first banged up, the Wildcat offense hasn’t been the same. If the two weeks he’s had to heal have worked, all is indeed well. If not…Kansas State could be plummeting out of the BCS by night’s end.

If the national championship race has no more room for chaos, the Big 12 can fill the bill. I’m taking outright upsets on both counts here, with TCU and Texas winning.

MID-MAJOR CHAMPIONSHIP ACTION

Three mid-major conferences have championship battles going down. The MAC and Conference USA have formal title games scheduled, while the Sun Belt has seen its race boil down to one final head-to-head game in the last week of the regular season. Here’s a brief rundown on all three…

MAC: Kent State-Northern Illinois (Friday, 7 PM ET, ESPN2): Believe it or not, this one has BCS implications, as we hinted at further up. Kent State is #17, while Northern Illinois is #21. If the winner of this game gets to the Top 16 (and you have to assume Kent would), they become an automatic qualifier, if they rank ahead of at least one BCS conference champ. It would take something dramatic for the Big East champ (the Louisville-Rutgers winner on Thursday) to pass them, particularly given that Kent beat Rutgers decisively.

But NIU making it to the Top 16 is not as certain, and it’s the Huskies who are a 6 ½ point favorite, and have a breathtaking quarterback in Jordan Lynch. The junior signal-caller has completed 64 percent of his passes, averaged better than eight yards per attempt, has a 23/4 TD-INT ratio and oh-by-the-way has rushed for over 1,300 yards. Yeah, I’d say he’s pretty good. And his defense has held four MAC opponents in single digits and only given up 30-plus one time, something that’s an achievement in a league that often resembles flag football.

Kent’s pretty good themselves though and I am surprised they are this substantial of an underdog on a neutral site (the game is at Detroit’s Ford Field). The Golden Flashes run the ball very well, and even with Dri Archer questionable with an ankle injury, Trayion Durham can pick up the slack. Spencer Keith isn’t a spectacular quarterback like Lynch, nor can he run, but he is efficient. The team also plays good defense.

When it comes to the point spread, I have no hesitation about grabbing Kent and the points. The outright winner is a tougher call. NIU has an extraordinary quarterback and has been a little bit better defensively. They’re also battle-tested, in their third straight MAC Championship Game (winning last year, losing in 2010), while Kent is making their first appearance. And on top of all that, I personally just like this team. So why not pick them? Well, I did pick Kent at the start of the season, and other than going undefeated through the league and beating Rutgers, what exactly have they done to lose my respect? For that reason I’ll stick with Kent one last time in an upset that could unbelievably put them in the Orange Bowl.

Conference USA: Central Florida-Tulsa (Saturday, Noon ET, ESPN): UCF was assumed to be on probation all year until just last week when they were made eligible and their hearing deferred to next year when they’ll be in the Big East. They have what I think is a better team than Tulsa, thanks to better quarterback play from Blake Bortles. Both teams run the ball well and the Golden Hurricane holds homefield advantage thanks to a 23-21 win over UCF on this field two weeks ago.

But that was when we thought UCF had nothing to play for. I see the Knights as a team that played competitively at Ohio State, competitively against Missouri and churned through C-USA, with only that game at Tulsa being a loss. They take revenge here and pick up a Liberty Bowl bid.

Sun Belt: Middle Tennessee-Arkansas State (3 PM ET): No TV coverage for this one, not even something like an ESPNU. Normally I’d throw a fit, but honestly Arkansas State looks like the vastly better team even though they are tied in the standings. Arkansas State’s only losses were at Oregon, at Nebraska and a competitive game to Western Kentucky.

The Red Wolves have won six straight by an average of better than two touchdowns a pop. And they’ve padded that average against the quality teams on their schedule, winning programs like UL-Lafayette and UL-Monroe. Middle Tennessee has done a nice job, and won four straight, but the Blue Raiders’ games have been close. They’re a 10-point underdog on the road. I’d definitely take Arkansas State to win and would even consider laying the points.

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