Non conference schedules are now complete across the Big 12 and while it can be difficult to make predictions based on how bad teams beat opponents from the Sun Belt, the Wac and Conference USA, things look like they could be much trickier for Kansas in winning the North than many might have first expected.
As expected there are three contenders and after 4 games I have to believe that all three based on scheduling down the stretch have a very real shot. I'd go so far as to say that Kansas may face the toughest road down the stretch with Missouri and Nebraska VERY deserving of being in the conversation. Still, it's there for the taking if Kansas makes the next step forward in this program's evolution.
First up there is Nebraska. The Huskers are 3-1 with the one loss coming to the current #6 team in the country in Virginia Tech on the road. During that loss the Huskers line play was fairly impressive. They also were effectively running the ball against the Hokies surpassing 200 yards on the ground as a team. Where the Huskers stumbled was in their passing game where the Hokies rank #7 in the country defensively. #7 in the country against the pass after playing Alabama, Nebraska and Miami so that's a pretty legit ranking.
With that in mind the Nebraska schedule breaks out as follows.
@Missouri, Texas Tech, Iowa State, @Baylor, Oklahoma, @Kansas, Kansas State and @Colorado.
Now let's assume for Kansas to have any shot at winning the North they will have to take care of the Huskers at home. For that reason, @Kansas is a loss for the Huskers. By no means is that an easy one, but for the sake of argument in this instance Kansas will have to win that to win the North.
The bad news is that still doesn't asure Kansas the North by any stretch of the imagination. Looking at the schedule and penciling in Colorado, ISU and K-State as wins that leaves 4 more potential stumbling blocks for the Huskers. The game in Waco is now looking a little less dangerous for the Huskers so I'll pencil that one as a win to go along with Texas Tech at home although who knows with the Red Raiders. That leaves Nebraska at 4-1 with a game @Missouri and at home against Oklahoma. Assuming they lose one of those two that leaves Nebraska at a potential 6-2 in conference play with a worst case scenario of 5-3.
Moving on to Missouri. I've never bought into the notion that Missouri would not contend this year and while the opponents haven't been overly impressive, parts of Missouri have. Blaine Gabbert is good, and his arm strength can keep plays dangerous when other quarterbacks would simply have to throw it away or take a sack. Their running game has been curiously absent at times as has the defense, but I'm not overlooking the talent they do put on the field. The Tigers are young, but they are also talented.
Missouri's conference schedule breaks out as follows.
Nebraska, @Oklahoma State, Texas, Colorado, Baylor, @Kansas State, Iowa State, Kansas.
Again let's assume the Tigers lose to Kansas just like Nebraska because Kansas will have to win this head to head to win the North. Any Tiger fans reading this, I'm not assuming we win because I'm overly confident that we do, I'm assuming we win for the sake of the analysis and our chances at the North. Simply put, I think Kansas is going to have to beat Missouri to win the North.
Moving on, wins against Colorado, Kansas State and Iowa State make for a 3-1 record. Once again a Baylor team at home is less dangerous now than a week ago so pencil that one in as a win for the Tigers. Lastly I'll mark Texas as a loss because I think they are the cream of the crop in the Big 12 this year. That puts Missouri at 4-2 with @OSU and Nebraska to go. My opinion of Oklahoma State isn't nearly as high as it was early in the year so I do think that game in Stillwater is winnable for the Tigers. Throw in a win against Nebraska and we could be looking at a Missouri team who like the Huskers is 6-2 in conference play. This seems like slightly more of a stretch but certainly possible.
Ultimately if the scenario plays out where Missouri beats the Huskers and OSU, while the Huskers beat Oklahoma in Lincoln, then we could very easily see both these teams at 6-2. This would be a bad scenario for Kansas.
Which brings us to our Jayhawks. Schedule breaks down as follows.
Iowa State, @Colorado, Oklahoma, @Texas Tech, @Nebraska, Texas, Missouri.
We've already assumed a sweep of the North. Not because I'm an arrogant fan but it's realistically the only way we win the North barring a trip up by a good Husker or Tiger squad elsewhere on their schedule. I'm also going to assume a loss in Austin because again this is the best team in the Big 12 right now and it's going to be tough to come out of Austin with a win.
That leaves the Jayhawks needing to take one out of two against their remaining south opponents in Oklahoma or Texas Tech. If Kansas wins one of two and handles business in the North then they have the divisional championship. Stumble in both of those which is very much a possibility and Kansas could be looking at a 5-3 record, a sweep of the North and still possibly finishing either 2nd or 3rd depending on how the others shake out. What's more concerning is that this already assumes wins in two 50/50 games against the Huskers and Tigers which is far from a certainty.
If you're keeping score at home basically what this means is Kansas will need a 10-2 record, 6-2 in conference with a sweep of the north to feel reasonably secure in winning a divisional crown. That's a tall order and would be quite an accomplishment.
One thing is for certain whoever does come out of the North will have earned it. In reality Kansas is going to need some help. Even if Kansas takes care of business in the North they might need someone to go into Lincoln or Columbia and get a win when it isn't expected. That's certainly a possibility but life is a lot less stressful when you aren't hoping for things like that to happen.
I'm interested in everyone else's thoughts on this during our bye week. I've got a feeling it's going to be a wild 8 week ride so grab hold because things are about to get interesting, and it could be very likely that this thing won't be settled until Arrowhead.