Chris Klieman’s Wildcats earned a spot in the Big 12 championship game by winning their final game of the regular season against the Kansas Jayhawks. I predicted a 9-3 record for K-State before the season and that is how they finished. The only discrepancy is that I had them beating Tulane and TCU and losing to Oklahoma State and Baylor. I had the final record correct, but not all the games. Hey, nobody is perfect!
At the beginning of his tenure, I did not expect Chris Klieman to win a Big 12 championship after four years. It is possible on Saturday, and it is very exciting to see K-State back in this position. I have been to K-State’s Big 12 championship games, which have mostly been a lot of fun. If the Wildcats win on Saturday, they will join Oklahoma as the only program to win a conference championship in all three iterations of the Big 12. That would be quite an accomplishment for the program.
This K-State/TCU match-up is an intriguing game that I think could go either way. TCU won the last game between the two on October 22nd, 38 to 28. K-State jumped to a 28-10 lead but could not hold on for the win. Starting quarterback Adrian Martinez was injured during the first series of the game, forcing Will Howard to come in to replace him. Howard led the Wildcats to four straight touchdown drives but got injured, forcing third-string quarterback Jake Rubley into the game. Howard eventually came back in, but TCU had a 38-28 lead by that time, and the Wildcats could never get anything going to get back in the game.
Assuming K-State is healthy for the entire game Saturday, the outcome might be different this go-around. Here are a handful of reasons that I think K-State may be crowned Big 12 champions on Saturday.
1) Will Howard
Will Howard has played exceptionally in relief of starter Adrian Martinez. He is 4th in the Big 12 in completion percentage (62.9%), 2nd in completion percentage of passes 10 yards or more (56.4%), and 1st in yards per attempt (9.3%). Howard is undefeated as K-State’s starting quarterback this season, and K-State has won those games by an average of 28 points. I am picking the hot hand to win. Until he doesn’t.
2) K-State’s Defense
K-State has the top “points allowed” defense in the Big 12, allowing opponents only 19.4 points per game. The Wildcat defense will be tested again against TCU, who has the top scoring average in the Big 12 at 41.3 points per game. As the adage goes, something has to give here. Another adage is defense wins championships. Even though K-State is battling through some injuries in the secondary, losing safeties Kobe Savage and Cincere Mason for the season, they have continued to play well as a unit. Stopping TCU’s passing attack will be a challenge, but it is a challenge that they are up for.
3) Malik Knowles
K-State wide receiver Malik Knowles has been a difference maker the last few games for K-State, and it is coming at the right time. He had 183 all-purpose yards against Kansas with two rushing touchdowns and 111 receiving yards and a touchdown against West Virginia the previous game. Knowles has also been close to breaking a couple of kickoff returns. In fact, I think he might have a touchdown return this week.
4) Ty Zentner
Zentner has been doing triple duty for K-State, kicking off, punting, and kicking field goals. K-State missed two field goals in the first game against TCU, which may have cost them the game. Since replacing Chris Tennant after that game, Zentner has not missed a field goal. If this is a close game like I think it might be, the kicking game will be a huge factor. K-State is in good shape with Zentner.
5) Deuce Vaughn
Deuce Vaughn has been consistently performing every week for K-State. He has the potential to score a touchdown every time he touches the ball, and he could be the “x factor” in this game. That said, TCU has a great running back of their own in Kendre Miller, who had 153 yards rushing in the first game between these two teams. Neither team’s defense is particularly great against the run, but Vaughn’s explosiveness may be the difference in this game.
K-State’s defense will have to slow down Max Duggan, Kendre Miller, wide receiver Quentin Johnson, and returner Derius Davis in order to win. All of these players make TCU’s offense very dangerous. The Horned Frogs just scored 62 points on Iowa State, in case you doubted that. Moving the ball also will not be easy, as TCU has first-team all-Big 12 talent at linebacker and in the secondary. Regardless, the Wildcats were able to move the ball in the first meeting against TCU, and I think they will be able to in this game, too. K-State gets its third Big 12 championship on Saturday. K-State 44 TCU 40.