The Morning After: How the Big 12 North Will Most Likely Play Out

This ankle: the North's biggest wildcard.

I've compiled some typical "Morning After" links, and I may eventually post them, but...who wants to read 17 different articles about how Mizzou got blown out last night?  We know they got blown out, and we know why.  So for now, we're instead going to go a different direction.

Yesterday, before the game started, here was the line I delivered to more than one person at our tailgate: "After tonight, we'll probably be 2.5 games behind Kansas State with five to go (KSU 3-1, MU 0-3), and I'll still be relatively optimistic about our North title chances.  All week, really, we looked past the Texas game and aimed for the long-term goal of a mid-season turnaround as the schedule lightened up.  Instead of just assuming Missouri will now turn things around, however, let's take a look at the giant mess that is the North division and how things will most likely play out over the coming weeks.  My BTBS numbers will be ready sometime tomorrow, but this isn't about numbers or projections--these are just off-the-cuff observations.

After October 24

Big 12 North Standings
Team Conf. Overall
Kansas State 3-1 5-3
Iowa State 2-2 5-3
Kansas 1-2 5-2
Nebraska 1-2 4-3
Colorado 1-2 2-5
Missouri 0-3 4-3


Congrats to K-State, but the road's about to get rougher...maybe.

October 31

Games

Missouri at Colorado
Nebraska at Baylor
Iowa State at Texas A&M
Kansas at Texas Tech
Kansas State at Oklahoma

Entering next week's game in Boulder, Missouri fans will be pretty damn confident in a win...and Colorado fans will probably be pretty damn confident in a win.  We are banking on a Missouri turnaround, but until it happens, we don't actually know it will happen, right?  Without knowing what the numbers will say, I'm still going to bank on a Missouri win, but clearly confidence isn't at its highest right now.

Meanwhile, the schedule suddenly gets much tougher for K-State after beating three of the conference's four worst teams.  I see no reason why OU won't blow KSU's doors off--Bill Snyder deserves all sorts of recognition for getting KSU to where they are, but...no.

Kansas and Iowa State both play completely schizophrenic teams.  If KU catches the Tech defense that played against ATM last week, they could absolutely pull the road upset.  Meanwhile, ISU is, you guessed it, a salty team, and we have no way to guess which ATM team will show up from week to week.  That said, the most likely scenario in both games is a home win for the South team.

Then there's NU/Baylor.  If Baylor had shown any pulse yesterday, I would absolutely be considering chalking this up as a Bears win, but they didn't.  I think NU rolls.

Most Likely Standings
Team Conf. Overall
Kansas State 3-2 5-4
Nebraska 2-2 5-3
Iowa State 2-3 5-4
Kansas 1-3 5-3
Missouri 1-3 5-3
Colorado 1-3 2-6


So last place is 1.5 games behind first place.  As with the ACC Atlantic, the overall quality may not be great, but it certainly is exciting!

November 7

Games

Kansas at Kansas State
Baylor at Missouri
Texas A&M at Colorado
Oklahoma State at Iowa State
Oklahoma at Nebraska

Four more North vs South battles highlight this week...and that's a very good thing for Missouri.  They get Baylor while ISU and NU get OSU and OU, respectively.  Those three games have pretty likely conclusions--MU, OSU, and OU wins.  That leaves two complete tossups.

At the beginning of the season, it was pretty obvious that KSU likely wasn't going to be able to compete with Kansas this season.  Honestly, I still think Kansas is a better team, though, and by this point in the season experience should start mattering quite a bit.  I think KSU starts to show pretty decent-sized cracks, and KU pulls out a win here.

As for ATM/CU...again, how in the hell do you predict ATM games at this point?  They completely blew up the transitive property by getting humiliated by K-State, then turning around and thumping the team that humiliated K-State!  We're just going to close our eyes and assume the home team wins here--CU gets the nod.

Likely Standings
Team Conf. Overall
Kansas State 3-3 5-5
Kansas 2-3 6-3
Missouri 2-3 6-3
Nebraska 2-3 5-4
Colorado 2-3 3-6
Iowa State 2-4 5-5


Yeah, so with three weeks in the season, it is likely that first place will be a game ahead of last place, and all six North teams' fanbases will be openly (and rather realistically) rooting for a North title...sort of.  This is looking a lot like 2005, where everybody in the division basically said "No no, you win the title...that's okay...I don't want it..." and Colorado drew the short straw and got embarrassed by Texas in the title game.

November 14

Games

Missouri at Kansas State
Colorado at Iowa State
Nebraska at Kansas

In the preseason, the only big game this weekend appeared to be NU-KU.  Now?  All three are pretty much equally huge. That's what happens when the last-place team could move to first in one week.

Here's where the analysis gets pretty shaky--we have no idea who might be hurt and who might be running hot or cold, but my (biased) gut says MU > KSU, ISU > CU, and KU > NU.  I want to think that MU still has a significant enough athleticism advantage to win, especially if Blaine Gabbert is (gasp) actually healthy by this point, but I'm just going with the home team in the other two games because they are complete and total mysteries.  These picks are made with almost no confidence whatsoever, but to complete this exercise, we're going with that.

Likely Standings
Team Conf. Overall
Kansas 3-3 7-3
Missouri 3-3 7-3
Iowa State 3-4 6-5
Kansas State 3-4 5-6
Nebraska 2-4 5-5
Colorado 2-4 3-7


And with two weeks to go, first place is STILL only a game ahead of last place.  If these three games all go the other way (which, let's face it, is quite possible), then K-State leads at 4-3, with NU and CU at 3-3, KU and MU at 2-4, and ISU at 2-5.  That would more openly define the possible division winners and losers--ISU would be out, and KU and MU would be all but out.  Huge week for all teams involved here.  And if ISU's going to qualify for a bowl, this is the week they will probably do it.

November 21

Games

Iowa State at Missouri
Kansas State at Nebraska
Kansas at Texas
Colorado at Oklahoma State

Here's where the home teams could pretty well establish themselves.  This is much less of a tossup week than November 14--MU should win, KU and CU should lose, and NU should win...though they should have won yesterday too.  KSU-NU is the closest tossup here.

(And have you noticed something?  This is three straight weeks where KSU is involved in a tossup.  I don't have a lot of faith in them overall, but they really could run away with this thing if they're better than I think.)

Likely Standings
Team Conf. Overall
Missouri 4-3 8-3
Kansas 3-4 7-4
Nebraska 3-4 6-5
Iowa State 3-5 6-6
Kansas State 3-5 5-7
Colorado 2-5 3-8


So Kansas State probably comes up short, going 0-3 in deciding games against KU, MU, and Nebraska...but all three of those predictions are shaky.  If they win any of those three and get to the clubhouse at 4-4, look out.  (It's also worth noting that a 4-4/6-6 K-State game would not be bowl-eligible because they have two 1-AA wins, and only one can count toward eligibility.  That means that the North champion technically might not be bowl-eligible. Yeah.)

November 27/28

Games

Nebraska at Colorado
Kansas vs Missouri

So let's check the scenarios here:

CU > NU and MU > KU: MU wins at 5-3
CU > NU and KU > MU: KU and MU tie at 4-4, KU wins the North.
NU > CU and MU > KU: MU wins at 5-3
NU > CU and KU > MU: Three-way tie at 4-4.  The round-robin record has KU 2-0, NU 1-1, and MU 0-2.  KU wins the North.

In other words, the MU-KU winner wins the North, and NU-CU doesn't matter.  The MU-KU winner is sacrificed at the Texas alter, and no matter what, MU, KU and NU are the three bowl-eligible teams.  So that means I don't actually have to make any predictions!  Nice.

The Wildcards

With at least one of the November 27/28 scenarios above, the North champion is 4-4.  That means that it's not out of the realm of possibility that any of the six North teams could win, depending on what kind of tie there is at 4-4 and who wins tie-breakers.  The predictions I made above were just to allow the scenario to play out as much as anything, so don't take them too seriously.  Technically anybody has a chance to win this thing, so with that in mind, let's take a look at the biggest wildcard for each of the North teams--what is their biggest key to winning the division. 

Colorado

In the above scenario, they could beat Nebraska to get to 3-5, meaning they need to find one more win for 4-4.  With their game at Oklahoma State a likely loss, that means they basically need to go 2-2 versus NU, MU, @ISU, and ATM.  Absolutely doable.  You know how I feel about Colorado as a whole--they stink--but at this stage I freely acknowledge how wrong I could be.  Nothing has played out as expected this year, and if they figure out how to take a step forward and, even if they lose in Ames, go 2-1 at home against three beatable teams (NU, MU, ATM), they could somehow win the North.

I say the biggest wildcard for Colorado is their defensive line.  Leaving the ATM game aside (because I have no idea how to predict that game), the key to beating both Missouri and Nebraska will be not allowing their running games to get going and getting pressure on their respective QBs.  I do think NU has the best defense in the North and MU the second-best (I still say Mizzou's front seven played damn well yesterday, but they got no help from the secondary or offense), and CU's iffy (to put it kindly) offense can't be expected to put up many points.  That means they have to win a low-scoring battle, and both of these offenses can be stopped...if their offensive lines can't get established.  The CU D-line is by far the least proven unit on their defense, and if they step up, they could win the North.

Iowa State

The above scenario places ISU at 3-5, meaning they need to scrounge up another win to have a chance.  The most likely candidates for that win are @ATM or Colorado.  What these two teams have in common is...well, basically nothing.  ATM is much better on offense than defense, and Colorado is, if anything, the opposite.  ISU won yesterday without their starting quarterback or running back, and they did it with defense and turnovers (and luck...plenty of luck).  Honestly, it took every bit of eight turnovers (including a couple that ISU really had no hand in causing whatsoever...they just sort of happened) to win at Lincoln, and I'm thinking ISU's chances will hinge mostly on turnovers and special teams.  The little things.

ISU's simply not as fast or talented as some other teams in the division, but they're salty, and they've already won a game because of turnovers (NU) and lost a game because of special teams (KSU...remember, they're a blocked PAT from potentially beating KSU in OT and leading the division outright).  If they win the North, it's going to be because they hung around, played fundamentally sound, kept games close, and pulled out wins late.

Kansas

Again, I have to ask: if Mark Mangino's Kansas experienced, "Reesing and best WRs ever" squad finishes below Gary Pinkel's "25-30 freshmen and sophomores on the two-deep and a one-legged QB" squad, is he still going to be viewed as a better coach?  We both know the answer is "probably," simply because it seemingly takes years to change ingrained storylines.

That said, as October turns to November, experience could make the difference in the North, and KU has more of it than anybody else.  Because of everybody else's struggles, they could still win the North despite going 0-3 versus the South AND handing Colorado a win in Boulder.  But the key to doing so has to be a defense that certainly improved in giving up only 337 yards to Oklahoma but has still given up above-season-average outputs to Iowa State (512 yards!), Colorado (322), Southern Miss (395, technically slight below their season average, but a BCS team should be giving up significantly less), and Duke (394).  We knew the Kansas front seven might struggle here and there, but the secondary was supposed to be a lot better than it is, and to me, that starts with Darrell Stuckey.  He's certainly been decent this year--47.5 tackles, 1 FF, 1 INT, 2.5 TFL--but he hasn't met the bar he set with his play down the stretch.  This defense needs leadership, and if the D improves, the O is certainly good enough to win the North, even with Todd Reesing having had a piss poor couple of weeks.

Kansas State

Kansas State has won three conference games--one with decent offense and a blocked PAT (ISU), one with an unstoppable offense (ATM), and one with a dominant defense (CU).  That either means they're a) well-rounded or b) inconsistent and getting kind of lucky.  With the fact that a) they're +8 in turnovers during their wins, recovering 9 of 13 fumbles, and b) their one loss was a complete demolition at the hands of Texas Tech, in which they were outgained 739-284...well, you see where I'm going with this.  If they win the turnover battle and get a lead, their running game is good enough to shorten the game and sneak out with a win, but they're simply not good enough to just line up and beat teams like KU, MU and NU without some breaks.  Therefore, we're going with the same wildcard as with Iowa State--turnovers and special teams.  They'll need some breaks, but there's nothing saying they won't get those breaks.

Missouri

Blaine Gabbert's ankle.  To me, this is potentially the most obvious and impactful of all the wildcards.  Now's another good time to bring up this:

Blaine Gabbert Pre-Injury: 92-for-139 (66.2%), 1,192 yards (8.6 per pass), 11 TD, 0 INT
Blaine Gabbert Post-Injury: 42-for-95 (44.2%), 512 yards (5.4 per pass), 2 TD, 5 INT

Naturally, the "Yeah, but the opposing defenses improved too" disclaimer applies, but honestly, for much of the remaining schedule the defenses more closely resemble those of Illinois and Nevada than Texas and Nebraska.  A healthy Gabbert won't post a 66% completion rate and TD-INT ratio of infinity the rest of the way, but I think it's fair to say that at the very least, he could be expected to split the difference--55% completion rate or more, 7.0 yards per pass or above, 2-1 TD-INT ratio or higher.  If Gary Pinkel is correct, and Gabbert didn't get further injured yesterday, then he should be at least at 80% healthy by next weekend.  That is the key.  If Gabbert is able to do what he does--throw accurate mid-range passes, scramble out of a collapsing pocket to at least sometimes produce something positive--then no defense left on the schedule is even remotely scary.  And if Missouri can combine that with solid defensive play (hopefully yesterday's miscommunication in the secondary is not a harbinger of future struggle), then they can rather easily run the table and finish 5-3.  If Gabbert continues to hobble and we either get a gimpy Gabbert or healthy Jimmy Costello, then 5-3 is technically still possible, but it becomes a major grind.  I do still think that Missouri has the highest ceiling in this division, but between youth and Gabbert's ankle (it really is hard to imagine that Mizzou's not at least 1-2 right now with a healthy Gabbert, with at least a chance at 2-1), nothing has been or will be easy.

Nebraska

This one's pretty obvious too.  If NU and ISU play ten times in Lincoln, NU probably wins at least 7-8 times.  It took every bit of eight turnovers for NU to lose that game, and NU's simply not going to have any more -8 turnover differential games.  That said, this still isn't a very good team.  Their defense is only average outside of the defensive line, and their offense is one giant question mark.  The wildcard, of course, is at quarterbackZac Lee made three nice passes all game against Missouri, but with Mizzou struggling on offense, it was enough.  Against Tech and Iowa State, when they needed to make a play, they were completely incapable of doing so with either Lee or Cody Green at QB.  I think we all expect Green to win the job at some point, but let's not pretend that he's an obvious difference-maker.  If he were, then Lee wouldn't have played against ISU.  Whoever the QB is, it is clear that the running game and defensive line are not good enough to automatically beat KSU at home, much less win at Baylor, Kansas or Colorado.  With a likely loss to OU on the horizon (though with as crazy as this season has been, an upset wouldn't surprise me), NU will need to win all four of the other games to get to 5-3 and three of four to finish 4-4.  They're certainly talented enough to do that, but a quarterback will need to make a play, and it's pretty clear that Lee's fourth-quarter against Missouri was the exception, not the rule.  With good QB play, NU probably wins the North, but what is the likelihood of that?  It's possible, but at this point it certainly isn't probable.

Summary

Let's look at the wildcards again:

Colorado: Defensive Line
Iowa State: Special Teams and Turnovers
Kansas: Darrell Stuckey and the Secondary
Kansas State: Special Teams and Turnovers
Missouri: Blaine Gabbert's Ankle
Nebraska: Quarterback play

Looking at the evidence on hand, I'd say that KU and MU have the best shots at the division, simply because their wildcards are a bit more in their control.  Kansas did start to play better in the secondary against OU (albeit against Landry Jones and a still-only-okay receiving corps), and Blaine Gabbert's ankle will get better.  The question for both teams is, how quickly will those things improve?  Can Mizzou beat Colorado without a healthy Gabbert?  Possibly.  Can KU win at K-State if Stuckey and the DBs aren't playing well?  Possibly.

So many teams control their own destiny in the North, and it really is anybody's race.  Every fanbase has reason for hope.  But if Missouri can get Gabbert rolling and generate some confidence, I still really like their chances...and I guess reassuring myself was half the reason for writing this post, huh? Isn't that the point of Positivity Week?

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