WACO — Collin Klein and Kansas State are two wins away from almost certainly playing for the school’s first national championship.
The Heisman Trophy front-running quarterback graces the cover of the latest “Sports Illustrated,” and the second-ranked Wildcats are headed to Texas for the second Saturday night in a row — this time to play a Baylor team still trying to get bowl eligible after losing its Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback to the NFL.
Drop one of their last two regular-season games, and the Wildcats (10-0, 7-0 Big 12), the No. 1 team in the latest BCS rankings, know their title dreams will likely be out of reach.
“(Focus) is a pretty fragile thing. If you don’t take care of business, any team in our conference and any team is capable of beating you. We understand that,” Klein said. “It’s about having that mindset to be the best you can possibly be. We’ve been able to learn a lot of lessons while still winning. And that’s a great thing to be able to do. We all believe we haven’t played our best game yet, and that’s what we’re striving for.”
K-State is coming off its lowest-scoring game of the season, outgained offensively by TCU in a 23-10 win. Klein was held under 200 total yards for the first time this season, though he still ran for two touchdowns after coming out of the previous game early because of an apparent head injury.
After only one turnover the previous six games, the Wildcats had two against the Frogs. There was even the first touchdown allowed after such a miscue this season, though they have still outscored opponents 114-7 off turnovers.
“What happens is as you progress during the season, you have more and more exposure to what you do, and so consequently, opponents have more to study, more to define who we are, just like we have more to define in regards to who they are,” coach Bill Snyder said. “There’s an equivalency factor there.”
With a win at Baylor, the Wildcats would clinch at least a share of the Big 12 championship and the league’s automatic berth into the Bowl Championship Series. They want more than only a BCS game — they want to be in the title game.
The last time they were this close was 1998, when they got to 11-0 in the regular season before losing to Texas A&M in the Big 12 championship game that no longer exists. They have Thanksgiving week off before ending the regular season at home Dec. 1 against 18th-ranked Texas.
Baylor (4-5, 1-5) has to win two of its last three games for bowl eligibility after posting 10 victories last year in the Bears’ final season with Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III.
When the Bears won at home 47-42 against K-State two years ago, they became bowl eligible for the first time in 16 years. Now they’re still trying to get into a postseason game for the third year in a row.
“The thing that still inspires us, first of all: We do have an opportunity to get where we need to get,” coach Art Briles said. “Secondly, we think we’re getting better as a football team. We certainly feel like we’re better right now than we were the fourth game of the season; that’s the encouraging part. ... Getting bowl eligible is certainly within our reach. We know it’s also a tough reach, too.”
Nick Florence has more yards passing and one more touchdown rushing than RG3 had at the same point last season, but the Bears have lost three games by eight points or less. They still have matchups left against Texas Tech and Oklahoma State.
“It’s an opportunity, and everyone’s kind of wrote us off,” senior right guard Cameron Kaufhold said. “This is a chance for us to show everyone we’re still here.”
K-State won 36-35 at home last year, turning a late interception by Griffin into a go-ahead field goal.
RG3 successor Florence is the FBS leader for total offense (395 yards per game) and yards passing per game (355). The Bears have the nation’s top receiver in Terrance Williams at 159 yards per game and have scored at least 41 points in six outings.
“I do not know of a team that has struggled in the win-loss standpoint that has been as effective and dynamic on offense as this football team,” Snyder said. “There is a lot of balance there, and it is a very dynamic offense.”
The big problem for the Bears is that while having the Big 12’s top overall offense (564 yards per game) and second-highest scoring team (42.7 ppg), they let opponents almost match those numbers. Baylor is last in the conference in allowing 520 yards per game.
Kansas State outscores its opponents by an average margin of about 25 points.
As for that SI cover, Klein described it as “pretty cool” to see.
‘’You always see that kind of stuff growing up,” Klein said. “At the same time, I am just trying to take care of mine and our business here. Just trying to take one more step.”