Three most critical games for K-State, KU and Mizzou
Every college football season features at least one big turning point, for better or worse. For Kansas State, Kansas and Missouri, it's not a question of '"if," but of "when" ...
THE THREE MOST CRITICAL GAMES THIS FALL FOR THE METRO'S "BIG THREE" COLLEGE FOOTBALL PROGRAMS
:03 ... KANSAS STATE: at Texas, September 21
This particular pot didn't need any more stirring, but Wildcats linebacker Tre Walker stirred it anyway, raising eyebrows at Big 12 media days by accusing the Longhorns of having "laid down" during their 2012 showdown (a 42-24 K-State win). It figures to be a study in contrasts, too: The team with the least starting experience returning in the league (the Wildcats) meets the Big 12 team with the most (the Longhorns). So, will the conference opener for both schools signal the continuation of a trend -- K-State has won five straight in the series -- or a passing of the torch? Texas is expected to be Oklahoma State's stiffest challenge for the Big 12 crown, so the Wildcats could make a statement, a declaration even, by snatching another victory in Austin. It could be a crucial statement, too: Following a Sept. 28 bye, K-State visits Stillwater on Oct. 5 and hosts an explosive Baylor crew on Oct. 12.
Season over/under: 8.5 wins.
Gut feeling: Under. It's hard to quantify the losses of Collin Klein, Arthur Brown, Chris Harper, Meshak Williams, etc. But you doubt coach Bill Snyder, the Jedi Master, at your peril. The schedule is soft early and manageable late, which means the tilts in the middle could very well determine the Wildcats' postseason fate.
:02 ... KANSAS: at Rice, September 14
What Jayhawk Nation needs most is reassurance, signs that the train is moving forward again after a train wreck of a 2012 campaign that ended with 10 straight defeats. South Dakota figures to be a safe home opener, so the first real test of faith hits during Week 2 with a visit to the Owls; Rice stunned the Jayhawks in Lawrence a year ago, 25-24, on a 45-yard field goal as time expired. KU hasn't won on the road -- non-conference or otherwise -- since a 34-7 victory at UTEP in September 2009. Coach Charlie Weis is trying to put a number of ugly losing skids to bed; winning in Houston could take care of an awfully, awfully big one, right out of the chute. It could also pave the way to a 3-0 start in September -- the kind of momentum a rebuilding program could desperately use as a springboard, especially with a winnable home game against Texas Tech on the docket October 5 to open the Big 12 portion of the slate.
Season over/under: 4.5 wins.
Gut feeling: Under. Still, coming off 1-11, any record better than 2-10 ought to be embraced as welcome progress. Despite a slew of junior college imports, especially on the defensive side of the ball, KU's climb out of the Big 12 cellar probably won't happen overnight. But seven home games are a plus: Before their late-November collapse, the Jayhawks were fairly salty in Lawrence, dropping four home tilts to Rice, TCU, Oklahoma State and Texas by an average margin of just 6.25 points.
:01 ... MISSOURI: at Vanderbilt, October 5.
You could make a strong case for the Sept. 21 visit to improving Indiana here, and Toledo (Sept. 7) returns 70 percent of its letter-winners from a bunch that went 9-4 a year ago. But with a three-game October stretch of Georgia, Florida and South Carolina looming over back-to-back-to-back weeks, going 1-0 in the Southeastern Conference would get a very large monkey -- to say nothing of Mizzou fans -- off coach Gary Pinkel's back. There's the payback factor, too, as seemingly everything that could go wrong for the Tigers when Vandy visited last fall did: No Will Ebner at linebacker, and first-quarter injuries to quarterback James Franklin and return ace Marcus Murphy kept the offense from ever reaching second gear, let alone third. These aren't your father's Commodores -- Vandy, on paper, has the pieces in place to challenge for a third straight bowl appearance -- but Nashville is arguably the least intimidating home environment in the SEC. Plus, Mizzou fans have had this one circled for a while, for the tourism purposes, if nothing else, and should be out in force. An oh-fer over four games in October could make Pinkel's already-toasty seat intolerably hot.
Season over/under: 5.5 wins.
Gut feeling: Over. The SEC is unforgiving and unrelenting enough, but the Tigers were often their own worst enemy, having outgained the Gators and Bulldogs on the road and at home, respectively. If it wasn't for bad luck last fall, Mizzou wouldn't have had any luck at all. It'd be hard to picture karma kicking Pinkel the way it did a year ago, week after week, you'd think. At least, you'd hope.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at email@example.com.