Years from now, when looking back at Kansas State's 2012 season, we might cite Sept. 8 as the day the Wildcats announced their intentions. That's when Kansas State hosted Miami in Manhattan, a Week 2 rematch of last year's 28-24 thriller. Kansas State was tabbed as a dark horse entering the season, Miami a rebuilding project. Despite the Wildcats' No. 21 ranking at the time, few trusted them to dominate the unranked 'Canes.
Then came kickoff. Over the subsequent 60 minutes, Kansas State proceeded to have its way with Miami. The final score was 52-13, but it didn't even feel that close. In a span of a few hours, the Wildcats turned heads from Stillwater to South Beach.
Kansas State may have arrived in Week 2, but it can really make a statement in Week 4, when it travels to Norman to take on No. 6 Oklahoma. Here's an inside look at the much-anticipated Big 12 matchup.
This is the first in a series of games that will determine the Big 12. It's a showdown between two of the nation's premier quarterbacks, the Wildcats' Collin Klein and the Sooners' Landry Jones. But most significantly, it's a telling glimpse at two of the league's unproven contenders. When the top-15 teams square off Saturday night, we'll get a sense for which squad could factor into the national picture late in the season.
Kansas State fans are tired of the dark horse label, and rightfully so. The Wildcats started 7-0 last year and returned the core of their 2011 roster. Klein and running back John Hubert were among the offensive standouts to come back, and each has thrived early in the season: Klein has 905 total yards and nine touchdowns through Week 3, while Hubert is averaging 6.9 yards per carry. K-State is outscoring opponents 138-43.
The Wildcats have also addressed several questions about their defense. In addition to stifling Miami -- they notched three turnovers and five sacks in the win -- they're allowing just 93 rushing yards per game, 19th in the FBS. Arthur Brown, a 6-foot-1, 231-pound senior linebacker, is playing like the top defensive player in the conference. Despite going down with an ankle injury in the first quarter last week against North Texas, he returned to rack up a career-high 13 tackles. He's been cleared to play this week against the Sooners.
On both sides of the ball, the talent is evident. But entering this week's game, many doubters remain.
For starters, the Wildcats have been historically awful against Oklahoma. They've lost each of the past five meetings dating back to 2003, when a diminutive back named Darren Sproles shocked the Sooners in the Big 12 Championship. And Kansas State's 2011 pasting may have been the most painful of all. Watching the highlights of that 58-17 rout, one can almost feel Kansas State's undefeated dreams being trampled into the ground.
There's also the Wildcats' inexperience in the secondary. Though Nigel Malone and Ty Zimmerman are veterans, safety Jarard Milo and cornerback Allen Chapman had never started a game before this year. That could spell trouble against Heisman candidate Jones, who threw for a school-record 505 yards in the teams' 2011 contest. After Kansas State took a 17-14 lead early in the second quarter, Oklahoma rattled off 44 consecutive points. That'd be impressive against any team not named Savannah State.
But for all the history, here's something else to remember: These Sooners also have something to prove. Though they enter as favorites, they're far from a sure thing. Oklahoma struggled against UTEP -- it allowed 108 rushing yards in the third quarter alone -- before pulling away to clinch a 24-7 victory in Week 1. A follow-up demolition of FCS team Florida A&M did little to showcase the Sooners' ultimate potential.
This is a statement game for Bill Snyder and Kansas State, but it's equally vital for Bob Stoops and Co. It's mid-September football at its finest: Two untested teams trying to live up to -- or in K-State's case, finally earn -- BCS-bowl billing.
Has Collin Klein come into his own as a quarterback?
This question may raise some eyebrows given Klein's gaudy stats and status as a first-team All-Big 12 performer last year. But his maturation may be the key to this game -- not to mention the Wildcats' entire 2012 season.
Originally recruited as a quarterback, Klein was moved to wide receiver in 2008 under then-coach Ron Prince. He always possessed the frame (6-5, 226 pounds) and athleticism of a blossoming star, but his throwing motion came under scrutiny; the Prince regime questioned whether he was better served at another position.
After moving back under center, Klein put most of those doubts to rest last year. Named the starter during the preseason, he recorded 1,918 passing yards and 1,141 rushing yards, accounting for 69.8 percent of Kansas State's total offense. But he still completed just 57.3 percent of his passes -- a sign that he still had to develop as a passer.
Given his playing style and his faith (he's outspoken about his Christianity), Klein also garnered comparisons to Tim Tebow. And it's not far off. During his junior campaign, Tebow amassed 3,419 total yards and 42 touchdowns. Last year, Klein collected 3,059 total yards and 40 scores.
But particularly this week, there's a caveat: Klein threw for a meager 58 yards last year against Oklahoma. For the Wildcats to stand a chance this time around, he'll need to fare significantly better. "I'm just gonna play the best that I can possibly play and take the opportunities when they come," said Klein. "Hopefully I won't miss any."
Like Kansas State, Klein is routinely overlooked. Despite upping his completion rate to 72.9 percent through three games this season, he's pegged as a dark horse Heisman candidate -- not of the caliber of Matt Barkley, Geno Smith or Jones. He's an intriguing outsider; he's not yet elite.
Saturday is his chance to change that. Just like the Wildcats, Klein could prompt a major perception shift with a dominant outing against the Sooners.
• Starting speed: Don't let the final scores deceive you. Though Kansas State and Oklahoma appeared to cruise through their cupcake slates, both dealt with far greater issues than an initial look would indicate. The Wildcats were tied with Missouri State before rattling off 35 fourth-quarter points, and they led North Texas by just one point in the third quarter before pulling away. The Sooners were even with UTEP at intermission before outscoring the Miners 17-0 in the second half. Both Big 12 squads will need to start faster Saturday.
• Budding wideouts: Outside of Oklahoma's Kenny Stills, no receivers in this matchup are established game-changers. But three may be poised to break out. Kansas State's Tramaine Thompson already has 211 yards and three touchdowns, while Justin Brown, a Penn State transfer, and freshman Trey Metoyer are big, downfield targets for the Sooners. All three should play pivotal roles from the opening kick.
• Oklahoma's Belldozer package: In last year's matchup with Kansas State, the Sooners unveiled the Belldozer package, a short-yardage set in which 6-6, 254-pound backup quarterback Blake Bell serves as the primary ballcarrier. If it looked familiar to the Wildcats, it should have: Stoops modeled the package after Klein. No longer a surprise, and given the unit's practice experience against Klein, expect K-State's defense to be ready for it in this year's contest. "It definitely gives us a little bit more insight to know what we need to prepare for," said Brown.
SI.com caught up with Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein before this weekend's trip to Norman.
SI: How much is last year's loss to Oklahoma on the team's mind this week?
CK: It's definitely something that we remember, but you got to get rid of the good and the bad in the past. We know that we didn't make some plays in some critical situations last year, and they did. We gotta learn from it and make sure it doesn't happen again.
SI: Is there a key to cracking the Sooners' defense?
CK: We're gonna need to do more than just one aspect to win. We can't turn the ball over. We can't really take any three-and-outs. We're gonna need to make some plays, throwing, catching. I know that sounds like everything, but you're gonna need to do more than one thing against a team like Oklahoma.
SI: How has wideout Tramaine Thompson developed as a junior?
CK: I always joke around -- and it's true -- but my favorite receiver is the open one. He's done a great job of getting himself open and really making some plays for us at some pretty critical times.
SI: After finishing with a 57.3 completion percentage in 2011, you're up to 72.9 percent through three games in 2012. What's sparked your improvement?
CK: I think it's a combination of a lot of work. We, meaning our receivers and myself, we threw a lot of balls over the summer. Working on little facets of the game, whether its footwork or watching film. Then it just comes down to making plays when it matters.
SI: Some in the media have likened you to Tim Tebow. What do you make of that comparison?
CK: I'm honored to be mentioned in the same sentence. I don't wanna speak for Tim, but the thing that's most important to both of us is our faith. I would say that's probably the biggest thing that we have in common. I really appreciate him and what he does.
Even with Klein leading the way, Kansas State doesn't have the firepower Oklahoma does. When Jones, Stills and running back Damien Williams (259 rushing yards, five touchdowns so far) are clicking, the Sooners can become a nightmare to stop -- particularly for a defense that's yet to face a multifaceted attack.
"We understand that Landry Jones is a great quarterback," said Brown. "And he has a lot of great guys around him to complement him. We just have to do a better job at focusing on the things that we accomplish in order to make stops and be successful."
That's easier said than done. And it's even harder to do in Norman. The Sooners are 13-0 in home conference openers under Stoops, outscoring opponents by an average of 22.6 points. They're a remarkable 78-3 at Memorial Stadium since Stoops took over in 1999; that trend doesn't seem likely to change anytime soon.
But expect the Wildcats to make it close. And no matter the outcome, look for Klein to add to his growing Heisman profile -- a résumé that could receive an outpouring of support if Kansas State finds a way to pull off an upset.
"We're gonna play hard for four quarters, and regardless of what happens, we'll go from there," said Klein. "We're just trying to become the best that we can be. This is a great opportunity to continue that."
Prediction: Oklahoma 35, Kansas State 30