First impressions are important, but they aren't permanent. As Iowa State sits on the verge of clinching a berth in the Big 12 Championship Game, I think back to its season-opening loss to Louisiana as a good example. I wasn't surprised that the Cyclones lost that game, but my big takeaway was that they weren't good enough to really make noise in the Big 12 Championship Game race, let alone win it all.
Boy, was I wrong.
Let me explain. My rationale was that while the 31-14 score was misleading -- the Ragin' Cajuns had two special teams touchdowns and one explosive 78-yard score -- an otherwise evenly-played game was still a problem for Iowa State. Should the Cyclones really be going blow-for-blow with a Sun Belt opponent if they're going to be one of the two best teams in the Big 12?
As it turns out, though, Louisiana is pretty damn good, too, and headed towards a Sun Belt title game rematch with Coastal Carolina. The Cyclones were also missing top tight end Charlie Kolar that day. And it was the first game of 2020. Who knows with these teams sometimes?
That's not to say that the Louisiana loss doesn't matter now, but not when it comes to the Big 12 race. Iowa State has capitalized on a rare window by beating Oklahoma early in the year when the Sooners were more vulnerable and then inching past Texas over Thanksgiving weekend on a short week. Running back Breece Hall's "five-star culture vs. five-star players" money quote has become the unofficial M.O. of the Cyclones' 2020 season. Coach Matt Campbell has almost always had his team ready to play big games, but this is the first time the Cyclones have topped the Sooners and Longhorns in the same year.
Iowa State against Oklahoma and Texas since 2016 when Matt Campbell took over: 4-6.— Ralph D. Russo (@ralphDrussoAP) November 27, 2020
Iowa State against Oklahoma and Texas before 2016: 8-87-2.
Iowa State has clinched at least a share of the Big 12 regular-season title, but hasn't won a conference championship since 1912. To be clear, there's still some work to be done before it can break that streak. But the Cyclones, ranked No. 9 in the latest College Football Playoff poll, are in good position to do that. It starts with the final regular-season game against West Virginia. Speaking of which ...
West Virginia at No. 9 Iowa State
I'm not particularly worried that the Cyclones will look toward the end zone before catching the ball, if you catch my drift. This is a good defensive battle and the score should reflect that. If taking the under on the 49.5 point total is your thing, I don't think it's a bad play. The key for me is that while West Virginia's offense has been better, it's mostly been better at home against so-so competition. Conversely, it hasn't traveled well and the Mountaineers would need to prove otherwise for me to ride with them. Pick: Iowa State -6.5
No. 15 Oklahoma State at TCU
You smell that? We have a stinky line in Fort Worth, Texas, folks. This has all the makings of a Gary Patterson Special since he's coached some tight ones against Oklahoma State. The Cowboys aren't eliminated from the Big 12 title game race yet, but the odds are slim. There could be a matter of want-to at play. But TCU hasn't been all that impressive and if Oklahoma State is ready to play it should cover a small spread on the road. Look out for this one, though. Pick: Oklahoma State -1
Kansas at Texas Tech
The Jayhawks have allowed at least 50 points in their last four games. Texas Tech needs something to feel good about to cap off a disappointing year. Kansas has been reliable if you love banging overs and there could be an added level of weirdness for two bad teams trying out some new looks down the stretch. Pick: Over 63.5
Texas at Kansas State
This has a classic K-State covertown vibe to it. Yeah, the Wildcats are falling out of the winning tree and hitting every branch on the way down, but Texas coach Tom Herman is now firmly dealing with Urban Meyer rumors. Some of the Longhorns' best players are opting out of the season, too. There's a bit of dread associated with this game if you're Texas. Even if you don't think K-State can pull the outright upset, the hook should be enough to take the points. Pick: Kansas State +7
Baylor at No. 11 Oklahoma
Baylor has been feistier over the past month and it worked out against K-State last week ... but they're not playing that well. Oklahoma is and I'd fully expect a comfortable victory in Norman. About the only thing you'd have to worry about is a garbage time back door cover from the Bears. Pick: Oklahoma -21.5
1. Oklahoma (6-2, 5-2): The Sooners are back to playing murder machine football. After an unexpected open week due to COVID-19 issues, they're back at home against Baylor. Oklahoma could be a little shorthanded on staff -- former coach Bob Stoops has been helping at practice -- but it should handle the Bears easily.
2. Iowa State (7-2, 7-1): All that stands between the Cyclones and their first Big 12 Championship Game is a home matchup with West Virginia. What a remarkable job Campbell has done there.
3. Oklahoma State (6-2, 5-2): The win vs. Texas Tech was a more traditional Big 12 game. I wonder a bit about this team's want-to as it heads on the road for its final two games, but talent-wise this is still a top-three Big 12 team.
4. Texas (5-3, 4-3): Texas isn't the only blue blood to have a disappointing year, but it's disturbing how similar this feels to every other year from the last decade. The Longhorns program is stale and now some of its best players are opting out of the rest of the year. This team is still good enough to beat Kansas State, but if it doesn't? That has to be lights out for Tom Herman.
5. West Virginia (5-3, 4-3): The Mountaineers have the defense to pull off a surprise upset at Iowa State, but do they have the offense? They're better on that side of the ball, but with an average of 17.7 points in road games this year they haven't traveled particularly well.
6. TCU (4-4, 4-4): TCU has typically struggled at Kansas ... not this time. The Frogs took care of business and are only slight home dogs against Oklahoma State. TCU's season has been pretty "meh" but this is a chance for an unexpected win. A Dec. 12 game against Louisiana Tech has also been added to the slate.
7. Baylor (2-5, 2-5): The Bears capitalized on getting a downtrodden K-State squad for their second win. That might be all that's in store for this team, but for as poorly as the year started for Baylor, it's not given up.
8. Texas Tech (3-6, 2-6): Coach Matt Wells has taken some licks from the fanbase this year, but he made some aggressive calls against Oklahoma State that, at this point in the season, I think you have to make. The Red Raiders need to beat Kansas on Saturday and move on to 2021.
9. Kansas State (4-5, 4-4): The loss to Baylor was K-State's fourth straight and no Big 12 team has had a more stark contrast from start to finish. But, hey, this team gets a deflated Texas team at home, so there's a chance to end the year on a high note.
10. Kansas (0-8. 0-7): The Jayhawks have to play two more games and that feels like two games too many. Pack it in.