Two of the most surprising teams in the Big 12 square off in Saturday’s regular-season finale, in what is one of the most underrated rivalries in college football. Iowa State and Kansas State will meet for the 101st consecutive season Saturday, making it the longest uninterrupted series in college football.
The Cyclones (7-4, 5-3 Big 12) are coming off of a 23-13 win over Baylor last week and lead the series with the Wildcats 49-47-9 but have lost nine in a row to them. Bowl eligible for the first time since 2012, Iowa State could get back in the win column in the series this year. Kansas State (6-5, 4-4) was considered a preseason Big 12 dark horse, but the Wildcats have had their issues in close games, with four of their losses coming by no more than a touchdown. However, Bill Snyder’s team upset Oklahoma State 45-40 last week, securing a bowl bid for the eighth straight year and setting the stage for what should be a tightly contested battle in Manhattan.
Iowa State at Kansas State
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 25 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN2
Spread: Kansas State -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Musical quarterbacks
The quarterback position has been a revolving door for both teams this season. At Iowa State, Jacob Park started the first four games but hasn’t played since September for personal reasons. Park’s absence allowed walk-on Kyle Kempt to step up, and he led the Cyclones to four straight wins, including a pair of top-10 victories over Oklahoma and TCU, before losing twice and suffering a shoulder injury. Former starter Joel Lanning, now the starting middle linebacker and the second-leading tackler in the Big 12 with 103 total stops, has seen limited time behind center, primarily as a runner in short-yardage situations. Freshman Zeb Noland relieved Kempt against the Cowboys (throwing for 263 yards and an interception in the loss) and made his first career start last week against Baylor. Noland threw for 180 yards and two TDs without an interception against the Bears. It is unclear whether Noland or Kempt will start against the Wildcats.
Jesse Ertz began the season as the starter at Kansas State and was considered one of the best signal callers in the Big 12. Unfortunately, Ertz suffered a knee injury Oct. 7 against Texas and hasn’t played since (though Snyder has been adamant in the weeks following his injury that the senior would play again in 2017). Alex Delton made four starts in place of Ertz and nearly led the Wildcats to an upset win over Oklahoma, but he hasn’t seen the field since the first half of the 42-35 overtime victory over Texas Tech Nov. 4. Skylar Thompson started the last two games and saw action in the two preceding weeks as well. Thompson was an impact player in last week’s upset victory over Oklahoma State, completing 10-of-13 passes for 204 yards and three touchdowns without an interception and adding 93 rushing yards and another TD on the ground. However, Thompson but was banged up in the process and was sidelined late in the fourth quarter. Expected to be healthy enough to start against Iowa State, Thompson has completed 60 percent of his passes for 510 yards and four TDs with two interceptions this season, and he has 251 rushing yards and two scores on the ground.
2. Explosive plays
Kansas State and Iowa State are evenly matched on the offensive of the ball. The Wildcats average a modest 377.8 yards of total offense, including a Big 12-low 184.1 passing yards per game. The Cyclones, led by two of the most talented skill position players in the Big 12 in receiver Allen Lazard (the school’s all-time leading receiver) and running back David Montgomery (1,080 rushing yards, 11 TDs), average 390.3 yards of total offense, 270.0 of which come through the air.
Though the raw numbers aren’t particularly impressive, especially in the Big 12, both units have big-play ability. Last week provided a perfect example. Kansas State receiver Byron Pringle put together one of the most dynamic performances we’ve seen all season, scoring on TD passes of 47, 46 and 60 yards last week against Oklahoma State, the last of which pushed the Wildcats lead to 42-13 in the third quarter. Pringle also returned a punt 89 yards for a score, and running back Alex Barnes also broke free for a 39-yard touchdown run to help build the lead and secure the upset.
Meanwhile, Lazard was on the receiving end of a 36-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter against Baylor, and Noland hooked up with Hakeem Butler on a 67-yarder to give the Cyclones a 17-10 lead at the half. Lazard, Montgomery and company will have an opportunity to make big plays this week against a K-State defense that has surrendered 436.8 yards of total offense per game, including a conference-high 314.5 passing yards.
3. Head coaches on the way out?
Iowa State has been one of the most pleasant surprises of the college football season, which has made Matt Campbell (above, right) one of the hottest head coaching prospects in the country. Though bigger names like Chip Kelly, Jon Gruden and Scott Frost have gotten more attention nationally, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Campbell in the mix for more prestigious open jobs in the coming weeks, such as Tennessee or Nebraska. Campbell has earned a terrific reputation for his quick rebuild with the Cyclones, as well as his 35-16 run at Toledo from 2012-15. The 37-year-old is highly regarded for his ability to coach and develop offensive linemen, and the Cyclones have surrendered just 14 sacks this season, tied for the fewest in the conference.
On the other sideline, the legendary Bill Snyder could be coaching his final game in the stadium that bears his name. Snyder, who is 78 years old, had a recent bout with cancer and has already retired once, making headlines in recent weeks as the annual whispers surrounding potential retirement have grown louder. Snyder would apparently like to see his son Sean, the Wildcats special teams coordinator, eventually succeed him as head coach, though news came to light this week that Snyder had made an apparent attempt to hire current Oregon defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt (another potential successor) as linebackers coach last offseason, which would have been a big step down for one of the best DCs in the nation. Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema, like Leavitt a former Snyder disciple, might also be looking for a new job soon, making him a potential candidate to be the next head coach of the Wildcats.
Both teams have questions at the quarterback position, although both have also found success — including explosive plays — with backups pulling the strings throughout the season. Bill Snyder and the Wildcats are tough to beat at home, but the Cyclones have an edge on defense, at running back and on the offensive line, giving Iowa State a good chance to pull off an upset on the road.
Prediction: Iowa State 27, Kansas State 24
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, a member of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.