The annual Sunflower Showdown will take place Saturday night when the Kansas State Wildcats host the Kansas Jayhawks in the regular-season finale for both bowl-bound teams.
Kansas head coach Lance Leipold and his staff will be looking to right the ship after dropping two consecutive games and five of their last six — including a 55-14 loss at home to Texas last week. A win for Kansas (6-5, 3-5 Big 12) will put them above .500 for the season, something the program hasn't accomplished since 2008. Recent slide aside, Leipold and the school earlier this week came to an agreement on a new contract that extends through 2029. This means that the in-demand coach whose name has been connected with several of the high-profile openings shouldn't be going anywhere for the time being.
Kansas State head coach Chris Klieman, whose name also has been brought up with these vacancies, and his Wildcats (8-3, 6-2) can secure their spot in the Big 12 Championship Game with a win at home (or a loss by Texas to Baylor on Friday). They also are No. 12 in the College Football Playoff rankings, with their only three losses coming to other ranked teams (TCU, Tulane, Texas). A victory also gives K-State nine wins for the first time since 2016 when Bill Synder was at the helm.
The Wildcats have dominated this series for more than a decade, rattling off 13 straight wins over the Jayhawks. Kansas' last win in Manhattan was way back in 2007
Kansas at No. 12 Kansas State
When Kansas Has the Ball
The Jayhawks got starting quarterback Jalon Daniels back last week after he missed five games due to a shoulder injury. Daniels was considered a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender before the injury, as he is one of the more capable and dynamic dual-threat quarterbacks in the country. Nearly everything about the Kansas offense changes with Daniels operating the controls — including how you defend it.
The Jayhawk rushing attack is led by Devin Neal, who has put together a terrific 2022 season. Neal has 1,002 yards on the ground this season, averaging 6.5 yards per carry, and has found the end zone seven times. He may find more running room on Saturday with the presence of Daniels in the lineup, which forces defenses to account for two elite runners.
When Daniels looks to throw, he has four very capable pass catchers he can target. Luke Grimm, Quentin Skinner, and Lawrence Arnold have combined for 96 catches for 1,415 yards and 14 touchdowns, while tight end Mason Fairchild has hauled in 25 balls for 322 yards and five touchdowns. Kansas does a really nice job of spreading the ball around in that regard. When healthy, the offense clicks and is difficult to stop.
When Kansas State Has the Ball
Will Howard has stepped in for the injured Adrian Martinez at quarterback and performed as well as anyone could have wished for. He is completing 64.1 percent of his passes and has thrown 11 touchdowns compared to just two interceptions. It doesn't hurt that Howard had starting experience before Martinez transferred in from Nebraska, so there is an element of familiarity in the huddle that has benefitted everyone.
Deuce Vaughn is quite simply one of the best running backs and more electrifying players in the nation. Vaughn has piled up 1,148 yards on the ground this season and added 266 as a receiver while scoring nine total touchdowns. He's a big play waiting to happen, and his presence — as well as his size — stresses opposing defenses. He can be hard to locate — especially in the screen game — and that tends to give him an extra step that he really doesn't need given his speed in the open field.
Like Kansas, the Wildcats do a really nice job of spreading the ball around to different receivers in the passing game. In addition to Vaughn, four other players have 25 or more receptions. Malik Knowles is the favorite target, with 44 grabs and 669 yards on the year. Kade Warner has also emerged as a playmaker. He leads the team in receiving touchdowns with five. Phillip Brooks might be the most dangerous of the group. He's built like Vaughn and has the kind of speed and agility that makes him a threat to score on every play.
With a full week of practice and a half of football under his belt, Daniels has the ability to make this game closer than the spread would indicate. This is a rivalry game between two programs that are trending up, led by two of the best head coaches in college football. Look for a fundamentally sound, clean game that comes down to which team's stars can make the biggest plays in key moments. This is truly one of those games where the old cliché of "throw the records out the window" sums it up. This should be a lot of fun.
Prediction: Kansas State 31, Kansas 27
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— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. His work has appeared on SI.com, FoxSports.com, Yahoo! SBNation and Bleacher Report. He is a three-time FWAA writing contest award winner. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.
*Price as of publication.