A team that is exceeding expectations hits the road to face an underachieving one as TCU visits Kansas State on Saturday morning at Bill Snyder Family Stadium.
The Horned Frogs were unranked entering the season, while the Wildcats were ranked 20th. But after five straight victories to start the year, including road wins at Arkansas and No. 14 Oklahoma State, TCU (5-0, 2-0 Big 12) is sixth in the latest poll.
Meanwhile, Kansas State (3-2, 1-1 in the Big 12) is smarting from road losses at Vanderbilt and most recently Texas. The Wildcats won their first two non-conference games before falling flat at Vanderbilt. Following a defeat of winless Baylor, K-State lost to Texas in double-overtime in its most recent game.
TCU has a legitimate chance to reach the Big 12 title game, if not the College Football Playoff. But TCU players are not wanting to hear any part of it.
“It’s cool, but it’s a long way to go,” quarterback Kenny Hill said. “We’ve played five games. We’ve still got another seven and hopefully eight. It’s a long way to go.
“We don’t even try to really look at it like that. It’s going to the next game and trying to get a win. But it definitely does feel good to get those wins.”
Coach Gary Patterson, who played safety and linebacker at Kansas State in the early 1980s, is 2-3 all-time against his alma mater. But this is probably the best team he’s taken into Manhattan to play the Wildcats.
The Horned Frogs are excelling on both sides of the ball. They’re averaging 220 yards per game on the ground and 259 yards through the air. They lead the Big 12 in rushing defense (104 yards per game) and are fourth in total defense.
Hill has been a key for TCU. He’s passing for 230 yards per game passing on 69 percent completion percentage. His success has not escaped the notice of Kansas State coach Bill Snyder.
“He wasn’t all that bad when he came into the ballgame against us a year ago,” he said. “They talk about him being improved, and I certainly can see that. That is how it should be. You should be getting better and better all the time even us old people should be getting better over time.
“He is throwing the ball well and is 10th in the nation, completing 69 percent of his passes. He can bring the ball down when he wants to. There are times when you’re watching him on tape and see he has above-average speed. Then you watch a few more plays and you can tell he has excellent speed. I do not know what is clock time is, but he can run.”
Kansas State still appears to be searching for its identity. Early-season success made it appear that the offense could do whatever it wanted, depending on what the opponent’s defense allowed. But the Wildcats have not been as consistent in two league games.
Kansas State is less than one yard per game better than Baylor for last place in total offense in the Big 12.
Much of the question for Saturday is who will be under center for the Wildcats. Jesse Ertz has started every game, but he came out of the Texas game with an undisclosed injury, and back-up Alex Delton lit the offense on fire. He ran the ball 12 times for 79 yards and two touchdowns.
Snyder said that Ertz is still the starter, but that could change.
“Jesse is number one, Alex is number two,” he said.
“Alex has a strong arm. He is an athlete. He throws the ball well. As for anybody at that position, he wouldn’t be there if he couldn’t throw the ball. I think the important thing is to manage the process and go through the progressions and make the right decisions about where to go with the ball.”
Both teams are still in control of their own destiny for playing in the Big 12 championship game. TCU also has realistic aspirations of reaching the College Football Playoff.
The Horned Frogs have to maintain focus on each week’s game to keep that goal in front of them. And the Wildcats must do the same to get the season back on track. The team that does that best is the one likely to come out on top Saturday.
“I think for players it truly does make a difference,” Snyder said of playing a ranked team.
“From a coaches’ standpoint, they are all good. People talk so much about the balance and you look across the league and see the things that are happening. It just makes sense that there are a lot of good football teams in this conference. I would like to think that everybody would be highly motivated no matter who you were playing.
“The way I look at it, they (Big 12 teams) are all Top 25 teams. I guess it is hard for people to understand that, but that is what makes college football so great. Just look at Iowa State and Oklahoma. Obviously anybody can beat anybody on any given day. It is all about the same thing — who prepares the best, who plays the best and who coaches the best. That will never change.”