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Monday, October 26, 2009
KSU, ISU have made a jumble of North Division race so far in 2009

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

The Big 12 North has been a surprise in ways that would have seemed unimaginable before the season started.

But it still doesn’t explain the unlikely scenario now in place with Kansas State in first place and Iowa State a game behind among a jumble of four teams with two conference losses.

The Wildcats and Cyclones were the fashionable preseason picks to battle it out to escape the conference cellar.

Their ascension while projected conference contenders like Nebraska and Kansas have stumbled in recent weeks has turned the early North Division race on its ear after its early stages.

The Cornhuskers have lost back-to-back home conference games to Texas Tech and Iowa State -- both times as heavy favorites.

And Kansas followed a disappointing loss at Colorado last week by getting run out of their home stadium in a 35-13 home loss to Oklahoma, a team that was struggling with the largest loss of injuries in Bob Stoops’ coaching tenure.

The early surprises have kept Kansas coach Mark Mangino from even trying to explain what’s going on in the wild and wacky division so far.

“I can’t think of any,” Mangino said. “I spent a little time trying to figure out what’s happening and those are for better minds than mine. I just need to get ready and see what we can do. Maybe somebody might have a better explanation, I don’t know.”

Kansas State might have been the biggest unknown in college football with the return of Bill Snyder to the sidelines after a three-year coaching sabbatical.

His rebuilding job was made that much tougher when, shortly after he started, Josh Freeman declared for the NFL draft.

The Wildcats stumbled early with losses at Louisiana-Lafayette and UCLA with their only victories over FCS teams Tennessee Tech and Massachusetts. Their positioning at the bottom appeared even more solidified after those first four games this season.

Even after a 20-6 victory over Colorado last week boosted them to a 3-1 -- their best conference start since 2000 -- Snyder was more disappointed in what the Wildcats didn’t do, as opposed to the fact they are sitting in first place midway through their conference race.

Snyder was particularly angry about his team being shut out in the second half by Colorado after scoring on three of their first four possessions.

“The name of this game for us is trying to get better. We got better on defense and I am proud of that," Snyder said. "We did not get better on offense. It is all about preparing well and playing well. It is no more complex than that.

"If you finish well, it means you played well and prepared well. If you do not, that means you did not prepare well or play well. Half of our game we did not prepare well or play well."

And Snyder didn’t spoil the rod as he described his team’s struggles.

“We did not play well,” Snyder said. “This is all about getting better, and we did not. That’s why I’m upset.”

Conversely, Iowa State couldn’t be happier after its surprise victory at Nebraska, boosting Paul Rhoads to his fifth victory. The post-game celebration in the locker room already has become a YouTube staple among Cyclone fans.

That triumph continues a surprising first season for Rhoads --  his 3-1 nonconference record is the fastest start by a first-year Cyclones coach since George Veenker in 1931.

The Cyclones played Kansas State very competitively in their conference opener. The 24-23 loss was settled on a blocked extra point by Emmanuel Lamur with 32 seconds left.

Rhoads was bracing for the worst, but found his group to be resilient -- even after a 41-36 loss the following week to Kansas that extended their conference losing streak to 11 straight games.

But they rebounded to beat Baylor to snap the streak and notched an impressive 9-7 victory over Nebraska in Lincoln. It was ISU's first victory in Lincoln since 1977 and even more remarkable because the Cyclones did it without starting quarterback Austen Arnaud and starting tailback Alexander Robinson.

"I think our confidence has grown and grown every week,” Rhoads said. “Believe it or not, I think it has grown even in the losses. Our goal and expectations have been to improve in everything we’ve done. We’ve done it with the tough losses to Kansas State and Kansas and I think it will improve with this victory.”

Whether we’ll see Kansas State and Iowa State in the Big 12 championship game is still to be determined. Both teams still have a long way to go.

Kansas State will travel to Oklahoma on Saturday, where they have never beaten the Sooners since Bob Stoops arrived. Iowa State will visit suddenly resurgent Texas A&M in another key game in the divisional race.

The North’s jumbled mess at the top makes anything seem possible. And considering the struggles with the rest of the conference, the Cyclones and Wildcats seem as viable as anybody else in this up-for-grabs division at this point of the season.