- Jake Trotter, ESPN Staff Writer
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NORMAN, Okla. -- When Oklahoma's new Big 12 schedule first came out, most everyone pointed to the rugged November stretch when the Sooners would play West Virginia, Oklahoma State and TCU back-to-back-to-back.
In reality, the three-game stretch that will determine whether the Sooners are contenders or pretenders in the national championship chase begins this weekend with 15th-ranked Kansas State. After that and an open week, the Sooners go on the road to Texas Tech before the Red River Rivalry in Dallas.
"These next three games are going to be big, and it starts with this next one," Sooners middle linebacker Tom Wort said. "That pretty much nails it on the head. These first two games haven't really proved anything from us. These next three games are really going to prove what we're about, and it starts this weekend."
OU began the year ranked fourth in the preseason polls. But after a lackluster opener at UTEP and a blowout of FCS opponent Florida A&M, the Sooners have since fallen two spots.
The players, however, realize the opportunity to make a statement -- similar to the one top-ranked Alabama has -- is before them.
"We all saw the schedule, we all know what's going to be happening the next couple weeks," defensive end R.J. Washington said. "K-State is a great team. Texas Tech beat us at home last year. Then there's Texas, which is always going to be tough because it's such a rivalry. We've got to go to work."
Kansas State sputtered in wins over Missouri State and North Texas. But few teams have a more impressive nonconference victory than the Wildcats, who throttled Miami (Fla.) 52-13 two weeks ago.
"They're an excellent team, so the preparation for them is always complicated,'' Sooners coach Bob Stoops said. "They're doing an excellent job of running the football, like always, and using the quarterback to run it. It'll be a challenge.''
The Sooners hammered K-State 58-17 in Manhattan last season. But the Wildcats appear to feature a more balanced attack with quarterback Collin Klein, who so far is throwing the ball far more efficiently than he did last season. Klein completed just 57 percent of his passes in 2011. This season, his completion percentage is almost 73 percent.
"He's throwing the ball real good," Wort said. "That's something we didn't really face last year against him. It makes you have to play them straight."
The Sooners haven't lost to K-State since the 2003 Big 12 championship game. But they haven't won in Lubbock since 2003, either. Texas Tech has knocked off the Sooners three straight times in Lubbock, and also snapped OU's 39-game home winning streak last season, which at the time was the longest in the country. The Red Raiders jumped to a 31-7 third-quarter lead, then held on for the stunning 41-38 upset.
"There's definitely a revenge factor with Texas Tech," said Wort, who sat out the game with multiple injuries. "Watching how they came into our place. It was just sad."
If the Sooners can get through the next two games unscathed, it could set up the biggest Red River showdown since 2008. Not since then have both OU and Texas entered the game ranked inside the top 10.
The past two years, the Longhorns have endured quarterback woes, and committed five turnovers that led to three OU defensive touchdowns and an easy 55-17 Sooners win last season.
But Texas is 3-0 and coming off an impressive 35-point win at Ole Miss, in which David Ash threw for a career-high 326 yards and four touchdowns to earn Davey O'Brien Quarterback of the Week honors.
The next three weeks "are going to be about heart, who has the heart to fight," Sooners strong safety Javon Harris said. "Are we going to be able to fight through adversity?
"We've got to play hard, we've got to play like champions like [the sign] we touch before every game. To do that, we've got to get through this stretch."
18hPat McManamon and Jeremy Fowler