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November 17, 2011

What to Watch: Cotton picking?

The AT&T Cotton Bowl's message to Texas is simple: "Beat Kansas State or find another place to play your 13th game."

If the Wildcats defeat the Longhorns for the fourth consecutive time this weekend, Mack Brown's team, 6-3 on the year, will not be invited to Arlington in January. That much is not subjective. Instead, Cotton Bowl representatives will be on hand in Austin to politely slam the door on the Longhorns and wish them well should the home team incur its fourth loss.

Saying "thanks, but no thanks" to an in-state school isn't easy, but seeing as the Dallas-based bowl game has already sold its entire ticket allotment, the difficulty has been dialed back.

"If Kansas State beats Texas, then Texas will most likely fall off our radar screen," Cotton Bowl president Rick Baker said on Wednesday. "I think they'll probably drop from the rankings, too."

THE GAME UP CLOSE:
No. 13 Kansas State at No. 23 Texas
WHEN TEXAS RUNS
Last week's injury to Texas tailback Fozzy Whittaker was no minor loss. For an offense predicated on moving the football on the ground, the enormity of the situation can't be understated. When the Longhorns line up against Kansas State this weekend, they will do so with either Malcolm Brown or Joe Bergeron, a pair of freshmen, in the backfield. The Wildcats have been formidable against the run the season, and a ground-orientated offense without its most dangerous weapon seems to play into the their hands.
ADVANTAGE KANSAS STATE
WHEN K-STATE RUNS
There are no secrets here and haven't been for some time. The Wildcats' offense will feature a heavy dose of quarterback Collin Klein carrying the football. The junior is coming off his best passing effort of the season, which may open up lanes for him to run. Klein has been nearly unstoppable inside the 5-yard line and is closing in on the conference record for rushing touchdowns in a season. So while the Longhorns' rush defense has been among the league's best in 2011, K-State represents a unique challenge.
SMALL ADVANTAGE KANSAS STATE
WHEN TEXAS THROWS
The Longhorns' offense is predicated on running the football, but they would be remiss not to test K-State through the air early and often. The Wildcats have struggled to pressure quarterbacks or cover wide receivers in space as of late, making Bill Snyder's team susceptible to chunk plays in the passing game.
SMALL ADVANTAGE TEXAS
WHEN K-STATE THROWS
Klein is coming off of his best performance throwing the football and is said to be making strides in the passing game each day. This week, though, the task is taller. Texas ranks second in the Big 12 against the pass and will provide the junior quarterback with another sizable hurdle to clear. In front of the largest crowd he has ever seen, Klein will need to avoid mistakes against a secondary that is capable of making him pay.
ADVANTAGE TEXAS
SPECIAL TEAMS
K-State's most dangerous special teams weapon, return man Tyler Lockett, has been lost for the season to a kidney injury, and expecting that not to take a toll would be naive. The Wildcats have been all over the performance map in the third facet of the game this season, and it's hard to know what to expect without Lockett's big-play ability.
NO ADVANTAGE
PROJECTED SPREAD:
Kansas State by 3

For Kansas State, 8-2 on the year and clinging to an outside chance of landing in a slot in a BCS game, the situation isn't as dire. According to Baker, the Wildcats could drop this weekend's game with Texas and remain alive in the eyes of his committee, which holds the right to make the first non-BCS Big 12 selection.

A true elimination game it is not. For K-State, it's actually starting to look more like a win-and-you're-in proposition.

"If Texas beat Kansas State, Kansas State could still end up 9-3 and Texas could lose their last two and end up 7-5," Baker said. "If Kansas State wins, it eliminates Texas, but if Texas wins, we'll still have to wait."

A year ago, the Cotton Bowl selected Texas A&M, not Missouri, which ranked ahead of the Aggies in the league standings. According to Baker, the decision to go under slot was based on the fact that the Aggies finished the season with six straight wins, as well as a chance to match them up with LSU, a geographical rival. This time around, as always, he reserves the right to dip down in the rankings should the ability to create another "marquee" game at Cowboys Stadium.

Wins and losses are only a small part of the picture he's spent the season viewing.

"If you have a chance to put Texas and Arkansas together, then that is certainly something we'd look at," Baker said. "We look at the matchup, the record, how they finished the season and the rankings. Ticket sales aren't as important to us since we have already sold our tickets out."

The Cotton Bowl committee won't hold it's first formal team selection meeting until Nov. 29, but the radar screen is unobstructed. With Oklahoma State and Oklahoma both expected to break into the BCS, the selection pot currently holds only K-State, Texas and Baylor.

The other side of the coin, of course, is decorated with the SEC logo. The Cotton Bowl holds the second choice of non-BCS-bound SEC teams, and Baker says his game's drawing board consist of Arkansas (9-1, third place in the SEC), Georgia (8-2, fourth place in the SEC) and South Carolina (8-2, fifth place in the SEC).

"If you assume -- and that's hard to do -- that Alabama and LSU move into the BCS, it will just depend on who the Capital One Bowl takes," Baker said. "We'd just have to pick from the other two."

On the Big 12 front, the fallback option resides in San Antonio, home of the Valero Alamo Bowl, which rests directly behind the Cotton Bowl in the league's selection order. Alamo Bowl vice president of communications Rick Hill won't speak in certainties, but it seems that if the Wildcats are still there for the taking

"They're definitely one of the hottest teams in the country right now," Hill said. "The good thing for Kansas State is that they've preformed great when they are on the big stage. It's also a huge plus when you see an athletic department, like the one led by (K-State athletic director) John Currie. As soon as they got that sixth win, they started taking ticket orders. That's an organized group. They're used to traveling and traveling well to bowl games."

As for any thought that the Alamo Bowl would bend for a chance to invite semi-local Texas A&M before it bolts for the SEC next season?

Not so much.

"A&M is probably one of the biggest disappointments of the year," Hill said. "Obviously, if they finish strong and win out, they could creep back in our picture a little, but that team isn't even bowl eligible yet."

Instead, the Alamo Bowl shortlist is identical to its Cotton counterparts. According to Hill, it will be Baylor, K-State or Texas that's invited to take on the first non-BCS qualifier selected from the Pac 12.

The Valero Alamo Bowl is scheduled for Dec. 29 at 8 p.m., and the AT&T Cotton Bowl will be played on January 6 at 7 p.m. Representatives from both events will be in attendance when the Wildcats meet the Longhorns in Austin this Saturday.



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