It's a matchup that some experts predicted in the preseason could decide which squad might stay out of the Big 12 North Division cellar. Somebody forgot to tell that to Kansas State and Iowa State. The teams enter the league opener and their first-ever meeting at Arrowhead Stadium hoping to show they're not to be taken lightly during league competition this season. With different coaches and systems from a year ago, both teams seemingly arrive on a clean slate.
Both teams also have something to prove in the 2 p.m. kickoff on Saturday, which will be televised by Fox College Sports and across most of the state of the Kansas on Cox 22.
"The Big 12 is one of the elite conferences in the nation," K-State quarterback Carson Coffman said. "It's just very competitive, I understand that. This is a huge week for us to set the tone about what we're going to do in the Big 12."
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Said Iowa State quarterback Austen Arnaud, "It's going to be great playing at Arrowhead. We're going to have a lot of fans and people supporting us. It'll be a great experience for this team.
"We want to make a mark on this conference by winning this first game on Saturday."
K-State, 2-2, seeks its first win against a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent in the 2009 season. It outscored FCS opponents Massachusetts and Tennessee Tech by a combined 70-24 at home but lost to Louisiana and UCLA on the road by 40-24.
Iowa State, 3-1 for the first time since 2005, has already surpassed its two wins under Gene Chizik a year ago. After snapping a 10-game losing streak that dated back to last season in a 34-17 season-opening victory against North Dakota State, the Cyclones ended a nation-leading 17-game losing skid on the road with a 34-14 win at Kent State two weeks later. A 31-10 win against Army last weekend made Paul Rhoads the only first-year coach to start at 3-1 at Iowa State since 1931.
"It's been good," said junior running back Alexander Robinson, the Big 12 Offensive Player of the Week with 129 rushing yards two touchdowns against Army. "This is something we haven't felt in a while but we know we haven't arrived and have to keep working. Can't say I've noticed anybody with an extra bounce or anything, but it definitely feels good coming in with a win."
It'll mark just the third time in 29 years that the teams open a conference season against one another. K-State, which ended last season with a 38-30 win against Iowa State in Manhattan, opens its league season on the road for the 10th time in the last 11 years and enters 4-6 in Big 12 openers under Bill Snyder.
Snyder last faced Iowa State in a 45-17 loss in Ames in 2005. K-State went 17-20 overall and 9-15 in the Big 12 in Snyder's three-year absence while Iowa State went 9-27 and 3-21 with three consecutive last-place finishes in the North.
Iowa State has lost nine straight Big 12 contests, but Snyder indicated earlier in the week that it was a mute point with Rhoads in command.
"They're a 3-1 team right now and I'm sure Paul is telling team the past is the past and this is now and that's what's important," Snyder said. "It's not unlike where we are and what takes place with our players.
"I can't go in and tell our players that Iowa State has these deficiencies because I don't see those deficiencies. They're playing with spirit and they're jumping up and down and playing excited and they're running around and hitting. They're not thinking about losing streaks or anything else. They're thinking about playing as well as they can."
Each team has been led this season by a standout running back that has been the highpoint for two of the three worst offenses in the Big 12.
K-State junior college transfer Daniel Thomas, who ranks third in the Big 12 in rushing, has rushed for 433 yards on 91 carries and four touchdowns for an offense that ranks 11th in the Big 12 overall (375.0 yards) and seventh in rushing yards (196.5).
Robinson ranks second in the league with 455 yards on 80 carries and four touchdowns for a unit that ranks 10th in total offense (381.2) and fourth in rushing (207.8).
Thomas and Robinson are the only running backs in the Big 12 to post three 100-yard rushing efforts this season.
"They're both great runners," said K-State safety Tysyn Hartman, who leads his team with 21 tackles and a Big 12 high-tying three interceptions. "The thing about great runners is they have many ways to beat you. You can't just focus on one move or say, 'He's just a speed guy.' Both of them are good at just about everything. You have to go in expecting about anything.
"(Iowa State) is pretty much the best in the conference in running. In order to have a chance to beat them, we'll have to stop the run."
The athletic Arnaud offers a counter punch to the Cyclones' running attack. He has rushed 53 times for 238 yards and four touchdowns to complement his passing game. Arnaud, who threw for a school-record 440 yards against K-State last season, has completed 49 of 90 passes (54.4 percent) for 623 yards and four touchdowns and four interceptions.
"They'll run it 800 times and they're both major threats," Snyder said.
While K-State has endured its share of bumps -- Snyder earlier in the week was uncertain whether injured linebacker Ulla Pomele might be available to play after missing the Tennessee Tech game and Freshman All-American defensive end Brandon Harold has missed all of the season so far -- the injury bug struck Iowa State this week.
Iowa State junior wide receiver Darius Reynolds will be out after reportedly fracturing his fibula in practice on Tuesday. The junior college transfer had 13 receptions for 72 yards this season.
Senior defensive end Rashawn Parker is out with a torn ACL after starting in 28 consecutive games and recording 13 tackles and two sacks this season. Patrick Neal, who played offense last year, and redshirt freshman Roosevelt Maggit will be charged with replacing Parker.
"We just move the next guy up the depth chart," Rhoads said. "It's as simple as that. It doesn't mean it's an equal solution to what Rashawn was giving us as a fourth-year player. Patrick Neal has really been coming on."
One key difference between the teams is on the defensive side of the ball, where the Wildcats appear to have a decided advantage.
K-State ranks No. 2 in the Big 12 in allowing 214.2 total yards and ranks fourth in allowing just 91.5 rushing yards per game. Iowa State ranks 11th in total defense in surrendering 358.0 total yards and 10th in giving up 158.5 yards on the ground per contest.
The Wildcats would like to continue to prove themselves to be one of the nation's biggest turnaround stories on defense as they enter No. 10 overall in the FBS. They finished last season ranked No. 117.
"I know it's probably a surprise for most because of the way we performed last year but it's not really a surprise for us," Hartman said. "We've been working hard at it. The coaches have been giving us high expectations to set for ourselves. Coming in they've been talking about 117, 117, 117 and we hated it. We don't want to feel the way we did after last season."
Meanwhile, senior wide receiver Brandon Banks, the Big 12 Special Teams Player of the Week, wouldn't mind feeling like he did against Tennessee Tech. The 5-foot-7, 150-pound Banks, the smallest player in the FBS, return a pair of kickoffs of 91 and 92 yards for touchdowns, becoming the first player in Big 12 history and just the 12th player in NCAA history to accomplish the feat in a single game.
"I'm just ready to win and continue winning on a consistent basis," said Banks, who leads his team with 19 catches for 223 yards. "We needed that confidence from last week going into Big 12 play to know we can do what we're capable of doing. Hopefully, we continue to do that."
Asked if he believed the Wildcats could prove themselves to be one of the top three teams in the North, Banks replied, "I think we're capable of anything we put our minds to."
And Banks knows that makes Saturday important for his team.
"It's really important because we need a stepping stone just to build our confidence up a little bit more like we did last Saturday."