By Laken Litman
FOX Sports College Football Writer
Every week there’s a new must-watch, top-25 battle in the Big 12.
In Week 5, it was a conference title rematch between then-No. 16 Baylor and No. 9 Oklahoma State, the next week it was a clash between surprising unbeatens in then-No. 17 TCU and No. 19 Kansas, and last week it was then-No. 8 Oklahoma State pitted against No. 13 TCU.
Saturday, there’s more. No. 17 Kansas State travels to Fort Worth with hopes of handing the eighth-ranked Horned Frogs their first loss of the season (8 p.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app), and No. 20 Texas heads to Stillwater to play No. 11 Oklahoma State.
The Cowboys are fresh off a double-overtime road loss to TCU — a finish that launched one of several field stormings that happened in Week 7. Quarterback Spencer Sanders, dealing with a nagging shoulder ailment that kept him out of practice, completed just 16 of 36 passes for 245 yards, with a touchdown and an interception. Sanders also had two rushing touchdowns in the first quarter and at one point had his team up 24-7 — and again 30-16 — before TCU made its comeback.
Texas, meanwhile, eked out a three-point win over Iowa State at home. Quarterback Quinn Ewers, who returned to the starting lineup the week before in a blowout of Oklahoma, started off slow but threw three touchdowns. Running back Bijan Robinson rushed for 135 yards and linebacker Jaylan Ford forced two turnovers, including a fumble recovery in the final 2:28. The Longhorns went 5-7 last season and have been saying all year that this is a different, more resilient team than that group. That kind of performance proves it.
Now, another test for both programs. The conference is still up for grabs, but we’re getting to the point in the season where teams will start to separate from the pack. Oklahoma State and Texas each have one conference loss and are sitting right behind TCU and Kansas State — who play each other this weekend — in the top half of the conference standings.
Whoever wins in Stillwater will have an edge moving into the second half of the season. Whoever loses can kiss any hope of a College Football Playoff appearance goodbye.
With that said, here are some of the storylines to keep in mind ahead of Saturday’s contest between Big 12 foes:
Big 12, CFP implications
TCU and Kansas State sit atop of the Big 12 standings but play each other this weekend. Waiting in the wings behind them are Texas and Oklahoma State, with massive conference and College Football Playoff implications at stake.
The UT-OSU winner will shoot up to the No. 2 spot in the league and keep any playoff hopes alive. Given the way this season has gone across all Power 5 conferences, this could be the year a two-loss team makes the playoff. There’s also a good chance that the winner of the Big 12 will have two losses. Even so, the loser of Saturday’s matchup will have a much tougher time making a run for any title.
Here’s how the rest of the schedule shakes out for both teams:
Texas, which has won its last three games, has a tough run to finish the regular season. After Oklahoma State, the Longhorns have a bye week followed by a road trip to Kansas State. They finish with TCU at home, at Kansas, then with Baylor in Austin.
Oklahoma State has a better outlook. The Cowboys have consecutive trips to the state of Kansas, going to Kansas State on Oct. 29 and Kansas on Nov. 5. Then they have Iowa State at home, go to Norman for Bedlam and finish the year with West Virginia in Stillwater.
Players to watch: Bijan Robinson and Spencer Sanders
Robinson has rushed for more than 100 yards in five straight games. He’s the best back in the Big 12, averaging 111.4 rushing yards per game (11th nationally), and has scored 10 touchdowns. Last year, Robinson had 135 yards and three touchdowns against the Cowboys, and he’s better now.
On top of that, Oklahoma State’s rushing defense is not equipped to stop him, much less slow him down. The Cowboys have allowed 136.3 yards per game on the ground, numbers bolstered by a 118-yard performance by Arizona State’s Xazavian Valladay in Week 2 and 104 yards by TCU’s Kendre Miller. And those players aren’t as talented as Robinson, who sometimes also doubles as a receiver in Sarkisian’s offense (16 catches for 239 yards and a touchdown so far this season).
Meanwhile, Texas will have to account for Sanders, who is one of the best players in the Big 12. He leads the nation’s No. 4 scoring offense (45.3 PPG) and is averaging 273.2 passing yards per game while throwing 13 touchdowns to just three interceptions. But he also ranks just 11th in the Big 12 in completion percentage, connecting on just 58.5% of his passes.
“This is the ultimate compliment,” Sarkisian told reporters this week, “I think [Sanders is] an elite competitor. This guy’s got a fire inside of him that is clear. You don’t have to look for it. He’s going to do whatever he has to do to try and help his team win.”
Longhorns’ last trip to Stillwater?
Sarkisian’s first trip to Stillwater could be his last. In his career, he’s never coached or played there.
Texas and Oklahoma are not expected to leave the Big 12 for the SEC until after the 2024 season, which is when the grant of rights expires. But many believe the big exit could happen before the 2024 season.
Should Texas and OU bolt early, this would be the Longhorns’ final trip to Stillwater as Big 12 peers, so you know Mike Gundy is going to want to make their final trip count. He told ESPN earlier this year that the Longhorns and Sooners “took the money and ran” in leaving for the SEC.
Texas, which is a 6.5-point favorite on the road Saturday (per FOX Bet), leads the series 26-10, including a 9-3 record in Stillwater.
However, Oklahoma State has won eight of their last 12 meetings, including last year’s 32-24 matchup in Austin.
Laken Litman covers college football, college basketball and soccer for FOX Sports. She previously wrote for Sports Illustrated, USA Today and The Indianapolis Star. She is the author of “Strong Like a Woman,” published in spring 2022 to mark the 50th anniversary of Title IX. Follow her on Twitter @LakenLitman.
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