AMES — Before the 2021 college football season began, I submitted to cliche, the chalk pick or whatever else you want to call it and considered the Big 12 a two-horse race for the conference crown.
But three weeks of madness, some good and some bad, will leave a man to wonder (it's me, I'm that man) what's real and what's not in the world. Is the sky blue? Can pigs fly? Is Oklahoma really vulnerable or is this going to turn out to be 2020 all over again? I'm left puzzled by it all.
Amidst the chaos, upsets and slow starts from what I thought were title contenders and College Football Playoff threats across the sport, but especially those in the Big 12, I'm convinced of one thing and one thing only: The Big 12 is wide open. And it's time for the Cyclones to be who we thought they would be and take care of business against its conference competition.
After all, even after the dud against Iowa two weeks ago, winning a Big 12 title is still on the table. It has never seemed so up for grabs.
No.14 Iowa State opens its Big 12 season on Saturday with a road trip to Waco, Texas, with the 3-0, yes, 3-0 Baylor Bears. And as nice of a start as it has been for Baylor in 2021, the Cyclones should start 1-0 once Saturday is all said and done. And that's how Iowa State should be in most games the rest of the way.
The uncertainty at the top of the Big 12 is without question from what we've seen so far with the Cyclones, Sooners and Longhorns, but Iowa State is the most experienced of those three teams and should be able to make its way through the sludge of the first rounds of Big 12 play.
They can manage through the next four of five weeks when we begin to realize who is bad, good and somewhere in between. I expect the Cyclones to rise to the 'good' portion of this conference considering how weak Oklahoma has looked. I do need to point out that my point of viewing Oklahoma as weak is similar to how I, along with the rest of the country, viewed the Sooners after starting 0-2 in conference play last year. After all, early evaluations of teams are usually never 100 percent true. I'm not going to forget how Oklahoma started 2020, 0-2 in Big 12 play for those of you who somehow missed that. But guess what? They never lost again and secured another Big 12 championship.
There's a big but coming.
No.3 or not, Oklahoma has looked vulnerable and at times on the cusp of being upset by far inferior opponents from what I've seen. Oklahoma went to the wire with Tulane, a team upended from Louisiana to the massive tragedy of Hurricane Ida, a team unable to practice in their own facilities leading up to the game.
And yet, the might of mean Green Wave took the Sooners to the end, with the reigning Big 12 Champions squeaking out a five-point victory.
Take this past Saturday as another case of metaphorical question marks popping out of my head. Oklahoma and Nebraska — two teams who could not seem further apart on paper — battled in the anniversary of the 'Game of the Century.' It was almost upset of the century on Saturday because once again, the Sooners looked lost and not like the big-bad national title contender I was told to believe coming into this year. Once again, the Sooners won a close — way too close — matchup with another seemingly unmatched non-conference opponent by less than 10 points.
Since 2015, the Sooners' closest margin of victory in its non-conference games have been an average of 27 points. Through these two close calls this year, minus a 76-0 thrashing of Western Carolina, Oklahoma has won by an average of six points. I'll leave it at that.
The struggles don't start and stop with Oklahoma, as Iowa State has faced its usual early season adversity as well. The Cyclones came into the season as a top-10 team and now are on the outside looking in at the top 10 three weeks later after beating a FCS team by six points and got beaten by its arch rivals by two scores.
Neither preseason Big 12 favorite has looked promising. But if you're an optimist, that bodes well for conference play and for the Cyclones to have plenty of chances to make their way back to Arlington this December.
I'll ignore the history, the AP top-25 rankings and the rosters. Based on what I've seen through three weeks of games, Baylor, Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma, Iowa State, TCU, Texas Tech, Texas, West Virginia and Oklahoma State haven't exactly wowed me.
That sounds like a toss-up to me.