AMES, Iowa – West Virginia, Kansas State and Kansas were supposed to occupy the Big 12 basement, at least according to the preseason poll.
Big wins last weekend over fellow Power Five schools stirred up some much-needed optimism among the Mountaineers, Wildcats and Jayhawks with Big 12 play on the horizon.
West Virginia, a week after getting trounced by Missouri, turned around and handled North Carolina State 44-27 at home. Kansas State (3-0) punctuated its surprisingly dominant start by beating Mississippi State on the road, 31-24. Kansas, fresh off an embarrassing home loss to Coastal Carolina, stunned Boston College 48-24 for its first road win over a Power Five opponent in 11 years.
"I knew the league was going to be better, and they have not disappointed me whatsoever," said TCU coach Gary Patterson, whose Horned Frogs thumped Purdue on the road, 34-13.
West Virginia (2-1) and Kansas (2-1) will get their chance to build on that momentum when they face off on Saturday in Lawrence in the first Big 12 game of the year. No. 12 Texas (2-1) hosts Oklahoma State (3-0) in the nightcap of the league's opening doubleheader.
"I'm going to ask this team ...'OK, is that enough? Should we just forget it the rest of the year?'" said coach Les Miles, in his first year trying to rebuild Kansas. "It would be my guess that they can't wait to practice, and they can't wait to prepare. And West Virginia is a good football team, so they'll be plenty motivated."
The Mountaineers didn't necessarily look like a good football team until last week.
West Virginia struggled to put away James Madison in coach Neal Brown's debut, winning just 20-13. The Mountaineers then traveled to Missouri and got walloped 38-7.
But after rushing for just 30 yards against the Tigers, West Virginia found its running game last week. The Mountaineers ran for 171 yards, providing the balance Austin Kendall needed to exploit N.C. State's defense. He threw for 272 yards and three touchdowns.
"For the first time all year, we really limited the negative yardage plays. 6.2 yards per carry," Brown said. "100 percent in the red zone. We had zero fumbles and our perimeter blocking was just so much better."
For Kansas, it's also been 11 years since it reached a bowl game. Earning a bid might be a long shot, but the win over the Eagles was a sign that Miles might be onto something.
Senior quarterback Carter Stanley, who underwhelmed in spot action over the past three years, threw for 241 yards and a pair of touchdowns after Miles stuck with him despite a poor performance against Coastal Carolina.
"He wanted to hear. He wanted to be coached," Miles said. "He wanted to make sure that the receivers were in the spots they needed to be in. He was sincere."
Kansas State's win over Mississippi State was its first on the road against a team that was in the SEC on the day of the victory.
The Wildcats have leaned heavily on a defense ranked 16th nationally with just 12.7 points allowed per game. The running game has also been exceptional, with James Gilbert and Jordon Brown combining for 331 yards and five touchdowns, and quarterback Skylar Thompson, a Fort Osage High School graduate, has completed 74.2% of his passes without a pick.
"I believe that we have to stay humble and stay hungry, not be seduced by the success that we have had," said K-State coach Chris Klieman, also in his first year with the program. "Those guys see it. They watch film and say, 'Boy we really could play a lot better on this phase offensively or this phase defensively.'"
In other action, Iowa State (1-1) will look to bounce back from a bitter 18-17 home loss to rival Iowa when it hosts Louisiana-Monroe. No. 25 TCU (3-0) hosts SMU and Baylor (2-0) will face Rice in Houston.
No. 5 Oklahoma (3-0) and Texas Tech have the weekend off before playing each other in Norman of Sept. 28.