It comes down to this for the beleaguered Big 12: If Kansas State cannot upset No. 8 Louisville today, the league will remain winless against Top 25 opponents from other conferences until bowl season.
Sad, but true.
A conference that has sent a team to the BCS national championship game in five of the past six seasons is on the verge of going 0-9 against Top 25 opponents in September.
That's typically the type of intersectional record reserved for schools from the Sun Belt, a league in which six-digit paychecks from September mismatches are used to balance have-not budgets.
In the Big 12, where have-not programs do not exist, such a record is a shocking aberration.
It's also a reminder that a reputation as an elite football league, such as the Big 12 enjoys, must be constantly reinforced or it can disappear. Just like the Southwest Conference.
That's why all eyes should be on K-State (3-0) in its efforts to keep the league off the September schneid. (Note: We're already conceding punchless Colorado's upcoming loss to No. 9 Georgia, so the focus is squarely on K-State).
How the Wildcats handle the pressure will say a lot about the league's biggest mystery team.
Picked to finish anywhere from last to first in the North Division, depending on which media outlet you consulted in the preseason, K-State has a new coach, a nasty defense, a senior quarterback, a slippery tailback and several speedy receivers.
Given a jolt of confidence, that could be enough to carry the Wildcats to a North Division title. That's where Louisville comes in.
Because of injuries, the Cardinals (3-0) will play today in Manhattan without their top two offensive weapons-quarterback Brian Brohm and tailback Michael Bush-and must contend for the first time this season with a hostile, sellout crowd. The contest will mark the first career start for backup quarterback Hunter Cantwell.
During his Tuesday news conference, Kansas State coach Ron Prince threw down the gauntlet.
"It is our expectation that we're going to play well in this game and win," Prince said. "We have a great opportunity here at home. We've had time to study this opponent...and we're really confident that we're going to play well and win the game."
Pretty bold comments from a first-year coach whose team began the season with a 24-23 win over a Division I-AA school (Illinois State).
In fairness, K-State played that game without standout tailback Thomas Clayton, who has been a major factor in consecutive victories over Florida Atlantic and Marshall.
To knock off Louisville, Clayton said the offense must be more productive but is capable of doing that.
Quarterback Dylan Meier said he embraces a statement game and sensed an extra "spark" among teammates in practices this week.
"This is what players like," Meier said. "(Players) don't want to go out there and play the last-place teams in Division I-A : I think you're going to see a new tone from our players this week."
A victory would say a lot about the resurgent Wildcats. It would also provide a welcome sigh of relief for the Big 12.