IRVING, Texas — It’s a classic matchup - the Big 12 vs. SEC.
OK, so it’s not exactly the matchup the rest of the country was talking about a month ago.
Those hoping for an Oklahoma State-LSU national title game — a matchup pitting two of the country’s strongest conferences against each other - will have to settle for Kansas State-Arkansas on Friday in the Cotton Bowl.
It’s the only bowl matchup between the Big 12 and the SEC, and as expected, the great debate has started.
“It’s been mentioned - the Big 12 versus the SEC,” K-State junior linebacker Arthur Brown said. “The SEC is a great conference, one of the most known conferences for being tough. It’s just a great opportunity for us to represent Kansas State and the Big 12.”
Others weren’t quite as diplomatic.
“I don’t want to call the Big 12 an unphysical conference, but it’ll probably be a little more physical of a game than they’re used to playing in the Big 12,” said Arkansas receiver Jarius Wright, who implied that the high volume of pass-first offenses in the Big 12 devalues the league’s toughness or physicality, when compared to the defensive-minded, run-first SEC.
The SEC has the nation’s top two teams in LSU and Alabama, which will meet for the national championship on Jan. 9 in New Orleans. Oklahoma State is the lone Big 12 team to make a BCS bowl game, defeating Stanford on Monday night in the Fiesta Bowl.
Just a quick comparison of the two conferences in terms of the final BCS standings gives the SEC a slight advantage with six teams in the Top 25, to the Big 12’s five. Behind LSU and Bama is Arkansas at No. 6, followed by No. 9 South Carolina and No. 16 Georgia. Auburn rounds out the standings at No. 25 for the SEC.
For the Big 12, behind No. 3 Oklahoma State was No. 8 K-State, followed by No. 12 Baylor, No. 14 Oklahoma and then No. 24 Texas.
But down here, the only two teams that matter are the Wildcats and Razorbacks — a pair of teams carrying their conference’s respective torches into Cowboys Stadium on Friday night at 7.
“I do think the guys on the team take lot of pride in being from the Big 12 and trying to prove that we are the best conference out there,” K-State junior receiver Chris Harper said.
Harper also disagreed with Wright’s assessment of the physicality in the Big 12.
“I don’t know how they can question our physicality,” he said. “We have one of the biggest quarterbacks and with the most carries, the most touchdowns — so I don’t understand that.”
In fact, Harper pointed out that the Razorbacks actually look more like a Big 12 team with their passing offensive attack, while K-State looks a bit more like the SEC team with its run-first offensive mentality.
“I know where they’re coming from because the Big 12 likes to pass, but they throw the ball around - they’re like a Big 12 team,” Harper said.
“We’re not a typical Big 12 team. If you were comparing styles, we’d probably be more of an SEC team because we like to hit you in the mouth. That’s the type of team we are.”
Brown, who led the Wildcats with 95 tackles, was also a little miffed on the comments questioning the Big 12 and its toughness as a league.
“I’ve never heard of that, but I’m sure there are lot of perceptions of the Big 12,” he said. “But one of our goals at the beginning of the season was to be the toughest team against whoever we competed against and that’s still one of our goals in this matchup.”
Emmanuel Lamur, like Brown, would rather let his play on the field do his talking.
“People can say what they’re going to say — it’s their opinion,” the K-State linebacker said. “But come Friday, we’ll see what the outcome is.”
Arkansas players are especially confident playing in Cowboys Stadium. It’s the second game there this season for the Hogs after defeating Texas A&M 42-38 on Sept. 1. In fact, it’s the third year in a row Arkansas has played in the house Arkansas alumna Jerry Jones built.
“We count this as a home stadium,” Arkansas tight end Chris Gragg said. “Jerry Jones is a former Razorback and he invited us down here a couple years to have a game, so we treat this like our home stadium. It’s just home. I’m ready for the Razorback fans to get in here and make it loud for us.”
Wright is also excited for another game at Cowboys Stadium, and deservedly so after his last showing in the gigantic domed palace when he caught 13 passes for 281 yards and two touchdowns in a win over Texas A&M earlier this year.
“We’ve played here three years in a row and I had my best game of my career here in this stadium,” he said. “Being here and being able to play here, probably helps us limit distractions. We know what the crowd is going to be like, what to expect around the stadium, we know what to expect from the sidelines.
“We’ve been here and kind of done this before.”
Many of the Arkansas players have exuded confidence going into Friday’s big game, while K-State has, for the most part, downplayed the conference clash that has the Wildcats as 7-point underdogs against the Razorbacks.
It’s just another game for K-State, which has been the underdog in seemingly every game this season. The Wildcats started the season as underdogs - picked to finish eighth in the new 10-team Big 12 — and now have a chance to finish the year in the top 10.
“We just go out and play football, regardless of who thinks what,” said K-State junior cornerback Nigel Malone, who led the Big 12 in interceptions. “Because if we played to what people thought, we wouldn’t be here right now.”