As good as Oklahoma State, and its starting quarterback Taylor Cornelius, have been at times this season, it would seem the Cowboys would be in the crowded Big 12 race.
Yet their upset of West Virginia, a 45-41 victory that prompted fans to storm the field like they did earlier in the season after a win over Texas, only pushed the Cowboys (6-5, 3-5 Big 12) to bowl eligibility as they remain mired in a five-way tie for fifth in the conference.
Critics obviously can point to a defense that ranks last in the Big 12 in conference play, allowing 491.8 yards and 38.4 points per game. That's tough for a first-year starter at quarterback to try to overcome, but Cornelius continued to deal with the challenge.
With the rally he executed against West Virginia, capped by a touchdown pass to Biletnikoff Award finalist Tylan Wallace with 42 seconds remaining, the fifth-year senior became the first Oklahoma State player to pass for 300 yards and rush for 100 in a game. He also accounted for six touchdowns, becoming just the fourth Big 12 quarterback since 2000 to do so while also being a 300-yard passer and 100-yard rusher.
Cornelius ranks second among Big 12 passers with a 314.6-yard average. The leader is Will Grier, the West Virginia quarterback Cornelius out-dueled.
"Who's played better than him against the top defenses in this league, which quarterback? I'd like to see it," said Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich.
"Now there are some great quarterbacks in this league, but that kid deserves all the credit, man. He's a tough nut, and I love coaching the kid."
Who wouldn't? Cornelius' story has been one of the most inspirational in the Big 12, a walk-on who plugs away and finally gets his chance as a fifth-year senior. Quarterbacks often move on in this era to find opportunities elsewhere, but Cornelius stuck to his original plan after receiving no major-college offers out of tiny Bushland, Texas.
One thing to note, though.
Two of his defeats were against defenses that rank second and third in the Big 12 during conference play, Iowa State and Kansas State. A Saturday matchup at TCU (5-6, 3-5) will find Cornelius pitted against the top defensive unit, at least statistically, during Big 12 play. The Horned Frogs, who have won two of their last three, are allowing 362.5 yards on average to conference rivals.
Minimizing turnovers could be critical for Oklahoma State after beating West Virginia in spite of a minus-three differential. Cornelius has thrown some errant balls and even Wallace, who is averaging 122.8 yards per game receiving, has missed out on even more production because of drops.
"We were minus three in turnovers and still scored 45 points. What that does is give (opponents) more points. They get more possessions than us," Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said. "We don't need to go through the math. We allowed (West Virginia) to have field position a lot. We addressed it."
Oklahoma State and TCU are tied for eighth in the Big 12 with turnover margins of minus-7.