DES MOINES, Iowa — Nebraska was a unanimous pick to win the Big 12 North this season, the Cornhuskers' last in the league before they head to the Big Ten.
The road to the championship might be tougher than originally thought.
Missouri is unbeaten and ranked No. 24 after a shake-up in the polls. Kansas State hasn't lost either, and Colorado is 3-1 after beating Georgia 29-27 on Saturday.
Those teams will all get a chance to make a move in the North this week. No. 7 Nebraska (4-0) travels to Kansas State (4-0, 1-0 Big 12) on Thursday night in a big divisional game, and the Pac-10-bound Buffaloes make their final conference trip to Missouri (4-0) on Saturday.
Though the Huskers have won five straight against Kansas State, the Wildcats are 4-0 for the first time since 2003 and will have an electric crowd behind them.
"They beat UCLA and they're undefeated and they're obviously well coached," Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said of Kansas State. "As the season goes on, people are going to see that they're a really good football team."
Nebraska passed its only test against a fellow BCS school so far, throttling Washington 56-21 on the road. Now the Huskers kick off their Big 12 farewell tour in Manhattan, Kan., against one of the many rivals they'll be leaving behind.
Kansas State hasn't exactly wowed anyone with its unbeaten start, which includes a 17-13 comeback win over Central Florida on Sept. 25. A win over Nebraska would give the Wildcats an early edge in the North race.
To do that, the Wildcats will have to stop an offense that's averaging 7.66 yards per play, fourth-best in the country.
Nebraska freshman quarterback Taylor Martinez has already rushed for 495 yards while completing nearly 60 percent of his pass attempts.
"Martinez has given them an added dimension," Kansas State coach Bill Snyder said. "It is more and more difficult to defend all that they have in their playbook now, and understanding that there's more there that we haven't seen."
Missouri, which was expected to be Nebraska's main challenger in the North, is still a bit of an unknown despite its perfect record.
The Tigers beat Illinois in the opener and predictably pounded McNeese State and Miami (Ohio). But they nearly fell at home to San Diego State, winning 27-24 on Blaine Gabbert's 68-yard touchdown pass to T.J. Moe with 51 seconds left.
Colorado bounced back from a 52-7 shellacking by Cal with its first winning streak since the start of the 2008 season. The Buffs handled Hawaii 31-13, and linebacker B.J. Beatty forced Georgia's Caleb King into a late fumble that preserved the win over the scuffling Bulldogs.
A win at Missouri would certainly raise some eyebrows around the league and vault Colorado into the North title discussion. The Tigers have won four straight over the Buffs and should be well-rested coming off a bye week.
"Momentum and confidence and just getting off of a good start," Colorado coach Dan Hawkins said of his team's improvement in the last two weeks. Georgia "came back and then we were able to kind of regain the momentum, and I think that showed a little bit of, certainly, the maturity of our guys. But I think a lot of it is getting positive things going early."
Elsewhere, Iowa State (3-2, 1-1) hosts No. 10 Utah in a non-conference matchup Saturday. Kansas (2-3, 0-1) gets the weekend off after being crushed at Baylor 55-7.
"I think the North is going remain very competitive," said Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads, whose Cyclones beat Texas Tech 52-38 last week. "It's going be to interesting to see how the games play out."
The North has often been the weaker of the Big 12's two divisions over the past decade, certainly when it comes to national rankings. The South seems a bit unusual this season, with both Texas and Texas Tech already with two losses apiece, though Oklahoma is still undefeated.
Snyder, for one, is looking only at Nebraska and the chance his Wildcats have on Thursday.
"If they tee it up, then we've got the opportunity. Now, it's taking advantage of the opportunities that becomes the most significant thing," Snyder said. "Our young people understand that, and I think will make every effort and every attempt to take advantage of the opportunity that they have."