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Saturday, July 12, 2014

Four weeks could tell K-State's tale

BY KELLIS ROBINETT
The Wichita Eagle

MANHATTAN — Despite everything Kansas State has done to gain national relevance this season, some are still questioning the Wildcats.

At 7-0 and ranked 10th, they are clearly one of the best football teams in the Big 12. But are they ready to contend for their first conference championship since 2003? Are they over-achievers, or are they for real?

"We're definitely for real," freshman linebacker Jonathan Truman said. "We didn't get here by any fluke."

We'll find out for sure in these next four weeks, when K-State begins a difficult stretch of games beginning Saturday with a hyped matchup against No. 11 Oklahoma at Snyder Family Stadium. Then comes a trip to No. 3 Oklahoma State, a home game with No. 16 Texas A&M and a road game against traditional power Texas.

Win all four and the Wildcats find themselves in the hunt for the BCS championship game. Even the biggest skeptics won't be able to question them then.

Lose all four and K-State will be left fighting for a spot in a second-tier bowl for the second straight season. Questions will linger.

Anything in between will likely be viewed both positively and negatively. Not that the Wildcats are worrying about how their season will be perceived by others.

"We're not going to let what anyone says, or how good they think we are or how bad they think we are or how good they think we can be or how we're going to finish, affect how we work, how we prepare or how we work together," quarterback Collin Klein said.

That's the approach K-State players have taken all season. It has helped them win five games by a touchdown or fewer, and four times as underdogs. Oklahoma is favored by 13 1/2 points this week, and safety Tysyn Hartman describes the Sooners as "the most talented athletes we've faced."

No reason to change now, even if others are already thinking about November games.

"I haven't really looked too far ahead," Klein said. "It's one of those things where the next couple weeks don't mean a thing if we don't take care of this week. We definitely need to maintain that mentality."

K-State coach Bill Snyder is confident his team will do exactly that.

"They all understand the significance of the ballgame and the tremendous team that we are playing," Snyder said. "But how you prepare does not or should not really change."

During his weekly news conference Tuesday, Snyder was asked to think back to the beginning of the season and share what his expectations were.

Did he think the Wildcats would be undefeated at this point? Good question. It's something he never thought about. He's glad his players didn't, either.

"They are a bunch of young guys who seemingly understand the value of laying the foundation brick-by-brick," Snyder said, "and trying to make the effort to do some of the things we ask in regards to daily and weekly improvement."

Should they become distracted by all the attention they are beginning to receive, or worry about the challenges that come with facing three top-20 teams in four weeks, the Wildcats can look to their next opponent for a cautionary tale.

At this time a week ago, most were counting down the days until Oklahoma played Oklahoma State in their regular-season finale. The winner would likely win the Big 12 and possibly earn a spot in the BCS championship game.

But when Texas Tech upset Oklahoma over the weekend, that dream scenario evaporated.

The loss served as a reminder to all K-State players, many of whom were watching at home, that the next four games will only be different from the first seven if they allow them to be.

"It is a big challenge, but it's no different than any other stretch we've had," cornerback Nigel Malone said. "I know they're good teams, but you've got to come out and play every Saturday regardless of whether they are in the top 25. Teams can come out and beat teams, each and every Saturday."

Fundraising speeds up — When K-State athletic director John Currie began informing donors over the summer that the university was planning an expansion to the west side of Snyder Family Stadium, he received positive feedback.

That reaction has intensified with the Wildcats' 7-0 start. Excitement is building around the program, and that has led to the possibility of more donations.

"When we're having success, certainly that makes for positive beginnings of conversations," Currie said. "In our history, we have raised money when we weren't having success, but it is certainly nice to be successful."

The expansion, which is projected to cost more than $60 million, will renovate restrooms and concession areas that have not been updated since 1968 and give the press box an entirely new look.

Instead of covering a portion of the field, it will extend from end zone to end zone.

"We need to elevate what we look like," Currie said. "There's a great deal of interest. There has become a realization comparatively. Missouri has done a great job, Kansas has done a great job, Oklahoma State, where we go in two weeks, has done an incredible job of transforming their stadium. Iowa State has done a great job. When you look across the board, the bar has been raised."

Gameday no show — Were the Wildcats disappointed when ESPN's popular Saturday morning "College Gameday" announced it was headed to Los Angeles for Stanford-Southern California to preview its game against Stanford instead of Manhattan this Saturday?

"It would have been great for our fan base and great for the university to get that kind of exposure," Hartman said. "It would have been great for recruiting as well. But at the end of the day it doesn't change anything about the game. We're still playing OU, we're playing them here. 'Gameday' being here doesn't put any extra points up on the board for us."

Basketball, too — The K-State basketball team will hold a public scrimmage at 12:30 p.m. Saturday at Bramlage Coliseum prior to the football game.

Doors to the northwest and northeast entrances of Bramlage Coliseum will open at 12:15 p.m. Seating will be available on the west side of the arena. Admission is free.

Excitement around town? —Snyder is known for his long work days, so when a reporter asked what he thought of the recent football excitement in Manhattan, he didn't have much of an answer.

"Where in Manhattan do you think I've been?" he said. "This is it right here."

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