MANHATTAN — At first, expectations for the Kansas State football team were high. Then the Big 12 released its preseason polls, and expectations dropped. Now, five weeks into the season, expectations are skyrocketing.
So goes the roller coaster of perception.
The No. 7 Wildcats have gone from playing in the Cotton Bowl to being picked as the sixth best team in their conference to owning their highest ranking since 2003. Thanks to a blowout victory over Miami and an impressive road win at then-No. 6 Oklahoma, they are off to one of their best starts.
Everyone seems to be taking notice. Optimists are talking about a conference championship, and possibly more.
"We are one of those teams that can be in the top five easily,” running back John Hubert said.
But a strong start doesn’t guarantee a successful season. K-State has been considered an underdog for so long that Hubert seemed disappointed about losing the label last week. Playing as a favorite might take some getting used to.
Staying on top is difficult. The last time K-State was ranked in the top 7, it lost three straight games and dropped out of the national polls before surging back to beat Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship game. How will K-State players handle the challenge this time? The answer could determine how far they go.
“Within this team there are great expectations,” linebacker Arthur Brown said. “A lot of surprise comes from those outside our family, but we expect a lot out of ourselves. We know that we can achieve a lot with just this unit and this team. We know that we have a lot of guys who are willing to give their all.
“I didn’t know where we would be placed in the polls, but just looking at what did occur and what is occurring now, it definitely presents us with an opportunity to prove ourselves.”
The Wildcats have already proven they belong in the top 10. Now they will try to prove they deserve to stay.
That journey starts with a winnable home game. Up next for K-State is a date with struggling Kansas. The Wildcats, who have crushed the Jayhawks in their last two meetings, will be heavily favored. But they won’t treat it like an easy game. K-State coach Bill Snyder doesn’t allow his players to think that way about their in-state rival.
“It takes us back to North Texas this year. We didn’t play great and we took them for granted,” linebacker Jarell Childs said. “We are not going to look at the struggles KU has been having. We know they are a good team and can step up and win a game.”
The road gets more difficult from there.
Though many viewed Oklahoma as the toughest opponent on K-State’s schedule, plenty of obstacles remain.
A road game at No. 9 West Virginia on Oct. 20 might present the steepest challenge. Six of the teams remaining on K-State’s schedule are undefeated, four are ranked and seven are receiving votes in the national polls.
The Wildcats have to face four of them — Iowa State, West Virginia, No. 15 TCU and No. 25 Baylor — on the road. Home games against Texas Tech, Oklahoma State and No. 12 Texas might not be strolls through the park, either.
“We have to remember why we are doing what we are doing, why we’ve done what we’ve done and where those decisions have led us and keep pressing forward,” quarterback Collin Klein said. “We’ve got a lot of guys, myself included, and we remember what 5-7 felt like. It’s not a good feeling, and just how vivid that memory is helps from the standpoint of realizing where we have come from and what it takes to be where we are now.”
So far, K-State players have responded well to their newfound respect. With no game to prepare for, they faced a lighter practice schedule than usual this week, but Snyder said they were focused during meetings.
He opened the week by reminding players that a high national ranking is nothing more than “stuff in a newspaper.” He told them that obsessing over it would only lead to disappointment.
“I think that we have enough maturity on this football team to be able to handle that,” Snyder said. “My sensitivity to it right now is that they are handling it fine. One of the common phrases in our football program is being 1-0 … Trying to be the best you can at the task at hand and not going any further than that.”