MANHATTAN — Kansas State coach Bill Snyder had plenty to say during the Wildcats’ first team meeting earlier this week. Players had just returned from Thanksgiving break, and he wanted to make sure their focus was in the right place.
He hoped the frustration they felt while losing their first football game at Baylor had turned into anger, and he asked that they use that new emotion to their advantage as they prepared for the final game of the regular season against Texas.
But that’s where the speech ended. He didn’t mention anything about the importance of the next game.
“They weren’t born yesterday,” Snyder said. “Young guys understand what is at stake for this ballgame. It’s not something I have to go beat a drum about.”
No kidding. K-State’s game against Texas, at 7 p.m. Saturday, is important for several reasons.
Some are obvious. The Wildcats know they can win their first Big 12 championship since 2003 and clinch a berth in the Fiesta Bowl with a victory. It is also senior night with an ABC national audience . This is their opportunity to go out with a bang.
Some are subtle. A win would make this K-State team the seventh in school history to win 11 games — with the chance to become the first to win 12.
K-State’s national championship hopes are gone, but the Wildcats can still do something special. With one more victory, they could make an argument as Snyder’s best team.
“It would set us apart historically,” senior receiver Chris Harper said.
Perhaps most importantly, though, a win would allow one of the better teams in program history to redeem itself from a disappointing loss. That is always significant.
College football history is littered with great teams that lost at the wrong time. Those that bounced back from them are remembered more fondly than those that didn’t.
Oklahoma State moved past a crushing loss to Iowa State last year by celebrating a Fiesta Bowl victory and a No. 3 ranking. In 2008, West Virginia enjoyed one of its biggest victories over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl after Pittsburgh knocked it out of the national championship mix. Those were happy endings.
Recent sad endings include Oklahoma losing its final two games after a 12-0 start in 2003, Nebraska losing its final two games in 2001 and falling to eighth in the final polls despite playing in the national title game, and UCLA and K-State almost dropping out of the top 10 in 1998 because of back-to-back losses after incredible starts.
That K-State team, led by quarterback Michael Bishop, linebacker Mark Simoneau and a host of other future NFL Draft picks, steamrolled opponents on its way to an 11-0 start, a No. 1 ranking in the USA Today coaches poll and a Big 12 North championship. It appeared on its way to the national championship game until Texas A&M stunned it 36-33 in double overtime of the Big 12 championship game.
“It was like a movie coming to an end,” K-State radio analyst Stan Weber remembers. “The storybook ending was set up and then — poof — Texas A&M scores a touchdown and it’s over. It was hard to discount that blow to the gut. It was awful.”
The narrow loss sent the Wildcats tumbling all the way down to the Alamo Bowl, where they lost another heartbreaker to Purdue 37-34.
Though many still view that group as the best team Snyder has produced, it lost its last two games and finished 10th in the final top 25 poll. It didn’t provide a strong lasting impression.
“The way the ’98 team is remembered is somewhat unfortunate, because they lost the bowl game,” Weber said. “People maybe don’t glorify that team the way they should. I don’t think they were put on a pedestal, because it never cleaned up that first loss. The season would have felt a lot better with a bowl win.
“That’s an important lesson for this team to learn. This has been a great season — a season to glorify and put up on a pedestal. It will be easier to remember if they can go out and win this game.”
This current group of K-State players has been compared to the ’98 team throughout the season. Collin Klein is the best quarterback since Bishop, the defense has played well in most of its games and it contended for a national championship.
Snyder thinks the comparisons are fair. He sees similarities. He thinks they share the same values and the desire to succeed. Both teams gradually improved and reached a No. 1 ranking.
He knows both teams will respond to losses differently. Every team does. But Snyder has a special place in his heart for those who persevere.
“We all have tremendous disappointments and things that pain us dearly and it’s how we respond to it,” Snyder said. “When young people learn to respond in a very positive way it’s kind of a life lesson thing, but it makes me feel good. I have a great deal of passion and compassion and pride in young guys that do that.”
So do K-State players. No matter what is at stake, they are motivated.
“We definitely need to get back on track,” Klein said. “There is definitely that mentality … There definitely is a lot of emotion and just build up of, ‘We just have to get back on track.’ Our last two performances have not been stellar. There is definitely a lot of motivation there.”
Harper has been thinking back to his final game at Northwest High, a blowout loss in the playoffs. He remembers how sick he felt after that game. He watched replays for weeks, regretting everything that went wrong until he finally threw the video away.
Much like the Baylor loss, it was hard to get over. But that was the end of his high school career. This time, his team gets a shot at redemption.
“It’s big going out there and getting a win in your last game,” Harper said. “We know we control this game and we can’t control nothing else. That’s the focus we have always had, but now we are playing one game to win the championship. It’s kind of different than the rest of the season.”