MANHATTAN — Teams that lose four of their first six games rarely end the season with a bowl trip. Even fewer finish with a winning record.
The list of Big 12 teams that have accomplished either feat is so short you can count them on one hand.
It started with Kansas State in 2001, when the Wildcats fought back from a 2-4 start and went 6-6. Iowa State took things a step further in 2004, rallying from 2-4 to 7-5. And Oklahoma State made the biggest midseason turnaround in 2002, finishing 8-5 after starting 2-4.
A new team will join that group at the end of this season — it might even top it all.
The Wildcats (6-4, 4-3 Big 12) have recovered from a 2-4 start so quickly that they are eligible for a bowl game with two games remaining. If they continue winning, they could surpass the Cowboys.
“When we were at 2-4, you think of teams that go in one of two directions,” K-State linebacker Jonathan Truman said. “They either go way down or they improve. I am proud of the fact that our team really turned it around and decided that we aren’t going to let this happen and be a team that just loses games. We fought back.”
No matter what happens the rest of the way, K-State players will be able to look back and know they did something unique during the second half of the season.
K-State coach Bill Snyder figured out how to successfully use quarterbacks Jake Waters and Daniel Sams in the same offense. An experienced offensive line got its swagger back. A young defense learned how to play together and improve. And the Wildcats have won four straight.
Still, they have their eyes on more.
“It could all come to an abrupt halt,” Snyder said. “This isn’t the time to reflect back and say, ‘We have arrived,’ because we haven’t. We won four games in a row. I don’t know how big a deal that is.
“For this group, coming from where they were they made that improvement, so they have accomplished something to this point in time. But that could go by the wayside in a heartbeat.”
K-State players understand that, and they have adjusted their goals accordingly. Reaching a bowl game was the objective four weeks ago. That has been replaced by thoughts of a winning record and reaching the best bowl game possible.
With one more victory, K-State clinches its fourth-straight winning season. If it wins its final two games, it will be in the running for a respected postseason destination.
At worst, it is looking at the Texas Bowl. But the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl and the Holiday Bowl are both within reach.
Playing in one of those games would take considerable sting away from four early losses.
It all counts, of course. K-State players shake their heads when you bring up the start of the season. If they could go back and play those games now, they think many of them would turn out differently.
They walked into the year hoping for a conference championship, so it’s not as if they look at the season as an unrivaled success.
But it has been a fun ride. They want to keep it going.
“It feels good to see where we came from,” Sams said, “and how even though we didn’t have a chance to win the Big 12, it still feels good to see your teammates giving their all just to win out the rest of the season. When you see guys giving their all when all they can get is a mediocre bowl game, it makes you feel good about the season and makes you want to finish it.”