MANHATTAN — During his time at Kansas State, Shad Meier played in two Big 12 Championship games and went to four bowl games. The Wildcats won 44 football games with him on the roster, and he can tell you a story about all of them.
One of his favorites came in 2000 at Arrowhead Stadium. K-State was set to play Iowa in the season-opening Eddie Robinson Classic, and he was nervous. Victory was anything but assured.
The former tight end remembers pacing around the team hotel the night before, and having so much adrenaline at kickoff that he wore himself out after one series.
The only other time he did that was during his preseason debut in the NFL.
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"It's a lot more pressure going up against a beast of a team in that first one," Meier said. "The last thing you want to do is come out in front of your fans and lay an egg."
Meier and the Wildcats did not. On a hot day in August, they defeated the Hawkeyes 27-7, won their next five games and came within three points of knocking off eventual national champion Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game before beating Tennessee in the Cotton Bowl.
And their victory over Iowa set it all up.
"There is no better way to boost your confidence than to play a top Division I team and beat them early in the season," Meier said. "It gives you momentum, and you can run with that until the final game."
K-State is once again trying to capture that momentum by going up against a name opponent in Week 1 this season. At 2:30 p.m. Saturday, UCLA comes to Snyder Family Stadium for an important game that will be nationally televised. A win could propel it to another quality season.
Coach Bill Snyder has publicly downplayed the significance of the Wildcats' first game, saying "Saturday night, this one is over no matter what happens. If you've got a hangover from it, you're slowing down your opportunities to get yourself vested in the next ballgame."
But he realizes the importance of starting strong. Former players say he has reached out to them in recent weeks, and asked that they send letters of encouragement to those currently on the roster.
Any extra edge K-State can have on opening day is meaningful. Historically, it starts the season against less prestigious teams with directions in their names. But the few times it has challenged itself against competition from BCS conferences, it has taken great advantage.
In the past 30 years, the Wildcats have played their first game against major-conference, non-league opponents eight times and gone 5-3. The three times K-State lost — at LSU in 1980, at Arizona State in 1989 and at Auburn in 2007 — it suffered losing seasons. The five times K-State won, it advanced to bowl games and built a record of 43-18-1.
After Meier graduated, the Wildcats went on to open at Southern California and against California back at Arrowhead Stadium. Another former tight end, Thomas Hill, remembers those games fondly, and credits winning them for K-State's success those seasons. It advanced to the Insight Bowl in 2001 and won a conference championship in 2003.
"Winning a game like that sets the tone for the whole season," Hill said. "It's basically a springboard to great things. You play a team like USC or Cal or UCLA early in the season, and it's a huge momentum builder for a team. Win, lose or draw it tests you and let's you know where you are. You just can't get that playing a patsy or a smaller school."
Current players say they are up for the challenge. Last season, they opened the season against Massachusetts, an overmatched opponent from the Championship Subdivision, and linebacker Blake Slaughter said there is considerably more campus buzz surrounding this game.
Offensive lineman Zach Kendall said preseason practices have been better than they were a year ago for that reason. There's a lot riding on this game. Victory is anything but assured. But Like Meier and Hill before him, he knows what spoils a victory could lead to.
"Playing a team like UCLA, it doesn't ease you into the season. It doesn't let you," Kendall said. "Sometimes with teams you have an easy schedule and you tend to drop off a little bit. We have to get right into it. We're hitting the ground running. It's good for our football team."