MANHATTAN — Kansas State is the top-ranked defensive team in college football.
Think about that for a moment. Any idea what it means?
The Wildcats don't have an answer.
Ever since Bill Snyder began a Monday team meeting by announcing that K-State held the top spot statistically, after limiting Eastern Kentucky to 119 yards and seven points in its first game, the players have been filled with conflicting emotions.
Are they supposed to celebrate with shouts of excitement and commemorative T-shirts? It isn't all that often that any team gets to say it is better than 119 others.
Or are they supposed to shrug off the label as meaningless? Their opening-day performance was nice, sure, but it came against an injured team from the Football Championship Subdivision that was without its starting quarterback.
Perhaps it's best to find some middle ground.
"That's kind of a double-edged sword," senior safety Tysyn Hartman said. "It's great to know, but you've got to keep going. You've got to be disciplined or it's going to be very easy to fall from that spot."
Considering K-State allowed more than 230 rushing yards per game and was one of the nation's worst-ranked defenses a season ago, any positive news is great. The Wildcats feel like they have the talent to lead a huge turnaround in 2011, but they are only a baby step into that transition.
"We can't have roller coaster performances, where we play great one game and terrible the next," Hartman said. "I feel like that's something we did last year, and we feel like we're a better defense than last year. So we've got to prove that."
The first major test for K-State's defense will come when it heads to Miami on Sept. 24, but it can kill any notion that its debut performance was a fluke at 6 p.m. Saturday at Snyder Family Stadium against Kent State.
The Golden Flashes, who rank 119th of 120 Bowl Subdivision teams with 9.5 points and 138 yards of total offense per game, aren't much better at scoring touchdowns than Eastern Kentucky — but their two games have been played at No. 2 Alabama and against Louisiana-Lafayette in a rain storm.
They have potential to perform better in normal conditions, and Snyder hopes his players understand that and stay properly motivated.
Where two weeks ago the Wildcats were eager to put a forgettable 2010 season behind them, they now need to be ready to prove themselves capable of sustained success, regardless of the opponent.
"I'd like to think they have utilized that performance as a motivational device for the upcoming ball games," Snyder said. "Not just the confidence element of it, but just the ability to look at things and understand how valuable their preparation time is and how valuable the execution truly is.
"And then the confidence level that says, 'Yes, we are indeed capable of it.' We're capable of playing fast and we're capable of being an aggressive football team. We're capable of a variety of different things."
With Wichita native and Miami transfer Arthur Brown leading the way at linebacker, a rebuilt defensive line that helped create 10 tackles for loss and secondary that features three veteran defensive backs and Nigel Malone, who already has two interceptions, K-State is much faster and more versatile than a year ago.
And the players are confident, even if they choose not to brag about their accomplishments.
Players walked away from the Eastern Kentucky game lamenting a 43-yard pass late in the second quarter, and not being able to stop the Colonels from scoring in the third quarter when they recovered a fumble one yard away from the end zone.
They hold themselves to a high standard. After watching Alabama hold Kent State to 90 total yards and seven points, they see no reason why they can't do the same.
"I honestly feel that we have the athletes and comparable skills to the bigger schools like the Alabamas or those fast SEC schools," Malone said. "I definitely think that if we come out and play like we're supposed to, we can play with a lot of these teams."
A quality showing against Kent State could help others think the same way.
"If we put a few good games together I think people are going to start recognizing that the K-State defense (is) somewhat back," said defensive end Jordan Voelker. "Hopefully we've changed the perception of being one of the bottom defenses."