Bob Lutz

Process bigger than end

LINCOLN, Neb. —It wasn't a great way to end the season. With a Big 12 North championship on the line and within its grasp, Kansas State lost back-to-back games to Missouri and Nebraska and won't play in a bowl game for the third year in a row and fifth time in the past six years.

But if there's a K-Stater who doesn't feel good about what happened on the field this season and how things look going forward, I haven't met him. Or her.

If Bill Snyder accomplished one thing by returning to the sideline in 2009, it was a sense of calm. After three years of deterioration under Ron Prince and one problem after another inside an unstable athletic department, Snyder's hand was just what Kansas State needed.

Whether he'll be the one to lead the Wildcats to championship form is debatable. At 70, who knows how long he wants to do this?

But this 6-6 season, which ended with a 17-3 loss to North champion Nebraska on Saturday night at Memorial Stadium, feels a whole lot better than back-to-back 5-7 seasons during Prince's final two seasons.

K-State was picked by Big 12 coaches to finish fifth in the North. If those coaches had to do it all over again, they might pick all six North teams to finish fifth. That's the kind of rocky, unpredictable and mediocre season it has been.

The Wildcats instead made it to the final game of the season with a chance to win the division, weak as it might be. That's saying something about the job Snyder did in identifying the best ways to succeed with a roster far short of what he was used to drawing from during his first tenure.

K-State's challenge for the top was more a statement of what the Big 12 North wasn't rather than what the Wildcats were. Even so, to win the North in his first season would have been the icing on a cake K-State wasn't even supposed to be close to baking.

Snyder's charge was to restore order and get the focus back on the football program's promise rather than the dysfunctional nature of the athletic department and the controversy that persistently followed Prince.

K-State's 4-4 record in the Big 12 and 6-6 mark overall represents the kind of equilibrium the Wildcats badly needed. It was a nice first step for Snyder considering K-State's Big 12 record was 13-27 the previous five seasons.

Snyder stepped down after his second consecutive losing season in 2005. He did his best to convince everyone it was the best decision for everybody.

But he hadn't resolved his itch to coach and he proved this season that he still has some tricks.

Snyder's move to put senior transfer Grant Gregory at quarterback after non-conference losses to Louisiana and UCLA was helpful. Gregory was a stop-gap, but had more good moments than bad and mostly provided consistency at the position, although his 11-for-31 performance against Nebraska isn't the way he wanted his college career to end.

The big offensive story of the season was the play of junior tailback Daniel Thomas, whose 99 yards against the Huskers gave him 1,265 for the season, the most in a single season for K-State since Darren Sproles gained 1,318 yards in 2004 and the fourth-highest total in school history.

Thomas is a brute and will be a nice piece to the 2010 puzzle. No other team in the conference has a back like him.

K-State will have some other important returning players, including defensive backs Tysyn Hartman, Joshua Moore and Emmanuel Lamur. But the key to winning 9, 10 or 11 games — which is what Snyder's teams used to do — will be in how the Wildcats recruit.

There is no clear-cut favorite to be K-State's quarterback next season. Oregon transfer Chris Harper, from Wichita Northwest, is the player most often mentioned, but he'll be pushed by junior-college transfer Sammuel Lamur, sophomore-to-be Collin Klein, former starter Carson Coffman and who knows who else.

Klein, who has played some receiver during the last half of the season, threw one of the most impressive passes of Saturday's game, hitting Thomas for a 27-yard gain in the third quarter.

The best thing going for K-State is the state of the Big 12 North. Nebraska is the winner, but the Huskers aren't yet a dominant team under Bo Pelini; they have too many offensive issues. Nebraska, though, is on an upswing and that alone sets it apart from the rest of the teams in the division.

Kansas and Missouri took big steps back in 2009 and neither Colorado nor Iowa State took much of a step forward. It's possible KU and Colorado will be looking for new coaches soon.

K-State had only a couple of bloopers, its 66-14 loss at Texas Tech and its one-sided defeat in Manhattan last week against Missouri.

The Wildcats broke a three-game losing streak to in-state rival Kansas, a win that is sure to help K-State on the recruiting trail.

There was an exciting comeback at Oklahoma after falling behind big early to the Sooners.

There was a 62-point uprising in a blowout win over Texas A&M and the excitement of winning a close game in the final seconds against Iowa State at Arrowhead Stadium to open Big 12 play.

Snyder knew what he was getting himself into when he agreed to come back and coach the Wildcats. He would have never said he would be satisfied to go 6-6, but he might have thought it.

"We made mistakes tonight that cost us a very fine opportunity for our program,'' Snyder said after the Nebraska loss. "But I'm proud of these players for putting themselves in a position like this.''

As he should be. As every Wildcat should be.

It wasn't a breakthrough season. But the wrongs of the past have been corrected.