Monday, August 15, 2011

Big 12 college football countdown: Kansas State

The program

For so long, the history of Kansas State football is decades and decades of abject, unrivaled futility.

It was the first program to lose 500 football games. From 1940 to 1989 (50 years), Kansas State won 24 percent of its games. Every other D-I program in the nation won at least 33 percent of its games during this time. During these 50 years, the Wildcats had a staggering 37 seasons of 3 or fewer wins. How many winning seasons during this time? Three. (6-3 in 1953, 7-3 in 1954 and 6-5 in 1982.

Then, the Miracle.

When Snyder was hired after the 1988 season, K-State had a 27 game winless streak, including an 0-21-1 mark over the two seasons before his hire, the worst two-year stretch in NCAA history. The program had no talent on hand, two legit D-I players, an assistant would later say. They went 1-10 in Snyder's first season, 1989. That win snapped a 30-game winless streak. Still, Snyder spoke of a turnaround, of the potential. He even designed a new logo to symbolize the new chapter for K-State, that Purple Powercat logo now painted on barn roofs and limestone rocks and mailboxes and grain elevators all across rural Kansas.

Slowly, unbelievably, Snyder lifted K-State. He worked hour after hour, a daunting quest to make K-State a contender. They rose past all the other Big Eight schools (or Big 12 North schools, starting in 1996) except Nebraska. Then, in 1998, the Wildcats scored their landmark win against Nebraska. They were undefeated that year heading into the Big 12 title game, a win away from an incomprehensible berth in the national championship game. But the Wildcats broke down at the finish line, blowing a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter, losing in overtime.

But K-State kept winning (six 11-win seasons in seven years), and in 2003 Snyder and the Wildcats finally got to the brass ring, winning the school's first football conference title since 1934. In one of the most enduring games in Big 12 history, the Wildcats destroyed the No. 1-ranked, supposedly invincible Oklahoma Sooners in the Big 12 title game. It was unthinkable watching it, as Darren Sproles kept shaking loose, Ell Roberson kept heaving touchdown passes, and the Wildcat defense beat the heack out of Jason White, the Sooners' Heisman-winning quarterback. (Here's a video telling the story of K-State football, complete with some U2 music; it features this epic upset at about the 5:50 mark.)

That win, the zenith of K-State football, became the Wildcats' calling card, going into battles with a massive chip on their shoulder, punching the bully in the face, showing no fear. (To wit: the Wildcats domination of Texas.)

Snyder, of course, retired after the 2005 season, then returned for the 2009 season after the Ron Prince era didn't work out. John Denver's "Rocky Mountain High" contains the line, "He was born in the summer of his 27th year." K-State has been playing football since (year), but in many ways the program was born when Snyder took over. He has more wins than all K-State coaches combined since 1935. No. 2 on the program's coaching wins list? Mike Faheam... with 39. In so many ways (including the name of the stadium), he is K-State football.

But it's so much more. Snyder would tell you that, humble gentleman that he is. It's the haunting beauty of the Flint Hills. It's Willie the Wildcat doing the "K... S... U... Wildcats!" after touchdowns. It's a steely gray sky and a raw wind roaring in off miles and miles and miles of the Great Plains. It's limestone buildings, Aggieville before and after games and, of course, the Wabash Cannonball.

Best player ever

Darren Sproles, RB
With 4,979 rushing yards, the diminutive, lightning-legged Sproles has over 2,000 more yards than any other Wildcat. When his career at K-State ended, he was 11th on the NCAA's all-time rushing list and 6th in all-purpose yards. He led the nation in rushing in that magical 2003 season. I was there when he set the school's single-game rushing record in Manhattan against Mizzou, and then watched next week as he helped the Wildcats upset No. 1 Oklahoma in the 2003 Big 12 title game. Sproles caught a pass and scampered for a 60-yard touchdown that put K-State up 21-7 and knocked mighty OU on its heels. Not only did Sproles pile up huge numbers, he did so in some of the biggest games in K-State history.

2011 outlook

Kansas State's biggest issue will likely be replacing running back Daniel Thomas, who led the Big 12 in rushing last year (1,585 yards). The Wildcats bring in a pair of transfers expected to make an immediate impact, running back Bryce Brown and his brother, Arthur Brown, a linebacker.

Assuming he works hard enough to satisfy Snyder's high standards and wins the starting job, Bryce Brown could be a breakout star for the Wildcats. Also, fullback Braden Wilson might actually be one of the team's best players on offense. Broadcaster Stan Webber called him a legitimate NFL prospect earlier this month, and Wilson should open lanes for Brown.

The quarterback position still seems to be up for grabs, with Collin Klein, Sammuel Lamur and intriguing juco transfer Justin Tuggle all in the mix. All-in-all, I don't think it'll be a high-powered offense, but Snyder will likely look to manage games, run the ball, avoid turnovers and wait for the opponent to botch things.

K-State's defensive strength will probably come from its linebackers, led by Arthur Brown, and its secondary, including all-conference candidates in cornerback David Garrett and safety Tysyn Hartman. Last year, Kansas State was ninth in the Big 12 in total yards allowed and dead last against the run. The defense must get better, as the offense likely won't be erasing any huge deficits. Snyder brought in some juco defensive linemen in hopes of immediately improving the run defense.

The big question: Can the team equal or improve on last year's seven-win season? This would mean Snyder was continuing to gradually build momentum in his second stint. In 15 of his 19 seasons at K-State, Snyder has equaled or improved the team's record in the year before. He's done this in both years so far in his second stint at K-State. Does he get seven wins and do it again in 2011, his 20th year at K-State's coach? I say yes. Suddenly the nonconferece game at scandal-ravaged Miami looks a little more manageable. Even more, six of KSU's nine Big 12 games are in the state of Kansas (five home games and a game at toothless Kansas, just a short drive down I-70). They'll need to make hay in the first seven games, but I think they'll get to seven or eight wins.

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