It wasn’t all that long ago when the Kansas State football team looked as if it was simply left for dead, simply a shell of the Big 12 championship team from a year ago.
The Wildcats lost to North Dakota State to open the season and then again to Texas to begin league play. That loss was followed by two more, at Oklahoma State and then at home against Baylor.
At 2-4 overall, the Wildcats’ season seemed doomed, destined to be a failure and miss a bowl for the first time in four years.
But in the last three weeks, K-State has pulled itself from the Big 12 scrap heap and now stands one win away from earning the coveted bowl eligibility mark of six wins.
“Our thing is to go 1-0 each week in the meeting rooms, the practice field and in the game,” K-State offensive lineman Cody Whitehair said Saturday. “Ever since we got our focus back, we started to improve each week and we’re rolling now.”
TCU stands in the way of that this Saturday when the Wildcats (5-4, 3-3 Big 12) host the struggling Horned Frogs (4-6, 2-5) at 2:30 p.m. in a game televised on FSN.
“I think it might be in the back of some of our minds, for sure,” said K-State linebacker Jonathan Truman on the team chasing bowl eligibility. “Obviously it’s there, but our focus is on TCU this week and that’s what we plan to keep our minds on.”
Saturday’s game isn’t a must-win for the Wildcats with two more chances against Oklahoma next week — kicking off at 11 a.m. on FS1— and then in the regular-season finale at Kansas. But locking up a bowl this weekend could go a long way in climbing up the bowl pecking order.
ESPN currently has the Wildcats projected for the Holiday Bowl in a potential matchup with Southern California or Arizona State. CBS Sports has K-State playing in the Texas Bowl against Minnesota.
It’s not the Cotton Bowl or Fiesta this year for K-State, but considering how far the Wildcats have come to even get back into the bowl conversation, they’ll probably be happy going anywhere — other than home — during the holidays,
“It would be a positive thing at this point in time,” K-State coach Bill Snyder said Tuesday on his team’s opportunity to gain bowl eligibility Saturday. “I think all of our players are interested in that. We don’t spend a great deal of time talking about it, but you have to realize too that there is an equal amount of motivation on the other side because TCU is going through the exact same thing. They’re fighting for their lives in a bowl game as well, so they’ll be motivated as will we.”
The difference between K-State and TCU, however, is that the Wildcats are one of the hottest teams in the Big 12 right now — second to only No. 4 Baylor — while TCU has lost three of its last four games. K-State has won three straight — including a pair of blowout victories at home against West Virginia and Iowa State and last Saturday’s 49-26 beat down of No. 25 Texas Tech on the road.
“It was a big win for us,” Whitehair said of the win over the Red Raiders. “We’re trying to get to a bowl game. We’re trying to go 1-0 each week and fighting for that bowl, so we’re out for blood.”
So what was the turning point for K-State?
“After the Texas loss, it was tough and we thought about it,” K-State safety Dante Barnett said. “We wanted to win. We needed to play with more energy and be more consistent on the field. That’s what we’ve been doing.”
The Wildcats’ improvement has been gradual, because even after losing by 10 at Texas, K-State still went on to lose two more games at Oklahoma State and then at home to Baylor before finding its current groove.
No coach will admit to believing in moral victories, but considering how the Wildcats started their season, losing by four to the Cowboys in a game K-State was leading in the fourth quarter didn’t seem too bad. A week later, K-State clamped down on Baylor, holding the Bears to half of their season average in points and total yards, only to squander another lead in the fourth quarter and lose 35-25 — the best showing any team has had against Baylor all season.
Everything then seemed to click for K-State against West Virginia, setting the Wildcats up for a second-half run at a bowl game.
“We’re not a team that’s just going to be pushed over,” K-State senior receiver Tramaine Thompson said. “A lot of people turned their back on us after we had a couple of tough losses to start the year.
“We still have stuff we’re leaving out on the field. I don’t think we’ve reached our full potential at all. If we can all three facets of our game complete, I think we’ll be pretty salty.”