First things first: After a one-year absence, Kansas State is heading back to a bowl. The only uncertainty heading into Saturday’s regular-season finale against Iowa State? Where the Wildcats will play.
Though some critics deride the fact that making a bowl isn’t the same type of accomplishment it used to be, with seemingly more and more games added every single year, K-State earning eligibility this fall is nothing to scoff at. That’s because the Wildcats did it with a first-year head coach, Chris Klieman. Three other Big 12 schools have rookie coaches: Les Miles at Kansas, Matt Wells at Texas Tech and Neal Brown at West Virginia; all three already have lost their opportunity to play in a bowl heading into their final games of the season this weekend. The trio occupies the bottom three spots in the Big 12 standings, with both the Red Raiders and Mountaineers owning the same record overall (4-7) and in conference play (2-6), just ahead of the Jayhawks (3-8, 1-7).
The Wildcats, meanwhile, still have much to play for Saturday, which will go a long way in determining where they head this postseason. A win over the Cyclones will give K-State an 8-4 record, plus a winning mark (5-4) in league games. A loss will drop the Wildcats to 7-5 and 4-5, respectively.
Obviously, the better a team’s record, the more attractive it is for a prospective bowl.
Yet the Wildcats’ bowl possibilities don’t exist in a vacuum. They will be at the mercy of what happens with the teams above them in the league standings. Should Oklahoma win out (victories over Oklahoma State Saturday and Baylor in the Big 12 championship game) and make it to the College Football Playoff, that aids K-State. That’s because every Big 12 team will move up a rung in the bowl hierarchy; with the Sooners in the four-team playoff, the league still has a slot to fill in the Sugar Bowl, which almost undoubtedly will go to Baylor in this scenario.
If the Bears beat the Sooners, however, or Oklahoma is left out of the playoff in favor of another team (a one-loss, Pac-12 champion Utah, or perhaps even a one-loss Alabama, though that seems less likely), then things change. A Big 12 team will head to the Sugar Bowl, given its tie-in. But if Oklahoma misses out on the playoff, could the league still get two teams into New Year’s Six games?
Unexpected results elsewhere would have to occur, particularly in the SEC, with Auburn upsetting Alabama in the Iron Bowl, Florida State and interim coach Odell Haggins stunning in-state rival Florida, and Georgia upending LSU in next week’s SEC championship game. So two Big 12 teams in New Year’s Six bowls, without one of those being part of the College Football Playoff, is highly unlikely. But this is college football. Anything is possible.
Much the same can be said for K-State’s bowl options.
First, let’s look at the Big 12’s bowl partners, listed in order of selection:
• Camping World
• First Responder
The most popular projection for K-State is a familiar one: the Cheez-It. The bowl, which has gone by a variety of names over the years — Copper, Insight.com, Buffalo Wild Wings, Motel 6 and TicketCity, just to name a few — previously was known as the Cactus Bowl before Cheez-It took over as the sponsor prior to last year’s game.
Let’s work through some of the possibilities.
When: Dec. 31, 6:30 p.m.
Where: San Antonio
Matchup: Big 12 vs. Pac-12
The Alamo only would be on the table for the Wildcats if the Big 12 lands two teams in New Year’s Six bowls. Otherwise, Oklahoma/Baylor will fill that slot.
Further, K-State has to win Saturday. But let’s go with the scenario in which both the Sooners and Bears are in New Year’s Six games and the Wildcats beat the Cylcones yet again. That would mean K-State, Oklahoma State and Iowa State all would end with the exact same Big 12 record: 5-4. The Cowboys own victories over the other two.
Would the Alamo Bowl organizers really pass over Oklahoma State in that scenario? Would they look away from all three and choose a 7-5 or 6-6 Texas squad instead? (Big 12 bowl partners, per the league’s official website, “may pick from any available teams when it reaches its spot in the selection order.” Sometimes, schools with larger followings receive better bowl destinations than their records warrant simply because bowl organizers believe they might be able to sell more tickets.)
This one’s a long shot, sure. But it’s not entirely impossible, either.
Camping World Bowl
When: Dec. 28, 11 a.m.
Where: Orlando, Fla.
Matchup: Big 12 vs. ACC
Much the same as the Alamo, the Camping World doesn’t seem likely for K-State, unless the bowl is willing to overlook the head-to-head loss to Oklahoma State. One thing potentially working in the Wildcats’ favor: They’ve never played in a Florida-based bowl game. The opportunity to spend the holiday season in Florida should energize the K-State fan base. Even more so if the opponent is Notre Dame, which is a distinct possibility. The Wildcats have never faced the Fighting Irish.
When: Dec. 27, 5:45 p.m.
Matchup: Big 12 vs. SEC
Expect one of three teams to end up here: Either Texas or the winner of Saturday’s K-State/Iowa State game. The Wildcats have appeared in this bowl twice, in years coincidentally ending in “6”: They lost to Rutgers 34-10 in 2006 in Ron Prince’s debut season and topped Texas A&M 33-28 in 2016.
When: Dec. 31, 2:45 p.m.
Where: Memphis, Tennessee
Matchup: Big 12 vs. SEC
Not a single recent bowl projection tabbed K-State for the Liberty. But it very well could happen, if for no other reason that both Oklahoma State (last year) and Iowa State (2017), the two teams K-State likely would be competing against for this spot, played in this bowl more recently.
The Wildcats have appeared in the Liberty Bowl once, dropping a lopsided, 45-23 affair to Arkansas following the 2015 season.
When: Dec. 26, 8 p.m.
Matchup: Big 12 vs. Pac-12
Look, Phoenix is a nice town. The weather will be great. The scenery around the city is mesmerizing. But for K-State fans, a Cheez-It berth likely would be a bitter pill to swallow, simply because this is such a common destination.
The Wildcats have played in this game four times, their most appearances at any bowl. The Cactus Bowl also marked K-State’s last postseason game, when it beat UCLA 35-17 in 2017.
One thing to keep an eye on: just one projection actually has K-State facing a Pac-12 foe. With the Pac-12, the bowl’s other conference tie-in, potentially not boasting enough bowl-eligible teams to fill this slot, the opponent could be an at-large school from another league. The Mountain West was the most popular replacement, with four teams from the conference (Air Force, San Diego State, Utah State and Wyoming) projected opposite K-State.
(For media members, at least K-State defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton would have a lot of funny quotes about his time at Wyoming, where he spent the previous two seasons before arriving in Manhattan.)
First Responder Bowl
When: Dec. 30, 11:30 a.m.
Where: Dallas (Gerald J. Ford Stadium)
Matchup: Big 12 vs. AAC
K-State likely avoided landed here, the Big 12’s lowest bowl tie-in, thanks to last week’s victory at Texas Tech.