Hopes were high for Kansas State fans entering Sunday.
After every result fell in K-State’s favor on championship Saturday, and some rosy prognostications from college football writers around the country, fans wanted to see the team land in one of the Big 12’s most high-profile bowls. Perhaps the Alamo, which has the first pick of conference teams after the New Year’s Six bowls. Or even the Camping World, next in line after the Alamo, which would present a chance to play in Florida for the first time in program history — and possibly against one of the sport’s blue bloods, Notre Dame.
Instead, when the dust settled, the Wildcats landed in the Liberty Bowl, where they will take on Navy in Memphis, Tenn., on Dec. 31.
What’s notable about how the Big 12’s bowl selections shook out: the conference had six bowl-eligible teams; two (Oklahoma and Baylor) are in New Year’s Six bowls, with Oklahoma in the playoff. That meant the remaining teams — K-State, Iowa State, Oklahoma State and Texas, a quartet that finished with identical records (5-4) in league play — would fill out four of the conference’s six slots, with not enough eligible teams to send to the bottom-two bowls on the totem pole, the Cheez-It and First Responder.
After the Alamo and Camping World bowls, the Texas Bowl gets its pick. Finally, the Liberty steps up to bat.
In short: K-State got the short end of the stick.
After news of the Liberty Bowl bid broke, linebacker Justin Hughes posted a message on Twitter to try to allay fans’ concerns.
“To all the fans discouraged about the bowl location, we as a team are going to come harder and more focused than ever,” Hughes, a senior who missed the season after tearing his ACL in the spring, wrote on his personal Twitter account, “and we want to encourage you fans to come by the boatloads so the committee won’t have an excuse in the future to put us where we belong.”
Appearing on a teleconference arranged by the bowl Sunday night, athletics director Gene Taylor also took the high road.
“It’s all kind of dependent upon the matchups, really,” he said. “We talked to a lot of bowls. The AutoZone Liberty Bowl folks have been with us a lot, so I knew they were highly interested in us as a team. They were interested in us a couple of years ago when we ended up going to the (Cactus) Bowl. ... I think everybody is just looking at matchups, and it just happened to be where we were available. We could have gone a couple of other places, but we’re excited about going to Memphis, there’s no question about it.”
Taylor pointed to bowl ticket presales as proof.
“I know the AutoZone Liberty Bowl was one of our higher presales before when we put it out. It was one of the top ones,” Taylor said. “I’m guessing now that our fans know and can start planning — the date’s a great date for our fan base. They can get down there, they can spend Christmas with their families and get down to Memphis. Obviously (they also have) a chance to celebrate New Year’s Eve in Memphis, so I think our sales will pick up. Our fans have been kind of waiting to see where we’re going to be, so we’ll know a lot more this week.”
That might not mean as much to fans hoping to book reservations for San Antonio or Orlando, Fla. Wildcat backers can make a case for why they shouldn’t have been passed over by the Alamo and Camping World bowls.
• Texas, which is staying the Lone Star State to face Utah in the Alamo Bowl on Dec. 31, finished with a worse overall record (7-5) than K-State (8-4).
• Iowa State, which will head to Orlando for the Camping World Bowl and a matchup with Notre Dame, finished 7-5 as well. The Wildcats also beat the Cyclones, 27-17, in the regular-season finale at Bill Snyder Family Stadium on Nov. 30.
Oklahoma State, the only team in the 5-4 logjam to actually earn a ranking (No. 25) in the final College Football Playoff poll released Sunday, could have a similar argument to K-State as to why it fell in the eyes of the Big 12’s bowl partners. (The Cowboys will take on former Big 12 colleague Texas A&M in the Texas Bowl in Houston on Dec. 27.)
But the happenings of Sunday simply are the reality of the conference’s system, one that doesn’t force bowls to honor the league standings, or season results, in any way, shape or form. Bowls, in business to make money, draw eyeballs to the television screen and put fans in seats at their games, are going to do what they think makes the most sense financially.
Altering that selection process is a topic Taylor has “talked to our colleagues about” in conversations. Those discussions likely will continue.
It’s just not at the forefront of his mind.
“Obviously you want the bowls to be able to get matchups they haven’t had in a little while,” Taylor said. “When you put in some tough parameters, sometimes that limits that. I don’t know ... but I’m certainly not making (changes to the selection process) a major priority. With seven or six bowls, and then you have two teams go up (to New Year’s Six bowls), all that plays into it as well.”
Besides, Taylor said he’s happy the Wildcats are Memphis-bound.
“They’ve been good to us all season,” he said, “and have been following us for a while.”
Liberty Bowl executives also have doubled as lucky charms for K-State this fall. The Wildcats are 3-0 in games Liberty Bowl representatives attended in 2019 — which one bowl official reminded Taylor on the teleconference.
“I know, I know,” Taylor said with a laugh. “I’m not ignoring that fact at all.”