Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Jeffrey Fitzgerald wasn’t surprised – even if the rest of the Big 12 is probably collectively scratching its head trying to figure out Kansas State.
The Wildcats were a fashionable preseason pick to finish last in the North Division. But after three games – including a record-setting 100-point turnaround in victory margins over the last two games – Fitzgerald's team is alone in first place after the most dramatic of transformations in recent memory.
“We knew we’re a very capable team,” said Fitzgerald, a senior defensive end for KSU. “So it isn’t a shock for us because we knew what we were capable of doing. We’re just playing the best we can and trying to get good results every time we go out there.”
But even that simplistic approach still doesn’t explain the Wildcats’ dramatic turnaround over the last two weeks.
After getting blown out in a humbling 66-14 loss at Texas Tech two weeks ago, few expected much from the Wildcats last week against Texas A&M or for that matter during the rest of the season.
That prompted a remarkably easy lesson from veteran coach Bill Snyder, whose demands were direct to his team during preparation last week.
"He told us to keep playing, keep playing, keep playing,” freshman wide receiver Collin Klein said. “We just have to keep getting better at all facets.”
And they did it in a 62-14 victory over Texas A&M, jumping to a 52-0 lead early in the third quarter. The Wildcats notched six sacks after producing six in the first six weeks of the season, including 2 ½ from Fitzgerald. Texas A&M quarterback Jerrod Johnson had not been intercepted previously in the season, but threw three picks against the Wildcats.
Snyder told reporters after the A&M victory that he really had no explanation for his team’s stunning turnaround.
“Do I predict these things? Of course not," Snyder said after the game. "I'd be doing something in Las Vegas if I could do that."
The slots and Keno machines will have to wait. The Wildcats’ turnaround represents a testament to the coaching ability of Snyder, who returned to coach this team to “still the water” around the ruffled KSU program after the discord of the Ron Prince coaching tenure.
The Wildcats are one of the youngest teams in the conference with only 17 upperclassmen on the two-deep roster. And this is the same program that has struggled in recent years, notching a .500 record only once in the past five seasons and posting a 26-33 record from 2004-08.
The current KSU roster has provided an ideal group to learn from Snyder’s sage teachings. And this team has gravitated to them – especially during the last two weeks.
“All of this starts with Coach Snyder because he has been in every situation imaginable as a coach,” senior quarterback Grant Gregory said. “He’s a very even-keeled person and we try to feed off him in that aspect.”
The North looks wide-open after preseason favorites Kansas and Nebraska both lost last week and two-time defending title game participant Missouri has dropped its first two games.
The Wildcats will meet Colorado, which has similarly climbed back into the divisional race after an upset victory over Kansas last week. The Buffaloes are only a half-game behind KSU and will test the Wildcats with scrambling quarterback Tyler Hansen, who has energized their offense since taking the starting job.
Few observers would have guessed before the season that the game would have any relevancy to the divisional lead. And a few weeks ago, they would have been laughed at for the mere mention of title hopes in Manhattan on Saturday.
The success might have been unexpected by most. But Snyder isn’t letting it go to his team’s ego after the wild recent events.
“You have to put the past behind you in order to focus on the next game. There's not really a lot of time to think about what happened the previous game because you have one day to process the emotions that come with either a win or a loss,” Snyder said. “So it is very important for myself and the rest of the coaching staff to keep our players focused on the task at hand.''