Kansas State gave naysayers every reason in the world to doubt their legitimacy as Big 12 North champions last week.
A 38-12 blowout home loss to Missouri -- the Wildcats’ first home loss of the season -- brought back a lot of doubts about the Wildcats.
The Wildcats failed to force a turnover while committing three. They were held without a touchdown for the first time since a loss to Syracuse in the 2001 Insight Bowl. And their ground game keyed by Big 12 rushing leader Daniel Thomas produced only 112 yards.
But welcome to the wacky North Division, where that loss meant little in the grand scheme of things. The Wildcats still can wrap up an improbable North title by winning Saturday at Nebraska.
Everything is on the line for the 6-5 Wildcats. A victory ensures that KSU wins the North and advances to the Big 12 championship game, while also securing a bowl bid. A loss and the Wildcats will remain at home during the holiday season for the fourth straight season.
"I have never been involved in a ballgame in which bowl eligibility and a division championship were on the line at the same time," said KSU coach Bill Snyder, who will be wrapping up his 41st regular season in coaching with Saturday’s game.
The Wildcats haven’t come close to winning the division since the last time Snyder led KSU to the North title in 2003. That season, of course, is remembered for what KSU accomplished later that season with the stunning triumph over Oklahoma in the championship game. It remains the last Big 12 championship team from the North Division.
Snyder will be looking for his fourth championship game appearance. And considering what was expected before the season, taking this team to Arlington for the championship game would rank among the crowing achievements of a career that should boost him into the College Football Hall of Fame one day.
His past history has given him an idea of how important the game is. But he’s not quite sure that the Wildcats, who were picked to finish fifth in the preseason media poll, understand the circumstances of playing in the penultimate game of the season.
“It's kind of like being a parent," Snyder said. "You think you have all of the experience and you try to share with them what you think might be the right way for young people — like your children. They don't always want to listen to you.
"So it's hard to project what kind of an impact that all will have on our players. You'd like to think there would be some things we would share that would be beneficial for them and they would respond to it appropriately, but they're still only 18-years-old. It remains to be seen."
It will be a tough atmosphere at Memorial Stadium, where the Wildcats have won only twice since 1968.
But Snyder was more successful against the Cornhuskers than any North coach in the latter stages of his first stint at KSU, which ended with his retirement after the 2005 season. He beat Nebraska en route to every one of his previous title game appearances, including a 2003 blowout in Lincoln.
And is his first season back after his three-season sabbatical, he can do the same thing with another victory over the Cornhuskers.
"We've certainly been in this position before in a lot of different ways," said Snyder, who is 5-3 against Nebraska since 1998. "But by the same token, I can't remember other than in the early years when playing against a Nebraska team was not a great challenge. Certainly there were key ballgames after those initial years in which they beat us so soundly."
The Wildcats have been a resilient bunch all season. They responded to a blowout loss at Texas Tech with a blowout home victory over Texas A&M the following week. And they rebounded after an earlier loss to Oklahoma with a strong home victory against Kansas.
Both of those previous bounce-back victories were at home. But those experiences have steeled this team for what it can accomplish with another victory Saturday in Lincoln.
“We still have a chance to do something special. This is a great opportunity for our football team,” senior offensive tackle Nick Stringer said. “We didn’t play very well last week and you can’t forget about it. But if we take something away from it and improve, we’ve got a great shot to surprise some people."