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3 Kansas State
The Wildcats became a power partly by feasting on nonconference patsiesa strategy that might come back to bite them now that they're in the national title hunt
Howeverbig howeverthere is the matter of Kansas State's schedule, which Snyder has fashioned to provide his team with three automatic wins each year. The coach calls this "stair-stepping" into the season, and it has worked fabulously. Victories over Northern Illinois, Ohio and Bowling Green in the first three games last year kick-started an 11-1 season that climaxed with a 35-18 victory over Syracuse in the Fiesta Bowl and a No. 8 final ranking. This year's schedule fits the same mold: The Wildcats play their first two games against Indiana State (Division I\!AA) and Northern Illinois (0-11 last year), interrupt this exhibition season of sorts to face downtrodden Texas, and then play Northeast Louisiana (5-7). A 4-0 start is a good bet.
The problem is, Kansas State is no longer a dog in need of Alpo. The Wildcats are an established program with genuine designs on the national title. But with the new Bowl Championship Series' reliance on strength of schedule and computer rankings in addition to Top 25 polls, Kansas State's weak list of out-of-conference opponents could keep it out of a national championship game, even if the Wildcats are unbeaten.
The players are ready to step up. "One soft game is nice to ease into the season," says junior All-Big 12 linebacker Mark Simoneau. "After that it might be nice to play somebody tough." Snyder, though, finds himself on the fence. "I like the way our consistency has bred confidence," he says, "but we are at a point where we would like to enhance our schedule a little bit."
That may prove to be a problem. With a capacity of 42,000, KSU Stadium is puny by power-program standards, making for relatively small payouts to visiting teams. An expansion will push the seating to 49,000 for 1999, but beefing up Kansas State's slate will be a very slow process. For now, Snyder doesn't think his team's schedule is a fatal flaw. "If you put me in a position to end up arguing with a computer after 11 or 12 games," he says, "I'll feel pretty good about our program."
He's got the personnel to set the debate in motion. Eighteen starters return, including six fifth-year seniors, five seniors who transferred from junior colleges and four fourth-year juniors. It is the deepest and most experienced team Snyder has fielded.
The most vital player is cocky, quicksilver senior quarterback Michael Bishop. After transferring from Blinn Community College in Brenham, Texas, Bishop won the starting job last August and immediately became the team leader. In the Fiesta Bowl he threw for 317 yards and four touchdowns, and rushed for 73 yards. This year he joins Syracuse's Donovan McNabb and Missouri's Corby Jones as the best double-threat quarterbacks in the country.
On the other side of the ball, the Wildcats boast a consistent defense that was built in the early '90s by current Florida defensive coordinator Bob Stoops and is now run by his brother Mike. Last year it ranked fourth in the nation.
After five straight winning seasons, attitude adjustment is no longer an issue in Manhattan. The players have no recollection of the program as a doormat. They expect to win. "I heard they used to be bad back in the [old] days," says Bishop, "but I never saw it." Adds All-Big 12 senior linebacker Jeff Kelly, "We're capable of beating everybody we play, and that's what I expect us to do."
One opponent matters more than the others: Kansas State hasn't beaten Nebraska since 1968. Last October the Huskers pounded the Wildcats 56-26 in Lincoln, after which Bishop said publicly that some of his teammates had quit when Nebraska took a 41-6 lead in the third quarter. An incensed Snyder, who is as controlling as any coach in Division I-A, muzzled his quarterback for four weeks.
It seems the truth hurts. During the summer Kelly said, "We came into the game with the right attitude, but some guys gave up. As we were coming off the field, Nebraska fans were so nice to us, [saying], 'Good luck against everybody else,' like they knew we couldn't give them a game. It was sickening."
Snyder, a born underdog who is now cast as a favorite of sorts, squirms in the face of high expectations and talk of Nebraska in August. "The important thing," he says, "is not to skip steps along the way."
1997 record: 11-1 (7-1, 2nd in Big 12 North)
Coach: Bill Snyder
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are from 1997 season.
In the hands of Michael Bishop, who passed for 1,557 yards and ran for 566 last year, Kansas State's conservative offense becomes dangerous, although Bishop needs to better his 43.2 completion percentage.... Running back Eric Hickson, a rare sixth-year senior who was granted a medical redshirt after breaking his left leg in '96, needs 630 yards to become the Wildcats' career rushing leader.... Hickson will often run behind senior right tackle Ryan Young, who came to Manhattan as a 360-pound doughboy barely able to bench 270 pounds and will leave as a 330-pound likely first-round draft choice who racks 400-plus.... If all else fails on offense, it's nice to have the best kicker in the nation, senior Martin Gramatica (19 of 20 field goal attempts in '97).... The big-play man on defense is six-foot, 245-pound senior linebacker Jeff Kelly, who had seven sacks and 24 tackles for losses in '97.... As with all press defense teams, cover cornerbacks are vital; the Wildcats' best is sophomore Dyshod Carter.
Schedule strength: 80th of 112
Oct. 10 at Colorado
Oct. 17 vs. Oklahoma State
Nov. 14 vs. Nebraska
Will tailback Frank Murphy, the '97 junior college player of the year, be another JC-transfer gem? He ran an eye-popping 4.21 40 in drills but had just two yards on 13 carries in the spring game.
If all goes according to planand the schedule doesn't ruin them in the computer ratingsit's a one-game season: Beat Nebraska, and the Wildcats have a chance of playing for the national title.
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