MANHATTAN, Kan. — Kansas State is on the verge of a rare accomplishment.
By KELLIS ROBINETT
The Kansas City Star
Good luck finding anyone to talk about it, though.
With the Wildcats in the national-title picture and quarterback Collin Klein favored to win the Heisman Trophy, most fan and media discussions revolve around those topics. All while another prize is there for the taking.
K-State is closing in on its first Big 12 football championship since 2003. At 5-0 in conference play, with road victories over two teams originally labeled league favorites, the Wildcats have a commanding lead. Every other team has at least one loss, and seven have two or more.
Though winning their final four games is the only way the Wildcats can assure themselves of a league championship, their last major obstacle appears to be Oklahoma State. Like K-State, the Cowboys control their own destiny in the Big 12.
The winner of Saturday’s game at Bill Snyder Family Stadium will end up in the driver’s seat for a trophy every player covets.
“That’s at the top of the list,” K-State fullback Braden Wilson said. “I believe we only have one of those at this school. That would be an honor to win another one.”
Before the season started, bringing home the Big 12’s most sought-after trophy seemed like a pipe dream. The Wildcats were picked to finish sixth in the conference’s preseason poll. But K-State players always thought it was possible after coming so close last year. By winning seven of nine Big 12 games, K-State came within an Oklahoma upset of Oklahoma State of a first-place tie on the final day of the regular season.
The Cowboys ended up winning big, and the Wildcats finished second.
That makes it hard for K-State players to think back last year to a 52-45 loss at Oklahoma State that came down to the final play. Klein made sure to remind his teammates before practice earlier this week how that game decided the conference championship.
“Collin said that no one on the team that is here right now has beat Oklahoma State,” Wilson said. “That is a big deal, especially after the heartbreaker last year. This is a game that we really want.”
The roles of both teams have changed dramatically since last year’s thriller. Oklahoma State, now a spoiler, was in the same position then that K-State is now. The Cowboys were near the top of the BCS standings, and all anyone wanted to talk about was their national championship chances — even moments after they won the conference.
Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy never understood why. A conference championship is the first step toward a national championship. Rarely does one come without the other. He thought everyone else was thinking too far ahead.
“I think sometimes from a fan standpoint and a media standpoint, we can get caught up in the big picture,” Gundy said. “I did mention this during the last few weeks of our run. Oklahoma State has never won an outright conference championship. One time three people tied in 1976, but certainly not in the Big 12. We talked to our team about understanding how big of an accomplishment it would be to be the outright conference champions.”
This time around, no speech is needed.
“They know that we have the opportunity to control our own destiny, but they also feel like we are certainly not in any position to look beyond the next game,” Gundy said. “We are getting ready to play the second-ranked team in the country. We will have our hands full just traveling up to Manhattan. They do understand that if we continue to play well and win games that gives us an opportunity to reach our goal, which is a conference championship.”
K-State coach Bill Snyder is constantly warning his team about looking ahead. His philosophy has always been to focus solely on the next game.
He doesn’t pay attention to the BCS standings. So it came as no surprise when he scoffed at the notion a conference championship might provide the Wildcats with extra motivation this week.
“It is my belief that if that is what we are thinking about,” Snyder said, “we are getting ahead of ourselves.”
Still, it would be special. No matter what anyone else is talking about.
“A lot of people are looking past that and saying national championship, but you don’t get a national championship if you don’t win the conference first,” K-State kicker Anthony Cantele said. “That is what we’re focusing on. Every year, guys are saying they want to win the conference, but we also follow after Coach Snyder, who would say our goal is to win this next game and not worry about anything else until after the season.”
To reach Kellis Robinett, send email to email@example.com. Follow him at twitter.com/KellisRobinett.