Kansas State began a fascinating string of football games when it rallied to beat Iowa State 32-28 on Saturday at Jack Trice Stadium.
With an early conference victory behind them, the No. 19 Wildcats are now preparing for No. 5 Auburn, the first nonconference powerhouse to visit Manhattan in a decade, as well as the spectacle of a nationally televised Thursday game on Sept. 18. After that, they will shift their focus to Texas-El Paso, a team not on the schedule this time last year.
K-State rarely plays conference games in early September, hardly ever faces marquee nonconference opponents and seldom scrambles to add guarantee games. Yet all three rarities are occurring in succession this month. To make the schedule work, a group of K-State officials worked behind the scenes, making many phone calls and striking deals with other teams, conference administrators and television executives.
“It was like working on a giant jigsaw puzzle,” K-State athletic director John Currie said. “Fortunately, thanks to the very persistent efforts of our staff, we got all the pieces lined up.”
The biggest piece was Auburn.
Shortly after Currie arrived on campus in 2009, he was flooded with calls about the Tigers. Did football coach Bill Snyder want out of the back end of a two-game series scheduled by Ron Prince? If not, was K-State interested in moving the game to Arrowhead Stadium?
“Some people thought we wouldn’t play the game, but we never hesitated,” Currie said. “Our fans tell me all the time how much fun they had going to Auburn (a 23-13 loss in 2007). It would have been tough not to play that game here. It’s too good an opportunity for our football program and our university.”
K-State and Auburn eventually agreed to play again, settling on this year, but the scheduling drama was far from over. When Ilan Ben-Hanan, ESPN’s vice president of programming and acquisitions, learned the game was on, he approached Currie with an idea: play Auburn on Thursday instead of Saturday. ESPN wanted to broadcast the game in primetime.
The proposal was made nearly four years ago, and Currie said he was originally against it. K-State has season-ticket holders in 46 states, and he didn’t want to inconvenience out-of-town fans who plan their weekends around home games. Weeknight games also pose traffic problems for schools and businesses in Manhattan.
Currie eventually warmed to the idea, but it took ESPN until February to lock the game into its schedule.
“As time went by, it became apparent it was a good opportunity for us,” Currie said. “It will be a showcase moment for Kansas State and for Manhattan. It presents a challenge for some of our fans, but they can make a four-day weekend of it.
“This will likely be our greatest attended game ever. We actually have not sold standing room-only tickets, because we know our student section will be as full as it has ever been that night. Student attendance is highest on weekdays.”
College football fans have been looking forward to the Sept. 18 game for months. It’s one of the best nonconference games of the season.
In order to play Auburn on that date, though, Snyder required precise timing. He wanted an off week to prepare for the Tigers and nine days to recover for the next opponent.
The requests were reasonable. Still, K-State had a difficult time fulfilling them. For a while, K-State had back-to-back open dates following its opener against Stephen F. Austin and another off week following it.
First, K-State worked out a deal with Iowa State. They would play in Week 2 in order to spread out their off weeks. As a bonus, Fox Sports 1 would televise the first Big 12 game of the year.
The change required work from both athletic departments and the Big 12, but it was nothing compared to the effort needed to schedule Texas-El Paso for Sept. 27.
K-State was supposed to play Texas-San Antonio on that date, but it backed out because of conference realignment.
When K-State and UTSA agreed to play each other, they signed a contract for two games in Manhattan and one in San Antonio. But that was when the Roadrunners were new to the Bowl Subdivision. Since then, they have switched conferences multiple times. Now in Conference USA, they play extra conference games. With K-State on the schedule, they had 13 games – one too many.
UTSA cooperated with K-State and tried to reschedule. K-State assistant athletic director Clint Dowdle said UTSA went so far as to petition the NCAA to allow them to play an extra game. When that didn’t work, it bought out of the game for $500,000. Currie says there are no hard feelings, and K-State will play at UTSA next season. But the cancellation left the Wildcats with 11 games and the season fast approaching.
“We were scrambling,” Dowdle said. “That late in the game, 10 months out, there aren’t many teams available. John and I worked the phones hard, calling any school we thought had an opening.”
Eventually, UTEP said it would play at K-State for the right price: $900,000, the highest guarantee the Wildcats have made. They did so gladly, though, to reach their yearly goal of seven home games.
Currie says K-State will continue to schedule creatively while honoring Snyder’s desire to play nonconference games at home against mostly inferior competition, allowing the Wildcats to warm up for Big 12 games.
But he also thinks K-State has benefited from previous series with UCLA and Miami. A home-and-home series with Mississippi State is already signed for 2018 and 2019. The Wildcats are also open to a future neutral-site game, either at Arrowhead Stadium or in a season-kickoff game, in years they play five conference home games.
Depending on how the college football playoff selection committee values schedule strength, Currie says K-State may look into future marquee series. After this three-game stretch, he is willing to listen to options.
“We will explore future opportunities,” Currie said. “But we also understand the value of home games, not just for our football team but the Manhattan community. What we really want is a schedule that makes sense for K-State.”
Kansas State’s future nonconference football games
2015: South Dakota, at Texas-San Antonio, Louisiana Tech.
2016: Missouri State, Florida Atlantic, TBA
2017: Central Arkansas, Charlotte, TBA
2018: Texas-San Antonio, Mississippi State, TBA
2019: Bowling Green, at Mississippi State, TBA