Bowl games are supposed to be fun. They’re supposed to be parties. Celebrations. Ways for middle-aged executives with nice sounding titles to make money for not doing much work, sure, but at least everyone gets a nice trip.
But what happens when the trip turns to mush? When a bad result shines light on some warts?
No. 11 Kansas State lost to No. 14 UCLA 40-35 in the Alamo Bowl on Friday night when what would’ve been a historic comeback ran out of juice in the fourth quarter. The Wildcats fell behind by 25 points at one point, and made it interesting, but sports give us winners and losers.
“Walking off the field together, it was pretty emotional,” says Jake Waters, the quarterback. “You put so many hours in that people don’t see, that kind of goes unnoticed. For that to be the last time was hard to hold back.”
There is honor in how the Wildcats went out. They clawed back, fourth-down conversion by fourth-down conversion, against a team with noticeably more talent. They gave themselves a chance to complete another epic comeback in a bowl season filling up with them, but sports give us winners and losers and it’s hard to miss that this is a disappointing look.
“We fought, we certainly didn’t quit,” says Ryan Mueller, the standout defensive end. “UCLA was the better team.”
For K-State, it’s a sad ending to what could be its best season for a while. The team was once defined by a near miss against Auburn, but will now be remembered for three losses ranging from close (UCLA) to convincing (Baylor) to blowout (TCU) against the best three teams they played.
Depending on how deep you want to go with this, it’s a missed opportunity for the Wildcats. Bill Snyder is a Hall of Fame coach who’s never been great in bowl games — maybe his advantage in weekly preparation is diminished when everyone has more time? — but has always been at his best with a returning quarterback.
The stat is well-known by K-Staters, college football fans, and gamblers — in each of the last five seasons that Snyder had his quarterback from the year before, the Wildcats won 11 games.
In Waters’ second season, K-State went 9-4. It’s a fine season, and it says something about Snyder and the K-State program that nine wins and a second-tier bowl game can be a missed opportunity. But that’s what it is.
Maybe this is harsh and premature, but it’s easy to wonder when the next time K-State will be this good. The next quarterback on the depth chart is a former walk-on, and the Wildcats will have to replace their best lineman, defensive player and the incredible Tyler Lockett.
The way this one played out is something like the video evidence of K-State’s strengths and limitations. Lockett was the best player on the field, again, going for 13 catches and 164 yards and two touchdowns — breaking Alamo Bowl records for receptions and all-purpose yards (249).
K-State came at this game the way K-State always did this year — hard and determined, but ultimately overmatched against the better teams.
UCLA is loaded with NFL talent, most obviously in quarterback Brett Hundley (a likely first- or second-round pick), linebacker Myles Jack (who had a stunning interception and 41-yard return) and a pass rush that had a good K-State line in over its head. That doesn’t include running back Paul Perkins (194 yards and two touchdowns).
Snyder’s legend is built on turning two-star recruits into four-star college players. But UCLA has four- and five-star talent with a former NFL coach and a schedule that included ten games against bowl teams.
This is also another disappointing result for the Big 12, and at a time when the league needs all the accomplishments it can muster.
At least by some computer analysis, the Big 12 was the best conference in college football. With different results in other leagues’ championship games, the Big 12 may have gotten both Baylor and TCU in the four-team playoff.
But as it happened, the league got shut out, and spent much of the aftermath taking verbal body blows from across the country about the fallacy of the “One True Champion” marketing slogan and the commissioner’s refusal to name one.
There was some momentum in the thought that the Big 12 took a raw deal, particularly after TCU embarrassed Ole Miss, but it’s harder to make that argument now.
Baylor, which beat TCU, blew a 20-point lead in the fourth quarter with a series of mistakes against Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl. That was the low point of the league’s worst bowl season since the league formed in 1996.
That won’t matter if a team goes through next season undefeated, but without a league championship game and now with a disappointing bowl season it’s hard to see the Big 12 getting the benefit of the doubt if a similar situation plays out in 2015.
More than any other major American sport, perception matters in college football, and the perception of the Big 12 is weak right now.
The league in general and K-State in particular will have every opportunity to win respect in the fall.
But both were in stronger places a month ago.
To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.