It takes a special type of person to love the Sunflower Showdown as a football rivalry.
Even the biggest fans may find it difficult to get fired up about it this season.
Winless Kansas will take on four-win Kansas State on Saturday at Memorial Stadium in a game with little at stake outside of the Governor’s Cup. One team is playing for pride. The other is dreaming of a low-tier bowl.
There is understandably no buzz surrounding the game, and a small crowd is expected. The rivalry hasn’t been in this bad of shape since the late 1980s, when Sports Illustrated dubbed it “The Futility Bowl.”
Things aren’t quite as bad as they were in 1987, when the Jayhawks had one victory, the Wildcats had none, and they fittingly played to a 17-17 tie in Manhattan, with Kansas blocking a late field-goal attempt to stay even. Or the following season when the only victory by either team was a 30-12 KU triumph over K-State.
But it’s on par with 1989, the year Bill Snyder joined the rivalry. That year, both teams combined for five victories. There is no guarantee they will top that this season.
“It would be neat if both teams were having great seasons and coming into this game with national relevance,” K-State quarterback Joe Hubener said. “That would be awesome to experience at some point. Obviously, that is not the situation this year.”
When KU coach David Beaty says, “You can throw the records out” for this game, he isn’t quoting a cliche. He would genuinely prefer not to focus on what both teams accomplished in their first 21 games.
The Jayhawks are in danger of going winless for the first time since 1954, and the Wildcats might miss a bowl for the first time since 2009.
Thanksgiving week is filled with great football rivalries, but this isn’t one of them. Kansas owned the rivalry before Snyder arrived and holds an overall advantage — 65-41-5 by KU’s count, 64-42-5 by K-State’s. The Wildcats have crushed the Jayhawks under Snyder, winning 19 of 23 and six straight.
Rarely have they been good at the same time. Would you believe the Jayhawks and Wildcats have met 111 times, but only once with both ranked?
Perhaps that is why Beaty and Snyder sounded like used car salesmen promoting the game earlier this week.
“This is one of the best rivalries, really, in all of college football,” Beaty said. “I am excited to be a part of it again. It’s a game you always look forward to … I know it is going to be a great, electric environment, and it should be a lot of fun.”
“I would never downplay the rivalry,” Snyder said, “because, as I have said so many times, it is so significant in the lives of so many people. With the fanbase in the state of Kansas, it is something that has evolved from their birth.”
Hyperbole aside, it’s nice to see both sides taking the game so seriously.
For years, Snyder’s emphasis on the rivalry has given the Wildcats an undeniable edge over the Jayhawks. He is 18-1 against Kansas since 1993, with the only loss coming in 2004 on a game the Jayhawks won 31-28 under Mark Mangino.
In previous years, K-State motivated players for the Sunflower Showdown all year by placing the Governor’s Cup in a prominent trophy case in the front lobby of its football complex. It was the first thing players saw when they entered the facility.
On the rare occasions they lost the cup to Kansas, the trophy case remained empty for an entire year.
The cup is displayed less prominently in the lobby of K-State’s new facility, but players changed that this week by moving it into the locker room.
“That gives me extra motivation to want to continue that streak,” K-State senior defensive back Morgan Burns said. “Every day I see it, I want to have a good day of preparation in light of that game and to keep the trophy.”
Mangino briefly turned the tide in the rivalry when he led Kansas to three straight victories against Ron Prince, and Beaty served as an assistant for the 2008 win. But no KU coach has stood up to Snyder since his return in 2009.
K-State has won the last six meetings by an average of 32.6 points.
“It’s a reminder that we are the dominant football school in this state,” K-State defensive back Kendall Adams said. “They are known as a basketball school. We are known for football. We want to keep dominating them pretty bad.”
Many have said Saturday’s game will equate to the Super Bowl for Kansas. The Jayhawks have nothing to lose. A victory over the Wildcats would end a disappointing season on a positive note and create hope for the future.
There is some truth to that.
“This is such a pivotal game for our state,” Beaty said. “There is nothing like winning that game.”
Yet, K-State views the Sunflower Showdown the same way.
“I honestly think the Sunflower Showdown is the biggest game you can possibly play in,” K-State receiver/quarterback Kody Cook said. “We played Auburn last year, but we looked at KU as the bigger game. If you lose to Auburn and beat KU, you look at the season one way. If you beat Auburn and lose to KU, you look at the season way differently. You can’t lose that game.”
Kellis Robinett: @KellisRobinett