This post sponsored by EA Sports NCAA Football 2011.
Today, we have input from two writers.
As mentioned yesterday, I'm not a K-State lifer. It wasn't until 2002, at the ripe old age of 19, that I became a K-State fan. So as a result, I wasn't around for some of the best teams to sport the purple and white.
However, I still have been around long enough to have a legitimate favorite among the K-State squads I've seen. And while I considered giving the nod to last year's squad for the grit they showed, I'm going with what is probably a cliche here: the 2003 K-State squad is my favorite.
It isn't just because this team won K-State's first conference championship since the Wildcats played in the Big 6 that makes this my favorite squad. And frankly, given that they were the preseason No. 6 team, this squad actually underachieved by "only" winning a conference championship. It was the parts and personalities that made this team what it was, not to mention the roller-coaster ride they took us on throughout the 2003 season.
Led by brash quarterback Ell Roberson and reticent running back Darren Sproles, this team was an offensive juggernaut. While Michael Bishop assuredly beats out Roberson as the best quarterback in K-State history, never before have the Cats fielded a more fearsome option combination than Roberson-Sproles. That pair had to keep defensive coordinators up nights. Defensively, undersized linebacker Josh Buhl and fearsome safety Rashad Washington struck fear in the hearts of those who dared venture beyond the K-State defensive line. When you put it all together you had a squad that had an outside chance at a national title run.
In sharp contrast to the historical Bill Snyder stereotype, the season kicked off with a neutral-site tilt with the California Bears in Kansas City, Mo. True to form, the Snyder-coached team started "slowly," managing only a 42-28 victory over Jeff Tedford's Bears. It wasn't that the game was ever really in doubt, but it was clear that neither the offense nor the defense was entirely on the same page. Still, a two-touchdown win over a Bears team that would go 8-6 and beat Virginia Tech in the Insight Bowl was nothing to complain about.
The next two games, in which K-State steamrolled Troy State and McNeese State by a combined 96-19 score, shouldn't have been too eventful. Unfortunately, in the second quarter of the McNeese State game, Roberson hit his hand on a defender's helmet, breaking a bone and putting him on the sideline for the next two games. Even that shouldn't have been a huge deal, with Massachusetts and Marshall on the docket.
UMass proved not to be a threat, but the 38-7 final tally raised concerns that would become sporting tragedy the following week, as neither Jeff Schwinn nor Dylan Meier (rest in peace) proved up to the task against the Thundering Herd. Although Roberson's presence most certainly would have meant more points on the board for the home team, it was the defense that couldn't hold a late lead, allowing a 10-play, 60-yard scoring drive to yield the final margin of defeat. Sporting tragedy had descended on Manhattan.
The outlook did not improve in the next two games. Roberson returned to the field two weeks later in Austin, but was rusty in the first half that saw UT take a 17-3 lead. The Cats mounted a furious second-half rally, including a vicious James Terry block on UT's Brian Robison, but once again the defense allowed a long, late scoring drive, and Vince Young and UT escaped with a 24-20 victory.
As heartbreaking as the loss to UT was, rock bottom had not yet arrived. K-State would fall, 38-34, in Stillwater, Okla., the following weekend. The loss dropped K-State to 4-3 on the season, and 0-2 in the Big 12. Not only were any hopes of a national title long gone, but it was starting to look like even winning the Big 12 North would be a real chore.
The road to redemption began in Manhattan the next week, as K-State dispatched Gary Barnett and Colorado, 49-20. It was a game that would be remembered more for Roberson's unsportsmanlike late touchdown in retaliation for an alleged cheap shot by a Colorado player that caused Barnett to confront Bill Snyder after the game and accuse him of running up the score. As we shall see, it was not the only time such a charge would be levied at the Wildcats that season.
Next up was the Sunflower Showdown, against a KU squad on the rise under a new coach named Mark Mangino. The Jayhawks came into the game 5-2, and the popular line of the day was that KU had gained ground on K-State after losing the previous three games by a combined 156-19. While they may have gained some ground, Bill Whittemore found the K-State defense as nasty as ever, and the Cats cruised to a 42-6 victory. With the win, K-State was now 6-3 and 2-2 in conference.
Perhaps more importantly, the KU game marked the first time on the season the K-State defense held any team to single-digit points in a game. That would become a theme in the next three weeks, as K-State would hammer Baylor (38-10) (and yes, I realize that's not single-digits, but it's close), Iowa State (45-0), and Nebraska (38-9, in Lincoln).
Of those, it was obviously the Nebraska game that truly signaled the Wildcats' season was back on track. K-State traveled to Lincoln looking for its first win there since 1968. Nebraska was about to drop the curtain on the Frank Solich era, with Steve Pederson famously declaring that Nebraska would not surrender the Big 12 to Oklahoma and Texas as he fired Solich shortly after the K-State game. At that point, it would have been much more accurate for Pederson to state that he was just trying to keep the Huskers in the middle of the Big 12 pack.
Anyway, after a tense first half that ended with the teams tied 7-7 after a bogus Jamaal Lord "touchdown pass," K-State came out on fire and shut out the Husker offense in the second half. In fact, given that Lord's touchdown pass was thrown with his knee clearly on the ground, K-State actually shut the Huskers out for the game other than the intentional safety that K-State took with less than four minutes remaining in front of 5,000 K-State fans and a couple hundred Husker onlookers.
In the regular season finale, a Missouri squad on the rise under Gary Pinkel visited Manhattan for a game that was played in beautiful sub-40 temperatures. Neither team could get much going, but K-State took an early lead and held on for a 24-14 victory. The public-address announcers played the Beatles "Kansas City" after the game, a nod to K-State's date with Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship game two weeks hence.
The Sooners were a juggernaut in 2003. After Bob Stoops had raided Bill Snyder's staff in 1998, the Sooners quickly returned to prominence, winning a national title in 2000. The Sooners were 12-0 on December 6, 2003, unbeaten and largely untested. They had massacred Texas (65-13) in the Red River Shootout and annihilated Texas A&M (77-0) later in the year. Such utter lack of mercy had not been seen in the Lone Star State since Santa Anna visited the Alamo. Many were calling Oklahoma the greatest team of all time, and on the pre-game show for the Big 12 title game, not one of ESPN's announcers even gave K-State a chance.
It was a cold night in Kansas City. Temperature at kickoff was 39, and it definitely didn't get any warmer as the game wore on. However, those clad in purple scarcely noticed the steadily dropping temperature, because as the temperature fell, K-State's tally on the scoreboard rose. After giving up an early touchdown on a blown assignment, K-State ripped off 35 straight points and completed a stunning turnaround to their season by dropping the Sooners, 35-7. Some would call it the greatest upset of all time, but those who closely followed college football that season know better. Yes, Oklahoma was a force that season, but K-State was discounted only because they had dropped three straight games after an injury to its starting quarterback in week three. Any other top team would have been hard-pressed to avoid a similar fate.
Of course, the unmatchable high of the conference championship would yield to the bittersweet loss to Ohio State one month later, in the wake of John Saunders' blatant slander of Roberson on the ABC airwaves. In the Fiesta Bowl tilt with the Buckeyes, K-State spotted aOSU a 35-14 lead before charging to two straight touchdowns before seeing its last desperation drive end on downs in Buckeye territory.
One of the most amazing things about the 2003 season is that I can tell you, in detail, what I was doing for each of the games. I traveled to Kansas City with my roommate Jason and stayed with my aunt and uncle for the season-opening game against Cal. The next three games, home blowouts, had me and the rest of my crew out of the stadium before the third-quarter's end (yes, I will admit to such shameful behavior). While the Marshall game was played on a brilliant fall day, I remember it beginning with a killer hangover and not getting any better throughout the game. We gathered at my friend John's house and cooked a boatload of food while watching K-State fall to Texas. The next week, I endured K-State's loss to Oklahoma State at my grandma's house, with my grandma, a lifelong Husker fan, cheering K-State every step of the way. My sister and her roommate at Creighton visited the next weekend for the Colorado game, and I remember an undiplomatic comment about Jeremy Bloom's manhood being directed at the Colorado fan in front of us (it was the student section). Next was the first Sunflower Showdown I had seen in person, and the most striking moment of the day was the drunk KU fan we encountered walking home from the game, sitting on the curb, hat askance, repeatedly uttering "someday, SOMEDAY KU is going to beat K-State in football" (little did he know how right he would soon be). Due to a looming architecture program project deadline and the fact that it was, well, Baylor, only mystman995 was able to make it to the next game with me and witness Thomas Houchin's epic pass knockdown with his feet after being upended by a blocker (yeah, it was awesome). The Iowa State game is a tad fuzzy, because it wasn't televised and was played in Big 12 Siberia. Mystman and I traveled to Lincoln the next weekend to view the epic K-State victory, a game in which mystman either very nearly killed a 70-year-old man or was very nearly killed by a 70-year-old man, depending on who is telling the story. The Mizzou game was rather uneventful, because we could tell neither team really wanted to be there and it was uncomfortably cold and windy outside.
Finally, I almost didn't go to the title game in Kansas City. My roommate, Dave, and I decided on Tuesday the week of the game that we would go, driving down and back the day of the game and staying with his family in KCK beforehand. It was a decision both of us will always count among the best of our lives.
I'm sure the 1998 and 2003 teams will be popular choices, but my favorite probably was the 2002 team - and I'm not sure it wasn't the best of the three.
Darren Sproles rushed for more than 100 years in each of the last seven games of the season. Ell Roberson turned the corner and started to become a great quarterback. Terence Newman became one of the most feared defensive backs in Big 12 history. Terry Pierce ate running backs for dinner and decapitated quarterbacks for his own amusement.
Seneca Wallace was a Heisman candidate until he met a man named Bobby Walker. The once-proud Nebraska Cornhuskers imploded their way to a 7-7 season with an utter shellacking in Manhattan. Missouri got blanked at home. So did Kansas, in probably its worst single loss to K-State ever.
Baylor was crushed. USC was humbled. Texas was lucky to escape. Colorado sold its soul to the devil and Jeremy Bloom to sneak out a conference-opening win and a key tiebreaker that kept the Cats from playing for a Big 12 championship they very well could have won.
The team averaged something like 50 points per game down the stretch while only allowing a paltry 11 or so. The Cats could have beat either Ohio State or Miami that year, in my opinion.
After the disaster that was my freshman year (2001), 2002 restored the program to the greatness it deserved. The uniforms looked brighter. The turf was brand-new. Once again, everything was as it should be... for a while.
Those are our picks. What are yours?