So the other day we heard from (one of) our elder statesman regarding the best Kansas State Wildcats team to never win a title. You can go check out that post for our criteria, but our fairly narrow scope has us limited from some of the truly “best” options, but there’s still more than one option to choose from.
So that 2002 football team has a strong argument, but the 2011 football team does too.
So today we submit our Snyder 2.0 rebuttal for best team to not win a title.
That 2011 team, much like 2002, featured a loaded roster, the bulk of which went on to win a Big 12 title the following year.
The headliner in 2011 was eventual Heisman finalist (in 2012, and should have won it) Collin Klein, who had intrigued Wildcat fans at the end of 2010 starting with the Great Kleining of Texas. 2011 also featured several Sunflower State transfers who were eligible after sitting out in 2010; big name recruits that had left the state but returned to Manhattan to finish their careers. Arthur Brown, Chris Harper, and Bryce Brown were all ready to strap-up for the Wildcats, and brought a lot of fan excitement. And there was this true freshman that had a pedigree that got Wildcat fans excited: Tyler Lockett.
There were other strong pieces across that roster as well. Some JUCO transfers looked to fill key spots, especially on a defense (Meshack Williams, Adam Davis, Nigel Malone, Alan Chapman among others) that in 2010 was one of the worst in the country. Some other young players that were taking over starting roles, especially a young but incredibly talented group along the offensive line: true freshmen Cody Whitehair and Boston Stiverson, RSFR B.J. Finney, sophomore Cornelius Lucas, and junior-transfer Nick Puetz. Three of those five are still playing in the NFL in 2020.
From 2010 to 2011 there was a massive change-up across the two-deep. So many new and/or young guys took over starting roles in 2011, it was basically a new team on the field for the Wildcats. But there were still some key returners. Notably Anthony Cantele returned to keep kicking the football between the uprights at a high rate, David Garrett was coming back as a ferocious but undersized nickleback, and Tysyn Hartman returned for his last season in Manhattan, and was a key force on the back-end of the 2011 defense while also mentoring his replacement in that role, Ty Zimmerman.
It was pretty incredible that a group so collectively young could do what they did, and speaks to the high talent level of that group. Snyder 2.0 was talked about a lot for lack of pure athletic talent on the roster, but the group between 2011 and 2012 was as talented across the board as anything K-State put on the field in Snyder 1.0.
That young group got off to a rocky start to the year. A 10-7 victory over FCS Eastern Kentucky, that needed a 4th-quarter comeback, didn’t inspire much confidence in this group among the Wildcat faithful, but it was enough to earn Bill Snyder his 150th career victory.
The next week out was far more enjoyable, and set the tone for the season to come. Up 37-0 in the fourth quarter against that other KSU Kent State, Snyder had called off the dogs and inserted backups across depth chart. But Kent State drove down the field on a late possession, threatening the shutout, and the starting defense, led by Arthur Brown’s insistence, inserted itself back in the game to get the key stop and preserve the shutout.
The following week, the Wildcats traveled to Miami to face the Hurricanes. It was the coming-out party for Tyler Lockett, who made his one catch count big, securing a touchdown that put the Wildcats up 14-3 before halftime. The Hurricanes weren’t done, though, and stormed back after halftime to make it a close game. And with just 49 seconds left, Miami was at 4th-and-goal at the one yard line with a chance to win the game. But sophomore Tre Walker wasn’t done, corralling Miami’s Jacory Harris an inch short of the goal line to preserve the Wildcat victory and the Wildcat’s biggest non-conference victory since the 2003 team crushed Cal to open the season.
Then Big 12 play started. But the 2011 season brought a new twist. For the first time in Big 12 play, and the first in general conference play since the 1995 season, this Wildcats had to face every team in the conference — full round-robin thanks to the recent departures of Colorado and Nebraska for supposedly greener conference pastures.
First up in the new format was the then-No. 15 Baylor Bears, led by eventual Heisman winner Robert Griffin III. The Bears were favored coming to Manhattan, but the Wildcats took an early lead before Baylor cam storming back. But trailing 35-26 in the 4th, becoming-star Collin Klein led a 13-play, 70-yard drive to bring the game within two, 35-33. Then something crazy happened, as Griffin threw his first interception of the year on the ensuing drive, a bobbled ball eventually hauled in by Arthur Brown, that set-up a 31-yard field goal from Anthony Cantele that proved to be the game winner, 36-35 Wildcats.
The Wildcats kept on their winning ways, sending off the soon-to-be-departing Missouri Tigers with a 24-17 loss in their final trip to Manhattan. It was the first 5-0 start for the Wildcats since Jonathan Beasley’s senior season in Manhattan, and the Wildcats entered the game as the #21 team in the country, their first time being ranked since the earlier part of the 2007 season.
Next up a trip to Texas Tech, and a chance to exorcise some demons. The last time the Wildcats and Red Raiders squared off was in 2009, Bill Snyder’s first season back in Manhattan and Mike Leach’s final season in Lubbock. In 2009, the Red Raiders pantsed the Wildcats to the tune of 66-14 in Lubbock. And in the prior 20 years, the Wildcats had generally not fared well out in West Texas. But 2011 was a turning point. The Wildcats jumped to a very early lead thanks to a Nigel Malone pick-6 that he snagged jumping a stop/out route on the opening play from scrimmage (something that he would replicate several more times over the next year-and-a-half), but had fallen behind 28-20 by halftime. But the second half was all K-State, and the Wildcats improved to 6-0 with a 41-34 victory, and marked the Wildcats first win in Lubbock since 1997. The game included a couple more interceptions thrown by Seth Doege, as well as two blocked field goals, one of which was picked up and returned 30 yards by Malone to set-up the Wildcats third touchdown of the game. Oh, and that kid Tyler Lockett took a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown.
Riding high at 6-0, the then-No. 12 rolled into Lawrence and put up the annual whooping on Jayhawks, returning to Manhattan with a 59-21 victory and a sterling 7-0 (4-0) record. That game also featured a Tyler Lockett kickoff return for a touchdown, as he became the first player in school history to return a kickoff for a TD in consecutive weeks. It was also the first time the Wildcats started the season 7-0 since 1999.
But finally the Wildcats met their match, as the then-No. 8 Wildcats welcomed the then-No. 9 Oklahoma Sooners to Manhattan. The Sooners already had a black-mark on their season, falling to Texas Tech the previous week, and were out for blood. Despite the Wildcats being ranked higher, the Sooners came into the game as 13-1/2-point favorites and looked every bit the part, dismantling the Wildcats 58-17 and ending the K-State dream season. Notably, this was Brent Venables final season in Norman, as he would leave for Clemson to join hot-shot up-and-comer Dabo Swinney after Bob Stoops decided he wanted to bring his brother Mike back after the younger Stoops’ was fired from Arizona at the end of the 2011 season.
The Wildcats headed to Stillwater the next weekend. The Wildcats had fallen to No. 17 in the rankings, and were squaring off against the eventual Big 12 Champions, then ranked No. 3 in the country. It was a back-and-forth game against the Cowboys, one that included some controversial plays that, among other things, saw Tyler Lockett get his spleen lacerated effectively ending his promising first season in Manhattan. The Wildcats had the ball last, but with three attempts at the OSU 5-yard line, three straight passes missed their mark and the Wildcats dropped just their second game of the regular season.
The Wildcats came back to Manhattan hurting, but weren’t done just yet. Even with a loss, the Wildcats had moved back up to No. 14 in the rankings, and welcomed in Texas A&M as the next visitor. And that game became the epic 4OT slug-fest we re-watched just a few weeks ago, and helped get the Wildcats back on track to finish the season. The win marked the first time since 2003 that K-State had won at least eight games in a season.
The final road trip of the season was to Texas, and with visions of Collin Klein running all over them and memories of Garret Gilbert becoming The Greatest K-State QB Ever™, the Wildcats dispatched the Longhorns 17-13 to secure the 9th win of the season, and stay a full game ahead of Baylor and and half-game ahead of OU in second place in the Big 12 standings, after the Bears dispatched the Sooners the weekend prior.
Finally, senior day in Manhattan brought the Iowa State Cyclones, the team that had just upset the Cowboys in Ames to spoil OSU’s perfect season. But there would be no spoilers in Manhattan, and Paul Rhoads dropped his first of several games to K-State, 30-23 Wildcats.
With the win, and a Cowboys win over the Sooners in Bedlam the same weekend, the Wildcats finished 10-2, in sole possession of 2nd-place in the Big 12, and would end the regular season with a No. 8 national ranking.
There was one other snub for that 2011 piece, besides not making our top spot here. The Wildcats were passed over for a Sugar Bowl bid in favor of the No. 12 Michigan Wolverines (paving the way for yet another K-State rule regarding BCS selection), who couldn’t even win their own division of the newly-split Big Ten, and somehow passed both K-State and Michigan State, the team that actually won the “Legends Division”, in the Sugar Bowl’s selection process. The Wildcats would settle for a Cotton Bowl bid, and would eventually succumb 29-16 to a very talented Arkansas Razorbacks team, who had finished at No. 5 in the country and would have been in a BCS game had the two-team rule not been in effect (that was the year that LSU and Alabama played for the national title).
Why 2011 was the best team not to win a title
The 2011 team certainly has a great claim to this title. This was the first Wildcats team since 1995 that had to play every other conference foe, and didn’t get to skip playing one of the “big boys” of the conference. The 2002 team skipped three big opponents in conference play thanks to the schedule rotation: Oklahoma, Texas A&M, and Texas Tech. They didn’t have to play the best team in the conference, and they didn’t have to play the team that gave even the best K-State teams fits, and, well, at least Texas A&M has had some good teams (though they were bad that year). Could the 2002 team, or 2003 or 1998 or etc., have held up not missing on opponents? 2002 missed OU in the regular season, so did 2003 and 1998. They all missed Texas Tech too. And Texas A&M. Would those seasons have been as special if the schedule hadn’t set up favorably for them?
The 2011 team overcame a big handicap — namely a huge groups of new starters, many in their first season in Manhattan — to put up the best season for K-State in the better part of a decade. They beat good teams. They had to face a Heisman winner (and won). And they finished the season without one of their best offensive playmakers and still manged to achieve greatness.
Clearly two losses hurt. But they were to a good OU team, and a Cowboy team that got snubbed for a national title appearance. Plenty of other Wildcat teams, good Wildcats teams, lost brutally to a red team to mar a great season. And had there still been divisions, the Wildcats would have won the North and gotten another crack at the Pokes for the conference crown. They never had the opportunity that the 2002 team missed out on, that the 2003 team was afforded. And unlike that 2002 team, these Wildcats beat the teams they were supposed to beat, and plenty they weren’t supposed to beat. Had the 2002 team truly been great, they would have won the games they were supposed to win (cough like in Boulder cough).
The 2011 team also got the kick the last two defectors in the pants before they were officially done in the Big 12 — two teams who were headed to the “vaunted” S-E-C, but struggled to consistent winning records in the Big 12.
This team was graced by immeasurable amounts of “luck” (though, I’m pretty sure BillC has a stat for that), but coupled that with sheer toughness and want-to, and some fresh doses of talent. No, they didn’t line up a backfield of road-graders — but it was led by one. The offense wasn’t keyed by a future NFL star (though it might have been by the end of the season if Lockett hadn’t gotten hurt), but it was brutally effective and efficient. The defense wasn’t electric, but it was solid and incredibly smart, with just a touch of aggressiveness.
2011 was the return of KANSAS STATE FOOTBALL, even moreso than when Bill Snyder returned in 2009 to “calm the waters”. It brought back true winning football to Manhattan, the sense that the Wildcats could win any game. Absolutely packed crowds at Bill Snyder Family Stadium. Dominance.
It also set the stage for arguably the best-overall season at K-State, the 2012 Big 12 Championship season. The considerable bulk of the 2012 team were first-year (and a few 2nd-year) starters in 2011. The 2011 season not only gave them a leg-up into 2012 in terms of rankings, it gave the football team and fans alike really hope that something truly special was going to happen. Something that came to fruition. 2012 doesn’t happen without 2011.
The 2011 Wildcats football is the best to not win a title.