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K-State’s best team... that won no title

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Oh, what could have been for the year of Roberson, Sproles and Newman.

Sproles looks for the hole
Darren Sproles was a sophomore in 2002. He was already really good. So was that whole team.
Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Lest our sports blog go silent due to the COVID-19 moratorium on the entertainment that is our lifeblood, SBNation has suggested weekly content themes to occupy our time. This week’s theme: K-State’s “best” team that failed to win a title.

At first blush, this appears obvious. It would be 1998 football—the team that climbed to the pinnacle of the BCS mountain only to stumble just shy of the apex against Texas A&M, thereby failing to win the Big 12 Championship.

But that team did win a “title.” Big 12 North Champions. We once celebrated such things, after all, so we’re going to follow the letter of the law here.

Thus, with the obvious answer excluded, we dig deeper.

It’s hard to think of any basketball years that showed such overwhelming promise that a lack of titles rings as disappointment. When Frank Martin had good teams, some other school that we choose not to name was always more talented and deeper. And in 2011, when Big 12 coaches and the media thought K-State had the goods to win the league, the team disappointed. That squad, though talented, finished 20-11. It hardly fits the “best” component of the question.

When Coach Weber has had teams with legitimate title expectations—namely, 2012 and 2019 (and even those years, nobody picked them to win the league, so maybe they overachieved)—they delivered. No basketball team really fits the bill. Our pick is going to come from the gridiron.

Any squad that won the now-defunct North Division is excluded, because that’s the rule we made up. Bowl wins don't count, either, because those games are exhibitions, unless they are part of the playoff.

But what measures "best?" Post-season polls certainly are a measuring stick, as are results, with special weight given to wins against ranked opponents. Margin of victory and defeat is relevant. Also, if we’re looking for the “best team,” it seems NFL draftees and accomplishments in the league should count for something. Taking all of this into account, there can be only one answer to the question, "Which K-State team was the best to win no titles?"

The 2002 Wildcat football team.

This answer is unassailable, I assure you. Nevertheless, undaunted, other foolhardy contributors will be along later to cast dissenting votes based, primarily, upon their own “I was there then” nostalgia and “I’m too young to remember much before last month” recency bias, respectively. Be polite to them. Read their stuff and offer a golf clap. But they are wrong, and you know it. 2002 is the answer.

Roster

We all know and celebrate what the 2003 team accomplished, once it got healthy and got its act together. Though that team lost four times, including once to Marshall, it also won Coach Snyder his first Big 12 Championship. It did so mostly behind players who dominated the previous year. The 2002 team was ridiculously close to accomplishing even more.

Darren Sproles is the headliner, of course. Anyone fortunate enough to watch Sproles in person saw greatness firsthand. His combination of quickness, change of direction and toughness, all packed into a powerful 5-foot-6 frame, may never be replicated. We were privileged to enjoy four years of him at K-State. He could plant a foot, sending rubber turf pellets into the air and hapless would-be tacklers to their knees, then dart through the smallest of openings for big yards. He finished runs like a much bigger back, famously dragging Nebraska linebacker T.J. Hollowell the last five yards to cap off a 25-yard touchdown run. He would finish his career as the all-time K-State rushing leader, with 4,979 yards and a 6.1 yard per carry average.

All he did after that was play fourteen years in the NFL, where he amassed 19,696 all-purpose yards, fifth most in league history. He was recently named to the NFL’s all-decade team twice—for the “flex” position on offense and as a punt returner. Sproles is a great place to start a “best team” argument.

Complimenting him on offense was quarterback Ell Roberson. In 2002 he threw for 1,580 yards on only 175 throws, good for 9 yards per attempt. He only threw seven touchdown passes that season, before erupting for 24 the next year. But he also rushed the ball 202 times for 1,032 yards, a 5.1 yard average, and that’s not adjusting for sacks. Ell trailed Sproles in the touchdown category by one, finding the end zone by land 16 times. You might not remember this: Roberson was not the starting quarterback when the season began. Marc Dunn, who had set the NJCAA passing record at Ricks College in Rexburg Idaho, was. (And you neophytes thought Sams/Waters was the advent of quarterback controversy. Pssh.)

The receiving corps, including James Terry and Taco Wallace, was solid, if unspectacular. Wallace led the way with 704 receiving yards, and Terry added 561, averaging 20 yards per catch. Tight End Thomas Hill supplemented their production by catching 17 balls for 294 yards (17.3 average) and two touchdowns. And just for fun, the Wildcats occasionally lined up cornerback Terence Newman as a wideout, connecting with him four times for 98 yards (24.5 average) and a touchdown.

The offensive line wasn’t quite what it would be in 2003, but it did include Thomas Barnett, John Doty and future NFL draft picks Ryan Lilja and the incomparable Nick Leckey. Travis Wilson blasted holes open at fullback, and 2002 was the year that the legendary “Nick, Vick and Thick” formation—Nick Hoheisel, Victor Mann and Ayo Saba—debuted. Seven hundred twenty pounds of humanity, all in the backfield in goal line and short yardage situations and plowing downhill. Man-ball at its most glorious.

The defensive headliner, already mentioned above, was Terence Newman. The cornerback from Salina Central High School was crazy fast. He moonlighted as a track star and finished third in the Big 12 Indoor Championships with a time of 6.76 seconds in the 60-yard dash after running a 6.72, which is second in school history to Aaron Lockett, in the prelims. Newman had superior cover skills and was surprisingly physical for a “speed guy.” In 2002, he recorded 54 tackles, five interceptions and 14 pass deflections and was the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year. He was a unanimous first-team All-American and won the Jim Thorpe award as the nation’s best defensive back.

Newman was joined on defense by Rashad Washington, a Wichita native who seemed to always be in the right place as both a strong safety and a special teams player. Andrew Shull, Tank Reese and Thomas Houchin were solid along the defensive front, Melvin Williams was an NFL draft pick at defensive end, and juniors Josh Buhl, Brian Hickman and Terry Pierce formed an incredible linebacking group. Defensive stat-keeping was still in the stone age in 2002, apparently, because their tackling totals are nowhere to be found. But trust me; they were good. Pierce was a hard-hitting physical monster. Buhl was undersized and overlooked, but played with attitude and was always around the ball. We do have stats for Buhl’s 2003 season: 184 tackles, 109 unassisted. That’s tremendous for anyone. For a guy who probably stood less than 5-10 and never could get his weight above 200 pounds, it’s absurd.

Dark ages stat-keeping makes tracking special teams a chore, too. But you know they were good. Come on. It’s what K-State is known for. And Terence Newman returned kicks. It’s a given.

Newman (1st round, 5th overall pick), Pierce (2nd round, 51), Melvin Williams (5th Round, 155) and Taco Wallace (7th Round, 224) were drafted by NFL teams at the end of the year. Newman played forever. Underclassmen Nick Leckey and Rashad Washington would be drafted the following year. Sproles would go the year after that. This team had serious talent.

#4 Terence Newman
Newman was more than a stellar defender. His speed helped out on offense and in the return game, too.
Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Results

The personnel excellence of 2002 was reflected in the on-field results. The Wildcats throttled the cupcakes, so we won’t embarrass any of them by mentioning their names.

The first true test of the season came against the No. 11 USC Trojans, who came to Manhattan on September 21. Marc Dunn actually started at quarterback. Ell Roberson took over in the second quarter and had an up-and-down game. He threw a touchdown pass and ran for another, but he also fumbled twice. The first led to a USC touchdown, and the second ended a K-State drive that could have iced the game, forcing the defense to preserve the victory. The Cats held on. K-State 27, USC 20.

Two weeks later, the No. 13 Cats suffered their first loss on the road against Colorado. They came back from a 14-0 deficit to tie, then fell behind 35-14 before making a furious rally. The 35 points yielded were the most on the season, by eight. As you’ll see later, this loss to the Buffs ruined the season. Colorado 35, K-State 31.

October 12, No. 19 K-State 44, Oklahoma State 9 (home)

On October 19, the No. 17 Wildcats hosted No. 8 Texas. In a defensive cage match, the Longhorns took a 7-6 lead into halftime. Chris Sims threw a touchdown pass to extend the Texas lead to 14-6 in the third quarter, but in the fourth, Ell Roberson connected with tight end Thomas Hill from 15 yards out, and Darren Sproles ran in the two-point conversion to even the score. How much of a defensive slugfest was it? K-State managed 261 total yards (159 rushing, 102 passing), and Roberson was sacked five times. Texas gained only 230 total yards (184 passing, 46 rushing) and yielded three sacks. K-State’s Jared Brite had a 36-yard field goal attempt blocked, and with 1:32 to play, Texas’s Dusty Mangum split the uprights from 27 yards out to win the game. Texas 17, K-State 14.

October 26, K-State 44, Baylor 10 (away)

November 2, K-State 64, Kansas 0 (pseudo-away)

On November 9, the 7-3 Iowa State Cyclones came to Manhattan. Buoyed by a rare victory over Nebraska, 36-14, in late September and having crept into the rankings at No. 21 after they outlasted Missouri 42-35 the week before, the 'Clones entertained hopes of winning a Big 12 North title. K-State utterly demolished those hopes. Seneca Wallace had posted 493 yards of total offense against Mizzou, but was 11-for-26 passing for 162 yards and three interceptions against the Cats. Iowa State would go on to lose the rest of its games, including a 37-20 home loss to UConn. Thud. K-State 58, Iowa State 7.

Nebraska was up next. K-State had finally overcome the Cornhusker roadblock in 1998 and had backed that up with another win in 2000. Both of those games were close. This one was not. The Wildcats shelled Frank Solich’s penultimate team the way the Huskers had whipped the Cats for time eternal. Nebraska would finish 7-7. K-State 49, Nebraska 13

November 23, No. 10 K-State 38, Missouri 0 (away).

Sitting at No. 6 in the land to conclude the regular season, the Wildcats played 8-4 Arizona State in the Holiday Bowl. Terrell Suggs sacked Roberson twice, pushing his NCAA season record to 24. K-State got down 20-14 before rallying for 20 fourth-quarter points to pull out the win. Though the Wildcats won the game, Texas would jump them in the final AP poll (figures!), and the Cats would finish 7th. The coaches kept K-State at No. 6, one slot behind Oklahoma, and one ahead of Texas. No. 6 K-State 34, Arizona State 27.

Final record: 11-2

Rankings: Coaches Poll - 6th, Associated Press - 7th

Second place, Big 12 North Division

Roberson under pressure
ASU’s Terrell Suggs got to Ell Robeson twice. But the Cats ultimately prevailed in the 2002 Holiday Bowl, 34-27, over the Sun Devils.
Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Why 2002 was the best team not to win a title

Mostly, because the Big 12 divisional method was stupid and because the Cats lost to a Colorado team that finished 9-3 in the regular season. The Buffs won the north division, though, and got to play in the Big 12 Championship Game, where they would lose to No. 8 Oklahoma, 29-7. (They would finish 9-4, after dropping the Alamo bowl 31-28 in overtime to Wisconsin, which we all know is an unforgivable sin.)

Colorado’s overall record was wrecked by poor non-conference play. The Buffaloes lost their opener to in-state rival Colorado State and also lost to common opponent USC (who K-State beat, don’t forget) by a score of 40-3. You read that right, forty to three. At home, no less. You might ask how K-State managed to lose to such a team. Altitude, maybe? The flatland Cats never played well in Boulder. But that is just an excuse. K-State was superior to Colorado. Just compare the resumes.

We have to own that inexplicable loss, and Colorado’s only defeat of the conference season came against Oklahoma in Norman, by a 27-11 margin. The Buffs had the benefit of missing Texas on the unbalanced schedule and Nebraska, as we already chronicled, was in the midst of its worst season in decades. The Buffaloes finished 7-1 in the league. K-State was 6-2. End of story.

K-State’s other loss was to No. 8 Texas, and it was by three measly points. The 2002 team lost two total games by seven combined points. Show me another squad that tantalizingly close to perfection that managed to secure no titles. I'll wait.

The win-loss record was not all that made this team special. They beat No. 11 U.S.C. and No. 21 Iowa State (hey, even though the ‘Clones finished 7-7, it still counts!) and went toe-to-toe with No. 8 Texas before falling on a late field goal.

Not only did the 2002 team beat people; it humiliated them. It shut three teams out, two of them league opponents on the road. It outscored the opposition 582 to 154. That’s an average margin of approximately 45-12.

If stats are your thing, check this out: K-State was one yard shy of 5,500 on offense (6.3 yards per play) and gave up only 3,237 (3.7 yards per play). The Wildcats averaged 423 yards per game, while yielding only 249.

If you like weird stuff, they were willing to line up three giants in the backfield and make you guess which one was getting the ball and which were just coming to road-grade a path. They put their All-American corner at receiver and actually threw to him. They had an Ayo, a Tank and a Taco, a roster feat which will never, ever be equaled. If not for a near miss in Boulder and a blocked field goal attempt against Texas, this team could have dared to dream the ultimate dream.

I might be swayed by arguments for the 1997 squad, which finished 11-1. Except Nebraska embarrassed that team, 56-26. The thirty points in that one game are four times more than the total losing margin of the 2002 team over the course of a full season. The '97 bunch also only scored 13 points at Texas Tech and 28 at Iowa State, and it only beat Ohio by three. No, I did not say “(the) Ohio State.”

The 2011 Cats were fun, too. But come on. Even us homers have to admit they were pretty lucky. Right? They won seven games by a touchdown or less and needed a late score to beat (gulp!) Eastern Kentucky by the convincing score of 10-7. And Oklahoma annihilated them, 58-17. Do they belong on any “best team” list, at all?

As I said, be nice when these other people come around to try convincing you. Listen politely. Pat them on the head and tell them, “Nice Try. But I’d sure like to see what that 2002 bunch could have done, if not for that damned Rocky Mountain mental block.”