Kansas State was picked to finish eighth in the Big 12. It wound up eighth in the BCS.
That wasn’t good enough for the Sugar Bowl, which bypassed the Wildcats on Sunday night in favor of Michigan and Virginia Tech, big-name schools with lesser resumes. The snub didn’t sit well with many fans of Kansas State, which will instead play Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl.
It turns out to be a pretty good consolation prize.
While the Wildcats and Razorbacks can gripe over what many perceive as an unfair system, they will be lining up against each other at Jerry Jones’ showplace in Texas. Organizers say it then won’t matter at all that the Cotton Bowl was left out of the BCS.
“It’ll have the feel of a national championship. Just ask Texas A&M and LSU last year,” said Cotton Bowl chairman Tommy Bain. “You really will forget about the BCS because you literally will think you’re in one of the finest bowl games going.”
All that will be missing is the BCS patch on the jerseys, the sticker on the back of the helmet — oh, and the millions of dollars difference between the Cotton Bowl payout and the one that comes from a BCS game.
Kansas State head coach Bill Snyder, no stranger to bowl controversy, took a diplomatic approach to the Cotton Bowl bid, making sure not to diminish one of the Big 12’s longtime partners while at the same point making it clear that he believes the system has some fundamental flaws.
It was under Snyder that the Wildcats lost in double-overtime in the Big 12 title game in 1998, their only defeat of the season, and slid from the national title game to the Alamo Bowl.
“Well, we’re in it, so there’s not a whole lot I can do to change it,” he said of the BCS. “It’s very distinct how the No. 1 and No. 2 teams are placed, and yet it doesn’t seem to follow suit with how the No. 3 and No. 4 and No. 5 and No. 6 and No. 7 and No. 8 are placed.
“If there was something to be adjusted,” he said, “I would suggest it might be in that area.”
Kansas State beat Baylor and Texas, which were both ranked when they played, and lost only to Big 12 champion Oklahoma State and Oklahoma. The Wildcats finished second in what was generally regarded as the toughest conference, from top to bottom, this season.
But a modest fan base and national following, at least compared to those of Michigan and Virginia Tech, may have been its undoing. It sure wasn’t the results on the field.
The Wolverines lost to Iowa, which finished 7-5, and to Michigan State, which fell to Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game. The Hokies were dominated by Clemson twice, including 38-10 on Saturday in the ACC championship, and finished the regular season without a win over a team currently in the Top 25.
“I want to play in the best bowl we can play in,” Kansas State wide receiver Chris Harper said. “We’ve got a good resume. Why shouldn’t we get in there?”
Fans of Arkansas are probably asking the same thing.
The Razorbacks lost only to LSU and Alabama, the two teams that will meet for a second time to decide the national champion. Yet because of a rule preventing three teams from a single conference making it into BCS games, Arkansas wound up in the Cotton Bowl, despite being No. 6 in the final standings — a full 17 spots ahead of Big East champion West Virginia, which will play in the Orange Bowl.
All of this is the Cotton Bowl’s gain.
Remember, this is the same bowl game that in 1960 crowned the national champion when Syracuse beat Texas. And did so again in 1970, when the Longhorns rallied to beat Joe Theismann and Notre Dame to clinch the title. And where the Irish exacted their revenge on Texas in 1978, vaulting to first in the final poll with a 38-10 victory behind quarterback Joe Montana.
Arkansas and Kansas State have their share of Cotton Bowl memories, too.
The Razorbacks have played in it 11 times, behind only the Aggies and Longhorns for the most in the game’s 75-year history. The Wildcats lost to BYU in 1997, their first major bowl appearance under Snyder, and beat Tennessee 35-21 on a snowy New Year’s Day in 2001.
“That game was a pretty good example of the toughness of Coach Snyder’s team,” said athletic director John Currie, who worked for the Volunteers at the time. “That was my first experience with Kansas State and it was a powerful one.”
Currie remembers about 50,000 fans painting Dallas purple that year, and he expects another big turnout for this year’s game. The school sold its allotment of 12,500 tickets last Wednesday, before the Wildcats knocked off Iowa State to finish 10-2 and even knew of their bowl destination.
The Cotton Bowl itself is already considered a sellout.
“Year in and year out, the Cotton Bowl is probably providing better matchups than many of the BCS bowls,” said Bain, the bowl chairman. “We recognize that we’re not a BCS bowl, but I’ll tell you ... it’s very competitive with the BCS.”