MANHATTAN — The college football landscape has changed dramatically since 1998.
The legacy of Joe Paterno is viewed far differently now. The system for deciding a national champion has been massaged. The very rules of the game, even some altered just this year, have created a different product on the field.
One thing that hasn’t changed is Kansas State coach Bill Snyder, and that’s a good reason why the second-ranked Wildcats look strikingly similar to the team he had in ’98.
“He was really all about accountability and being consistent and being able to play at your highest potential,” said former Kansas State wide receiver Aaron Lockett, a freshman on that team.
“He wasn’t really into the individual superstar or the stats,. It was all about momentum and all about feeding on one another — work your hardest not to be the weakest link, and if you did that everybody would be successful.”
The Wildcats certainly were successful that year.
They rolled to an 11-0 record and won the Big 12 North, and had a big fourth-quarter lead on Texas A&M in the conference title game in St. Louis. They were that close to playing for a national championship, but the Aggies staged a dramatic comeback and won 36-33 in double overtime.
That’s where this group of Wildcats want the similarities to stop.
Kansas State, ranked No. 1 in the BCS standings and No. 2 in The Associated Press poll, is off to the first 10-0 start since that ballyhooed team led by Michael Bishop, the runner-up for the Heisman Trophy. The current team has another Heisman candidate in quarterback Collin Klein, and the same kind of rugged defense led by a talented linebacker corps that terrorized opposing offenses in the late ’90s.
But these guys want to finish the job. The Wildcats (7-0 in Big 12) play at Baylor on Saturday night before a week off, and then a high-profile season-finale against Texas.
“You know, they lost a game, we’re not trying to do that,” Kansas State wide receiver Chris Harper said. “We’re trying to set ourselves apart. We want to come out of the shadow of that ’98 team.”
It’s a big shadow, to be sure, and the ties that bind the ’98 team to the current one run deep — Lockett’s nephew, for example, is sophomore wide receiver Tyler Lockett, who has made just like his uncle with his propensity for returning kickoffs for touchdowns.
Brown leads the current team in tackles, earning the nickname “The Judge,” while the ’98 team had future NFL draft picks such as Mark Simoneau — who will soon be enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame — patrolling the field.
Then there’s the play behind center.
Bishop set the school record for pass efficiency, and his 2,844 yards through the air made him one of college football’s most dynamic players. It was little wonder he was invited to the Heisman Trophy ceremony, finishing second to Texas running back Ricky Williams.
“Michael was a quality leader for that team in a far different way than Collin is,” Snyder said. “Still, his teammates responded to him quite well in a positive way. People responded to him because he made plays.”
Klein can make plays, too.
The wide receiver-turned quarterback has put up pass efficiency numbers similar to Bishop, and he’s proven to be more elusive on the ground. The result has been record-setting touchdown totals and frontrunner status for college football’s most coveted individual award.
“Collin’s leadership goes beyond that,” Snyder said. “They respond to him, not only by what he does, but also what he addresses them about in the areas other than just football, and Michael’s thing was just on the football field.”
Klein’s example off the field is just as meaningful as his example on it, and it affects the behavior of his teammates in a positive way.
“Just being around him kind of makes you want to be a better person as well,” Kansas State fullback Braden Wilson said. “I’ll find myself doing things I normally wouldn’t just because I’m around him and he’s influencing me for the better.”
Wilson provided this example: Klein doesn’t swear, so even though he doesn’t police what other people on the team say, they tend to avoid cursing in an effort to follow in his footsteps.
“That relates to just doing the little things right, as far as everything’s concerned, not just things when you think somebody’s watching you,” Wilson said.
Of course, the ’98 team had similar leaders, like punt returner David Allen, who was a first-team All-America selection that season.
Aaron Lockett remembers teammates like Travis Ochs, running back Brian Goolsby, kick returner Lamar Chapman and defensive end Joe Bob Clements — currently an assistant coach — and the way they rallied the team on a week-by-week basis.
“They walked the walk,” Lockett said.
Just like this year’s team.