ARLINGTON, Texas — For head coach Bill Snyder’s second Kansas State turnaround and the 11th-ranked Wildcats’ surprising 10-2 season, the Cotton Bowl is an appropriate ending.
When Kansas State first played in the Cotton Bowl 15 years ago, against Brigham Young, that New Year’s Day game was a watershed moment for a program that had evolved from consecutive winless seasons just before Snyder arrived. The Wildcats went again at the end of the 2000 season, beating Tennessee, during a stretch of six 11-win seasons in seven years before the coach’s brief retirement.
Seventh-ranked Arkansas, meanwhile, gets another game at Cowboys Stadium, where a stunning second-half comeback against Texas A&M three months ago was a catalyst in a season where the Razorbacks’ only losses are to No. 1 LSU and No. 2 Alabama, the two teams playing in the BCS national championship game next week.
“I thought the game we played here this year really helped us throughout our season. We came into halftime and we were down 18 points, but our team rallied together. Our leadership really showed up,” Razorbacks coach Bobby Petrino said. “To be able to really bring out the competitive spirit that our team showed from that point on, I think carried us throughout the season.”
The Wildcats, with the emergence of hard-nosed running quarterback Collin Klein and a record number of close victories, went on to finish eighth in the BCS standings, two spots behind Arkansas.
“They’re certainly a young group that has exceeded whatever the expectations may have been,” said Snyder, wrapping up his 20th season coaching K-State. “They’ve probably come as far as any football team we’ve had up to this point.”
During the three seasons Snyder was away, the Wildcats went 17-20 under Ron Prince. When Snyder came back three years ago after Prince was fired, that still wasn’t nearly as bad as things were when he first got to Manhattan in 1989; the Wildcats were 0-26-1 the previous 2½ seasons.
“Being here five years and seeing where the program was and where Coach Snyder has taken it means a lot to me, especially my last year, my last go-around,” Wildcats safety Tysyn Hartman said.
Kansas State was 13-12 in Snyder’s first two years this time around before a 7-0 start this season. That included a comeback victory against Baylor when the first interception of the season by Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III led to a go-ahead field goal as the Wildcats overcame a nine-point deficit in the final six minutes.
That was Oct. 1, the same day Arkansas trailed by 18 points at halftime before winning 42-38 over the Aggies at Cowboys Stadium, the $1.2 billion showplace built by Dallas Cowboys owner and Arkansas alumnus Jerry Jones.
Tyler Wilson threw for a school-record 510 yards, including a record 281 receiving by Jarius Wright. The Razorbacks recovered from their loss to Alabama to start a seven-game winning streak before losing the regular-season finale at LSU.
“It was a bitter pill to swallow to not be in the championship game,” Razorbacks senior defensive end Jake Bequette said. “We had our chances to be there definitely, but it was a special season.”
Arkansas is going for only the third 11-win season in school history. The others were 1977, when coach Lou Holtz’s team won the Orange Bowl, and 1964 in coach Frank Broyles’ only undefeated season with the Razorbacks.
“Watching the tape of the A&M-Arkansas ballgame really gave me a truly dramatic and startling understanding of what Arkansas football was really all about. It was a great comeback,” Snyder said. “We had a great ballgame with A&M and it really solidified the direction that we were going at that time.”
The Wildcats had eight wins this season by seven points or less, the most ever by a team from a conference that has automatic-qualifying BCS status. That included their own wild, high-scoring victory over Texas A&M.
After consecutive losses to Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, the Wildcats had to score 10 points in the last six minutes of regulation against the Aggies. Kansas State won that game 53-50 on Klein’s fifth rushing touchdown, a 1-yard run in the fourth overtime.
Klein has rushed for 1,099 yards and 26 touchdowns, one short of matching the Big 12 record set by 1998 Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams for Texas and the FBS record for quarterbacks.