Outsider claws its way into college football elite

By , Senior sports columnist of The Christian Science Monitor

If you can't take joy in what Kansas State is doing on the football field this fall, your heart is blizzard cold.

This is a story for the ages.

The Wildcats, claws sharp and fangs flashing, are 10-0 going into tomorrow's game at Missouri. They could end up playing for the college football championship Jan. 4.

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If anything ever resonated silliness, it's talking about heretofore poor little K-State being undefeated and perhaps national champs. It doesn't even sound right, like praising the artistic qualities of mud wrestling.

This is poor little K-State, once exposed by a national sports magazine as the worst team in the history of the sport. Poor little K-State, headquartered in Manhattan, known as the Little Apple. Poor little K-State, a team that typically considered a game a success if everybody got their helmets on frontwards, nobody died, and opponents didn't get into triple digits.

Prior to the arrival of Bill Snyder, 14 coaches in 54 years tried to get the Wildcats to live up to their name. Every one ended up battered, far under a .500 winning percentage, and fired. Snyder is 76-37-1.

But it's obvious why the Wildcats are winning: They lead the nation in scoring with an average of 51.2 points and in scoring defense, giving up an average of 9.9 points per game.

However, the true wonder of Kansas State is that it is one of only a tiny handful of teams outside the elite inner circle to be able to break the code. In fact, among the 15 schools that have won national titles over the past quarter century, as determined by the Associated Press, there has been exactly one that was truly a new boy on the block.

That was in 1984 when Brigham Young University inexplicably ended up with the title. College football has been embarrassed ever since because nobody believes the Cougars were pick of the litter. Rather, BYU kept moving up only because every other contender kept losing.

Seldom are there sea changes in the college game. Over the last 25 years, Miami has won four titles; Alabama, Notre Dame, and Oklahoma three; Penn State and Nebraska two. Basically, if you're not the lead dog, the view never changes. Throw in Florida, Florida State, Michigan, and a few others and that's it. Every year is largely an instant replay of the last.

It's caused by a lot of factors, central among them the tradition of winning counts enormously in ability to recruit top high school players. Players want to be seen on television so they go to traditional powers that surface almost weekly on the tube, which allows the same teams to be on TV more and more which attracts better and better players.

So if you're a Kansas State, you assume your humble position at the bottom of the heap far from the glare of TV lights and scavenge for crumbs. The chance that one of the non-elite teams will charge up the hill and plant the flag are depressingly slim.

But the Wildcats, amazingly, are doing it, via spunk and perseverance.

Now what they face is a kind of conspiracy to keep them in their place. Tennessee, which narrowly survived Arkansas last week, and UCLA, which narrowly survives everybody, are somehow ranked ahead of K-State, which has decimated every team it has played, in the Bowl Championship Series rankings. The top two teams get to play for the title.

Most think Tennessee vs. UCLA, a potential meeting of perennial powers, has flash and dash. K-State reminds people of dirt and plowing. K-State's main color is purple, which for eons has gotten no respect around the color wheel.

So the pooh-bahs deride the Wildcats for their weak schedule, which admittedly is dreadful. They show wins over Indiana State, Northern Illinois, and Northeast Louisiana. One presumes these are universities with football teams. Yet, the harsh truth is neither Tennessee nor UCLA wants to play Kansas State early in 1999 for one excellent reason: The Wildcats - assuming they can win what may well be their toughest game of the year this weekend against Missouri - will win.

Enjoy, because history instructs that K-State's intrusion at the top won't last and it will be many moons before we see another new name among the blue bloods. After all, it's a small, insular group which, like many clubs, doesn't tolerate whippersnappers without proper portfolios.

* Douglas S. Looney's e-mail address is looneyd@csps.com

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