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The Kansas State Proposition: Would you trade a title for an Oklahoma-sized win every year?

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The Wildcats: are good but never great, create massive upsets and reward their fans’ loyalty. Doesn’t that sound nice?

Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images. Banner Society Illustration.

Kansas State beat Oklahoma 38-35 on Saturday, for the second time in as many years under head coach Chris Klieman. Last year, the Sooners were 7-0 and ranked in the Top 10 before losing 48-41 in Manhattan to a first-year coach rebuilding a 5-7 team from the previous season.

This year, K-State entered the game a 28-point underdog, in part because COVID-19 positives reduced the roster so much that the school wasn’t sure if it could field enough players the day before the game. Still, the Wildcats came back from a 21-point deficit to win.

Oklahoma won the Big 12 and made the College Football Playoff after losing to K-State last year, and could absolutely do it again this season, mainly because who in the world knows what that race will look like in this pandemic-arrested year. Last season, K-State went on to lose to a four-win West Virginia and closed an 8-5 campaign with a loss to Navy. For a debut year following a losing season 2019, that was fantastic for the Wildcats. In the larger scope, it was a fine year, but not memorable.

Except that Kansas State beat the best team in its conference on its schedule again this year. And while 2020 is immune to prognostication or logic in both football and life, it feels safe to assume the ‘Cats will end up with a 2020 version of 8-5. That would be pretty good, right? They won’t win the conference, but they beat Oklahoma!

What if they always did this? Specifically, what if Kansas State was never a champion but forever consistent and occasionally deadly? Wouldn’t that be a better fandom than most?

For as long as Klieman, a coach with a giant-killer pedigree during his time at FCS North Dakota State, is in Manhattan, what if Kansas State never wins its conference or competes for a national title, but is always able to hang with – and ultimately beat – the best team it plays every year?

This is not a proposition that seeks to marginalize Kansas State in any way. If anything, it seeks to venerate the esoteric identity this program carved out under Bill Snyder. It’s early yet but Snyder’s blueprint for success seems to have been translated by Klieman, and that process is in no way a given (please Google “Ron Prince”). Kansas State is a development system that takes a jeweler’s eye to a scrap yard, finding scratch-and-dent skill position players they can mash with “developmental” (read: undersized and/or slow) talent into a Ju-Co Voltron that consistently vexes recruiting rankings.

There’s a puckish beauty to this system, and there’s also a ceiling. Short of Snyder’s halcyon days in the late 90s, the Wildcats have never been, nor likely will ever be, a national title contending program. Their formula for success is bespoke, but this reality is entirely common; the overwhelming majority of FBS programs can’t win a national title.

With that concession in mind, imagine being guaranteed two blasts of catharsis every single season as a fan:

  1. You will experience the joy of an upset win over a highly ranked opponent.
  2. You will beat your inferior in-state rival with brutal consistency.

That second guarantee is an assumption in Manhattan, what with Kansas being so dominant at being so awful, but it’s a big feeling. It’s a good feeling. Paired together, these events, regardless of any other shock registered in a football season, make a fan in full. It validates the emotional investment.

Does this translate beyond K-State? Would you agree to this arrangement for your school?

Here are the parameters:

  • Your team will beat the best team in your conference nine out of the next ten seasons.
  • Your team will beat your (very bad) in-state rival every year.
  • Your team will never win its conference or appear in the College Football Playoff
  • Your team may win or lose any amount of games each season. Some seasons you might only win two games — your Kansas and your Oklahoma, if you will — but some seasons you could win nine or ten or even more, although you still won’t win your conference.

This is a value proposition for a particular kind of fan base. You need to check the floor and the ceiling of your particular program’s expectations. If you’re a fan of those aforementioned 30-ish programs that could feasibly win a national championship, this probably isn’t for you. And if you hold a candle for a perennial bottom dweller this might not be enticing because we aren’t guaranteeing you any winning seasons, just two wins.

A quick application:

  • Michigan State could theoretically beat Michigan and Ohio State in the same year, but not play for the B1G title (which would likely prevent them from some kind of at-large bid to the Rose Bowl).
  • Mississippi State would win the Egg Bowl and beat Alabama or LSU in the same season. In Finebaum metrics this is a year of premium-grade bravado.
  • Congrats, Wazzu: You just won the Apple Cup weeks after upsetting Oregon, all en route to a 7-5 campaign and a loss to a Mountain West team in a midweek bowl game 8 days before Christmas.

There is a crucial component here, an admission that doesn’t come easily to most, if ever to many: This machine is rigged for most fans. The team you invest untold volumes of emotional equity into will probably never pay out the advertised jackpot sum.

However, if you can live with that, why wouldn’t you agree to a deal that provided two weekends of outsized joy and a year’s worth of satisfaction to justify all that emotion in the first place?