The two old warhorses of the Big 12 North's early days are back at it again.
Kansas State and Nebraska accounted for the North’s first five trips to the conference championship and they have won three of the division’s four conference titles in Big 12 history.
If there’s such a thing as North Division bluebloods, it would be these two teams. So it’s somehow fitting that both will be involved in an old-school winner-take-all battle for the division championship Saturday night in Lincoln when Bill Snyder and his surprising Kansas State team face Bo Pelini’s Nebraska squad.
The Wildcats have been building to beat Nebraska since Snyder’s arrival as coach for the first time in 1989.
Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, a defensive assistant and coordinator on those early KSU teams, remembers how much attention the Wildcats aimed at the Cornhuskers when Snyder’s staff first arrived at KSU.
“I’ve always said that [former Nebraska head coach Tom] Osborne had as much to do with my growth as a defensive coordinator, just going against those great Nebraska teams,” said Stoops, who coached at KSU through the 1995 season. “When you talked about great offenses and all of the schemes they had, you had to be incredibly disciplined to stop them. I felt we got better at KSU working against them and that’s how we developed into the team we were trying to beat. And over time, we made improvement and the thought process helped us a lot in what we were doing.”
Snyder’s work finally paid off when the Wildcats beat Nebraska in 1998, snapping a 29-game losing streak to the Cornhuskers that dated to 1968. That sparked their first division championship and pushed them within a whisper of the BCS title game.
His teams beat the Cornhuskers four more times during his coaching tenure, including the 2003 season where KSU won its only Big 12 football title.
That 38-9 victory in 2003 became infamous for the postgame altercation between Snyder and Pelini.
Pelini, then the Cornhuskers’ defensive coordinator, got in Snyder’s face after the game because he felt that KSU tried to run the score up against a young Nebraska defense.
Pelini has said he immediately felt regret after the incident.
Snyder said Monday his first game against a Pelini-coached team won’t have any more meaning because of the earlier incident.
“I don’t think it’s an issue, at least on my end and I hope it’s not with Bo,” Snyder said. “I think it’s kind of a heat of moment thing. Competitive people respond competitively. I would like to think it’s beyond us.”
Nebraska was expected to be here from the beginning as one of the North’s preseason favorites. But Snyder has done a masterful job in taking his program to the brink of the title in his first season back after a three-season sabbatical.
And he’s not exactly sure how his young team, a unit he describes as a “rag-tag bunch” will respond to the buzz of playing for the division championship.
Snyder obviously has a lot of experience playing in these kind of games. But how that will translate to his team remains to be seen.
“It’s kind of like being a parent,” Snyder said. “You think you have all the experience and can do things in the right way for young people. But they don’t always want to listen.
“It’s kind of hard to project what kind of impact the game will have on our players. I’d like to think there are some things we could share. But a lot of them are still only 18 years old and it remains to be seen how they’ll react.”
For his part, Pelini thinks the Cornhuskers are ready for their shot at clinching the North for the first time since 2006.
“They are very well aware of what's at stake this weekend,” Pelini said. “Obviously, the game means a lot. It's going to determine the Big 12 North. We have a lot of respect for our opponent in every way. We know they're going to be ready to play. And we've got to be ready to play our best football.”