No fashion trend lasts forever, but for the past several seasons, Bill Snyder, the owlish 75-year-old head coach at Kansas State University, had taken to wearing retread windbreakers culled from bowl appearances of seasons of past, Cotton and Buffalo Wild Wings alike.
It was a beautiful and purposefully anachronistic sartorial statement, a move so blithely uncool that it actually became cool, and I imagine Snyder could have kept it up until his retirement, whenever that day comes, if not for the Big 12 stepping in and gently encouraging him to wear light jackets that did not promote the conference’s now-defunct bowl partners.
And so on Saturday, during a 31-30 victory over Oklahoma – the umpteeth largely unforeseen victory of Snyder’s entirely surprising career at Kansas State – Snyder wore a shiny white windbreaker devoid of outdated logos. His team, meanwhile, had lost only one game headed into Saturday, and yet, as is often the case, nobody had really accounted for the possibility that the Wildcats might actually be championship-level good, or even playoff-level good.
Yet here we are.
It’s an easy thing to forget about Snyder, in the way you might forget to place a call to your grandfather for weeks at a time. But once he’s there, he’s almost certain to liven up your afternoon with his aphorisms, with his good-old-days rants and with the bracing notion that the best football coaches, for all we god them up, are often just regular dudes who can stay the course as panic breaks out all around them.
This is, as you may recall, Snyder’s second tenure at Kansas State, after taking a three-year hiatus from 2006-08 for what was presumed to be, you know, retirement. The first time around, he built the Kansas State program from a perpetual doormat into enough of a contender that they named the stadium after him; this second time around as head coach, he’s already had two 10-win seasons, and he may be headed for another.
Snyder’s teams are always at a disadvantage, talent-wise, within the confines of the Big 12. They generally overachieve enough to play in bowl games, and occasionally they’re even good enough to contend for national championships (most recently in 2012, when they won their first 10 games before falling to Baylor). But the preseason vibe out of Manhattan (the other one) was pretty chill heading into this season, after the Wildcats finished 8-5 in 2013. Their quarterback, Jake Waters, is a blocky junior-college recruit out of Iowa who doesn’t look like much but proved on Saturday he might one of the most underrated players in the country; the K-State offense is not now, and has never been, as sexy or prolific as those of Oklahoma or TCU or Baylor, but really, what does that matter if you continue to win when all of those other teams have already lost conference games?
If there’s an ongoing vibe to this inaugural playoff season, it’s just that: With no clear-cut favorite for any of those four playoff spots, it doesn’t really matter how you look, as long as you keep winning.
At the moment, Kansas State’s only loss is a close one to an Auburn team that might only be the fourth-best team in its own division, the SEC West, but is still (at least for now) one of the top five teams in the country. But that top five has already shifted considerably since August, and presumably will shift several more times: After Oklahoma’s otherwise-stellar placekicker Michael Hunnicutt stumbled on Saturday afternoon, a second defeat spelled the end of any playoff hopes for the Sooners, who entered 2014 as one of the preseason favorites.
“Well, maybe we just made fewer mistakes,” Snyder said afterward. And then: “You just keep trucking, as they say. We always say keeping sawing wood, keep rowing the boat. If you want to get where you are going you have to do that and we did.”
And so it went around the country on Saturday, as the second half of the season kicked in. Alabama proved itself unkillable yet again, after Nick Saban threw a mid-week public fit over the perfectionism demanded of his program, then ratcheted up those expectations with a 59-0 steamrolling of Texas A&M. Ole Miss blew out Tennessee, 34-3, to continue its improbable run to an Egg Bowl for the ages. And, of course, we should mention Florida State, which continues to live on the edge, after an offensive pass-interference call bailed them out in the final seconds in a 31-27 win over Notre Dame (Note: Most impartial observers in the know seem to believe the call was correct, given that two Notre Dame receivers essentially formed a picket fence, but a game like that could not recede into legend without a working conspiracy theory).
I still think Kansas State will struggle to make it through the second half of its schedule without suffering a conference defeat; the Big 12, if nothing else, proved the depths of its competitiveness on Saturday when a West Virginia program that seemed moribund a few months back upset previously undefeated Baylor. But then, that’s the beauty of having Bill Snyder around: It proves anything is possible. He is the closest thing college football has to a benevolent spell-casting wizard, and as we churn toward the finish of a season where the possibilities seem endless, having a magician on one’s side certainly can’t hurt.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb