MANHATTAN (TNS) — For a football rivalry that began in 1902, the Sunflower Showdown hasn't given us many must-see games.
Whenever the Kansas State Wildcats and the Kansas Jayhawks meet on the gridiron, fans can count on passionate play and a trophy celebration, but they rarely expect a quality matchup.
One stat perfectly illustrates this in-state rivalry: K-State and KU have played 115 times over the years, yet they have only faced off once as ranked teams.
The year was 1995 and Glen Mason brought his No. 6 Jayhawks to Manhattan for a highly anticipated game against Bill Snyder and his No. 14 Wildcats. Both teams were in the midst of terrific seasons and looked like contenders in the old Big Eight. K-State won easily 41-7, which turned out to be a fitting score for a rivalry that tends to feature one team knocking the snot out of the other.
The Jayhawks lead the series 64-46-5, but the Wildcats have won the last nine and 21 of the last 22 under current coach Bill Snyder.
When KU had its best years under Mark Mangino, and won four of five Sunflower Showdowns, K-State dipped under then coach Ron Prince. When Snyder returned and regained his stranglehold on the Governor's Cup, the Jayhawks fell into irrelevancy. It feels like the football gods will only allow one team to be good at any given time.
"It is not a matter of how collectively we are one way or the other. It is an individual thing," Snyder said. "I think Kansas State has to do what we have to do, and KU has to do what they have to do. It is easy to say, 'OK, small state, not very many student-athletes. So bringing youngsters in outside of the state is more difficult of a process.' But I can't tell you that I really have an answer for (why that is)."
In a way, that makes this weekend's meeting between KU and K-State more intriguing than usual. Both teams have the same record (3-6, 1-5 Big 12) and are fighting to escape the conference cellar.
Neither team is having a strong season. For once, this game feels like a toss-up, albeit for the wrong reasons.
"Last year it was a one-touchdown ballgame, late in the ballgame with three minutes to go. It is competitive, very much so," Snyder said. "KU has become a competitive football team. They've played some close ballgames this year with very prominent teams."
The strange part about the Jayhawks closing the gap on the Wildcats is that KU enters this game with a lame-duck coach. KU athletic director Jeff Long announced Sunday that Beaty will not return as coach as next season after winning just six games over the course of four seasons.
Kansas has played better this year, but K-State is in danger of finishing the regular season with a losing record for the first time since 2005 under Snyder.
This year's Sunflower Showdown isn't quite the "Toilet Bowl" or the "Futility Bowl" of 1987, when the teams entered with records of 1-7 (KU) and 0-8 (K-State), and they humorously tied 17-17, but it's close.
The rivalry is at a crossroads. KU is already looking to replace Beaty, and Snyder is facing an uncertain future. This could be the final Sunflower Showdown for both coaches.
Both teams are hoping for bragging rights, but the real competition may come afterward. If the state and its low number of Division I players can only support one good team at a time, pressure will be on both sides to adopt a successful long-term plan.
In the meantime, KU football players seem more motivated than usual to win for their departing coach. And K-State football players don't want to lose the Governor's Cup, which has been in the locker room all week.
This is about as close as the rivalry can get to another matchup of ranked teams.
"It's really big for me because I grew up watching this whole thing," said K-State receiver Dalton Schoen, who is from Overland Park. "Now to be in it is kind of surreal, but it's awesome. I just know that I have to go out there and play my best, because I know everyone from back home is going to be watching it and tuning into it and knowing what's going on.
"It's a huge deal for me, because I really don't want to lose to these guys."