Kansas, K-State show football still belongs in hoops country

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LAWRENCE, Kan. — Kansas State barged into the Top 25 after its win at Oklahoma on Saturday night, and there’s a good argument to be made that the Wildcats’ biggest rival – just down Interstate 70 – deserves to be there, too.

As it stands, Kansas is just outside of the rankings. You read that correctly.

The long-downtrodden Jayhawks are among the 21 of 131 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision that have yet to lose this season. They knocked Duke from those ranks Saturday, which was enough for Kansas to show up on 43 of the 63 Top 25 ballots – leaving them just a few points behind the 25th-ranked Wildcats.

Asked whether he puts any stock in it, Kansas coach Lance Leipold replied Tuesday: “I have not. Never have.”

There’s a lot of folks in the Sunflower State that do, though.

Only five states have multiple programs in the Top 25. Kansas could become the sixth if the Jayhawks and Wildcats can inch their way one spot higher. Kansas (4-0) plays Iowa State on Saturday at Memorial Stadium in Lawrence – a place that sold out last week for the first time in years, while Kansas State (3-1) hosts Texas Tech the same day.

The schools haven’t been ranked at the same time since Oct. 14, 2007, when the Jayhawks were 15th and the Wildcats No. 25. That was the year Kansas won the Orange Bowl and tied its best-ever finish of seventh in the AP poll.

“National recognition – and recognition as a whole – is something that obviously we strive for,” Leipold said of the rankings, “but we don’t control it, so let’s get back to what we can control. If you spend a lot of time worrying about if you should or shouldn’t, you probably won’t be very long anyway.”

Most Kansas fans typically turn their attention to basketball at this time of the year – to the defending national champion Jayhawks. The football fans that are scattered across the state usually have to pin all their hopes on the Wildcats, who have been to bowl games 10 of the past 12 seasons.

Yet the “house divided” flags waving outside of homes from the Missouri border to the Colorado border are flying proudly for the first time in more than a decade.

Make no mistake: Leipold hears the chatter. He sees more people showing up for his weekly news conference, and it is impossible for him to avoid a schedule that’s rapidly filling with interview requests.

“It makes good stories,” he admitted, “but again, I want to keep this team in a good mindset. Stay focused on Iowa State. We left a lot of things out there Saturday that we have to get better at, and I don’t know if you can keep winning games if some of those things keep stacking up on you at the wrong time.”

It took Kansas State about six hours to move on from its win over Oklahoma: The Wildcats didn’t get home from Norman until about 3 a.m. Sunday, then went through normal treatments and game film before getting back to practice Monday to prepare for Texas Tech.

Much like Leipold, that’s exactly how Kansas State coach Chris Klieman prefers it: Don’t dwell on success. Get right back to work, and keep working to ensure more success.

There are plenty of folks patting the Wildcats on the back after rebounding from a brutal loss to Tulane with their stirring upset of the Sooners. But as Klieman noted Tuesday, as quickly as the Wildcats went from downtrodden to darlings, they could be headed the other way with a loss to the Red Raiders.

“It’s one-week seasons,” Klieman said. “It’s hard to predict what’s going to happen in any conference, in any league, so we’ll play them when we play them, where they ask us to play them. Our guys are just excited to be 1-0 in league play and that’s the most important thing for us, trying to continue to play well in the league”

Kansas State hoping Deuce Vaughn leads the way to top of Big 12

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MANHATTAN, Kan. — Kansas State coach Chris Klieman likes to tell a story from late April or early May, back when his program was conducting a youth football camp, and he found himself watching running back Deuce Vaughn sign autographs for kids.

“We had a session that ended at 11:30 and the autographs were 11:30 to 12:00, and then there was a break for the players,” Klieman recalled with a smile. “As you can imagine, Deuce’s line was really, really long, and he stayed out there for an extra hour signing for every kid that was there, and taking pictures.”

Klieman paused for a moment, then added: “He knows the gig.”

It comes with stardom.

Vaughn is perhaps the most important player for a Kansas State team many have pegged as a dark-horse contender for the Big 12 championship. He was third in the league in rushing last season behind Baylor’s Abram Smith and Iowa State’s Breece Hall, both of whom are now making their way in the NFL, and is a preseason All-American as an all-purpose player.

“Yeah, the kid is talented,” Klieman said, “but it just doesn’t happen. It’s doing all the little things on the field, off the field, in the classroom, in the community, in the weight room, in the rehab center so that you have your body at the very best, and then doing it with an absolute smile on your face no matter what.”

The path to greatness was never a sure thing for the player associate head coach Van Malone calls “Mr. Electric.”

Coming out of Cedar Ridge High School in Round Rock, Texas, Vaughn was largely overlooked by most major programs, which tends to happen when you’re a (generously listed) 5-foot-7 prospect. It didn’t matter that Vaughn had piled up yards and touchdowns like cords of firewood.

Missouri offered him a scholarship. So did Arkansas and South Florida. And if he was interested in a military career, he would have been happily accepted at the Air Force Academy and West Point.

Otherwise, his best chance to play Division I football came from Kansas State.

Turns out he had a blueprint to follow.

Back when Vaughn was just a tot, a similarly built dynamo drove south from Iowa and spent the next four years terrorizing the Big 12. Darren Sproles proceeded to rewrite just about every rushing record at Kansas State, finishing fifth in Heisman Trophy voting as a junior and then parlaying his senior year into a career in the NFL, where he would spend 15 years.

“I will say that ever since I was little,” Vaughn said, “I always looked at the All-American status of players, and you see all these big names and he was an All-American. He was one of the best in the nation, and that was something I always wanted to do whenever I got to this level. So to be able to achieve that is astonishing.”

Quickly earning the starting job, Vaughn ran for 642 yards and seven scores while catching 25 passes for 434 yards and two more, giving Kansas State fans a reason to celebrate amid a 4-6 record during the pandemic.

He gave them reasons on a weekly basis last season. Vaughn ran for 1,404 yards and 18 touchdowns, caught 49 passes for 468 yards and four more touchdowns, and helped the Wildcats go 8-5 with a Texas Bowl win over LSU.

Vaughn ran for 146 yards against the Tigers – his sixth straight 100-yard game – and scored four TDs in all.

He won’t have to wait long to begin making a national impression this season, either.

After the Wildcats open with South Dakota on Sept. 3, they face former Big 12 rival-turned-SEC nemesis Missouri. Then, after a tune-up against Tulane, they visit ninth-ranked Oklahoma for an early conference showdown.

“It’s the work ethic that you see with Deuce,” Klieman said. “I think everybody feeds off of his work ethic, whether it’s on the field, in the classroom, in the film room, in the weight room. The kid works so hard. And then you have your younger players watching arguably your best football player put the work in on a daily basis in all these areas.”

Big 12 changes coming after one last season with 10 schools

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ARLINGTON, Texas — On the surface at Big 12 football media days, nothing really appeared much different. The 10 mannequins lining the main stage donned the uniforms of the same schools that have made up the conference for a decade.

As the annual two-day kickoff event wrapped up, workers began to dismantle the oversized figures, then carried them one by one off the stage that was adorned by all the team logos.

The Big 12 is heading into its final season as a 10-school league. Oklahoma and Texas, the conference’s only football national champions, still have at least this season – and up to two more after that – before moving to the Southeastern Conference.

BYU, Cincinnati, Houston and UCF won’t join the Big 12 until next summer. And it’s unclear if there could be more teams eventually added to the mix – from the Pac-12, or elsewhere.

“Don’t want to speculate, you know, on the future,” new Oklahoma coach Brent Venables said. “I’m going to keep it on this season and what’s right in front of us.”

For now, that is the Sooners trying to win another Big 12 title after their record streak of six championships in a row ended last season.

As for the Longhorns, they look to make a big improvement after going 5-7 with a six-game losing streak in coach Steve Sarkisian‘s first season. He hasn’t decided whether Hudson Card or transfer Quinn Ewers will be the starting quarterback, but Sarkisian isn’t worried about that – “We’re in a really good position,” he said – and also isn’t concerned about the pending switch of leagues.

“Regardless of playing this year in the Big 12, or next year in the Big 12 or whatever this is going to look like, our style of play, our roster that we have in place, is one that regardless of who we play is going to be one that fits us and what we want to do,” Sarkisian said. “This is just our belief of who we want to be as a team.”

It was a week after Big 12 media days wrapped up last July that word came out about Oklahoma and Texas planning a move to an expanded SEC.

The Big 12 responded in September with the four additions, football independent BYU and the three American Athletic Conference schools that have worked out an early departure from that league. UCF had messages on electronic billboards around AT&T Stadium this week expressing the school’s excitement about moving to the Big 12.

“We have really good programs leaving, and we have really good programs coming in,” new Texas Tech coach Joey McGuire said.

Matt Campbell, the league’s second-longest tenured coach going into his seventh season, believes the Big 12 is in a strong position now because of the decision by Commissioner Bob Bowlsby and other leaders “to move, and not stand pat” last summer.

“Probably a lot better shape than we were a year ago at this time,” Campbell said. “A good move at the time because I think it’s probably positioned us in a great spot moving forward.”

Two weeks before this year’s Big 12 media days, Brett Yormark was named the league’s new commissioner after the 70-year-old Bowlsby’s decision earlier this year to retire. There was also another surprising shift in conference alignment, with UCLA and Southern California leaving the Pac-12 for the Big Ten.

Yormark, steadily busy even before his first official day on the job Aug. 1, described himself as actively engaged in realignment, with input from throughout the conference. He said during his introduction that he saw “there was opportunity” without specifically naming any schools, and adding that nothing was imminent.

“As we vet out the possibilities, everything will be additive. Nothing will be dilutive,” Yormark said. “I feel very confident that our conference is in the best position it’s ever been before.”

Texas and Oklahoma are set to remain in the Big 12 through the 2024-25 academic year, which would take them to the end of the conference’s current media rights deal.

When asked about a potential early departure for the Longhorns and Sooners, Yormark said he expected some future discussions with the two schools, and that he would always look for a “win-win situation.”

Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said he believed his team’s Bedlam series against Oklahoma would end when the Sooners leave the conference. And while saying he was joking, he also questioned why OU and Texas were still in on Big 12 meetings.

“I think the world is changing and people are like, yeah, they made a business decision. You know, the new commissioner, if I was him, I wouldn’t let OU and Texas in any meetings,” Gundy said. “I say that kind of jokingly, but really it’s almost business as usual.”