After terrible start, defending Big 12 champ Kansas State out to improve bowl destination

BJ Finney understands the difficulty in putting a positive spin on a five-loss season at a place such as Kansas State, which has come to know mostly success under Bill Snyder.

"The motivation of having this season after going 10-3 and 11-2 and to just turn around and have a five-loss season, that's hard to swallow," the veteran center said. "The motivation is there to keep working and make sure this program gets better."

Indeed, Finney couldn't have imagined starting out the season any worse.

Not only was there the loss to lower-level North Dakota State on the Wildcats' home turf, there were the three straight losses to start conference play. That left Kansas State with a 2-4 record and the possibility of playing in a bowl game slipping away.

But if nothing else, the Wildcats showed the kind of resilience Snyder has always appreciated. They didn't dwell on their disappointments, nor did they waste time thinking of what might have been. Instead, they focused on getting better every week.

The result was four straight wins to become bowl eligible.

Only four teams in the history of the Big 12 have started 2-4 and made it to a bowl game, and only 18 times has a team in that hole reached seven wins since the inception of the Bowl Championship Series.

The Wildcats will have a chance to do that with a victory Saturday against rival Kansas.

"If you can't get up for a rivalry game, then you've got problems, and especially in a game like this," Kansas State wide receiver Curry Sexton said. "Nobody should have to fire you up. You should have plenty of self-motivation coming into this game."

The Wildcats (6-5, 4-4) will be trying to improve their bowl destination against the lowly Jayhawks, who are coming off a blowout loss to Iowa State.

Meanwhile, Kansas is viewing the annual Sunflower Showdown as its version of a bowl game.

"It's not that it's just KU," Sexton said, "but where we are in our season at 6-5 coming off last week, we've got to end the season strong."

For the many players who are returning, it's a chance to start building toward next season.

"Obviously you're still bowl eligible if you're 6-6, but being a .500 team isn't that big of an accomplishment," Sexton said. "If you go 7-5 and go to a bowl game, that gives you a chance to get eight wins. Coming from being 2-4 to end up being 7-5 would be a pretty solid way to end."

This isn't the first time that Kansas State has gotten off to a dismal start and rebounded to reach a bowl game. During the 2001 season, the Wildcats opened 2-4 and bounced back to win four of their next five.

The finished 6-6 and went to the Insight Bowl, where they lost to Syracuse.

There are plenty of destinations for Kansas State this season, depending on how it and several other teams in the Big 12 finish. The most likely bets are the Holiday Bowl, where the Wildcats have never lost in three trips — most recently in 2002 — and the Texas Bowl, where they were beaten by Rutgers during the otherwise forgettable Ron Prince era in 2006.

The Wildcats, who generally travel well as a fan base, could also end up in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, formerly known as the Copper Bowl and Insight Bowl.

"It would be a great feeling knowing that we overcame some adversity early in the season to get through it," Kansas State cornerback Kip Daily said. "We all came together. It was not the easiest, but we just continued to push through and stuck together. It would mean a lot."