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THE KANSAS STATE EXPERIENCE — VANDERBILT PREPARES FOR A BIG ONE

The answer did not immediately come to mind, but this week's Vanderbilt home game against Kansas State raised the question: "What was the last big-name non-conference opponent to visit Vanderbilt Stadium in Nashville?"

Filing through the history books, the answer emerged: In 2009 -- Halloween, interestingly enough -- Georgia Tech came to town. Georgia Tech has been a recurring non-conference opponent for VU, much like fellow ACC school Wake Forest, but in 2009, the Yellow Jackets stung a lot of opponents. They were ranked at No. 11 heading into that game, which they won, 56-31. Georgia Tech captured the ACC Coastal Division title and then won the ACC Championship Game over Clemson... and a man named Dabo Swinney.

In 2015, Vanderbilt paid a visit to the Houston Cougars and Tom Herman - that's the toughest non-con foe the Commodores have confronted, but Georgia Tech 2009 is the most recent reference point for a showcase home game in Nashville that doesn't involve an SEC team.

This is a night for Vanderbilt to show that the quality win over Middle Tennessee (enhanced by MTSU's win at Syracuse) was real. It's a night to show that improvements from 2016 are genuine. It's a night to show that this team has an eight-win floor... which means a higher ceiling. How high? It's pointless to speculate, but this much is certain: Beating Kansas State would create a level of excitement not seen since James Franklin walked the sidelines for VU. It is true that the Dores would still have a long way to go even if they dead beat the Wildcats, but a victory makes high aspirations realistic for Vanderbilt.

"High," "aspirations," "realistic," and "Vanderbilt" in the same sentence? Whoa. That's a weighty sentence to toss around, but if Vanderbilt can win a game like this, the Dores would give their season a chance to be great. No guarantees, but certainly a chance... and that's all any player or Derek Mason can ask for after a few seasons of relative drift.

What makes this game especially delicious is that for anyone who still doubts the ability of Vanderbilt to one day win SEC East and conference championships (and I would suspect there are plenty of human beings, both inside and outside the VU program), the man who will stand on the opposite sideline this Saturday offers an example of how a college football program can go from poverty to prosperity.

Kansas State football began in 1912. Through 1988, the Wildcats had won more than six games in a season FOUR TIMES. The program had made exactly ONE bowl game in just over three-quarters of a century (just over half a century in which four or more bowl games existed). From 1939 through 1988, KSU produced just four winning seasons of any kind. From 1955 through 1988, Kansas State went 6-5 twice, the program's only winning seasons -- KSU never reached the seven-win mark in those 34 years.

It was a plain fact: Entering the 1989 season, Kansas State had a much worse football track record than Vanderbilt. Scary, yes, but the statement was true.

Bill Snyder walked into Manhattan, Kansas, facing the rebuilding project of a lifetime. The Hayden Fry assistant at Iowa (part of one of college football's greatest coaching trees) chose a bottom-rung program -- one which had to compete with Tom Osborne's Nebraska and Bill McCartney's Colorado in the Big Eight -- to test himself as a head coach.

In four years, Snyder had whipped the Wildcats into shape.

The 1993 season produced nine wins in the Little Apple, an event on par with the Chicago Cubs winning the pennant.

It got better. Kansas State won 10 games in 1995. Starting in 1997, the Wildcats won 11 games four seasons in a row and in six of seven seasons through 2003. The program won a Fiesta Bowl. It won the 2003 Big 12 championship with a famous upset of an Oklahoma team viewed by some as the greatest regular season team in college football history at the time. Snyder retired, but after three horrid seasons from his successor, Ron Prince, Snyder -- clearly not having anything better to do with his time -- returned to the KSU spotlight. Second stints often go horribly wrong for coaches who retire and then un-retire. They can't recapture the magic. The move feels forced. The coach, in an older incarnation, lacks the same imagination and fire which catapulted him to prominence in the first place.

Not Snyder. He won the Big 12 in 2012, a total triumph for a man who has outlasted notables such as Mack Brown at Texas and Bob Stoops (one of his best students in the early days at Kansas State, who happened to be a player on the 1981 Rose Bowl team Snyder coached for at Iowa under Fry.)

If Derek Mason achieves 25 percent at Vanderbilt of what Snyder forged at Kansas State, he will be one of the three best coaches in Vanderbilt history, alongside Dan McGugin and Red Sanders.

This is the man Vanderbilt must find a way to defeat on Saturday. That's a formidable task.

What is "The Kansas State Experience?" A few details come to mind -- they form the outlines of the challenge facing Mason on defense and coordinator Andy Ludwig on offense.

First, Kansas State players are in the right spots at the right times. This is one of the hallmarks of great coaching, proof of Snyder's complete attention to detail. This game is fascinating for many reasons, but a supreme point of interest will be Ludwig's ability to show Kansas State a set of plays the Wildcats haven't seen and can't easily anticipate. If Ludwig outflanks the Wildcats, it will be a sign that he's on the right track as VU's offensive coordinator. If KSU swallows up Vanderbilt's playbook presentations, it will be hard to sustain optimism for the coming months of SEC competition.

Related to that first point: Kansas State teams under Snyder force opponents to beat them with extended drives. Kansas State, over decades, has possessed athletes who aren't as imposing as the ones recruited by Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Oklahoma State. The Wildcats have survived by means of positioning -- they don't get beaten on many deep balls. They can be -- and sometimes are -- eclipsed in terms of athleticism and power, but they still force opposing offenses to be consistent and precise.

This leads to the third main trait of a typical Snyder team (we'll see if KSU lives up to the identity and billing on Saturday): Kansas State is opportunistic. The Wildcats have been outgained by Texas Tech and other Big 12 teams on several occasions through the years, but giving up yards in small doses enables K-State to produce red-zone stops and turnovers. The other team might produce more 70-yard drives, but those drives produce three points at best. Snyder teams cash turnovers into touchdowns and win by 10 points despite losing the yardage tally by 150. Kansas State might not have the studs in the stable, but regardless of talent level, the Wildcats force opponents to be consistently great. KSU rarely gives away points.

Vanderbilt might have the better team, but beating Bill Snyder requires that superiority to emerge with great regularity, and with very few lapses, certainly none which carry extreme consequences.

There's a reason Bill Snyder turned a program less fortunate than Vanderbilt into a power conference champion and consistent 11-game winner.

Vanderbilt players might look at Kansas State and feel they have more natural speed and talent than the Wildcats, but they need to be prepared to play a precise game with a maximum of concentration. The slightest moment of distraction is the moment Kansas State pounces on an opponent.

It has happened for a quarter of a century.

Bill Snyder -- a very patient man -- waits for his opponents to blink. Vanderbilt must be many things on Saturday, but above all else, the Commodores must be vigilant if they want to win the biggest non-conference VU home game since 2009.



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