COLUMBIA – When it finally came time to play, former Kansas State linebacker Ted Sims had heard enough. He grew tired of the disrespect. He became fatigued by Oklahoma’s praise. Some pundits anointed the Sooners' 2003 team as the best college football squad ever to break a huddle.
But a problem: They had yet to win the Big 12 Conference football championship game.
“They weren't giving us a shot in hell, to tell you the truth,” said Sims, who now lives in Dallas and works in logistics.
“The media was saying how they could be the best college football team ever. They weren't giving us a shot at all. For us, being the underdog was definitely an inspiration.”
If Missouri players seek inspiration before facing favored Oklahoma on Saturday in the Big 12 championship game, they should look no further than the 2003 Kansas State team. That year, Kansas State shocked national darling Oklahoma to claim the program’s first conference championship since a Big Six Conference crown in 1934.
Entering the 2003 season, Kansas State carried high expectations. The Wildcats ranked No. 7 in both the Associated Press and USA Today/ESPN Coaches preseason polls. They boasted a dynamic backfield that included Heisman Trophy hopefuls, quarterback Ell Roberson and tailback Darren Sproles. Many expected the Wildcats to appear in their third Big 12 championship game since 1998 and possibly compete for a national championship.
But, early in the year, the Wildcats faced adversity. During a victory over McNeese State in the season’s third week, Roberson fractured his non-throwing left hand and missed the next two games. After winning its first four contests, Kansas State lost consecutive contests against Marshall, Texas and Oklahoma State by a combined 15 points. The Wildcats fell out of both polls, and some labeled them as a disappointment.
Then, Kansas State discovered its preseason promise. The Wildcats blew out Baylor and swept their Big 12 North schedule by an average score of 39-10. Before long, the early-season losses became a faint memory. Players’ confidence swelled.
"After those three games, we were rocking and rolling,” Sims said. “We were very confident, and it really propelled us into that Big 12 championship.”
In the meantime, Oklahoma had established itself as one of the most prolific offensive teams ever. Heisman Trophy front-running quarterback Jason White led an attack that averaged 48.3 points per game. In seven of their previous 12 games, the Sooners had scored at least 52 points. Oklahoma had been held to fewer than 34 points once all season.
Most picked consensus No. 1 Oklahoma to roll past No. 13 Kansas State in Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium. Experts predicted Oklahoma’s abundance of talent would be too much. They said wide receivers Mark Clayton and Will Peoples would slice Kansas State’s secondary. They predicted defensive tackle Tommie Harris, linebacker Teddy Lehman and cornerback Derrick Strait would dominate the line of scrimmage and continue the physical style of play that made Oklahoma’s defense among the nation’s most feared.
For the Sooners, the Big 12 championship game was supposed to be a formality before attempting greatness at the BCS national championship game four weeks later in New Orleans. Kansas State players felt disrespected.
“Any time people doubt you, you want to come out and prove yourself against the No. 1 team in the country,” said former Kansas State wide receiver Antoine Polite, who now lives in Lawrence, Kan., and works as a sales consultant for an investment firm.
“We knew we had a game plan and we stuck to it.”
Kansas State pounced. After Oklahoma tailback Kejuan Jones opened the scoring with a 42-yard run, Kansas State’s defensive front dissolved White’s protection. The Sooners’ rushing lanes became clogged. Sproles shredded Oklahoma’s vaunted defensive front for a career-best 235 rushing yards. White struggled, throwing two interceptions, one of which Sims returned 27 yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter.
As the evening progressed, the Wildcats achieved the unthinkable. They snagged Oklahoma’s aura of invincibility and shook it senseless.
“Kansas State that year had nothing to lose,” said White, who now operates a sports memorabilia and a shoe store in Oklahoma City. “They just threw all their chips in the middle and said, 'Hey, we're just going to give it the best we got.' We let them hang around.”
Said Sims: “That night, it … was a packed, full house. That first drive, they scored on us, and you could hear a pin drop from our fans. After that first drive, everybody thought they were going to hammer us. We knew better. We knew with our scheme from our coaches and our talent that we could get the job done, which is what happened.
“For us, it was a complete dogfight. It was a fight out there. There were people talking trash from play one to the very last play of the game. We knew we were a bunch of fighters.”
When it was over, they prevailed. Arrowhead Stadium’s scoreboard flashed the shocking result through the chilled night air: Kansas State 35, Oklahoma 7.
“It was surreal,” Polite said. “It was like an out-of-body experience.”
The nation took notice. Kansas State earned a berth in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State (Ohio State won the Jan. 2 game 35-28). Entering the Big 12 title game, Oklahoma held such a large lead in the BCS rankings that despite the defeat, it was still invited to the national championship game against LSU, which won 21-14.
Now, five years later, not many give Missouri a chance in a similar situation. Most expect Oklahoma to dominate on its way to playing for the program’s eighth national championship next January in Miami.
Can Missouri silence voices of dissent? Former Kansas State players have some advice.
“I would just tell them to use the negative press and whatever everybody is saying about them as fuel for the fire,” Polite said. “Oklahoma has been beaten before, and they can be beaten again in that same stadium. Missouri has the athletes and the coach to put up some points.
“They just have to believe in themselves. A win like this would really redeem their season.”
Said Sproles, who is in his fourth season playing for the NFL's San Diego Chargers: “Once you jump on them, you have to keep playing them to the end because they have a high-powered offense, too. You have to keep putting points on the board.”
Many outside Columbia consider Missouri's chances slim at best. But that’s what they told Kansas State in 2003.
“We were all very inspired that day,” Sims said. “It could be the very same situation for Missouri.”