MANHATTAN, Kan. — Maybe Kansas State's marching band should forgo its traditional "Wabash Cannonball" for something more fitting, such as "So long, it's been good to know you."
At Bill Snyder Family Stadium on Thursday night, the dying hours of a 99-year relationship will start running out.
Among other things for Kansas State (4-0), the nationally televised game is a chance to jump high into the rankings and give running back Daniel Thomas' Heisman hopes a boost. For seventh-ranked and Big Ten-bound Nebraska (4-0), it's the first leg in a not-so-fond farewell tour of Big 12 schools the Huskers are leaving behind.
Expecting a huge crowd, Kansas State warned fans to arrive early.
Maybe Nebraska needs a warning, too.
More than 50,000 resentful Kansans will occupy those seats, most of them fully aware that Nebraska's decision to defect to the Big Ten came close to dealing their school a horrible setback.
With Colorado also taking off for the Pac-10, it looked for a while like the Big 12 would break up. Most of the South Division schools were being courted by the Pac-10 and the Southeastern Conference. But nobody was calling K-State. It would probably have been left without membership in a BCS automatic qualifying conference.
As the conference realignment drama played out, the president of Kansas State personally appealed to his counterpart at Nebraska to stay together.
But he was rebuffed, and K-Staters who've never been particularly fond of Nebraska anyhow know that.
So now, with a collision of unbeaten teams and a running back averaging 157 yards per game, Kansas State would love to boot the haughty Huskers out the door of the Big 12 with a big loss to remember them by.
"They're good fans, but they're also very classy people," said Nebraska coach Bo Pelini. "I would think they are going to treat our football team the right way."
Snyder admits he would hate to see the Huskers go.
"I'm disappointed and saddened by Nebraska not being in the conference. There's just so much history there, so much tradition," he said.
When talking about the history and tradition of Nebraska and Kansas State, there's little for the Wildcats to say. Even if they do upset the favored Huskers on Thursday night, they'll end the long series trailing 77-16-2 instead of 78-15-2.
Nobody knew when Nebraska blistered Kansas State 59-0 in the first meeting in 1911 that it was such a harbinger of things to come. After losing 30-6 the following year, the Wildcats proceeded to get shut out the next four times the teams played.
By the 1980s, the gulf between Kansas State and just about everybody else in the Big Eight Conference had become Grand Canyon-sized. A 62-14 shellacking in 1984 was followed by a four-year span in which the Huskers outscored the out-manned Wildcats by a shocking 183-9.
There was talk that perhaps Kansas State should follow Wichita State's example and drop football altogether, or at least take refuge in a lower division.
"It's time to put Kansas State on a slow boat to the Missouri Valley (Conference)," Nebraska athletic director Bob Devaney famously said.
The first time a Snyder team faced Nebraska in 1989, during a 58-7 beat down, he actually feared for the safety of his undersized players.
Finally by 1998, with patience, 18-hour workdays and robotic attention to detail, Snyder had built the long-suffering Wildcats into contenders. They proved it with a 40-30 victory in Manhattan, ending Nebraska's 29-year winning streak with a watershed moment in his coaching career.
"Certainly, that was a major step for our program," Snyder said. "Victories against anybody are hard. But against a program like Nebraska, they are very difficult, few and far between. It was very significant."
The Huskers' plan in this final game will no doubt center on Thomas, the 238-pound senior who led the Big 12 in rushing last year.
"It will be a great test for us," he said.
Taylor Martinez, Nebraska's redshirt freshman quarterback, has rushed for 496 yards and brings the quick-hitting dual-threat dimension that's given Kansas State trouble in other games.
After Kansas State, hostile Big 12 crowds also await Nebraska at Oklahoma State, Iowa State and Texas A&M.
Bring 'em on, say the Huskers.
"We're very honest with our guys," said defensive coordinator Carl Pelini. "They understand the situation. We don't talk about it. It gets talked about in the media probably 20 times more than it does with us. I don't know that it's ever been a topic of conversation with us that this is our last year in the Big 12."
"We try to focus on the next opponent and leave it at that."
No. 7 Nebraska (4-0, 0-0 Big 12) at Kansas State (4-0, 1-0), 6:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Line: Nebraska by 12.
Series Record: Nebraska leads 77-15-2.
Last Meeting: 2009, Nebraska 17-3.
WHAT'S AT STAKE
For Kansas State, almost everything. A victory makes the Wildcats 5-0 and boosts them into the national rankings. A good showing by senior running back Daniel Thomas plants him squarely in the Heisman race. Nebraska is gunning for a 5-0 record, too, and a Big 12 championship in its last year in the league before heading to the Big Ten.
Thomas vs. Nebraska's quick, talented defense. Central Florida held the big, rugged senior to 76 yards rushing, but the Wildcats' linemen felt they had let their popular teammate down and are determined to help him have a good showing on national television. Thomas will be facing a defense that's No. 11 in the nation.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Nebraska: Quarterback Taylor Martinez has rushed for 496 yards in four games and is just the kind of quick, dual-threat signal caller the Wildcats seem to have trouble with. Central Florida's Jeff Godfrey, with less blocking help, rushed for 99 yards against them. Cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, with an interception in three straight games, could prove a problem for K-State QB Carson Coffman.
Kansas State: Thomas is the reason Kansas State could be in for a special year. Big and elusive, the senior led the Big 12 in rushing a year ago and is fourth nationally this season with 157 yards per game. Very popular with teammates, Thomas could work himself into Heisman consideration with a big game and the Wildcats know it.
FACTS & FIGURES
- Kansas State fans were warned to arrive early because one of the biggest throngs ever to squeeze into Bill Snyder Family Stadium is expected.
- Although the game will be played on his 71st birthday, Snyder insists it's no big deal, that there have been years when he did not even realize it was his birthday.