SEARCHING FOR MEANING IN THE BIG 12: Kansas State

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What does Iowa State want this Saturday against Kansas State? REEEEEVEEEEENNNNGE!

Paul Rhoads and Bill Snyder are a lot alike. Not alike in the amount of time they have left on this planet or in their offensive philosophies, but in their general approach to football. Also, both coaches began their second stints with their respective schools in 2009. If this was a comic book, one would be Superman and one would be Bizarro Superman (you can figure out which is which).

Bill Snyder's a former offensive coordinator; Rhoads is a former defensive coordinator. Snyder's been coaching for over 46 years; Rhoads has been coaching for exactly half that time. Bill Snyder has a fucking offensive formation named after his team and values ball-control offense run by quarterbacks who are really running backs that can throw a bit. Paul Rhoads tries to make his opponents defend the length and width of the field and wants a run-oriented jet-tempo offense.

But the thing both coaches really value is protecting the football. Rhoads always stresses the importance of winning the turnover game, and Iowa State's offense has "Protect the Ball" written on their practice shorts. Unfortunately for the Cyclones, this is more of an aspirational motto at this point, considering they currently rank 80th in the country in turnover margin. Through their first five games, Iowa State has taken the ball away 12 times while coughing it up 13 times. Part of this can be blamed on Steele Jantz and his Turnover Stance, since ten of those interceptions/fumbles are attributable to him. But this is a problem, because the Cyclones aren't going to beat any teams in the Big 12 because of their superior talent. They need to play mistake-free football to win.

On the other end of the spectrum, there's Kansas State. Like Iowa State, the Wildcats aren't going to overwhelm an opponent with talent. But they will beat a lot of teams with scheme and execution. Bill Snyder's best teams don't turn the football over. Like, ever. This year, Kansas State is tied for fifth in the country with a +2.0 turnover margin, forcing 13 turnovers through their first five games while losing the ball just three times.

And the last three Farmageddon showdowns have been close, with Kansas State winning by an average of five points. The turnover margin has been equally close. In the last three contests, Iowa State quarterbacks have only thrown one interception, while Iowa State has lost four fumbles, a number that includes Jeff Woody's desperation lateral on a stuffed fourth down attempt last year. Meanwhile, Kansas State has only lost one fumble and thrown two interceptions, including an AJ Klein TAINT in 2010.

On top of all of this, Kansas State hasn't been to Ames since 2007, not-so-coincidentally the last time Iowa State won a game against the Wildcats. As one of Iowa State's closest Big 12 rivals, that seems crazy. It's understandable, due to the series in Arrowhead Stadium in 2009-2010 and the chaos with Big 12 realignment and rescheduling, but it's still crazy. Iowa State's fans are itching to see Iowa State vs. Kansas State in Ames again, as evidenced by this Saturday's record ticket sales.

So it's likely that Paul Rhoads has had this game circled on his calendar for awhile. It's infuriating to come so close for the last three years against the Wildcats, just to fall short of victory. While both Iowa State and Kansas State were in roughly the same shape when Rhoads and Snyder took over in 2009, Snyder already has the Wildcats at the next level. In his third year back, Kansas State won ten games and should have played in a BCS bowl. They're undefeated so far this year. In year four at Iowa State, Paul Rhoads is just starting to approach thinking about the next level.

That's the difference between Iowa State and Kansas State right now. Bill Snyder has already built a championship program in Manhattan. He knows how to do it. Paul Rhoads is still figuring out how to build a championship program in Ames, so he's behind Snyder and Kansas State in that respect. And Rhoads has clearly learned a few things from Snyder about how to build a winner at a place without a lot of success in its past. With a win against Kansas State this Saturday, Rhoads can prove that the student is coming close to surpassing the master.

What does it all mean? Iowa State needs to win this game to remain competitive in the arms race with Kansas State. Right now, Iowa State can be competitive on the field and recruiting with a few programs in the Big 12. Kansas State is one of them. Kansas State doesn't have an overwhelming recruiting advantage over Iowa State. The Wildcats don't have better facilities than the Cyclones. Outside of about a decade, Kansas State's history isn't that much better than Iowa State.

This is a game Iowa State can and should win. Ignore the top-ten ranking. Ignore the past four years. If Iowa State wins the turnover battle (difficult, but doable), they can win this game. That puts Iowa State near the top of the Big 12 race. It puts them one game away from bowl eligibility with six games left to play. Both feats that haven't been accomplished this early in the season since 2002. It's been a long time, but if Iowa State can pull off the upset this weekend, people outside of Ames will start giving the Cyclones the respect they've been craving for so long.

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