By DAVE SKRETTA AP Sports Writer
MANHATTAN, Kan. (AP) — Chris Klieman remembers when Missouri and Kansas State played every year in football, back before money-grabbing university administrators ushered in an era of conference realignment at the expense of deep-seated rivalries that in some cases stretched back a century.
The Tigers and Wildcats met for the first time in 1909, then found themselves together in the Missouri Valley Conference, where they would be joined at the hip as the league went through changes and expansions before becoming the Big 12.
It was in 2012 that the Tigers joined Texas A&M in leaving for the SEC, eschewing tradition, geography and shared culture for a spot in a more lucrative league. And for more than a decade, the Tigers and Wildcats — schools separated by about 4 hours of driving on Interstate 70 — have yet to play another game on the gridiron.
That ends Saturday, when the Tigers finally head back to Manhattan.
“To me it does,” Klieman said Tuesday, when asked whether it still feels like a rivalry. “To the players, we’re having some of the older guys reach out and talk to them about the rivalry game, because I think it is.”
One of them is likely to be current Kansas State offensive coordinator Collin Klein, who scored three touchdowns to lead the Wildcats to a 24-17 victory over Missouri when the schools last met during the 2011 season.
“I remember as a kid growing up and watching Kansas and Missouri, K-State and Missouri, Nebraska and Missouri,” Klieman continued. “I thought those were great rivalries. And I’m excited to play a regional game. We played Stanford, we’ve played Mississippi State. To have a regional game for our fans and our players, I think it’s really exciting. And it’s really exciting for all our fans who saw Mizzou come in here for all those years.”
What makes their reunion Saturday so intriguing is that the stakes happen to be exceptionally high.
The Tigers, who are coming off a losing season, welcomed an influx of transfers that played well in a season-opening romp over Louisiana Tech, raising hopes that Eli Drinkwitz can finally break through in his third year in charge.
“We ain’t done nothing. We’re 1-0, which is exactly what we want, but what happened last week — they don’t carry any of that over,” said Drinkwitz, who was a young quality control coach at Auburn the last time the Tigers and Wildcats met.
“This is a whole new week with a new set of challenges,” Drinkwitz said. “They have a lot of really good players, and we’re on the road in a tough environment. We have to have a mature mindset.”
The Wildcats welcomed back most of their key players, and the one they lost — quarterback Skyler Thompson — was replaced by prolific Nebraska transfer Adrian Martinez. The result was an as-expected 34-0 blowout of South Dakota last Saturday night, which built some momentum that Kansas State intends to carry into Saturday’s showdown.
It’s not just the prospect of a 2-0 start that makes the game important, though.
The Tigers and Wildcats keep tangling on the recruiting trail, especially when it comes to the Kansas City metro area, which sits smack-dab between the two campuses. And winning their long-awaited showdown will provide one of the programs some extra ammunition when it comes to swaying top prep prospects.
“Our guys are pumped,” Martinez said. “We started talking about it after our win. We’ll be ready for those guys.”
The fact that Martinez already understands the ramifications of the old rivalry speaks volumes: He grew up in California, about as far from the Heartland as possible, and played the past four years for Nebraska in the Big Ten.
The same goes for Kansas State safety Kobe Savage, who like Martinez arrived on campus earlier this year. He grew up in Texas and played two seasons of junior college football before joining the Wildcats yet already is well aware of the history that his new program shares with the one situated just across the border in Missouri.
“I’m excited to be playing some SEC football. I’m going to treat Mizzou like they’re Alabama,” Savage said. “I’m going to treat them like they’re the best team in the conference. There’s not going to be a drop-off from our game against South Dakota.
“There’s probably going to be more juice,” he added, “but it’s not going to be anything less.”
By DAVE SKRETTA AP Sports Writer