MANHATTAN, Kan. — Kansas State coach Bill Snyder was busy revolutionizing the spread offense, and the idea of a run-pass quarterback, at college football’s highest level during the 1990s.
Gus Malzahn was watching it all transpire while coaching high schools in Arkansas.
On Thursday night, two of the most innovative coaches of their respective generations will match wits under the lights with a national TV audience. Malzahn is coaching fifth-ranked Auburn (2-0) these days, and the Tigers will be visiting the No. 20 Wildcats (2-0) for a non-conference showdown.
"Being a high school coach way back when, I had a lot of respect for him, the way he’s built the program," Malzahn said of the 74-year-old Snyder, the seemingly ageless wonder who returned from a brief retirement a few years ago to rebuild the program that he first put on the map.
"I think he’s one of the better coaches to ever walk the planet," Malzahn added. "You can turn on the game film and you can see why. They execute offense and defense and the special teams, and they get the most out of their players. That’s what really stands out to me."
What stands out to Snyder is the similarity in their offenses.
Both feature an athletic quarterback. Both use elements of the read-option, and then create a variety of looks from the same basic sets. And both have proven that the run game is still a vital part of success in an era of pass-happy offenses.
"They are still a pretty broad package in regards to their offense, which is similar to us," Snyder said. "Your preparation has to be broad-based as well and be prepared for all of it."
That preparation should be somewhat easy for both teams.
Since they share so many similarities, Kansas State and Auburn has easily replicated their opponent in practice the past few weeks.
The Wildcats have been able to mimic the flashy running style of Tigers quarterback Nick Marshall and the up-tempo, no-huddle approach that carried Auburn to the national title game last year. The Tigers have been able to break down and impersonate Wildcats quarterback Jake Waters, one of the most accurate passers in major college football.
"We definitely respect them," Waters said, "but we also know that they are trying to come in here and smack us around and beat us. We have to have that same attitude and that confidence that we can play with anyone in the country. We respect them but we’re not scared of them."
In a game that could have significant ramifications for the new college football playoff, here are a few things to watch for when Auburn visits Kansas State on Thursday night:
LOCKETT VS COATES
Auburn wide receiver Sammie Coates, who has been limited by a knee injury, is big and physical. Kansas State’s Tyler Lockett, who has been limited by a balky hamstring, is speedy and elusive. Both are expected to play significant roles in the game.
Auburn doesn’t believe it’s received the respect typically showered on defending SEC champions. Kansas State has played the no-respect card every year that Snyder has prowled the sidelines. "We’ve always played with a chip on our shoulder," Auburn linebacker Kris Frost said. "I don’t ever think that’s going to change."
With so many similarities between Snyder and Malzahn, it makes sense that both programs would value special teams. The Wildcats routinely score on kickoff and punt returns, and it was a dramatic return of a missed field goal against Alabama last season that helped boost the Tigers into the SEC title game. "We’ve worked extremely hard the last week-and-a-half on special teams," Malzahn acknowledged. "I think that will be a big factor."
Both teams can rack up some early style points with the new playoff committee with a marquee non-conference win. Perhaps more importantly, both can build some momentum for the rest of the season. "The whole world is watching," Auburn defensive tackle Gabe Wright said.
With so much on the line, staying loose could prove difficult. Kansas State hasn’t faced a top-five, non-conference team at home since 1969, while the Tigers will be playing on the road for the first time this season. "Someone told me that’s the only game going on that day," Wildcats wide receiver Deante Burton said. "It’s a game you dream about."