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What if... Ell Roberson wasn't injured in 2003?

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Arguably the most commonly used phrase among sports fans is simply, "What if?"

It's no different for Kansas State football fans. There are so many moments than could have gone differently - good and bad - and possibly altered the course of Wildcat football.

We start our off-season series of K-State "What Ifs," at KSO by looking back at a memorable 2003 season that could have possibly been even bigger.

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Ell Roberson led K-State to a Big 12 Championship in 2003, but could he have done more?
Getty Images

WHAT IF ELL ROBERSON HADN'T BEEN INJURED IN 2003?

What happened: Kansas State opened the 2003 season ranked No. 7 in the preseason Top 25 in large part thanks to a dynamic backfield featuring quarterback Ell Roberson and running back Darren Sproles.

During the third game of the season against McNeese State, however, Roberson suffered a hand injury on Sept. 6 and would not return to action until Oct. 4 when, the Wildcats visited Texas in their Big 12 Conference opener.

By time he returned to the field, the season had drastically changed.

What it caused: K-State didn't have any trouble beating UMass 38-7 the following week with reserve Jeff Schwinn running the offense, but the problems rolled in the next three games.

The Wildcats were upset, at home, by Marshall 27-20 on Sept. 20. The loss was hardly all on Schwinn, but he did famously have an ill-advised option pitch go 90-plus yards the other way for a Marshall touchdown in a 14-point swing that was certainly a major factor in the ballgame.

The loss dropped K-State from No. 6 all the way to No. 16 in the polls, but Roberson did return to the field nearly a month after his injury in Austin against No. 13 Texas.

Roberson, wearing a protective glove on his injured hand, wasn't 100 percent yet and fumbled an option carry near Texas' goal-line that would have put K-State up two scores late in the fourth quarter. The Longhorns took full advantage and rallied to a 24-20 win behind Vince Young at home.

Two losses spiraled into a three-game losing streak, when the Wildcats fell at Oklahoma State 38-34 the following week to fall all the way out of the Top 25.

Roberson and the Wildcats, to their credit, would rebound and go on a seven-game run that would rival any stretch in K-State football history after the setback(s).

But what if... Roberson wasn't on the field relatively late in the game in the 55-14 win over then Division 1-AA opponent McNeese State early in the season? And, if he were on the field, what if he didn't sustain the injury on a relatively harmless looking incomplete pass?

Well, I feel confident in saying K-State doesn't lose to Marshall. So, at worst the Wildcats would have maintained a No. 6 ranking on their way to Austin. I also don't believe the Wildcats lose at Texas with Roberson not battling rust - or a hand injury - in a game K-State probably should won even with Roberson dinged up and out of rhythm.

Assuming those two are wins, K-State heads to Stillwater a top five team and rolling before they take on the Cowboys.

Now, to be fair, maybe K-State loses to OSU anyway? The offense wasn't the problem that day, so it's hard to really blame the Roberson injury for that loss. If you want to do so, however, your best case is to blame it on the negative momentum created by the losses to Marshall and Texas.

If K-State wins in Stillwater they continue creeping towards the top of the polls. Even if they lose, they're probably still around No. 10 in the rankings.

Let's assume (dangerously) that K-State beats Marshall and Texas but loses to Oklahoma State. Let's keep living life on the edge and imagine the rest of the season plays out as it did, ending with a 35-7 drilling of No. 1 Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship Game.

The Wildcats climbed from unranked all the way to No. 8 after the win over the Sooners. It's not unreasonable, at all, to believe K-State would have earned a spot in the national championship game after beating Bob Stoops' bunch. I mean, Oklahoma still did, and it's impossible to think OU would have been selected over K-State at that point with identical records and a four-touchdown loss to the Wildcats.

Now, maybe LSU and Auburn play in the title game instead? It's possible, but again, it's hard to imagine a K-State team, likely ranked fourth (at worst) at the time, not jumping into the top two with a neutral-field win over the top-ranked Sooners.

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K-State's 2003 season ended with a Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State.
Getty Images

But hey, who knows how one event impacts another, right?

There's no guarantee results against Texas and Oklahoma State change with Roberson healthy. And, even if they do, is K-State as successful late in the season at Nebraska and against Oklahoma without the whole college football world doubting them?

To be fair, as soon as the Wildcats regained all of their respect they put together a pretty uneven performance against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl.

Yes, I know what else contributed to that defeat. Another, "what if" for sure...

Ultimately, as will be the case through this whole series, we'll never know.

That's what makes it fun though, right?

Keep logged in to KSO as we continue this series by asking what if K-State had beat Colorado (14-13 loss) in 2008... a result you may not think of as very impactful for Wildcat football before reading this piece.