Eventually, a football team, like a repeat felon, is exactly what its record says it is.
Kansas State's first 5-0 start since 2000 would indicate that Bill Snyder's squad is good. Not competitive. Not a notch above average, but honest-to-goodness capable of giving quality opponents fits. Now, the No. 20 Wildcats would just like some credit, the kind of credit they feel they didn't have when it came time to take their home field against a 2-2 Missouri team as an underdog on Saturday.
"You know we're always disrespected," cornerback David Garrett said following K-State's 24-17 win over the Tigers. "We're ranked, we're still undefeated, and they still predict us to lose? That's very disrespectful. We just build off that. Everybody comes together as a team, and we play with a chip on our shoulders."
The two wins over "cupcakes" were one thing, but the hit list is a tad more distinguished these days. First there was the hyper-athletic ACC squad with the iconic logo whose team speed was supposed to be overwhelming. Then came the ranked opponent that trotted out a galvanized version of Superman at quarterback. On Saturday, a balanced offense combined with a widespread talent differential was supposed to finally put an end to K-State's flukish perfect start.
Problem is, the Tigers went down in the same fashion as both Miami and Baylor. Technically, the Wildcats' fifth win of the season was another "upset," but the days of sneaking up on opponents might have ended when quarterback Collin Klein took a knee deep in Missouri territory to prolong his team's undefeated start.
"How 'bout them Wildcats?" K-State recruiting coordinator Joe Gordon yelled in the direction of reporters as he swung a towel over his head on his way off the field following victory No. 5.
It may be the most overly used cliche in sports, but the hunter-to-hunted transition is always awkward.
"Coach tells us not to read media and stuff like that, but people read it," wide receiver Chris Harper said. "It's a technology age. Even if you don't try to read it, you're going to see it. I think we see that. I can lie and say we don't care what people think, but you want people to respect you."
Klein has played the role a Volvo at a demolition derby this season, taking lick after lick while still finding ways to forge forward. K-State has gotten enough out of running back John Hubert to add balance to the rushing attack. And as for the defense?
Well, the unit that ranked 106th nationally just a year ago has shown a big-play ability and finished a pair of games with goal line stands. Not only is a once ragged defense now capable of avoiding disaster, but it's also shown itself ready to set a tone. Somewhere along the line, Bill Snyder's get-a-little-better-every-day philosophy kicked into warp speed.
A perfect team this is not, but the improvement on display in Manhattan is getting hard to ignore.
"I just think we've taken steps forward game in and game out," Snyder said. "I believe in nitpicking, so to speak, and I find a lot of mistakes. We've made a lot of mistakes, but when I look at it collectively, we've gotten a little bit better week in and week out."
Asked about his team's perceived lack of respect following the game, Snyder snapped back in classic Snyder fashion. The veteran head coach has never been one to thumb his nose at critics. So when he dismissed a question about the national view of his team, he tossed it aside by saying he doesn't much care about what outsiders say.
Problem is, the quote he strategically placed on the wall of K-State's locker room shoots a hole in his story. When Missouri defensive lineman Dominique Hamilton became boisterous about how easy it would be to stop the Wildcat rushing attack early in the week, he cared enough to transcribe the words in giant type for his players to see.
Regardless of what Snyder may say publicly, the no-respect card getting played on every table in the locker room is also being laid down on the head coach's desk.
"He doesn't like people saying what we can't do," said Hubert, who gained 142 yards against the Tigers. "He wants us to prove them wrong. That's what we did today."
Whatever the reason, as K-State players jogged the field on Saturday night rambunctiously chanting the chorus to Young Jeezy's Win, a change was evident. Hubert called it "swag," while Garrett summed it up as a new form of confidence. But either way, it suddenly became clear that the attitude defining Snyder's team this season is different.
"Last year we were just happy to get to a bowl game, that's all we wanted," Harper said. "This year, we want to win every game."