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At Kansas State, where Auburn put everything to the test

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Manhattan, Kansas, is a fine town built on values and walk-ons. But don't be fooled into thinking this was its first primetime college football game.

Jamie Squire

"Hello. Hello, sir. Up here."

The elderly Auburn couple is wandering through Aggieville, the cluster of college bars and shops in Manhattan, Kansas. They look up.

"Hello. I disagree strongly with your choice of clothing, sir."

The pot-bellied man in the orange polo shirt gives a sort-of laugh.

"That all?" his wife asks.

"Have a nice day, sir." Another voice from above.

Three Kansas State students are leaning over a rooftop balcony in purple T-shirts and sunglasses, drinking Bud Light just after 11 a.m. on this gameday Thursday. For as much as anything could possibly congest the overpowering breadth and range of the Flint Hills, a football game has Manhattan jammed. The feeder routes from I-70 are jammed, at least northbound. Aggieville is jammed.

Thursday night college football games are outside of logic to anyone other than television executives. To No. 20 Kansas State, everything around No. 5 Auburn's trip here is exciting and unorthodox, but ill-fitting.

This is not a K-State experience. The locals suspect with a polite caution that this is something like an SEC football game. Many of the Auburn fans milling about Aggieville bars are asked not about the Tigers, but Mississippi State, a program the Wildcats have just signed for a home-and-home non-conference agreement starting in 2018.

Derek, my campus tour guide, notes the Bulldog series as a particular harbinger.

"A lot of people think that could be the end of Bill. It's not the kind of series he would sign up for," Derek says.

Bill is Bill Snyder, of Bill Snyder Family Stadium. He's the venerable "right way" program-builder, renowned for turning cordwood recruits into overachievers by anyone's measure. Bill Snyder the wizard strategist, or simply Bill.

"We've got Bill," a woman named Mary responds to an ESPN preview segment. The TV inside the Wabash Bar & Grill didn't ask, but the TV did make mention of Gus Malzhan's Auburn playmakers, namely JUCO transfer quarterback Nick Marshall, who chose the Tigers over Kansas State. Mary is fingering a cigarette lighter, sipping a beer with a lemon floating on top of it and talking to no one other than the TV.

The Kansas State head coach and the Preseason All-SEC quarterback he almost landed. Jamie Squire, Getty

"We've got Bill, and hopefully he's got something up his sleeve other than wrinkled skin, like me," Mary says.

Bill isn't interested in the congestion or the primetime weeknight programming opportunity. He's made a career of nondescript out-of-conference games, to avoid attention and keep conference opponents from noticing anything on film too early in the season. Temporary head coach Ron Prince agreed to this series, the first game of which was played at Auburn seven years ago. Ron Prince scheduled Miami, too. Ron Prince, the locals will tell you, doesn't have anything to do with Kansas State anymore.

When Derek shows me around the K-State campus, he points to gobs of new glass and steel construction projects that bely the idea of a little ag school in the nowhere heart of the Midwest. Derek is taking me to his microeconomics lecture a few hours before kickoff. He's promised to take me to the famous Call Hall Dairy Bar for Kansas State ice cream, but on our way to the quad, he points to a dilapidated white building that looks abandoned.

"That was a coal-fired physical plant for years. Then they replaced the coal with a nuclear reactor."

You can rent it out, too. The Wildcats are simply of their surroundings in college football America. They're the Kansas ingenuity of a coal furnace rebuilt into a nuclear reactor with an ice cream shop out front.

East of the Mississippi, modern college football inverts our country's socioeconomics -- cultural imperialism flows from the South northward. The rest of the country is in alignment: the West is still the West, inventive and violently entertaining, and Kansas is still Kansas, but the South's image is that of the brash and wealthy.

There's truth to it. For one day, Auburn overwhelms the Manhattan grid with orange clothes and SUVs. The cashier at the Call Hall Dairy Bar insists the Auburn customers have been polite when asked, but across town in Aggieville, the SEC fans are here to celebrate, even if it needs manufacturing. A group of old Auburn alumni hop the curb in front of an apartment complex and offer $40 to a K-State coed not to be towed. When rooftop bars reach their fire capacity before 2 p.m., Tiger fans offer to "create" a $20 cover.

When your discretionary income is prioritized to build a four-day weekend in Kansas in September, there's nothing cash can't fix, but these are not behaviors suited to the local population. Southern football fan patronage strays far from the most ideal interpretation of Southern hospitality, and when the day wears on and kickoff nears, the strain starts to show.

"This isn't the biggest game in campus history. That's ESPN bullshit, man," says the fan with the chicken sign. The chicken sign guy and the facepaint guys and the "Roll Snyder" bodypaint guys burned most of the tailgating day standing in line to make the front row of the student section inside the stadium.

"I didn't even know anything special about Auburn, but now I hate them. Because they're SEC. They're SEC, and ESPN just can't help themselves. You see that guy over there, my friend? A minute ago the camera guys came by and only took a shot of his t-shirt, nothing else."

(His T-shirt is one of those matchup T-shirts with both schools' logos, always an ill-advised purchase the day of a game.)

Four hours later, Marshall -- formerly Nick Marshall of Garden City (Kansas) Community College and potential Kansas State signee -- finds D'haquille Williams on a 39-yard slant and go to clinch a fresh set of downs and a six-point Auburn win. The K-State student section is the first to shake off the guilt of a game squandered -- three missed field goals, fumbles, and mortal tactical errors unfit for the work of any wizard's apprentices -- and cuss the visitors with abandon.

Simultaneously, the Auburn fans tucked across the field are shaking off the potential of an upset. They start the chant of chants hastily, as if they'd forgotten their manners until just then.

"SEC, SEC, SEC."

The students boo. The fans boo. The cops on the sideline boo. The stadium security personnel boo. Kansas is at its least humble, albeit understandably.

Pity those Snyder-coached former walk-ons. They must remain as technique-sound while answering questions after losses as they were at unravelling one of college football's brand-name offenses. Defensive end Ryan Mueller, Kansas State's latest selfless success exemplar, peters out after 16 minutes of "credit their game plan" and "we beat ourselves."

"They ... just ... I mean ... they just scored more points than us."

Mueller can say nothing more with the words he's been trained to use. He won't pin the fresh, 20-14 loss to Auburn on the Wildcats' missed field goals or red zone turnovers. He won't find a silver lining in K-State's defense holding Auburn to 128 yards rushing. He wants to say what we want him to say, what we all know. He won't just say that K-State's gameplan had the top-5 Tigers dead to rights, but its players left 16 points on the field. The Cats could've vindicated their coach's entire career philosophy of program-building had they scored half that amount.

"We definitely felt prepared. I always feel prepared. I have so much trust in my coaches. When we're in the film room, I can always shake my head and say, 'Yeah, that's gonna work, and now I'm going to do everything in my power to make it work.'"

He won't take vindication in the fact that he and a mess of other FCS recruits and JUCO spare parts figured out a national title contender's no-huddle offense.

"Vindicated. Big word. Try that one again," Mueller says.

OK. Does it feel damn good to hang with and occasionally beat five-star SEC guys off the line of scrimmage?

"Yeah, that star stuff means nothing. If we compared ratings coming out of high school and whatnot, I'm sure they'd blow us out of the water. But that's all out the window when you line up and play."

Mueller breaks from Snyder-ese humility when talking about recruiting, and understandably so. He's a former special teams walk-on who had no FBS offers and is now an All-Big 12 player. He also strays off course when asked about those three little letters.

Our big story with Bill Snyder

"We didn't buy it getting ready for this game. SEC, blah blah blah. We didn't buy it."

Mueller departs and shakes hands with representatives of the Jim Thorpe Award, who ask him about any standout defensive backs on this year's K-State team. He gives them six different names, basically the team's entire two-deep at that position.