Certainly, there is plenty of reason for optimism. Preseason award nominations have flocked to Manhattan – a school record 17, in fact – and after treading most rankings waters for the spring and summer, the hype has even convinced The Sporting News to dive in deep purple, ranking K-State a smoking sixth in its Preseason Top 25. Though it comes from a national source, the No. 6 ranking (which has some of its own even wondering a little) is at least one that much better behooves a team with so many players up for individual honors. Dare we say, K-State, it shows more than a little respect.
Purple, get ready to roll, indeed.
On the other hand, however, is the sixth-in-conference expectation placed on the Wildcats by the Big 12 Preseason Media poll; a spot that also comes with a No. 21 placement in the Coaches Poll. That flung pigeon of course has been quick to come under fire by K-State faithful who cannot wrap their heads around how the most celebrated team in preseason awards nomination history (with 17, it blows away the previous mark of 11 set by that pretty good 1998 KSU squad) could only be figured for a conference middle finish.
I have the Cats pegged for 8-4 and a sixth-place finish. I also have that I think K-State fits that No. 21 ranking. I just think the bit of over-hype is the result of confusing last season’s impressive but individual cases of luck (or magic if you want to be romantic about it) as something sturdy to stand on.
And then, there’s always that phenomenon of hype feeding on itself until it really is sort of impossible to remember what the much smaller, real reason for optimism was in the first place.
Last November, I hurried through what seemed like a forever stretch of tunnels under Darrel K. Royal Stadium in Austin. Except for the weird, winding path we took, I really didn’t notice much else as I was spurred by the excitement surrounding yet another unfathomable K-State win. This one came on the road, on one of the grandest of college football stages, by a team that managed just 121 total yards of offense and gave up 310 en route to its ninth win of the season.
Like I had done for most of the last three-plus hours, I shook my head. There was no reason for K-State to win, and yet it had. Again. Like it had done against Miami. Like it had done against Baylor. Like it had done against Texas A&M. Though each game was different statistically in some regards, the result was the same.
Each week, despite numerous nicks and scratches, missed cuts and jagged edges, the wood still had been sawed to fit perfectly into the framework of a wondrous season.
As each game passed, each thought went as well, moving from a feeling of luck to really lucky to, well, screw it, this team is blessed. Injuries that never fully materialized (Tyler Lockett aside), statistical anomalies like the Texas game, boneheaded plays from the opposition at inopportune times – all of it worked to K-State’s favor. It worked so much that it became the norm. And, there was nothing wrong with that. Some seasons are just fun that way, and truth be told, there probably hasn’t been another team as deserving as the 2011 Wildcats were.*
*I say that though it makes me cringe as I’ve never been one for saying one person or team really deserves a win over another. In competition, a person’s cheery way has no bearing on whether they should get the win. Nor should a jackass disposition weigh against it (Bo Pelini’s .709 winning percentage agrees).
That team was fun. It was exciting. And, all the while, it was aw-shucks, sit-at-the-table-quietly nice, which drew in its fan base. Personally, it was the most pleasant experience I’ve ever had covering any team. But, many times last season, the team wasn’t particularly good – featuring an offense that managed under 350 yards in seven of 13 games. While the offense struggled (ninth in the Big 12 in first downs), the defense quite often got off to slow starts and just managed to hang on with key plays – resulting in K-State getting outgained in total yardage in 10 of its last 11 games (KU being the lone exception).
Nonetheless, it won, thanks to nearly perfect play elsewhere. K-State led the Big 12 in kickoff returns, fewest penalties and most flags by the opposition. The penalty yardage difference alone worked out to nearly 30 extra yards, three additional first downs, per game. The Cats also did Bill Parcells proud and sat on the football with the top time of possession in the Conference. True enough, those qualities all teamed up and provided a 10-win season and the optimism to go with it – a heavy enough dose, in fact, that not even a case of overall talent shortfall realism in the Cotton Bowl was enough to damper this coming season’s sudden and sometimes absurd expectation, obviously.
So, yes, last year was an ohmygodwhatagreatseasonbesteverneverwantitostopBillSnyderforPresident experience for most involved. But, to remember K-State 2011 as a superior team for much of the year is dangerous. And, while there is something to be said for 14 total starters (17 if you want to count a kicker, punter and long snapper) returning… is that worthy of pegging the Wildcats No. 6 in the nation?
Some would argue until purple in the face that, yes, it’s worthy. Well, ill-rooted expectation, it could be said, lies at the broken heart of disappointment.
Hard as it will be to do for some, keep everything I’ve said in correct context. To go 8-4 is no easy task, and should it happen, the season was a success. The schedule does K-State no favors, and if injuries affect this team more severely than a season ago, or the ball does not again bounce exactly right multiple times, eight wins by a solid team should be celebrated. To sum it up: No, K-State is not terrible by any stretch. No, I don’t think it is a legitimate 10-win team, and no, Sporting News, I obviously don’t believe there are only five teams better nationally than the Wildcats.
That said, here are what amount to several points, in “their point/my counterpoint” fashion, I’ve heard and read as to why one should buy-in on something like K-State being underrated at No. 21.
- K-State has a school-record number of preseason award candidates. To have 17 preseason nominations was, well, it was literally unheard of before now at Kansas State. The list is impressive. Arthur Brown and Collin Klein seemingly are everywhere (for good reason). Tyler Lockett is on multiple lists (after playing only half of a season as a freshman), as is Nigel Malone. BJ Finney broke out at center last year as a true freshman and is being honored for doing so. Even John Hubert earned a nod on the Doak Walker watch list. I wonder, however, how much of the new attention is more a team-wide carryover from last season’s superb run and less about the players’ individual talent levels.
The recognition is nice, but being on some of those lists is akin to being named in the old Who’s Who high school books. For example, 52 players are named to the 2012 Doak Walker list, representing 49 schools (Wisconsin, USC and TCU each have two nominees). That means roughly 40 percent of the entire FBS landscape was recognized, and if you’re the 30th or 52nd-best among the candidates, I guess congrats are in order for being included, but there’s a reason these same lists are pared down as the season rolls. It’s the same reason expectations for a team shouldn’t be based on how many of its players appear on a preseason list. Show me three, four or five guys winning postseason awards, and I’ll show you what is likely one heck of a football team.
- This offense is loaded with returning players. True enough. Eight of them, in fact, including all of the skill positions, are back. This offense, including those returners, ranked 101st nationally a year ago. Part of that was the Chupacabra offense, which limited overall possessions (i.e. opportunities to gain yards) and sucked the life out of games sometimes 10 minutes at a time. However, that offensive style was used for a reason: Bill Snyder decided it provided his team the best chance to win each week. (And, he was right.)
Virtually all of making that idea work fell on his quarterback’s shoulders, which Collin Klein carried in Herculean fashion. He did it so well that a repeat of his eye-popping stats are what some are pinning their hopes on for another successful K-State season.
- Even if it isn’t exactly the same statistically, we should expect the same type of large-scale success from Collin Klein. The story is well-told now of how Klein became the Alpha and Omega to K-State’s offense last season. Early in games to set the tone; through second quarters to offset slow starts; and even more in the second halves to suffocate other teams’ winning chances, Klein was perhaps more of a security blanket to Dana Dimel and Snyder than we realized.
According to this breakdown, 56.8 percent of Kleins 317 carries came in the third and fourth quarters. As would be expected, his lowest yds/rush average came in the last quarter when, let’s be honest, we wondered if he could even feel his legs. Regardless of feeling, coaches rode that horse until it nearly dropped, and it worked. Klein’s 1141 yards and 27 TDs wove themselves neatly into the 2012 tapestry, not to mention the NCAA FBS record book. The interesting point now, though, is that people expect the same type of output or want more.
Well, no, that’s not right. They expect that Klein should be able to do “less,” that K-State’s want for offensive balance means less stress on Klein’s need to produce yards on the ground. The large issue with that is it involves moving away from something that helped net 10 wins a season ago. Secondarily, doing so assumes Klein has become capable enough as a passer to make such a move work.
Barring the spring game’s ridiculous numbers (haven’t we all learned by now that spring game stats hold less value than half of America’s wedding vows?), can anyone say with utmost confidence that more passing, even with the re-addition of Tyler Lockett at wide receiver, will put KSU in better position to win at the same level it did in ’11?
I can’t, at least not until Klein shows he’s just as good now with his arm as his legs were a season ago.
- KSU’s defense will be as good if not better than last year. Anything is possible, I guess. After all, we did see what only one year under Vic Koenning did in 2009, when the defense improved by 140 yards per game. That said, is new lone defensive coordinator Tom Hayes as good as Koenning was? Well, he’ll have to improve this year’s unit by about 65 yards to reach the 2009 group’s 339.92 yds/game mark. And, he’ll have to do so with five new defensive starters mixed through all three levels of a defense that ranked just 72nd last year.*
*That low rank came even with the offense holding on to the ball for more than 33 minutes per game, remember. Playing against amazing quick-strike teams like Oklahoma State and Baylor didn’t help at all, but still…
Snyder, Hayes and the rest of the defensive staff saw the need for bodies, especially on the defensive line, and tried to address it through junior college additions. If this was year two of that transition, I’d feel much more confident in that. Ray Kibble and Jordan Voelker were those second-year JUCO guys last year. Vai Lutui bucked the trend by immediately producing last year and should be fine in 2012. Adam Davis playing on extra time (after missing 2010) at defensive end is a huge help. But, who else steps up enough to solidify the defense line to the point it has to be in order for the Wildcats to improve as a whole unit?
Does JUCO transfer Javonta Boyd, who had five tackles in 2011, get it done in his third and final year in the program? Is it Wes Hollingshed or Hakeem Akinola or maybe Chaquil Reed (if he makes it on campus) – all of whom are no more than unknowns at this point? Arthur Brown will erase some of those concerns with his natural playmaking ability from the middle linebacker spot. The question is how much, and if nobody does in fact fill Kibble’s spot suitably, how long.
- K-State’s improvement and experience will minimize the 2012 schedule’s impact. It will take a superbly abnormal collection of teens and early 20-somethings to make this argument hold water. That said, KSU may, may, have the right people in place to do it. Klein, Brown, Malone, Allen Chapman and others were all, to a player, excited at the work ethic their teammates showed this past offseason – believing that this year’s group holds the same intrinsic qualities (yeah, I just typed it) that fueled last season’s run.
However, to believe that spirit alone was what earned K-State road wins last year isn’t fair. At times, it was lucky, and I think I’ve talked about that enough through yard-differential, key-play/key-time analysis, etc. This year, the road slate includes trips to Oklahoma, Iowa State and West Virginia in a month’s time, along with back-to-back roadies at TCU and Baylor sandwiched between home games with Oklahoma State and Texas.*
*The Cats get an off-week after OU to prepare for KU and another one prior to playing the Longhorns. After what will likely be a physical fight in Norman, the break will be nice, but probably not nearly as much as the one toward the end of the year because guys will be in need of a break – good season or not.
My first thought when I first saw that schedule: My God. My thought after talking to Klein, Brown and others at media day about the schedule? No change. Phil Steele, illustrating just how brutal conference play will be, has KSU’s slate ranked 34th nationally.*
*Five Big 12 schools’ schedules are in the Top 20, with all 10 Big 12 teams in the Top 50. I keep trying to tell folks this conference is going to be an absolute beast. Maybe Phil’s assertion will help state my case better.
To cap, could this season be another wild and fun one for a solid, well-coached K-State team and its fans? You bet. Would I bet on another 10 wins? Erm, while it would be fantastic, I’m holding off on that, and sticking to my top-end 8-4.