Photo via Bill Carter.
Wait, isn't Oklahoma next on the schedule? Yes. But we're going to skip them for now. We'll get back to them, I promise.
When Bill Snyder retired the first time around, recruiting was trailing off a bit, and the results were beginning to follow the same trajectory. After KSU's thrilling 2003 Big 12 title – an unexpected title given that it came with a team that was not one of Snyder's two or three best – the Wildcats fell to 4-7 in 2004 and 5-6 in 2005. Too many good assistants had gotten promotions elsewhere, and too many recruits had begun to leak to Kansas and, primarily, Missouri. The timing was right for him to step down and be celebrated.
But then the Ron Prince Era came and went in Manhattan, and with it went much of the program’s momentum. Prince would go 17-20 in three years, which, thanks only to Kansas State’s legendary historical futility, still makes him Kansas State’s second-winningest coach by win percentage since 1940. The KSU program was in enough disarray following Prince’s dismissal (including the ensuing legal battle over his secret buyout) that the best plan of action was apparently to bring Snyder back aboard for a few seasons. Two years later, how is it going?
Not great, but not bad. The Wildcats have gone 13-12, Snyder has relied yet again on a steady diet of junior college players and transfers, and in 2010, Kansas State went to just its second bowl since 2003. Kansas State’s ceiling is nowhere near where it was in the late-1990s, but a few steps forward under Snyder represent slow yet encouraging progress in Manhattan.
Missouri fans need not ask how things have changed since the final year of Snyder’s first gig in 2005. When the Wildcats came to Columbia in 2006, Missouri still carried the weight of a 13-game losing streak to Kansas State. One year later, in the midst of one of the finest seasons in school history, critics still doubted Missouri’s ability to win in Manhattan because of an eight-game losing streak at that venue. Now, Missouri sits on a streak of their own, one it’ll attempt to push to six straight in 2011.
Bill Snyder’s offensive identity at Kansas State has existed in almost the same form in parts of four decades. From quarterback to quarterback, workhorse tailback to workhorse tailback, Snyder has remained committed to a fundamental and frustratingly non-flashy style of play. There’s no reason to believe the formula will change in 2011, as a heavy dose of fullback-led runs can be expected on standard downs mixed with quite a bit of downfield, intermediate passing on the rare aerial attempts. Though the personnel changes somewhat significantly in 2011, don't expect much variation from this identity.
The glaring personnel difference from 2010 comes in the departure of running back Daniel Thomas, who could not have more perfectly fit into a workhorse role for Kansas State. Thomas’s 1,585 yards led the Big 12 a year ago, but even more telling was his sheer number of carries. Only Western Kentucky’s Bobby Rainey and UConn’s Jordan Todman carried the ball more times than Thomas’ 298. But there’s no lack of talent after Thomas’ departure. Into the void steps Bryce Brown, the former national No. 1 recruit from Wichita who is eligible to play after his well-publicized transfer from Tennessee. Brown rushed for 460 yards and three touchdowns for the Vols in 2009, showing decent potential but little of the elite burst one expects from such a blue chipper. One of the most difficult things to evaluate when looking at high school film is speed; just about every top prospect is going to be able to run circles around his high school competition, and coming out of a not-incredibly-fertile area for big-time recruits, Brown certainly looked the part on film. But he was humbled and slow as an SEC freshman. Does he have the potential to turn it around?
If Brown can do a reasonable Daniel Thomas impression, he’ll create a powerful 1-2 combination with quarterback-turned-tight end-turned-quarterback Collin Klein. Klein showed some potential magic running the option in 2010 (he is agile for his size and usually makes the right run-or-pitch decision), but the staff clearly did not trust him to throw the ball. He passed just four times in a win over Texas, and the next week against Missouri, Snyder and his co-coordinators brought in Carson Coffman anytime they needed to pass. For the season, he attempted 76 rushes to 18 passes. Kansas State doesn’t need him to sling the ball around like Drew Brees, but Wildcat fans might appreciate some peace of mind in knowing Klein has earned enough trust from the coaching staff to put the ball in the air on occasion.
Klein won’t have the benefit of two of Kansas State’s more reliable options at wide receiver from a year ago because of the exit of Aubrey Quarles and Adrian Hillburn. What remains is another staple of the Snyder philosophy: transfers. Oregon transfer Chris Harper had four touchdowns and a 13.2 yards per catch average a year ago, and Minnesota transfer Brodrick Smith looked like an big-play threat prior to a season ending injury five games into the 2010 season. The unit could be rounded out by sophomore Tramaine Thompson, who, despite originally committing to Oklahoma, actually began his career at Kansas State. Novel concept.
For all of the advanced statistical analysis that exists in the college football world, sometimes numerical correlations are pretty simple. In Kansas State’s seven wins, the Wildcat defense surrendered 20.1 points per game. In Kansas State’s six losses, the defense gave up 39.5 points per game. Snyder’s strongest teams always featured devastating defenses with killer linebackers, but to this point, such a defense has not surfaced in Snyder Era II. Results have been middling in Manhattan, and defensive coordinator Chris Cosh faces what may be a make-or-break year as his seat continues to heat.
Kansas State was strong on first down a year ago, but when Kansas State had to lean on its secondary and pass rush with any regularity, things fell apart. Opponents converted on 44.9 percent of third down opportunities, a percentage better than only Kansas amongst Big 12 teams. With Brandon Harold failing to report for fall practice, that means all of last year's top four defensive ends are gone from a defense that did not generate much of a pass rush anyway, and both starting cornerbacks – Stephen Harrison and Terrance Sweeney, who combined for 74 tackles, four interceptions and 21 pass break-ups – have departed as well. It's hard to mourn losses too much when clearly these players didn't make a significant difference in the overall level of defensive play. But they were still among the better players on the roster.
If there's hope for the unit in 2011, it comes in the form of yet another transfer named Brown. Linebacker Arthur Brown, Bryce's older brother who was a reserve at Miami for two years, is also eligible this fall and reportedly looked excellent this spring. Tackles Raphael Guidry and Ray Kibble return, as do linebackers like Alex Hrebec (55.5 tackles) and Tre Walker (37.5 tackles). Kansas State’s attrition could significantly affect the pass defense in desperate need of improvement, but the run defense is in decent hands.
David Garrett moves to cornerback for Kansas State after serving in a safety role in 2010. He racked up an astounding 15 tackles for loss, 80.0 tackles and nine passes broken-up. He was easily the defense’s most statistically impressive player, and he’ll now attempt to shore up his squad’s biggest area of need. Safeties Tysyn Hartman (70.0 tackles, two interceptions) and Ty Zimmerman (57.5 tackles, three interceptions, two fumbles recovered as a true freshman) should make for a solid pair in his absence. Their individuals numbers were strong a year ago, somewhat attributable to the fact they couldn’t get off the field on third down. Kansas State would gladly welcome a hit in individual statistics of its members in the secondary if it meant a few more timely stops.
SERIES SPOTLIGHT: NOVEMBER 17, 2007 (Mizzou 49, Kansas State 32)
Since losing to Oklahoma on October 13, Mizzou had ripped off five consecutive wins and moved to No. 5 in the country. The path was clearly set: beat Kansas State, then beat No. 2 Kansas at Arrowhead, then beat then-No. 4 Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game, and poof: you could quite possibly end up in the BCS Championship Game. But with the biggest MU-KU game ever looming on the horizon, the paranoia level for Mizzou's trip to Manhattan was at an all-time high for the 11:30 a.m. kickoff. Mizzou hadn't won at KSU since 1989, and most of the eight consecutive losses there weren't particularly close. And after a positive start (Mizzou went up 14-3 on two Jeremy Maclin touchdowns, including the first Mizzou kickoff return touchdown since before Maclin was born), the hands of Mizzou fans got a little clammy. An egregious pass interference no-call on a Mizzou fourth down gave Kansas State second life, then James Johnson ripped off a long touchdown run to cut the lead to 14-9. Stunned, Mizzou went three-and-out, and Kansas State blocked the ensuing punt. Suddenly the Wildcats were up, 15-14, and Mizzou fan fear and paranoia became palpable.
But this wasn't your run-of-the-mill Missouri team (or what we thought of as "run of the mill" in 2007). The Tigers responded with a Martin Rucker touchdown and took a 21-18 lead into halftime. Then, in the third quarter, they stomped on the Wildcats' throat. A long pass to Maclin set up a Tony Temple touchdown; then, on third-and-16 from the KSU 44, Chase Daniel scrambled left and floated a perfect bomb to Maclin for his third touchdown of the game. 35-18. KSU hung around a little while, cutting the lead to 35-25, but a jump-pass touchdown to Rucker sealed the deal. Mizzou coasted to a 49-32 win; trap avoided, game on.
Though the Unholy Alliance between Rock M Nation and Bring On The Cats didn't truly start for a little while longer, the seeds were planted that day in Manhattan when, as Mizzou players and coaches trotted off the field after the game, KSU fans serenaded them with a "Beat KU!" chant. As crystal-clear a "We really are basically the same fanbase, aren't we..." moment as you'll ever see.
FOOTBALL STUDY HALL
Honestly, it's hard to know what to make of this team. A high-quality running back is replaced by a more highly-touted, less-accomplished back of similar stature. An athletic receiving corps with higher potential than in recent years will be taking passes from a quarterback who was completely untrustworthy last year. Passing downs defense that was poor last year might get worse (okay, that's really not possible), and standard downs defense that was solid might get better. Your guess is as good as mine.
As with a lot of teams we have been previewing lately, a fast start will be key. K-State only leaves the state once before mid-October, hosting Eastern Kentucky and Kent State in gimme non-conference games, playing at Miami, then hosting Baylor (to whom they lost, 47-42, last year) and Missouri (to whom they have lost five in a row) to start Big 12 play. Anything between a 4-1 and 2-3 start is possible, and it is hard to figure out what is more likely given the newcomers (especially those named Brown) upon whom the Wildcats will be counting. Initial projections have K-State hovering around the .500 mark for basically the seventh consecutive season. One wonders if Snyder has another run in him at some point; with underclassmen at several key positions, KSU fans can look to the 2012-13 window for said run, if it exists.