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2023 Football Opponent Previews: Kansas State Wildcats

Hello again, Klieman.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 31 Allstate Sugar Bowl Photo by Chris McDill/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Welcome back to Rock M Nation’s annual opponent preview series of the upcoming season. Each week we will break down one opponent from the schedule in chronological order. Given that rosters are ever fluid - and this is done by a hobbyist rather than a pro - there could be some errors in history and current roster makeup. All mistakes are done on purpose and with ill intent because I don’t like you or your team.

Catch up on previous 2023 opponent previews!

South Dakota

Middle Tennessee

I wrote extensively about Kansas State, Bill Snyder, and my appreciation of Missouri’s old Big 8 brethren in last year’s preview, if you’re interested. The fact that K-State managed to find one of the greatest football coaches of all time, become relevant, and challenge for multiple national titles, and then turn around and find another generational talent - seemingly cut from the same cloth - is a testament to understanding who you are as a program...and a little bit of luck.

To wit, yes, Missouri was demolished last year in its second game of the season but, take solace in the fact that it was by the third-best K-State team since 2005 and easily the best of the Klieman era:

Kansas State’s Historical SP+ Performance

KSU was the 9th-best team in the country last year, finishing 19.9 points better than the average college football team in 2022, according to SP+. At the time, the Missouri fanbase - or, at least, me in particular - was incredibly embarrassed by a seemingly no-show performance from our Tigers in Week 2. However, to put K-State’s prowess into context, playing them last year was similar to playing Utah (10-4, Pac-12 champions) or TCU (13-2, lost to K-State in OT for Big XII Championship, won a Playoff game). Basically, there was no reason for shame in losing to the Wildcats last year, but that was tough to see after a mere fourteen days into the season.

Speaking of the 2022 season, look at what they did:

2022 Kansas State Schedule Results

K-State followed up the Missouri butt-kicking with a close loss to the guy who wanted to be Missouri’s coach in 2019 (and Willie Fritz led Tulane to an AAC championship and beat USC in the Cotton Bowl). They also lost to TCU the first time, had a baffling late loss to a Texas team that was much better on paper than the record showed, and then lost to a surprisingly motivated Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. Outside of that, they were nearly perfect in execution, obtaining a 93% postgame win expectancy (or better) in 8 of their 10 wins.

But here’s a positive note for us Missouri enthusiasts: next year’s K-State team isn’t last year’s K-State team.

Think of the guys that ripped apart your favorite team on September 10th. Running back Deuce Vaughn, who punished Mizzou with 24 carries for 145 yards and 2 touchdowns? He’s now a Dallas Cowboy. All-American edge rusher Felix Anundike-Uzomah? He was just drafted in the 1st round to his hometown NFL team. Shutdown corners Julius Brents (Indianapolis) and Josh Hayes (Tampa Bay) are now pros while quarterback Adrian Martinez took an undrafted free agent deal with the Detroit Lions. Receivers Malik Knowles and Kade Warner, tight end Sammy Wheeler, corner Ekow Boye-Doe, and specialist Ty Zentner are also currently on a pro team as well. And that’s not even counting the guys who graduated!

Point being, the individuals who hurt Missouri so very badly are mostly gone but the scheme remains. And while Drinkwitz and friends were clearly unprepared to even slow down K-State’s plans, how much of that was the individuals vs. the scheme? Hopefully, a second crack at it with most of Mizzou’s production back and only 63% of K-State’s production back leads to a better ending this year.

Coaching Staff

Big 12 Championship - Kansas State v TCU Photo by Tim Heitman/Getty Images

Chris Klieman - 5th Year - 30-20 (20-16)

I think it's safe to say that Chris Klieman is an excellent football coach. There might have been some skeptics out there when he inherited Craig Bohl’s unstoppable war machine in Fargo, ND, and proceeded to win several more national championships with a program that he had to simply maintain.

Coach Klieman’s Resume

However, he took over a fading Bill Snyder squad and, in the course of two years, improved them 19.8 points, 14.1 of that in a single year. Klieman builds his teams around a punishing ground attack - with or without a mobile quarterback - and suffocating defenses that are sound tacklers and smart tacticians. It’s eerily similar to how Bill Snyder built his first and second K-State dynasties and, heck, it might be the only way the Wildcats can win games. But even with the magic of Bill Snyder floating above the Little Apple, it’s clear that Klieman can recruit to scheme and coach ball with the best of them.

Assistant Staff

Collin Klein - Offensive Coordinator: Bill Snyder’s old quarterback and quarterback coach was a holdover from the Snyder staff to Klieman’s staff and...well, whatever magic the former tight end-turned-Heisman-finalist-quarterback had in his playing days seems to translate over to his coordinator career as well. Nothing Klein did as an athlete - nor his offenses do as a unit - is flashy or complex; instead, it just works and you’re always wondering why your guys couldn’t see it and stop it. I don’t know if he has aspirations to coach outside of Manhattan but, if I were Klein, I’d stick it out at K-State until the dark wizard’s spell runs out.

Joe Klanderman - Defensive Coordinator: A Klieman disciple through and through, Klanderman’s nearly decade run with his boss has produced elite defenses at both the FCS and FBS levels. You don’t hear his name bandied about for bigger jobs or head chair aspirations so either a.) his agent isn’t very good at marketing his dude, or b.) he’s happy to win games in the Midwest. He and Klieman are ruthless defensive coordinators and I’m very sad to see that Missouri will have to face off against him again.

Brian Anderson - Running Backs

Matthew Middleton - Wide Receivers

Brian Lepak - Fullbacks/Tight Ends

Conor Riley - Offensive Line

Buddy Wyatt - Defensive Ends

Mike Tuiasosopo - Defensive Tackles

Steve Stanard - Linebackers

Van Malone - Cornerbacks


When previewing the ‘Cats last year I was curious to find out what an inaccurate, risk-taking quarterback like Adrian Martinez would do when inserted into an efficiency-based, low-risk offense like K-State’s. In this clash of cultures, Martinez’s won out, transforming K-State into a high-variance, explosion-based offense.

They still ran all the time, mind you - 62% of the time on standard downs, 43% in passing downs - but they weren’t efficient at all, barely managing a 43% success rate on the ground (73rd). They were decent at passing (42.7% success rate, 49th in the country) but Martinez only attempted 184 passes on the year and most of those passes were within eight yards of the line of scrimmage. Indeed, most of their ball movement came from Deuce Vaughn ripping off a big run on the ground (7th in rushing explosiveness) or Adrian Martinez picking his way through the defense on a run-through zone coverage. And because those large gains on the ground could happen anytime - and they ran all the time - they were pretty bad in standard downs but 30th in passing downs, thanks to the 9th-best explosive rate in passing down situations.

This meant that you felt like you had won when the defense knocked them off schedule but they always managed to reel off a big gain - usually on 3rd-down - and put you through another frustrating three-down set. How much this changes now that Martinez and Vaughn are gone is yet to be seen but will be an interesting test for Collin Klein’s boys.

Allstate Sugar Bowl - Alabama v Kansas State Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Quarterback - Will Howard - Senior

Will Howard Stats

Will Howard is the presumed incumbent starting quarterback since he was looked to spell Adrian Martinez during his injury time and, of course, the bowl game. Howard wasn’t lightyears better than Martinez but did manage a stronger ANY/A (8.2 compared to Martinez’s 6.4) which says that he was a better passer by almost two yards per attempt. He had better sack numbers and threw for a surprising 15 touchdowns over 199 attempts. What he does as the full-time starter — and one without an NFL-caliber running back — will be the true test of his skill and progression.

Kansas v Kansas State Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

Running Back - D.J. Giddens - Sophomore

The Wildcat offense ran the ball 550 times in 2022 and 404 of those attempts came from either Deuce Vaughn or Adrian Martinez. The next highest was D.J. Giddens at 89 carries for the year. With the obvious SMALL SAMPLE SIZE caveat in place, Giddens had better yards per carry (5.8), a higher rate of 1st-downs gained per carry (29.2%), better yards gained on average running outside (6.2) and more yards earned against 7+ man boxes on average (6.8) than the esteemed Deuce Vaughn. He also got hit faster and gained more yards after contact but, keep in mind, his usage was usually late in games that were no longer competitive or in a few series after Vaughn had already torn through the defense. K-State also added Florida State transfer Treshaun Ward, a low 3-star recruit who struggled to see the field in Tallahassee. You’d assume that those two would be the highest usage guys but also keep an eye on the rare Military Academy transfer La’James White (from Air Force) and FCS-call up Jordan Schippers (Western Illinois).

Arkansas State v Kansas State Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images

Wide Receiver - Phillip Brooks - Senior

The passing game did very little against Mizzou last year but that was true for the season as well. Throwing the ball only occurred after a heavy dosage of runs, and only three receivers were targeted more than 11 times...and two of the three are now trying to make it on NFL squads. Phillip Brooks returns with his 587 yards on 73 targets but he is the only one of the top four receiving threats returning (and, yes, Deuce Vaughn was the fourth-highest targeted receiver). Big Ben Sinnot from the tight end group returns as well but, overall, this group will be seeing many new faces in ‘23. Ole Miss transfer Jadon Jackson, Iowa transfer Keagan Johnson, and Lamar transfer Erik Pizarro figure to see early opportunities at playing time.


So what makes Joe Klanderman’s defense so good?’s hard to say. They’re not the most accurate tacklers (86%, national average is 87%) and they’re not particularly havoc-y (14.2%, national average 15.5%). The beautiful effectiveness might come from its simplicity: they sit back in zone, let their defensive line stop runs from getting too far, and swarm to the ball carrier in packs so that multiple guys get a crack at bringing the ball carrier down. They are prone to getting burned by an explosive play (75th in the country in letting explosive play occur) but, for the most part, they let you get a yard or two and then shut it down. Like everything else occurring with this team, it’s not complex or extravagant, it’s just simple football that works really well with the guys they have. Frustrating for everyone else, great for them.

Oklahoma State v Kansas State Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

Defensive Line - Brendan Mott - Senior

Not only is Felix Anundike-Uzomah gone, but so is Eli Huggins, a guy who had a much more impactful performance against Missouri last year and combined with Anundike-Uzomah to play almost every defensive snap. End Brendan Mott is the most experienced returner with 6 tackles for loss (all sacks) and he’ll be joined by fellow edge Nate Matlack (11 tackles last year) and seldom-used rotational piece Cody Stufflebean. It seems defensive end is a position of need as they moved linebacker Khalid Duke to end and missed on some edge rushers from the portal. At nose guard, they have three options that couldn’t beat out Huggins last year as well while also adding Mississippi State import Jevon Banks. If the line is the secret sauce of the K-State defense it seems like this year is a prime opportunity to test its depth as it isn’t nearly as experienced as last year.

Kansas v Kansas State Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

Linebacker - Austin Moore - Senior

Austin Moore, Daniel Green, and Khalid Duke were the three linebackers that saw the field last year; all other linebackers combined for 789 snaps...or, less than the 800 that Austin Moore played by himself. As previously stated Duke is now a defensive end but Green is back and should continue the volume tackling plays that they were good for last year.

Oklahoma State v Kansas State Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

Defensive Back - Kobe Savage - Senior

Josh Hayes, Julius Brents, Ekow Boye-Doe, and Drake Cheatum were K-State’s top four defensive backs last year. They’re all gone. Safeties Kobe Savage and V.J. Payne - an incredible last name duo for dudes who play football - are the clubhouse leaders in defensive secondary experience, but the only corner with more than 200 snaps of experience is Jacob Parrish. K-State relied on its awesome secondary to eliminate the passing threat and force offenses to run into the teeth of their defensive strength so it will be interesting to see if that tactic holds up with so much talent leaving this group.

So what does it all mean?

2023 Kansas State Schedule

I love Kansas State’s schedule for the same reason I love Missouri’s schedule: all four non-cons are back-to-back in the first four weeks - and escalate in difficulty - before hitting a full slate of conference games. Will you learn a lot? Probably not, but maybe! Does it give you a better chance at starting 4-0? Heck yeah. And that hot start, therefore, maintains fan interest and that ever-elusive “momentum”.

Based on preseason projections Missouri is the third-toughest matchup for the rebuilding Wildcats, behind Texas (21.4) and TCU (15.4). Conversely, Kansas State is Missouri’s fifth-toughest matchup.

As previously stated, Missouri returns the 9th most production and plays only one team with more than 70% of last year’s production returning. K-State’s returning production currently sits at 63%, losing their starting quarterback, running back, three of their top four receivers, two of their starting defensive linemen, and their entire starting secondary. That’s a good thing!

However, I will say that Chris Klieman is a better football coach than Eli Drinkwitz when it comes to on-the-field performance and management. If Kirby Moore can outflank Joe Klanderman with some new wrinkles (or just run anything other than outside zone) and Blake Baker can implement the lessons learned from last year, maybe there’s a chance that Missouri can pounce on a rebuilding team that won the Big XII last year.

It would certainly feel great to beat them, even if they aren’t the same team as last year. Kansas State has always been a pain to play and getting to tag them back before this brief series ends would be a noticeable achievement and a required checkpoint to keep the happy vibes of a potential undefeated record humming.