Kansas State is perhaps the most predictable and least interesting team in the Big 12. Heck, maybe even the country. Death, taxes, and the Wildcats will pound the ball with running backs and grind the clock. That’s the Bill Snyder offense. The quarterback will run, and they will play solid, stop-the-run defense. That is it. Time of possession and physical play win the day in Manhattan.
You know what is coming, but can you stop it? That is the question for coaches across the Big 12, and this season, that may prove to be too tall a task for many.
The 2016 season saw a familiar Big 12 trend in Wildcat country. Kansas State fielded the youngest team ever in the age of wizardry. As expected, Kansas State had to go through some growing pains with early losses to Stanford and West Virginia. However, both games were intensely contested, and as the season progressed, the Wildcats matured and ended the season on a four game win streak.
Additional losses to Oklahoma and Oklahoma State weren’t expected, but were long shots. The Oklahoma State game was a narrow defeat and one KSU probably wishes they had back. Oklahoma took advantage of them through the air and KSU could not catch up.
Expectations for 2017 are high, and rightly so. Kansas State replaces some key pieces on defense (Elijah Lee and Jordan Willis), but returns an experienced core of offensive skill players. Some expect a similar result in 2017 as the 9-4 record posted in 2016. But, for those looking for an outlier to win the league championship, Kansas State is the trendy pick to do so.
In order to raise themselves to the championship tier of the conference Kansas State will have to do what it always does, just a little better.
The sophomore running back, Alex Barnes, returns as a co-feature back in the backfield. He led the Big 12 in yards per carry in 2016 as a freshman at 7.89 ypc. Most impressively, he did not record a single negative yardage carry.
Barnes is a big back with one cut acumen, a deft slide step, and great power and determination in finishing his runs. The Big 12 features some solid runners (Crawford, Hill, Montgomery, Warren, Hicks), but Barnes may be the best. He is a handful for any defense.
Couple Barnes with the exceptional running from quarterback Jesse Ertz and change-of-pace back Justin Silmon, and Kansas State has the ability to grind teams in to submission.
Barnes is the key in my opinion. A breakout season from Barnes will keep Ertz healthy and continue to open up the downfield passing game. Barnes is most effective running in space from a spread formation, but he is powerful enough to move the pile in 21 personnel packages as well.
Kansas State needs to feature Barnes at the expense of called runs from Ertz. You can’t really go wrong with either, but Barnes ability to make positive plays out of negative will allow Ertz to operate in more space. The opposing defense will have to choose who they load up against and it will be a difficult conundrum.
Discipline – The first “D”
Kansas State is the most disciplined team in the Big 12 from the head coach to the last player on the roster. They adhere to their model and do not deviate. It wins.
I expect no deviation whatsoever, but Kansas State will need to continue to be disciplined in its approach. Run the ball and throw deep opportunistically off of play action. Threaten the outside with short timing routes and let Ertz work the option game.
The results of the typical KSU game plan is a time of possession advantage and rhythm busting time on the bench for the super charged offenses they face. The returning experience will aid in the confidence to stay disciplined.
The same applies to the defense. Stay the course and play the run.
Kansas State, in Bill Snyder’s tenure, is 147-24 when they score first in a game. When leading at halftime, they are 172-10. This speaks to the success of the formula and how good Kansas State is at putting themselves in position to build on these numbers. Stay disciplined and the wins will mount.
Defense – The Second “D”
Kansas State is the top defense in the Big 12. It is very difficult to run the ball against them and teams become one dimensional. There is little concern that Kansas State will regress on defense, but they are replacing playmakers Elijah Lee and Jordan Willis.
The vulnerability in the Kansas State defense is in deep coverage. If an opponent is persistent in running the ball, there will be opportunities to hit big plays over the top.
Kansas State achieved 57 plays of more than 20 yards in 2016. 36 were runs and 21 were passes. Conversely, the opponents also achieved 57 plays of more than 20 yards, but only 13 were runs while 44 were through the air.
If you look at plays of 40 or more yards, you see the room for improvement. Kansas State achieved 9 such plays. However, the opponents achieved 15. Only one was a run. Fourteen passing plays achieved more than 40 yards.
Big plays will be given up by every team in the Big 12. But, limiting those plays are key. In particular, against Oklahoma State and Oklahoma who thrive on creating explosive plays. If Kansas State is able to reduce the number of explosive passing plays, then their offensive style will take hold and the victories will be easier to come by.
Discipline and defense wins football games for Kansas State. A slight improvement in both and a charge to the top of the conference is likely.
Are the Wildcats a Championship Contender?
Yes. Kansas State faces a tough early test against SEC basement dweller Vanderbilt. The game is on the road and Vanderbilt is far from a push over. They play physical defense and discovered some offense late in 2016. I expect a grinder of a game, but a victory for the Wildcats.
Big 12 play sets up well for KSU. Baylor, TCU, Oklahoma, and West Virginia all come to Manhattan. Road tests include Texas and Oklahoma State. The most dangerous stretch is two fold. First, Baylor at home, Texas on the road, and TCU at home, is a dangerous stretch. Kansas State defeated each team soundly in 2016 and should do the same in 2017, but each is capable of knocking them off. Secondly, in late October and November, Kansas State faces three out of four games on the road. The road games are against Kansas, Tech, and Oklahoma State. The lone home game is against West Virginia.
Kansas State’s style translates well on the road. They will have an experienced team with few glaring holes to exploit. To beat Kansas State in 2017, opponents will have to match them play-for-play and grind out wins by likely narrow margins. The talent gap against the conference elite is always a concern, but I believe Kansas State’s skill position talent mitigates that concern. Discipline, defense, and a heavy dose of Alex Barnes has the potential to land Kansas State in the Big 12 championship game.