There's nothing like an opening loss to an FCS team to render a power-conference team irrelevant on the national stage for the rest of the season. So when North Dakota State quarterback Brock Jensen capped off a mesmerizing eight-minute, 30-second drive with a touchdown to upset Kansas State on the road last August on the first Friday of the season, the Wildcats' season, in terms of national perception, was effectively over, its short stint as a national championship contender quickly becoming ancient history as the bandwagon was officially abandoned.
But the season as a whole progressively told a different story. For one, North Dakota State proved to be unlike any typical FCS team, winning a third straight national title, finishing 17th in Jeff Sagarin's all-Division I rankings and even introducing itself to the world by hosting a memorable College Gameday. Get past the negative connotation of "FCS," and losing to North Dakota State shouldn't actually be considered embarrassing, especially for a team playing its first game after losing a Heisman finalist quarterback and nine defensive starters.
The odd thing, though, is that in some ways 2013 Kansas State was better than the 2012 version that won the Big 12 championship and had Collin Klein under center. By the end of the season, Kansas State was an overlooked top-25 team in Football Outsiders' F/+ combined ratings, as it actually slightly improved in both offensive yards per play (6.2 to 6.3) and defensive yards per play (5.4 to 5.1) from 2013, ranking second in the Big 12 in the former and fourth in the latter. So despite a middling, relatively anonymous season that ended with a 10:15 p.m. ET kickoff in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, Kansas State rebounded from that opening disappointment against the Bison and put together a relatively underappreciated season, for as underappreciated as five losses (none by more than 10 points) can be. After the opening loss, Kansas State just didn't do anything out of the ordinary, losing to the Big 12 contenders and beating the also-rans.
After a season like that, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that, entering 2014, Kansas State has arguably the best offensive player and best defensive player in the conference in receiver Tyler Lockett and defensive end Ryan Mueller, not to mention one of the best interior offensive lines in the nation. For the second year in a row, there's a lot of attrition -- which is commonplace for a school that relies so heavily on juco transfers -- but as spring practice in the Little Apple finally begins this week, there's again a lot more to like than dislike when evaluating Kansas State's chances. When in doubt, don't doubt Bill Snyder.
* * *
Go ahead and circle Sept. 18 on your football calendar now. Whereas Kansas State spent so many years during Snyder's building process trying to avoid games against top nonconference opponents -- "Look, we got beat by Northern Iowa, so don't tell me we need to play Notre Dame," Snyder told Sports Illustrated in 1992 -- this year the Wildcats welcome defending SEC champion Auburn to Manhattan for an early-season Thursday night showdown against the national runner-up.
While Kansas State has stepped up its nonconference scheduling -- it has hosted Miami, UCLA and Louisville since 2006 -- Auburn's return trip to complete a home-and-home that began in 2007 still feels like quite a change, especially because last year Kansas State played North Dakota State, Louisiana-Lafayette and Massachusetts in nonconference play. There is always inherent risk involved in scheduling such games, because they can be make-or-break for a team constantly walking a fine line between mediocrity and championship contending. Get blown out by Auburn, become forgotten. Win, move into the top 10. Unlesss it's winning big games, this isn't a program that demands constant national attention, just by the nature of its historic and geographic place in the college football world. Treading lightly in September is the safe play.
But this year for Kansas State, that Auburn game represents a perfect opportunity to insert itself back in the national discussion before Big 12 play gets rolling. This is a team that won six of its final seven games last year -- although, to be fair, its Big 12 schedule was front-loaded with Texas, Oklahoma State and Baylor to start -- and returns a promising juco transfer quarterback in Jake Waters, who quietly finished tied for fifth nationally in yards per attempt while taking firm hold of the job in the second half of the season over Daniel Sams. Waters, the No. 1 juco quarterback in the class of 2013, threw only four interceptions in his final 10 games, and he also has decent mobility (312 rushing yards) that gets overshadowed by Sams' run-first ability. As the clear starter, Waters is a pretty good candidate for a breakout, especially because of who's around him.
It's a team that has one of the nation's most dynamic weapons in Lockett, an All-America return man and All-Big 12 wide receiver who led the Big 12 in all-purpose yards and receiving yards per game last season and finished the year by manhandling Michigan. It's a team that may have the nation's best interior offensive line tandem with center B.J. Finney and Cody Whitehair, who will make the transition for John Hubert's replacement at running back easier. It's a team that actually might have two of the Big 12's four best quarterbacks, with Waters' backup Sams likely playing a slash role after rushing for 807 yards and 11 touchdowns as a situational player behind Waters as a sophomore. It's a team that has talented senior defensive end Ryan Mueller harassing quarterbacks off the edge, to the tune of 11 ½ sacks last year.
There are holes, sure, with the loss of stalwart Ty Zimmerman at safety and others, but Kansas State boasts many of the key ingredients to refashion itself as a Big 12 title contender and potentially make some national noise again, especially if key juco transfers -- four of Rivals' top 50 -- make a smooth transition. It's the risk Kansas State often runs, but under Snyder it has frequently paid off.
The most obvious place to look for improvement, though, is mistakes. Last year, turnovers certainly played a big role and deserve a healthy amount of blame for the regression. In 2012, the Wildcats finished second nationally with a turnover margin of plus-20 behind Klein. Last year, they were even giving the ball away 25 times and taking it away 25 times.
We've seen a similar trajectory in the same conference recently. In 2011, Oklahoma State finished plus-21 to lead the nation and went 12-1; after losing quarterback Brandon Weeden, the Cowboys fell 8-5 with a turnover margin of zero. Last year, they bounced back to 10-3 and No. 4 in turnover margin. Obviously, it's no secret that not turning the ball over is one of the biggest keys to winning -- in five losses, Kansas State never won the turnover battle and finished minus-9 -- but a lot of it comes down to luck, especially with fumbles. Somewhere there's a happy medium, where a more experienced Waters stands a good chance of cutting down on his nine interceptions, and where also Kansas State is unlikely to lose 12 fumbles again, after losing just three the year before.
If Kansas State corrects its turnover problem, it has the impact playmakers to make its style of play work, keeping defenses off balance with excellent coaching, an improving quarterback and a great outside playmaker, and forcing opposing offenses into mistakes. Maybe Kansas State won't suddenly flirt with an undefeated season again, but there's little reason it can't regain at least some of the 2012 magic that reemphasized just how amazing a job Snyder has done with the program.
* * *
It's now been 25 years since Sports Illustrated went deep into the Wildcats' woes entering the Snyder era under the headline "Futility U," teasing the story by saying, "Kansas State, winless since 1986, has one claim to fame: It is America's most hapless team." That's a long, long time in college football years, dating back to an era in which assistant coach salaries were raised to the enormous sum of $60,000 a year to allow Kansas State to better keep up with competitors. Since then, Snyder, a former Iowa offensive coordinator, built Kansas State football from nothing and became the face of a respectable, competitve program that spent much of its time in the old Big 8 as the Washington Generals to Nebraska's Globetrotters.
Obviously, the football culture at Kansas State has long since changed, and Wildcats fans are probably sick of hearing about the past. It's been a quarter-century since the failings of Futility U, and in that time Kansas State has won at least 10 games nine times, played in three Fiesta Bowls and won two Big 12 championships. Kansas State cannot be expected to be a consistent powerhouse, but making semi-regular challenges for the Big 12 title is a noble goal -- something Snyder appears capable of achieving, again, in his second stint as head coach after retiring from 2006-08 and leaving his program in the incapable hands of Ron Prince.
If nothing else, you expect Kansas State under Snyder to play smart, to avoid making costly mistakes and focus on the details, to keep being a little better than it was yesterday. It wasn't always that last season, but ver the course of the season, as Waters settled into the starting job, that's pretty much what happened in the end.
And now, based on what Kansas State has returning, it's easy to see that upward trend carrying over. Even at 74, time and time again Bill Snyder has proven that the Kansas State bandwagon is still a safe place to be.
* * *