Kansas State Wildcats (10-3 overall, 7-2 in Big 12 in 2011)
Veteran head coach Bill Snyder fooled all the experts last season, taking a Kansas State team expected to finish in the middle of the pack in the Big 12 football race to second place in the final league standings, a top-20 national ranking and just a few seconds and a few yards shy of capturing their third Big 12 football championship.
That's just what Snyder does. And the dean of Big 12 football coaches has been doing it for 20 years and in two different coaching stints in Manhattan, Kan., where he first took over a team in 1989 that Sports Illustrated then called the worst program in college football. During his lengthy run at Kansas State, the 72-year-old Snyder's Wildcat teams have gone 159-83-1 overall and 89-66-1 against Big 12, and before that, Big Eight opponents.
The same magazine that was severely critical of Kansas State's horrific performance on the football field in the 1980s had this to say nearly a quarter-century later about Snyder's leadership style and demeanor and what that has meant to Kansas State football over the past two decades: "Snyder's understated style usually fits in with his underrated teams in a program that usually finds success not through blue-chip talent but through maximizing the hard-working players it has," writes SI's Gary Grambling in the weekly sports publication's special preview issue on the Big 12 Conference.
Improving on, or even equaling, last season's 10-win campaign will be extremely difficult for Snyder and his 2012 squad, but the Wildcats appear to have enough returning and incoming talent to make another solid run at a double-digit-win season and be among the league title contenders.
Chief among the 14 returning starters for Kansas State (eight on offense) is senior quarterback Colin Klein, who not only was the team's leading rusher last season, with over 1,141 yards running the ball, but also threw for almost 2,000 yards. Behind Klein, the Cats have another near-1,000-yard rusher in junior running back John Hubert out of Waco, Texas.
Kansas State's offense doesn't throw the ball much, but when it does, a highly talented trio of receivers - wide-outs Tyler Lockett, Oregon-transfer Chris Harper and Tramaine Thompson - is, more often than not, on the other end of Klein's passes. The Wildcats will still be a run-oriented team in 2012, but the K-State coaches would like to see Klein and the offense open up its passing attack a little more to provide more offensive balance and create more opportunities for the Cats' strong ground game.
The Wildcats had the 29th best running attack in the country a year ago and were 34th in scoring. They ranked 108th nationally in passing, however, which underlines the heavy emphasis K-State placed on a controlled attack by running the football and, in effect, shortening the games.
Moving the ball and scoring points should not be an issue for Snyder's offense heading into the new season, but if the defense isn't able to do a better job of stopping the opposition on offense and keeping them out of the end zone (in 2011, K-State averaged just four more points a game than its opponents). A year ago, the Wildcats were one of the worst teams in the nation in defending against the pass. And in a conference that features some of the most prolific pass offenses in the country, that is a gigantic problem.
All-Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Arthur Brown is the hub of the Kansas State defense at middle linebacker, but only two starters return on the defensive line and the secondary is in need of a major performance upgrade if the Cats expect to compete with the elite teams in the conference. Returning DBs Nigel Malone, who was All-Big 12 first team on defense in 2011 and had the most pass interceptions in the conference, and Ty Zimmerman are extremely capable defenders, but the Wildcats are lean in depth in the defensive backfield, which was also a problem last season.
Asked if his players think they can win the Big 12 Championship this season, Snyder said: "I'm not naïve enough to believe that players don't set those kind of goals. (But as a program), we do not define X number of wins or championships; (our program goals) are strictly intrinsic values, and if you achieve these intrinsic values, successes will follow."
Kansas State has played extremely well at home under Snyder. The Wildcats have only lost 25 times out of 130 games when playing at home in Snyder's 20 years coaching the teams, which is not particularly good news for Kansas, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and Texas, all of whom play in Manhattan this season. The Wildcats also have been a good road team under Snyder, with a winning percentage close to .500. But with trips scheduled to Oklahoma, West Virginia and TCU this season, all preseason top 25 teams, K-State's success on the road in 2012 will be seriously tested.
The bottom line: Kansas State has a stronger team this season than in 2011, but the Cats won't enjoy the same level of success. I predict the Wildcats will go 7-5 overall and 4-4 in the Big 12. Projected finish in the Big 12: Fifth
Tomorrow: Texas Tech and Baylor