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The big 2014 Kansas State football guide: Dark horses or simply favorites?

Kansas State returns quite a few difference makers from a 2013 squad that played at a legitimate top-20 level after September. Does that make the Wildcats a Big 12 dark horse, or simply an outright contender?

SB Nation 2014 College Football Countdown

Confused? Check out the advanced-stats glossary here.

1. Stats vs. eyeballs vs. stats

We've completed the circle.

Two years after Kansas State drastically overachieved compared to what the numbers would suggest, two years after I spent a good portion of the 2011 season telling you the Wildcats were winning through unsustainable means, and two years after I broke down and talked about head coach Bill Snyder's "wizardry" in a stats-heavy preview, I now get to do the opposite.

For as lucky and potentially overrated as Kansas State's 2011 squad was, the Wildcats were equally unlucky and underrated in 2013.

Kansas State suffered through minus-3.0 points per game of bad turnovers luck in a season that saw them lose five games by 10 or fewer points and two by four or fewer. They recovered zero of seven fumbles in losses to Oklahoma and Texas. They lost via nine-minute touchdown drive to North Dakota State. They outgained Oklahoma State by six yards and were outgained by Baylor by just one. Kansas State was close to something much better than 8-5 in 2013, just as they were close to something much worse in 2011. And in the end, their 2013 F/+ ranking (24th) was a bit higher than that of the 11-win 2011 squad (29th).

After October 1, following a few shaky weeks with new starters and close losses, Kansas State played like a legitimate top-20 team again. The Wildcats nearly knocked off both Oklahoma State and Baylor (two top-10 caliber teams), then won six of their final seven games. They return their starting quarterback (Jake Waters), one of the best receivers in the country (Tyler Lockett), two all-conference offensive linemen (B.J. Finney and Cody Whitehair), one of the Big 12's best pass rushers (Ryan Mueller), a strong run-supporting linebacker (Jonathan Truman), a safety ball-hawk (Dante Barrett), and one of the Big 12's more aggressive, effective cornerbacks (Randall Evans). Plus, Bill Snyder still roams the sidelines.

Granted, the names above are just about all KSU returns on defense, but ... why aren't we talking up the Wildcats more? I've seen some "Big 12 dark horse" buzz, but why are they a sleeper at all? Why aren't they simply a contender?

They've won 29 games in three years, and they produced top-25 quality a year after losing an all-time difference maker (Collin Klein) at quarterback. They do face defensive turnover, but they did last year, too. They do have to travel to Norman and Waco this year, but every Big 12 schedule has potholes.

Oklahoma's win over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl sucked up most of the Big 12's offseason oxygen and made the Sooners seemingly runaway conference favorites, but what if the Sooners are closer to their pre-Alabama 2013 form? Why couldn't a team like Kansas State make a charge?

I can make a reasonable argument for them. And this time, I have stats, not wizardry on my side.

2013 Schedule & Results

Record: 8-5 | Adj. Record: 11-2 | Final F/+ Rk: 24
Date Opponent Opp. F/+ Rk Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L 5-gm Adj. Avg.
30-Aug North Dakota State N/A 21-24 L 27.0 - 30.9 L
7-Sep UL-Lafayette 86 48-27 W 39.9 - 19.4 W
14-Sep Massachusetts 118 37-7 W 38.5 - 29.7 W
21-Sep at Texas 35 21-31 L 27.1 - 34.6 L
5-Oct at Oklahoma State 8 29-33 L 32.8 - 24.5 W 5.2
12-Oct Baylor 7 25-35 L 40.9 - 24.2 W 9.4
26-Oct West Virginia 76 35-12 W 41.7 - 25.1 W 8.6
2-Nov Iowa State 78 41-7 W 33.8 - 20.5 W 9.5
9-Nov at Texas Tech 43 49-26 W 44.8 - 25.4 W 14.8
16-Nov TCU 44 33-31 W 42.6 - 35.9 W 14.5
23-Nov Oklahoma 20 31-41 L 41.0 - 34.1 W 12.6
30-Nov at Kansas 101 31-10 W 29.0 - 23.7 W 10.3
28-Dec vs. Michigan 37 31-14 W 40.7 - 24.8 W 10.8
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk Spec. Tms. Rk
F/+ +14.4% 14 +4.4% 43 +1.8% 33
Points Per Game 33.2 37 22.9 31
Adj. Points Per Game 36.9 14 27.1 60

2. It took a few weeks

It was a strange experience, chatting with a couple of Kansas State fans at the end of September and trying to convince them that their team was already pretty good and not far from being a lot better. KSU quarterbacks were coming off of a three-interception performance against Oklahoma State, tantalizing dual-threat Daniel Sams was struggling to establish his role, and a defense that had to replace nine starters was playing at a slightly below-average level. K-State was 2-2 and about to fall to 2-4.

But the pieces were there. Once Waters got his sea legs, Sams carved out a niche, and the defense simply got some reps, K-State began to look like Old K-State again.

  • Adj. Points Per Game (first 4 games): KSU 33.1, Opponent 28.7 (plus-4.4)
  • Adj. Points Per Game (last 9 games): KSU 38.6, Opponent 26.5 (plus-12.1)

After nearly taking down Baylor when Baylor was at its peak, KSU disposed of West Virginia, Iowa State, and Texas Tech by an average score of 42-15, survived a TCU upset bid (KSU had to settle for four field goals, and TCU's offense caught fire in the second half), and forced Oklahoma to play its best game of the season to date in a 41-31 loss to the Sooners. The Wildcats finished with at least 31 points in each of the last seven games and gained at least 6.4 yards per play in six. The defense, meanwhile, allowed 5.4 or fewer yards per play in six of seven and allowed 26 or fewer points in five.

This was one of Bill Snyder's better coaching jobs. With almost no defensive continuity and a new starting quarterback (one with a completely different skill set than the last), KSU needed all of a month to find a high-caliber level of play again. There's more work to do on defense this time around, but the offense could hum.

Offense

FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.23 21 IsoPPP+ 103.8 42
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 48.2% 18 Succ. Rt. + 118.8 10
FIELD POSITION Def. Avg. FP 30.9 92 Def. FP+ 97.4 84
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 4.5 44 Redzone S&P+ 130.5 4
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 16.5 ACTUAL 25 +8.5
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 72 17 10 57
RUSHING 54 21 17 51
PASSING 75 11 11 63
Standard Downs 12 12 35
Passing Downs 26 20 51
Q1 Rk 12 1st Down Rk 18
Q2 Rk 12 2nd Down Rk 33
Q3 Rk 20 3rd Down Rk 14
Q4 Rk 64

3. Spread principles and a Gronk

Back in February, I wrote one of my favorite Football Study Hall posts of the offseason.

At its heart, though, the spread ethos is about putting playmakers in space and giving them room to make plays. It originally developed as an underdog tactic of sorts, as a way to spread out and harry more talented defenses and hopefully force some mistakes. But there is a certain level of tactical superiority to the idea, and after a while, a lot of the most talented teams in the country began to employ more and more spread tactics.

But who actually spread you out the most in 2013? Whether a team is actually doing it well or not, the spread is designed to create numbers advantages and get the ball-carrier away from a mass of tacklers. That often leads to solo tackles. So which offensive systems led to the most solo tackles?

Looking at the percentage of solo tackles an offense forced is a pretty decent way of looking at spread principles, and sure enough, a lot of well-known spread offenses were near the top of the list -- Texas Tech (No. 2), Baylor (No. 4), Indiana (No. 5).

No. 1, however, was the offense run by 74-year-old Bill Snyder and his co-coordinators, 51-year-old Dana Dimel and 63-year-old Del Miller.

(It should be noted that home scorekeepers vary in the frequency with which they record solo tackles and assists, but even looking only at road games, which use the other team's scorekeepers, KSU would have been in the top six.)

Turns out, there is a multitude of ways to get the ball to your playmakers in space. And while the Wildcats don't have much of a spread reputation, they use basically every method at their disposal. Option? Check. Fullbacks? Check. Four-wide? Check. Few coaching staffs are better at identifying the talents of their personnel and figuring out unique ways to utilize them.

It will be interesting to see what that means for 2014. Daniel Sams has transferred, which means that, barring injury or suddenly incredible play from redshirt freshmen Jesse Ertz or Taylor Laird in practice, Jake Waters is the man in charge of the offense. He is a reasonably effective runner (or at least, he picks his spots well), but his strengths are pocket-based (in that he's fearless in the pocket is both a strength and, when you check out his sack rates, a weakness). Thanks to the loss of both John Hubert and Robert Rose (eminently replaceable backs whom we can't assume will be replaced in full), returning KSU tailbacks combined for five carries in 2013. In fact, there have been rumors that sophomore fullback Glenn "yes, that Gronkowski" Gronkowski might see some time at tailback.

Combine the status of the backfield with the return of not only the incredible Tyler Lockett but also underrated No. 2 receiver Curry Sexton, and it's not hard to start wondering if KSU might be passing quite a bit this season. It's conceivable, but chances are that we'll see the same run-pass rates we saw in both 2012 (68 percent rushes on standard downs, 37 percent on passing downs) and 2013 (67 percent and 37 percent, respectively). The ratios don't change; the style within the ratios might.

Quarterback

Note: players in bold below are 2014 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.

Player Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Comp Att Yards TD INT Comp
Rate
Sacks Sack Rate Yards/
Att.
Jake Waters 6'1, 210 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 159 260 2469 18 9 61.2% 23 8.1% 8.3
Daniel Sams 38 53 452 4 4 71.7% 2 3.6% 7.9
Jesse Ertz 6'4, 199 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4)
Taylor Laird 6'4, 230 RSFr. NR

4. If Waters gets hurt, all bets are off

Jesse Ertz was both one of Iowa's most prolific passers and best sprinters in high school. Taylor Laird is a physically-gifted, if under-seasoned, prospect who came aboard when Sams announced his transfer. With Snyder, Dimel, and Miller crafting the gameplans, KSU will probably move the ball no matter who's behind center. Still, there will be a learning curve if Jake Waters goes down. If KSU is indeed a conference contender (again, a lot of that depends on Oklahoma), it's probably only with Waters leading the way.

This is at least a little bit of a concern because, well, Waters takes hits. He didn't run as frequently as Sams, obviously, but he did still rush 95 times (non-sacks) in 2013, and he did still take a sack once for every 12 or so pass attempts (and while two all-conference linemen do return, they account for 63 of KSU's 68 returning starts up front).

Not many teams are blessed with proven backups, but KSU is very low on the "proven" scale.

Running Back

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Rushes Yards TD Yards/
Carry
Hlt Yds/
Carry
Opp.
Rate
John Hubert RB 198 1048 10 5.3 4.9 43.9%
Daniel Sams QB 150 823 11 5.5 4.3 46.7%
Jake Waters QB 6'1, 210 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 95 439 6 4.6 5.0 37.9%
Robert Rose RB 24 104 2 4.3 3.8 37.5%
DeMarcus Robinson RB 5'7, 209 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 5 20 0 4.0 2.5 40.0%
Jarvis Leverett Jr. RB 5'11, 203 So. 3 stars (5.5)
Charles Jones RB 5'10, 197 So. 2 stars (5.4)
Dalvin Warmack RB 5'9, 183 Fr. 3 stars (5.7)





Receiving Corps

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Targets Catches Yards Catch Rate Target
Rate
%SD Yds/
Target
NEY Real Yds/
Target
RYPR
Tyler Lockett WR 5'11, 175 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 114 81 1262 71.1% 38.8% 58.0% 11.1 328 11.2 241.6
Curry Sexton WR 5'11, 183 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 55 39 446 70.9% 18.7% 45.8% 8.1 -4 8.3 85.4
Tramaine Thompson WR 51 32 551 62.7% 17.3% 62.5% 10.8 158 11.7 105.5
Torell Miller WR 20 12 111 60.0% 6.8% 45.0% 5.6 -40 6.1 21.3
John Hubert RB 17 13 129 76.5% 5.8% 62.5% 7.6 -16 7.9 24.7
Zach Trujillo TE 6'5, 256 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 12 5 111 41.7% 4.1% 66.7% 9.3 34 9.2 21.3
Kyle Klein WR 6'4, 210 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 11 5 59 45.5% 3.7% 54.5% 5.4 -14 5.4 11.3
Glenn Gronkowski FB 6'3, 234 So. 2 stars (5.4) 8 5 194 62.5% 2.7% 75.0% 24.3 133 22.0 37.1
Andre McDonald TE 4 3 28 75.0% 1.4% 66.7% 7.0 -6 9.9 5.4
Robert Rose RB 1 1 23 100.0% 0.3% N/A 23.0 13 0.0 4.4
Stephen Johnson WR 1 1 7 100.0% 0.3% 100.0% 7.0 -3 3.9 1.3
Deante Burton WR 6'2, 205 So. 3 stars (5.5)
Judah Jones WR 5'11, 180 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5)
Cody Small TE 6'4, 237 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5)
Andre Davis WR 6'0, 185 Jr. 2 stars (5.3)








5. Ode to Tyler

So yeah, there are plenty of legitimate reasons to doubt KSU's offense if you're so inclined.

The running backs corps includes a Gronk and a former four-star recruit (DeMarcus Robinson), but Gronk isn't exactly a burner and Robinson has never actually played like a four-star recruit. There will be youth at running back, and after the top two, returning KSU receivers caught five balls last year. Depth is certainly a concern, and it does take faith in the coaching staff to assume the offense will be particularly strong.

All of that previous paragraph is true. But it doesn't mention Tyler Lockett. Short, medium, or long, single- or double-covered, Tyler Lockett gets open. He was targeted more than KSU's No. 2 and No. 3 targets combined last year, and he averaged 15.6 yards per catch while leading KSU with a 71 percent catch rate. It's difficult to truly call a receiver the best player in a given conference, simply due to the position's dependence on others, but Lockett might be better at his position than anybody else in the Big 12. He will be used to both make big plays and distract defenses into making bad decisions elsewhere.

KSU will still need a running back and a healthy quarterback. And a line that was good at run blocking will need to possibly improve despite inexperience. But ... they have Tyler Lockett. And Snyder/Dimel/Miller. They'll be okay.

Offensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs
LY/carry
Pass.
Downs
LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Team 113.9 3.25 3.37 43.1% 68.2% 21.1% 62.4 6.1% 11.0%
Rank 15 21 50 22 67 89 118 98 108
Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Career Starts Honors/Notes
B.J. Finney C 6'4, 303 Sr. 2 stars (5.2) 38 1st All-Big 12
Cody Whitehair RT 6'4, 309 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 25 2nd All-Big 12
Cornelius Lucas LT 26
Keenan Taylor RG 24
Tavon Rooks RT 23
Boston Stiverson RG 6'4, 312 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 5
Drew Liddle C 6'3, 288 Sr. NR 0
Aaron Bennett LT 6'7, 285 Jr. 2 stars (5.3) 0
Matt Kleinsorge RT 6'5, 306 Jr. NR 0
Reed Bergstrom RG 6'2, 305 Jr. NR 0
Will Ash LG 6'2, 338 So. NR 0
Chance Allen LT 6'5, 295 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4)
Luke Hayes OL 6'6, 295 Jr. 3 stars (5.7)
A.J. Allen OL 6'7, 315 Jr. 3 stars (5.5)
Terrale Johnson OL 6'2, 305 Jr. 2 stars (5.4)
Dalton Risner OL 6'4, 290 Fr. 3 stars (5.7)

Defense

FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 0.98 6 IsoPPP+ 116.3 6
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 43.2% 75 Succ. Rt. + 91.8 93
FIELD POSITION Off. Avg. FP 31.8 30 Off. FP+ 98.5 77
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 3.9 29 Redzone S&P+ 95.2 76
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 24.4 ACTUAL 25.0 +0.6
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 26 63 93 21
RUSHING 27 86 101 37
PASSING 48 42 75 20
Standard Downs 70 101 6
Passing Downs 51 44 52
Q1 Rk 55 1st Down Rk 48
Q2 Rk 68 2nd Down Rk 57
Q3 Rk 71 3rd Down Rk 68
Q4 Rk 31

6. Bend ... bend ... bend...

I'm less confident about the defense. Again, the floor is only going to be so low with Tom Hayes in charge and Snyder recruits in place. Still, the loss of so many starters in 2013 led to regression from 16th to 43rd in Def. F/+. When you lose a ton of starters in back-to-back seasons, it puts serious strain on recruiting and depth.

Now, if recruiting comes through then all might be well. Four-star redshirt freshman end Tanner Wood joins the rotation, as do four-star JUCO transfers Terrell Clinkscales (tackle) and D'Vonta Derricott (linebacker). This being a Snyder team, there are other JUCOs and high-caliber walk-ons in the mix as well. Still, only two steady contributors remain from that 2012 defense: linebacker Jonathan Truman and corner Randall Evans.

Odds are good that we'll see a KSU defense similar to what showed up last year. Since Snyder's return from retirement, a bend-don't-break defense has been the standard, and KSU has been really good at pulling it off. Baylor game aside, the Wildcats were still among the best teams in the country last season when it came to preventing big plays. Even including the Baylor game, they were sixth in IsoPPP+, an opponent-adjusted measure of the magnitude of big plays. Despite a bit of a run sieve up front, opposing offenses still weren't getting anywhere very quickly against KSU. Since-departed safety Ty Zimmerman was a big reason for that (as evidenced by what happened when he got hurt and missed the OU game and most of the TCU game), but he wasn't the only reason.

The problem in 2013 was that the Wildcats bent a bit too much. The line wasn't effective enough against the run, and the damage sometimes trickled to the pass. Unless the line improves -- and it could -- we'll see the same this fall.

Defensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs
LY/carry
Pass.
Downs
LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Team 92.4 2.95 3.30 38.4% 64.2% 21.4% 97.2 3.7% 6.8%
Rank 93 66 64 54 44 33 65 87 63
Name Pos Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Ryan Mueller DE 6'2, 245 Sr. NR 13 57.5 8.0% 18.5 11.5 0 6 4 0
Travis Britz DT 6'4, 293 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 13 31.0 4.3% 6.5 3.0 0 4 0 0
Chaquil Reed DT 13 27.5 3.8% 5.0 2.0 0 1 0 0
Alauna Finau DE 13 18.5 2.6% 4.0 0.5 0 1 1 0
Marquel Bryant DE 6'3, 241 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 12 13.0 1.8% 3.0 2.0 0 1 0 0
Demonte Hood DT 6'0, 303 So. 3 stars (5.5) 9 6.5 0.9% 1.5 1.0 0 0 0 0
Valentino Coleman DT 6'2, 285 Sr. NR 10 4.0 0.6% 0.0 0.0 0 1 0 0
Laton Dowling DE 6'3, 254 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 13 2.5 0.3% 2.5 1.0 0 0 0 0
Chris Brown DT 9 2.5 0.3% 1.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Jordan Willis DE 6'5, 250 So. 3 stars (5.6)
DeAndre Roberts DT 6'5, 280 Sr. 2 stars (5.2)
Tanner Wood DE 6'5, 235 RSFr. 4 stars (5.8)
Will Geary DT 6'0, 290 RSFr. NR
Terrell Clinkscales DT 6'4, 315 Jr. 4 stars (5.8)







7. Weakness gets stronger

Despite Ryan Mueller's pass-rush prowess, the line was KSU's biggest weakness a year ago. While recruiting rankings matter less for KSU than other teams, they still told a story in 2013. Last year's starters included a former walk-on (Mueller), two former two-star recruits (Travis Britz, Alauna Finau), and a former low-three-star (Chaquil Reed). Snyder and company make more out of less, but that might have been too less, at least against the run.

As strange as it may sound, the secret to improvement might indeed lie in recruiting rankings. If Terrell Clinkscales, a big former Nebraska commit (who, it bears mentioning, still has to complete a few JUCO classes this summer to qualify) is quickly ready to meet the expectations that come with his four-star recruiting ranking, he could provide a solid upgrade. Combine him with a more experienced Mueller and Britz and get further contributions from sophomore Demonte Hood, and you could see improvement up front.

And if the defensive front can force a few more passing downs, it would do a thin secondary all sorts of favors.

Linebackers

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Blake Slaughter MLB 13 92.5 12.9% 6.5 3.0 1 3 1 0
Jonathan Truman WLB 5'11, 219 Sr. NR 13 73.0 10.2% 4.5 0.0 0 1 2 0
Tre Walker SLB 13 24.0 3.3% 2.5 0.0 0 0 0 0
Will Davis MLB 6'0, 223 So. 3 stars (5.6) 13 15.0 2.1% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Colborn Couchman LB 6'2, 203 So. NR 11 9.0 1.3% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Dakorey Johnson WLB 6'3, 200 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 8 6.0 0.8% 0.0 0.0 1 0 0 0
Mike Moore SLB 6'0, 217 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 13 6.0 0.8% 2.0 2.0 0 1 1 0
David Smith LB 6'0, 230 Sr. NR
Trent Tanking WLB 6'2, 220 RSFr. NR
D'Vonta Derricott LB 6'0, 225 Jr. 4 stars (5.8)
Isaiah Riddle LB 6'3, 235 Jr. 3 stars (5.5)
Elijah Lee LB 6'3, 210 Fr. 3 stars (5.7)
Sam Sizelove LB 6'3, 230 Fr. 3 stars (5.6)







Secondary

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Dante Barnett SS 6'1, 186 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 13 66.0 9.2% 2 0 4 3 0 0
Ty Zimmerman FS 11 65.0 9.1% 3 0 3 4 1 0
Randall Evans CB 6'0, 190 Sr. NR 13 55.5 7.7% 3 1 2 12 1 0
Kip Daily CB 13 44.0 6.1% 1 0 2 4 0 0
Dorrian Roberts CB 13 41.0 5.7% 2.5 0 3 8 1 0
Dylan Schellenberg FS 6'0, 189 Sr. NR 9 16.0 2.2% 1 0 1 0 0 0
Weston Hiebert DB 6'0, 193 Sr. NR 13 8.5 1.2% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Carl Miles Jr. DB 10 6.0 0.8% 0 0 0 1 0 0
Travis Green FS 6'1, 207 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 6 2.0 0.3% 0 0 0 0 1 0
Morgan Burns CB 5'11, 195 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 12 2.0 0.3% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Nate Jackson CB 5'11, 185 Jr. 3 stars (5.5)
Cre Moore CB 6'0, 175 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5)
Sean Newlan SS 6'2, 200 RSFr. 2 stars (5.3)
Denzel McDaniel DB 6'1, 205 Jr. 3 stars (5.6)
Jesse Mack DB 6'0, 180 So. 3 stars (5.5)
Kaleb Prewett DB 6'2, 195 Fr. 3 stars (5.7)

8. Strength gets weaker

Ty Zimmerman really was a hell of a game changer. He got hurt against TCU, and the defense not only cratered against the Horned Frogs in the second half, but also put up its only shaky full-game performance of the season against Oklahoma the next week (6.5 yards per play, 41 points). His absence certainly isn't encouraging, especially when combined with the loss of corners Kip Daily and Dorrian Roberts.

But with the return of strong safety Dante Barnett and corner Randall Evans (combined: five tackles for loss, six interceptions, 15 break-ups), KSU isn't exactly starting from scratch. If the combination of returning seniors (and former walk-ons) Dylan Schellenberg and Weston Hiebert, redshirt freshmen Cre Moore and Sean Newlan -- alongside JUCOs Denzel McDaniel and Jesse Mack -- can crank out a pair of decent starters, then the secondary could be fine, especially considering it has had a full offseason to deal with the loss of Zimmerman.

Those ifs aren't guaranteed to come to fruition, of course. And if there are any injuries, then the talent pool doesn't appear to be incredibly deep.

Special Teams

Punter Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Punts Avg TB FC I20 FC/I20
Ratio
Mark Krause 48 41.4 5 19 17 75.0%
Kicker Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Kickoffs Avg TB OOB TB%
Ian Patterson 5'11, 233 So. 46 60.5 18 1 39.1%
Jack Cantele 6'0, 193 Jr. 37 59.2 8 1 21.6%
Place-Kicker Ht, Wt 2014
Year
PAT FG
(0-39)
Pct FG
(40+)
Pct
Jack Cantele 6'0, 193 Jr. 40-41 7-7 100.0% 4-6 66.7%
Ian Patterson 5'11, 233 So. 12-12 3-3 100.0% 0-2 0.0%
Returner Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Returns Avg. TD
Tyler Lockett KR 5'11, 175 Sr. 22 26.5 0
Morgan Burns KR 5'11, 195 Jr. 5 13.2 0
Tramaine Thompson PR 12 15.3 0
Tyler Lockett PR 5'11, 175 Sr. 2 2.0 0
Category Rk
Special Teams F/+ 33
Field Goal Efficiency 53
Punt Return Efficiency 11
Kick Return Efficiency 26
Punt Efficiency 77
Kickoff Efficiency 97
Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency 47

9. Cracks in the field position game

Part of Kansas State's success in 2011-12 came in the realm of special teams. Frank Beamer might have the most grand reputation when it comes to special teams prowess, but Bill Snyder simply doesn't do bad special teams. Despite the high variance that comes with special teams, KSU always ranks well here: 18th in 2009, ninth in 2010, 28th in 2011, first in 2012, 33rd in 2013.

Still, there was slippage last fall, especially in the legs department. Place-kickers Jack Cantele and Ian Patterson were automatic inside 40 yards, but KSU ranked 77th or worse in both Punt and Kickoff Efficiency. The Wildcats need a new punter, and the now-departed Tramaine Thompson was a hell of a punt returner. While it's hard to worry about the unit as a whole, it's doubtful that KSU will be maximizing its field position potential in 2014.

2014 Schedule & Projection Factors

2014 Schedule
Date Opponent Proj. Rk
30-Aug Stephen F. Austin NR
6-Sep at Iowa State 80
18-Sep Auburn 8
27-Sep UTEP 118
4-Oct Texas Tech 46
18-Oct at Oklahoma 17
25-Oct Texas 38
1-Nov Oklahoma State 18
8-Nov at TCU 31
20-Nov at West Virginia 71
29-Nov Kansas 104
6-Dec at Baylor 14
Five-Year F/+ Rk 10.8% (30)
Two-Year Recruiting Rk 52
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin* 0 / 7.8
TO Luck/Game -3.0
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 13 (7, 6)

10. Dark horse with a capital D

If KSU isn't bitten hard by the injury bug -- if Jake Waters, Tyler Lockett, and the defensive backfield stay reasonably healthy -- then I fully expect this team to end up back in the F/+ top 20-25 (and tell me you can't see KSU taking down Auburn at home on a Thursday night on national television.) That makes me rather bullish compared to the stat projections, but I can justify it.

That said, the veneer isn't particularly thick. A couple of well-placed injuries and this team will scuffle to play at a top-30 or top-35 level. With Oklahoma, Baylor, and TCU on the road, even a top-20 KSU team would struggle to go better than about 7-2 in conference, and combined with the Auburn game, that probably sets the bar somewhere around eight to nine wins.

Maybe that makes them a dark horse after all.

(But seriously, KSU is so taking down Auburn.)

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