Virtually every college football analyst and fan has said or thought the same thing about Kansas State over the past few weeks: "Wow, are they a great story! Bill Snyder is amazing! (Yeah, there's no way in hell they keep this up.) But man, is Bill Snyder incredible!"
And to be sure, the numbers back up our dismissive tendencies. But it is too easy to simply write off KSU's 7-0 record as luck or as a sign of Bill Snyder's immortal greatness. On the eve of their two biggest games of the season, let's take a look at exactly why and how the Wildcats have reached the final weekend in October undefeated despite playing in what might be the toughest conference, top to bottom, in America this year.
Let's just get it out of the way up front. This article is meant to go beyond "luck," but Kansas State has indeed been lucky in 2011, and whether that luck will run out this weekend, next month or next year, fate has a way of eventually evening things out.
Field Goals. Place-kicker Anthony Cantele has been decent, making eight of 10 field goals of under 40 yards and one of three over 40. Their luck, however, has come when opponents have settled for field goals (and thanks to KSU's red zone defense, they are doing that a lot). Opponents are just four-for-ten on the season (three-for-five under 40, one-for-five over). Formerly automatic Missouri kicker Grant Ressel missed two field goals in a seven-point Kansas State win. KSU tackle Raphael Guidry blocked two Texas Tech field goals in another seven point win. Baylor missed one in a one-point KSU win. Eastern Kentucky missed one in a three-point KSU win. Place-kicking has improved over the years, but against Kansas State, every opponent's kicker is apparently from 1965.
Fumbles. Kansas State almost managed to blow the opener versus Eastern Kentucky because they couldn't hold onto the ball. They lost four of five fumbles and had to hold on for a 10-7 win. Since then, KSU has recovered 14 of 18 total fumbles -- all nine of theirs, and five of their opponents' nine. That is a 78-percent fumble recovery rate against FBS opponents (65 percent for the season); that is also incredibly unsustainable. We can talk about belief and grit and heart, but in the end, fumble recoveries are random, and Kansas State has been lucky to recover as many as they have, even if one includes the unlucky opener.
Not all turnovers are luck, of course. Fumble recoveries may be random, but interceptions are a bit more predictive in nature. KSU has picked off 10 passes and thrown only three picks themselves, and when combined with fumbles luck, it has resulted in a ridiculous turnover margin.
For the season, Kansas State has turned the ball over just seven times and forced 15 turnovers of their own. Their plus-8 turnover margin is ninth-best in the country. They are plus-13 since the aforementioned bumbling opener; only Oklahoma State and LSU can top that number.
Dealing with turnover points (as defined here), we can see the positive impact turnovers have had on KSU's 2011 fate. Their seven turnovers have been worth 30.8 equivalent points; their opponents': 79.8. That is a plus-49.0 point margin, or plus-7.0 per game (in a season in which they have won a whopping five games by a touchdown or less). Since EKU, it has been even more stark: plus-10.3 points per game.
When you are only average on a play-for-play basis, turnovers can have an enormous impact. Opponents and bounces have given KSU some breaks, sure, but they have also simply done a better job of protecting the ball. Their interception rate (2.0%) is better than their opponents' (3.0%), and at the very least they haven't fumbled the ball more than their opponents since the opener.
They are smart, and they play under control, and this is noticeable both here and in the penalties column (they are averaging 34.5 fewer penalty yards per game than their opponents). Control is a coachable skill of sorts, and Kansas State has it.
A Fresh Start
Like a lot of run-heavy teams, Kansas State is not necessarily built to consistently play from behind. (Of course, Baylor might disagree with this assessment.) They want to get an early lead on you, milk it for all it is worth, slow the game to a crawl and force you play perfect football to make up the difference.
To date, they have pulled this off beautifully. They have outscored opponents by 41 points (58-17) in the first quarter; the first 15 minutes alone make up almost half of their plus-95 scoring margin. With a lead, quarterback Collin Klein and company are completely content to run the play clock down, grind out 12 yards in three plays, then do it all over again. (They are inclined to do that when they are behind, too, but that is neither here nor there.)
Oddly enough, from a ratings perspective, Kansas State isn't particularly good in the first quarter. They rank 68th overall in Q1 S&P+, 71st in Q2, 44th in Q3 and 57th in Q4. How are they getting leads, then? Turnovers.
They are plus-23.2 in terms of first-quarter turnover points, plus-26.8 since Eastern Kentucky. They are averaging almost a six-point lead at the end of every first quarter, and they are getting about four of those average points through turnovers. They picked off Missouri's James Franklin on the first play of the game, then scored on the resulting short field. They picked off Kent State's Spencer Keith on the Golden Flashes' second play and returned it for a touchdown. They picked off Texas Tech's Seth Doege on the third play of the game and returned it for a touchdown. They recovered a fumble at Baylor's 26 on the second drive of the game. They do not waste time.
For what it is worth, the first quarter has been Oklahoma's worst this year -- the Sooners rank 30th overall in Q1 S&P+ and no worse than seventh in the other three quarters. OU allowed a touchdown to Texas Tech two minutes into the game, trailed Missouri 14-3 after nine minutes and led Ball State just 10-6 after 20 minutes. The Sooners may be favored by 13.5 in Manhattan, but if they fall victim to another early KSU surge, they will be fighting from behind for quite a while.
Whether we are talking about drives or games, K-State saves something for the ending. In terms of turnover points, they are even better in the fourth quarter (plus-24.1) than they are in the first; after bending to Baylor's defense and giving up big play after big play, they suddenly stiffened in the fourth quarter, rushing Robert Griffin III more effectively and finishing the game off by forcing an interception and a four-and-out. They seem capable of holding something in reserve. This probably doesn't matter, of course, if they are down double digits, but when you are so adept at keeping games close, saving a trick for the end isn't a bad idea. Just call KSU a more sane, less talented version of Les Miles' 2010 LSU Tigers.
Finishing games is obviously important, but KSU has made their bones mostly by finishing drives. If they can stop you from scoring from long distance (opponents have scored eight offensive touchdowns of more than 30 yards; KSU has scored one), they will eventually figure out how to stop you from close range. Once inside KSU's 30, opponents have scored just 10 touchdowns, kicked four field goals, missed four field goals, turned the ball over on downs twice and picked off a pass in 22 possessions. Opponents are averaging 3.7 yards per trip inside the 30. K-State, meanwhile, is averaging 5.1 points per trip. They are scoring touchdowns 64 percent of the time and have made two-thirds of their field goals from these distances.
Kansas State's full-game, full-season statistics are quite mediocre. They rank 74th in Off. S&P+, but they rank 36th in Off. F/+ (which combines my S&P+ measure with Brian Fremeau's drive-based FEI) primarily because they take advantage of opportunities and finish drives. Their defense, meanwhile, has taken bend-don't-break to a startling level. They are 44th in Def. S&P+ but first in DFEI because they are allowing yards and preventing points. Part of this, again, is because opponents are missing field goals they should be making, but only part of this can be explained by that. KSU raises their game in the red zone (they are third in Def. Red Zone S&P+), and it pays off.
Can This Continue?
We all know the answer to this: probably not. But only probably.
As I mentioned in my odds piece earlier this week, the numbers wouldn't have expected them to get this far either. But here they are. They ride an incredibly specific path to victory -- one that does not care that they are 101st in Off. Passing S&P+ or 103rd on passing downs -- and as long as they stay on that path, they can win any game. If you make a couple of mistakes, if they can build an early lead on you, and if they can tackle you and live to play another down, they can beat you. They clearly believe in what they are doing, and now they have evidence on their side. Both Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, their next two opponents, are statistically superior teams in almost every way -- Oklahoma State even does the bend-don't-break thing as well or better than KSU -- but relatively speaking, so were Miami, Baylor, Missouri and Texas Tech.
The Wildcats do have one specific thing going for them: they are getting better. Last year, Auburn survived a mediocre September and raised their game as the season progressed. The offense went from great to incredible, the defense from mediocre to good.
Kansas State is in no way Auburn, but their Adj. Scoring Margin has improved from minus-0.1 over their first four games versus FBS teams, to plus-2.9 over the last two. Plus, freshman Tyler Lockett has begun to emerge; he has returned two kickoffs for touchdowns and caught eight passes for 140 yards and a touchdown over the last two weeks. The longer you can simply survive and advance, the more time you have to figure out how to truly play well. Kansas State is far from amazing, but Lockett potentially gives them a level of explosiveness they did not have three weeks ago.
At this point, there is no result that will surprise me when it comes to the 2011 Kansas State Wildcats. They are incredibly confident and well-coached, and it wouldn't be a shock if they took out an Oklahoma team that looks far more mortal and mistake-prone than they did seven days ago, then showed Oklahoma State who the real bend-don't-break boss was next week in Stillwater.
At the same time, it wouldn't be surprising if they lost both of these games by 38 and finished 7-5. Every option is on the table for this team, but they have already overcome so many odds that you don't want the ride to stop.
I realize that as a numbers guy, I am bound by stereotype to dismiss anything regarding the word "intangibles," but things like belief and momentum still have a role to play in college football. Kansas State is living proof of that. They have evidently invented a new way of winning games, one that eschews almost anything statistical, and they have a chance to keep things going against Oklahoma tomorrow.