Kansas State Vs. Arkansas, Cotton Bowl Classic 2012: Wizardry Takes On Speed

COLUMBIA SC - NOVEMBER 06: Joe Adams #3 of the Arkansas Razorbacks runs with the ball against Akeem Auguste #3 of the South Carolina Gamecocks during their game at Williams-Brice Stadium on November 6 2010 in Columbia South Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Stop the presses: the numbers are pretty skeptical of Kansas State. But as has been the case all season, Bill Snyder's Wildcats have played the low-margin-for-error, bend-don't-break game to near perfections. The recipe is simple: start fast, keep things close, and make a play in the fourth quarter. Can KSU pull that off against an explosive set of Razorbacks? SI.com: Cotton Bowl FAQ

NOTE: Confused? See the quick glossary at the bottom.

It is difficult to use statistics to show why Kansas State was able to win 10 games this year. It is much easier to simply say "Bill Snyder is a wizard," and leave it at that. And honestly, that summary is both accurate and concise. It bears mentioning, however, that the type of wizardry Snyder has shown in 2011 is a completely different type than what led to KSU's string of seven seasons with double-digit wins in nine years (1995-2003).

When Snyder was building KSU into a national power, he was doing so by figuring out how to bring as much talent, speed and ferocity to Manhattan as possible, usually by unconventional means (junior colleges and the like). Those KSU teams were simply terrifying to play. In 2011, however, he put together another season of double-digit wins despite the fact that there was almost nothing terrifying about the Wildcats at all. For most of conference play, their opponents were more athletic than they were, their talent more highly-regarded than KSU's. But the Wildcats kept winning games regardless. The 2011 season was not about program building, and it wasn't about the start of another string of great seasons (though obviously that isn't entirely out of the question). It was about Bill Snyder making delicious chicken salad out of snips and snails and puppy dog tails. Who knows if he'll be able to do it again, but they did it this year, and we get one more opportunity to celebrate that this evening.

Team Record AP Rank 2011 F/+ Rk 2011 Off.
F/+ Rk
2011 Def.
F/+ Rk
2011 S.T.
F/+ Rk
Kansas State 10-2 11 29 29 58 12
Arkansas 10-2 7 16 12 47 23
Team Pace Rk Covariance Rk MACtion Rk Schizophrenia Rk
Kansas State 56 10 93 90
Arkansas 82 95 76 59

If the Wildcats want to collect the seventh 11-win season of Snyder's career, they will have to go through one of the more athletic teams they have faced in 2011. Arkansas was not necessarily as good as its top-10 poll ranking, but with a steady, explosive offense and good special teams, the Hogs have been able to overcome their shaky defense for much of the season. Arkansas gets the edge in this one because their offensive advantage is larger than Kansas State's; plus, they tend to play better against better competition. Still, would anybody be surprised if KSU once again made timely plays, won the turnover battle, and took advantage of every break to win yet again?

When Kansas State Has The Ball…

Team F/+
Rk
S&P+
Rk
FEI
Rk
Success
Rt+ Rk
PPP+
Rk
Rushing
S&P+ Rk
Passing
S&P+ Rk
Kansas State Offense 29 62 25 75 50 40 74
Arkansas Defense 47 53 53 58 50 70 41
Team Std. Downs
Run %
S.D.
S&P+ Rk
Pass. Downs
Run %
P.D.
S&P+ Rk
Kansas State Offense 73.3% 54 43.9% 62
Arkansas Defense 59.4% 58 41.3% 23
National Average 69.1% 30.9%

The key to stopping Kansas State is simple: force them to pass, force them out of their comfort zone, and contain Collin Klein at all costs. This has been the blueprint all season, but few teams have actually pulled it off. Klein (1,745 passing yards, 58-percent completion rate, 12 touchdowns, five interceptions; 1,318 pre-sack rushing yards, plus-29.1 Adj. POE) is so tough, so smart, so sneaky fast, and so timely in the plays that, despite a shaky passing game and poor success rates, they still managed to score at least 30 points seven times, at least 40 points four times. Klein is a bruiser with fantastic vision and perfect fight-or-flight instincts in the pocket; he is joined in the backfield by John Hubert (933 yards, minus-5.8 Adj. POE), a runner who is decent, and unspectacular, in just about every category: speed, agility, hands, vision, etc. Without attention being directed at Klein, Hubert would not have been very productive, but he is a lovely complement considering just how much teams have to prepare for Klein's uniqueness.

It is difficult to find too many nice things to say about the K-State passing game, but that's fine because they aren't going to pass unless they have to (or unless they are about to play-fake you to death). Chris Harper (536 yards, 53-percent catch rate, 7.3 yards per target) and Tramaine Thompson (281, 58 percent, 9.1) are both low-efficiency weapons who can burn you deep if you forget about them; Hubert, meanwhile, will see a couple of passes per game out of the backfield. Freshman and Wildcat legacy Tyler Lockett (246, 75 percent, 10.3) was emerging as a serious threat in both the passing and return games, but he is expected to miss his fourth consecutive game because of the rare lacerated kidney.

At first glance, it is strength-versus-weakness when Kansas State has the ball. Arkansas has a decent pass defense (better than KSU's pass offense, anyway) and could sack Klein quite a few times, but that only matters if they can figure out how to stop KSU's run and make Klein pass. The Hogs were below average in that regard; they ranked 70th in Rushing S&P+, 107th in Adj. Line Yards. Some of that had to do with the fact that both starting ends, Jake Bequette (8.5 tackles for loss, eight sacks, four fumbles in nine games) and Tenarius Wright (two tackles for loss in seven games), missed time with injuries, but neither of those ends are great against the run anyway. For the most part, if linebackers Jerry Franklin (67.5 tackles, 10.0 tackles for loss) and Alonzo Highsmith (52.5 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss) weren't making a big play against a ground game, nobody was.

If KSU can hammer away for five or six yards at a time on the ground, Arkansas is in trouble. That might be an early "tell" for how this game could play out. But if the Wildcats are as inefficient as they were for a good portion of the season, the Hogs can make them pay. Bequette is a serious weapon rushing the passer, and the Arkansas secondary has a solid advantage over the Wildcats' receiving corps. Safeties Tramain Thomas and Eric Bennett (combined: eight interceptions, nine passes broken up) are serious ball hawks, and the corners, while lacking in aggressiveness (the Hogs ranked 85th in the country in passes defended despite Thomas' and Bennett's solid numbers), are at the very least fast.

When Arkansas Has The Ball…

Team F/+
Rk
S&P+
Rk
FEI
Rk
Success
Rt+ Rk
PPP+
Rk
Rushing
S&P+ Rk
Passing
S&P+ Rk
Arkansas Offense 12 9 13 12 3 7 7
Kansas State Defense 58 65 23 54 48 42 58
Team Std. Downs
Run %
S.D.
S&P+ Rk
Pass. Downs
Run %
P.D.
S&P+ Rk
Arkansas Offense 49.9% 8 29.9% 5
Kansas State Defense 52.1% 44 26.8% 70
National Average 69.1% 30.9%

Despite an injured, iffy defense, Arkansas still went 10-0 versus teams not playing in the national title game. The reason was obvious: offense, offense, offense. The Hogs scored at least 38 points in eight of their 10 wins and at least 29 points in all ten. Though they are a pass-first offense, they run and pass equally well, especially since Dennis Johnson's (637 yards, plus-7.4 Adj. POE) emergence over the final two months of the regular season. Aside from perhaps Baylor, the Hogs have the fastest set of receivers Kansas State has seen in 2011, and they protect quarterback Tyler Wilson (3,422 yards, 63-percent completion rate, 22 touchdowns, six interceptions) well enough to give him time to find somebody open. Four of Wilson's top five targets averaged at least 9.0 yards per target, and when combined with the occasional threat of Johnson out of the backfield, the Hogs had the third-most explosive offense in the country this season. Three receivers had at least one catch of 60+ yards, and four more had at least one of 30.

Jarius Wright (1,029 yards, 64-percent catch rate, 10.5 yards per target) was very proficient for a No. 1 target, Joe Adams (630, 71 percent, 9.1) is one of the scarier No. 2's, and players like tight end Chris Gragg (492, 69 percent, 8.5), Cobi Hamilton (516, 59 percent, 9.7) and previous top target Greg Childs (192, 62 percent, 7.4) have had their moments. Throw in a couple of nice screen and dump-off targets in running backs Johnson and Ronnie Wingo, Jr., and you've got as diverse an attack as anyone's in the country.

It wasn't always this way, however. With Johnson fighting back from injury and Wilson getting his sea legs, the Arkansas offense was only slightly above average in September. But when everything clicked, everything clicked.

  • Arkansas Offense (September): 31.6 Adj. PPG (Wilson: 1,007 yards, 8.3 per pass, 67% completion rate, seven touchdowns, three interceptions; Johnson: nine touches, 38 yards, one touchdown)
  • Arkansas Offense (October): 33.8 Adj. PPG (Wilson: 1,320 yards, 8.4 per pass, 59% completion rate, six touchdowns, zero interceptions; Johnson: 54 carries, 466 yards, two touchdowns)
  • Arkansas Offense (November): 43.1 Adj. PPG (Wilson: 1,095 yards, 8.6 per pass, 64% completion rate, nine touchdowns, three interceptions; 60 carries, 387 yards, two touchdowns)

While the Hogs were mostly shut down by LSU, they lit up two other strong defenses -- they scored 44 points and gained 435 yards against South Carolina, then scored 44 points and gained 539 yards against Mississippi State. They clicked at a very good time.

Meanwhile, in Brian Fremeau's drive-based FEI ratings, as compared to my play-by-play S&P+ ratings, Kansas State graded out significantly better on both offense and defense. If nothing else, that tells you that KSU was magnificent at both taking advantage of every opportunity they had and making sure their opponents failed at doing the same. Their plus-13 turnover margin was seventh-best in the country, but that was not due as much to fumbles luck as it was to the fact that they didn't throw many interceptions, and they picked off 18 passes of their own. Bend-don't-break can work, at least for stretches, and Kansas State lived off of it in 2011. Their ability to stop Arkansas will probably be directly correlated with their ability to turn the Hogs over. Corners Nigel Malone (seven interceptions, nine passes broken up) and David Garrett (two interceptions, two passes broken up in 2011, 15 tackles for loss in 2010) are aggressive, and it often pays off. Throw in athletic linebackers like Arthur Brown and Emmanuel Lamur (combined: 12 tackles for loss, 11 passes defended), and KSU might have the right mix in the back seven to somewhat contain Arkansas. The main problem is that the Wildcats only ranked 56th in Adj. Sack Rate; to state the obvious, it would behoove them to put at least a little bit of pressure on Wilson.

The Verdict

Arkansas by 4.7.

Because their offense has a bit larger advantage over the opposing defense, and because their big-time return men (Johnson on kickoffs, Adams on punts) are healthy, the Hogs get the nod in this one. But using statistics, Kansas State should have gone about 7-5 or 8-4 this year. Instead, their 8-1 record in one-possession games got them into the Cotton Bowl and, with a win, will likely lead them to a Top 10 finish in the polls. If Arkansas gets hot (like Oklahoma did in Manhattan back in October), the score could get out of hand. But you could have said that about quite a few KSU games this year, and it rarely happened. An Arkansas blowout win is conceivable, but if the Wildcats can get off to the same type of fasts starts they've gotten for most of the season (their scoring margin is plus-61 in the first half, minus-one in the second), they will give themselves a very good chance.

--------------------

A Quick Glossary

Covariance: This tells us whether a team tends to play up or down to their level of competition. A higher ranking means a team was more likely to play well against bad teams while struggling (relatively speaking) against good ones. (So in a way, lower rankings are better.) For more, go here.

F/+ Rankings: The official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

MACtion: This is a look at how closely teams are associated with big-play football (like those high-scoring, mid-week MAC games). Teams that rank high on the MACtion scale play games with a ton of both big plays (gained and allowed) and passing downs. For more, go here.

Pace: This is calculated by going beyond simply who runs the most plays. Teams that pass more are naturally inclined to run more plays (since there are more clock stoppages involved), so what we do here is project how many plays a team would typically be expected to run given their run-pass ratio, then compare their actual plays to expectations. Teams, then, are ranked in order from the most plays above the expected pace, to the least.

Passing Downs: Second-and-7 or more, third-and-5 or more.

PPP: An explosiveness measure derived from determining the point value of every yard line (based on the expected number of points an offense could expect to score from that yard line) and, therefore, every play of a given game.

S&P+: Think of this as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter. For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

Schizophrenia: This measures how steady a team's performances are throughout the course of a full season. Teams with a higher ranking tend to be extremely unpredictable from week to week. For more, go here.

Standard Downs: First downs, second-and-6 or less, third-and-4 or less.

Success Rate: A common Football Outsiders tool used to measure efficiency by determining whether every play of a given game was successful or not. The terms of success in college football: 50 percent of necessary yardage on first down, 70 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third and fourth down.

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