The oddsmakers don’t much like Kansas State’s chances in Palo Alto on Friday (9 p.m. ET, FS1), favoring the Cardinal by two touchdowns, and it’s not hard to guess why.
The Wildcats struggled mightily in 2015, finishing 6-7 without any truly impressive victories. Arkansas, which is comparable to Stanford in talent and style, crushed the Wildcats in their bowl. The main hopes for a final Bill Snyder surprise rest in the team returning to health and getting a big year from current unknowns.
So for much of the world, the expectation is that this is an opportunity for Christian McCaffrey to begin his second Heisman campaign with a delightful romp over an overmatched foe.
In reality, this game might prove to be a real test.
1. The Wildcat defensive interior is a better matchup than advertised.
K-State plays a bend-don’t-break variety of quarters defense, daring you to beat quickly converging safeties.
Last year, that was relatively easy. The Wildcats lost former All-Big 12 safety Dante Barnett in the first game (along with quarterback Jesse Ertz) and ended up using four different players at safety.
KSU's defense finished 86th in Rushing S&P+ and 81st in IsoPPP (limiting explosiveness), whereas they’ve averaged 57th in Rushing S&P+ over the last five years and finished 39th in IsoPPP the year prior. The better defenses of the second Snyder era have been stout against the run and impervious to big plays, thanks to a commitment to deep safeties.
Against Stanford’s I-formation sets, they can be expected to line up as follows:
After a miserably unlucky 2015, the Wildcats have had two forms of good luck.
The first is in the depth they’ve managed to build up at linebacker. The Wildcats arguably have their best 11 players on the field in their 4-3 base defense, with Charmeachealle Moore in that Sam linebacker slot. The advantages that the Cardinal normally find against anti-spread defenses won’t be as pronounced against the Wildcats.
2. K-State is also fortunate to have already taken some lumps against a run-centric, pro-style team in Arkansas.
Bret Bielema’s Hogs wore out the Wildcats by slipping tight ends and H-backs into the flats off run action, then watching K-State defenders lose track of them while diagnosing all the foreign run game stuff:
This happened on a variety of play-action concepts.
They also struggled filling gaps against lead draw runs, another foreign concept for a Big 12 defense. Stanford probably can’t count on that happening again, after an offseason of K-State ruminating on that failure while studying Cardinal film.
3. Kansas State's defense is more experienced now.
The calling card of a Snyder defense is a refusal to gift anything easy, but that was not the case with a young squad in 2015. The revolving door at multiple positions resulting from injuries led to numerous gaffes and easy yardage for opponents.
Most have looked at the box score and assumed the Hogs just overpowered the Wildcats, but that’s not the reality of the situation. K-State held their own at the point of attack, but struggled to handle the conflicts and misdirections. Here’s how things looked when Arkansas didn’t scheme confusion into the K-State front:
The back-up nose tackle holds up the double team fairly well, while inside backer Will Davis and free safety Kendall Adams fly in like bullets to stop the play.
The Cardinal will now face Adams (a redshirt sophomore) after he got an offseason of first-team snaps, whereas the sophomore went into 2015 expecting to be no more than a reserve. They’ll also face Will Geary at nose tackle, a Preseason All-Big 12 player who's a former wrestling champion.
Stanford won’t be able to get cheap yardage. They’ll have to win tough battles to earn creases for McCaffrey to attack.
4. The Wildcats are less susceptible to McCaffrey in space than most teams.
The Cardinal made hay running McCaffrey on weakside angle routes opposite West Coast route combinations like Y-stick. That play would get him matched up with a linebacker in space, and disaster would ensue for the defense.
However, when the Wildcats get into their nickel personnel, that linebacker will be either Elijah Lee ...
... or Moore:
Kansas State is used to playing 4-2 personnel that has to hold up against spread passing attacks, the kind that put terrors in linebackers who have to keep up with slot receivers. Snyder's better defenses excel at reading routes and locking down the middle of the field.
It’s still McCaffrey, arguably the best player in college football, but there is less of an advantage here than against most linebacker corps.
So can Stanford set McCaffrey up for success?
So the Cardinal are facing a much tougher opponent than some might be expecting. However, if Stanford is up to its highest standards, will that even matter?
The question that remains to be answered is how well David Shaw’s squad can replace the four players it sent into the NFL Draft. The loss of QB Kevin Hogan is no small matter, as he was at the helm for an offense that ranked fifth in offensive S&P, 17th on passing downs, and sixth in third-down conversions. Replacement Ryan Burns has done very little so far in his four years in Palo Alto.
The Cardinal also replace a couple of NFL linemen and a tight end, Austin Hooper. Here it seems safe to project that they’ll reload, but how quickly will they gel? Last year, Stanford lost an opener against a Wildcat team wearing purple jerseys and relying on QB run game and conservative defensive schemes before they found their formula for success (give McCaffrey the dang ball).
One way to guarantee McCaffrey gets every chance to dominate this game is to emulate Snyder-ball by mixing in #WildCaff sets and firing direct snaps to the back:
That’s a set with eight offensive linemen, two running backs (Bryce Love is split wide at the bottom, where he can be a sweep option), and a single receiver. Kansas State is more used to handling direct snap sets than most teams, since the same concept figures prominently in their own offense, but they aren’t used to handling eight Cardinal-caliber linemen blocking power for a crease hound.
The purple wizard Snyder still has some surprise magic left. Ultimately, both of these teams rely on counter-strategies in spread-dominated leagues, which means much of this game will feature strength on strength.